Let’s say that on your way to church this morning, you encountered a martian, a person from mars. And the martian said to you where are you going? You replied that you were going to an Easter service. So, the martian said to you, ‘what is Easter?’ How would you answer this martian?
Then, the martian said to you, ‘how do you know about this Easter?’ What would you say?
Today we’re going to ask two questions; firstly, what is Easter and how do we know about it, and secondly, how then shall we live? The second question will sound familiar to you if you’re an NMH student. Knowing what we know about Easter, how then shall we live?
What’s Easter and how do we know about it?
Let’s go to the Gospel of John, to the passage that Shameek read to us. In that passage we hear from Jesus, two angels and 3 people. So, let’s look at these three people.Of these 3 people, two we do not hear from directly; only their actions are narrated. One is not named, except that he is called “the one whom Jesus loved.”He may have been the one who wrote the Gospel of John, a disciple known as John the son of Zebedee, but we can’t know that for certain since the Gospel itself never makes this connection.This passage tells us that when Mary came with the urgent news that Jesus’ body was no longer in the tomb, this disciple went running to find out what had happened. But he stopped short of going into the tomb. Only after his companion went in, did he also enter. And it is said that he believed. But we don’t really know what he believed. Did he believe Mary that, yes, the body had been taken? Or did he believe that Jesus had been raised from the dead? The next verse says, “they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead.” So, we don’t know what this disciple believed.
The other person in this passage that we do not hear from directly is Simon Peter. Peter is the brave disciple who wanted to walk on the water like Jesus. And Peter is the one who correctly identifies Jesus as the Messiah. It is this Peter, a man of courage and insight, that also runs to the tomb where Jesus had been buried when he hears from Mary that the tomb is empty. Peter rushes into the tomb and saw it empty except for the linen wrappings that had been around Jesus’ body. For some, this might be evidence that Jesus was alive, but again, we do not know what Peter thought because the verse that follows is “they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead.”
So, of the three people in this passage, other than Jesus and the two angels, two, who were respected as being close to and knowing Jesus well, didn’t seem to understand or accept Jesus’ resurrection. I appreciate this about the Gospel of John; it lets people who may not be certain about what Easter is be a central part of the story. It lets human confusion, uncertainty, maybe even doubt, be a part of how the Easter story unfolds. Maybe that’s something I would say to a martian if I were asked what is Easter and how do we know about Easter.
Actually, maybe some of us feel like a martian at times, especially in the middle of a big church festival like Easter, where it can seem like everyone else around us understands the concept of resurrection and is filled with joy and certainty. Maybe we feel like an alien outsider unable to connect to what’s going on. For the martian in us, perhaps it is helpful to remember that in this story in the Gospel are two people who didn’t quite get the concept, either. I believe they were included for a reason.
Now, we’ll look at the third person; Mary Magdalene. Mary had been at the foot of the cross when Jesus was crucified, and she came to the tomb early on the third day after Jesus died maybe to tend to the body as was the tradition. But she is troubled by what she sees. She sees that the heavy stone guarding the tomb entrance had been removed and she is concerned that the authorities may have moved the body of Jesus to avoid any political problems. She reports the situation as she understands it: “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” Mary Magdalene is then the first person to witness to the empty tomb. She was not the beloved disciple nor the disciple Peter, whom tradition reveres as the stand-out student of Jesus. If you think about a classroom, Mary might have been the student sitting at the back or in a corner, not in the center of the action. Of course, we can wonder why that is and we might ask who were the ones at the center of action around Jesus. Maybe those in the center didn’t really give Mary much of a chance to be there with them. But, let’s see what Jesus does in this passage.
So, Mary rushes to tell the others that the tomb is empty. They come running to inspect the tomb, but then go back home! Meanwhile, Mary stays. Her sadness is overwhelming and she weeps outside of the tomb. But, something happens as she cries. She gains the courage to peer inside the tomb and she is able to see what the other two disciples did not. She sees two angels sitting where Jesus’ body would have been. As far as we know, the other two disciples did not see the angels. Mary, however, was able to. Was it that her crying cleared her eyes so that she could see better? Did emptying her grief allow space in her heart and mind to see a vision of angels? Why did the Gospel of John include this? When we think about how we know Easter, is the Gospel saying something to us about the importance of emptying ourselves from the certainty that fills us up so that there is room for really new and radical things?
Not only does Mary see the angels, but she has a conversation with them. How often does that happen! The other two disciples certainly did not talk with the angels. So, it was not with the disciples who were at the center of action around Jesus that the angels conversed; it was with the woman who had been on the sidelines. And the conversation is simple and honest; why are you weeping the angels ask and Mary responds with honesty about her confusion. Jesus’ body should be in the tomb, but it is not.
This honesty leads to another amazing encounter, for after she says this, she sees another man present who also asks why she is weeping, and she responds as she did to the angels. But then this man calls her by name, “Mary!” and in that moment she recognizes Jesus, her teacher, and she knows that he has been resurrected and is alive!
This is the moment that Jesus’ resurrection becomes Easter for Mary! This is the moment that her grief is transformed into inexplicable joy! Easter happens to Mary in a very personal way; she is identified by name and all that she is, her sorrow, her honesty and confusion, her marginal status among the disciples, all of this is wholly accepted and transformed by Jesus. This encounter changes Mary completely.
While I don’t really know whether the Gospel of John was written also for martians it may, in fact, present a very effective way to explain to someone who feels like a complete outsider what Easter is. Easter is that personal moment when, like Mary, through our honesty and vulnerability, we hear Jesus calling our own name and we experience a radical transformation in our lives. Jesus was raised from the dead, but Easter is our own faith moment when God becomes real to us. And if that can happen to Mary, the one on the sidelines, then it can happen to each of us. That is the promise and joy of Easter!
The second half of the question, how do we know about Easter, is answered in in part through Mary’s actions after she talks with Jesus. She went back to the disciples and announced, “I have seen the Lord!” We can know about Easter because of people like Mary! Please hear her courage to share her experience with a group of people with whom she may not have had much authority and who likely had already heard discouraging things from Peter and the beloved disciple who had left the tomb before she did. Please hear her freedom and joy that she knows in her own relationship with her Teacher, Jesus, and be grateful for her witness as one way we, too, can know about the potential of Easter.
We turn now to the final question of how then shall we live? And the answer to this will be short or incomplete because it is up to you to find your answer. How then shall we live in response to what we hear about Jesus’ resurrection through the scriptures, through the traditions of the church, through the words of others, is the ongoing story of our own faith lives. Maybe we are like the beloved disciple, uncertain about entering the empty tomb, but remember, he was indeed beloved. Maybe we are like the courageous Simon Peter, who did not know how to interpret the folded linen wrappings that he saw, but nonetheless becomes a foundational figure for the Christian church. Or maybe we are like Mary, somewhat on the sidelines, sad and confused, but nonetheless accepted and also loved by Jesus. We know of Mary’s response to the question of ‘how then shall we live’; she proclaimed with courage, freedom, and joy her faith experience.
How then shall we live, those of us who were not at the foot of the cross, who did not see an empty tomb, who know of the confusion of the disciples and also the testimony of Mary? The Gospel of John suggests to us that there is not one specific standard way we have to respond to the mystery of the cross. Jesus will call each of us by our own name, as he did Mary, and this will be our own Easter moment that gives us our unique vision for how then we shall live as faithful Easter people in all places of our lives. May today be your first day on this transformative adventure of finding, seeing, and living with the risen Christ. Amen.