Who are you looking for? An Easter Sermon

John 20:1-18

St. John's Bible depiction of Mary seeing Jesus. The Hebrew script to Mary's right speaks her exclamation, "Rabbouni," teacher!

Christ is risen!

The question of the day this Easter Sunday is, “Who are you looking for?”   It is the question that Jesus asks Mary when, weeping, she encounters him in the garden.  It seems like a bit of an innocuous question – we might ask this of someone on the street who looks a little lost – and yet, it is, as Biblical scholar Pheme Perkins puts it, “A question that probes discipleship.”[i] It is a question that echoes back through the gospel, to when Jesus asks the same question of John the Baptists disciples.  It is a question that is loaded up with dramatic irony and propels the reader forward with Mary into the realization of Jesus resurrected.

This story begins in the dark, though, long before we get to that essential question.  It begins with Mary coming to the tomb in the wee hours of the morning, looking for her friend and teacher.  There are some who would minimize the role of Mary in this Gospel story – although I don’t see how – one author I read said, “Mary Magdalene serves only to set the story in motion.”[ii]  “Well she certainly did that.  There is a great deal of motion the moment she sees the stone rolled away.  As soon as Mary sees that the stone of the tomb is not where it should be, she bolts.  Running and racing and searching in those dark morning hours.

Mary summons her two friends, Peter and ‘the disciple whom Jesus loves’ or ‘the beloved disciple.’ For her, that misplaces stone has done exactly zero to shed light on the darkness of grief that she’s feeling.  In fact it only sends her anxiety and stress higher, deepening the mystery and grief she feels at Jesus’ death.  She needs the support and verification of her brothers, people who loved Jesus as much as she and who might know what to do.  “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb,” she says, “and we do not know where they have laid him.”  They come along running, just as she had to find them, not believing that, as she said, Jesus’ body had been taken.  Yet they see for themselves.  He’s not there – just the empty tomb and a few clothes from his hands and head.  They are deflated, defeated.  They go home.

Many people read this text – the beloved disciple ‘saw and believed’ – to mean that he believed in Christ risen.  I don’t buy it.  The very next line says that “as yet they did not understand the scripture that he must rise from the dead. (20:9)” Certainly now they believed Mary – their teacher and friend’s body was really gone.  If his missing body had inspired some kind of revelation, I’d think that disciple would be jumping for joy, laughing, celebrating, telling the world – or at least cluing in Mary and Peter.  But both that disciple that Jesus loved and Peter seem defeated.   Thinking, maybe “It’s really true.  He’s really gone.  I was excited about Jesus, I thought this was going somewhere, but now he’s dead, and we don’t even have a body to remember.”   They return home, no fanfare involved.  And we’ve been there: Hopeless and defeated, at loose ends, feeling only distance between the hope and love that God promised and our own doubt or despair.

But, confused and lost as she is, this story revolves around Mary.  She doesn’t only set it in motion, she drives it.  She doesn’t go home.  She begins in the dark, searching and sad.  But she stays to look further.  Just as we can feel with the disciples who left, we can empathize  with Mary’s place of beginning too.  In John’s gospel, darkness is never just darkness.  This darkness is not only the dark of night, it is unknowing, on despair.  None of the disciples know yet.  The resurrection is still a secret.  Aren’t we all basically confused and lost and searching?  Aren’t we all, if we’re sitting here on Easter Sunday, at least a little curious or confused – as well (maybe) as hopeful – about what exactly ‘resurrection’ means?

The key to this story is in Mary’s search, in who she was searching for.  It is in her tenacity.  From beginning to end, Mary persistently searched – looks for where her teacher has gone.  She will not let go.  Just like she stayed with him until his death when all the 12 had fled, she’s here at the tomb searching for his body.  She keeps expressing her search to everyone she encounters, “They’ve taken my Lord and I don’t know where they’ve laid him.”  Like her friends, like any of Jesus disciples, she couldn’t possibly expect – in spite of everything that Jesus taught – that she would find a living Jesus in front of her.   Scholar Gail O’Day says about those first disciples that “Until the community encounters the risen Jesus, there are no categories through which to understand the empty tomb.  The preresurrection world cannot make sense of an empty tomb with any theory except grave robbing”[iii]

So when the living Jesus approaches her and we reach that dramatic climax in which we know who is standing before her, and he asks her that probing question, “Who are you looking for?” she still has not yet seen, still answers as one who is searching.  She says, through her tears “tell me where you have laid him.”  And then, through one word – “Mary” – Jesus changes the picture.  Mary’s story begins in the dark confused and unknowing – and at the moment she hears her name, the light dawns, her eyes clear.  By searching, she has seen, and seeing she can proclaim – the first witness of the living Christ.

These past four weeks a small group of us has been reading and talking about Rob Bell’s book Love Wins[iv].  In the last part of the book, Bell talks about the way in which God, through Jesus, can rewrite our impossibly hard stories – the stories that we tell ourselves, the stories that seem true, that cut us off from God.  He talks about a woman who cuts herself – a release for the pain and shame she carries and the stories that she’s written for herself (or that others have written into her) make it impossible to see herself as a beloved child of God.  But God’s story for that woman is better – impossibly, beautifully, expansively better, than that.

To Mary, to the other disciples, seeing their Rabbi Jesus alive again was impossible.  Some of them – and some of us – go home in resignation or despair.  (Although Jesus can find us in the closed room of fear – but that’s a story for next week).  A living Jesus is impossible.  And yet with a word, Jesus retells Mary’s story of the empty tomb.  Looking for a dead Jesus, she finds a living Christ.  From a story of grief and grave-robbing, to one of new life, resurrection and joy.

Resurrection retells the story of history.  It retells the story of Jesus.  Preresurrection, Jesus was an influential teacher who talked about God’s love, who stirred up trouble with political and religious leaders and ultimate died a rebel’s death.  Post-resurrection, he rewrites that story as a revelation of a love so powerful that death cannot conquer it.  Post-resurrection, he rewrites that story as a dedication to non-violent love that triumphs over violence and death.  Post-resurrection, he rewrites the story as one of the truth of God’s un-interrupted commitment to human redemption.

On Good Friday, here in this space we read the story of Jesus who was beaten and burdened.  We read the story of Jesus who was mocked, who died.  We draped the cross in black.  We sat in the dark.  We also walked the streets of Lake City and saw and heard the way God’s children are still beaten and burdened, mocked and tormented with addiction and pain and a systemic violence that continues to be active in our city and in this neighborhood – in all our neighborhoods.

Martin Luther King Jr has a famous quote that many of you probably already know.  He said “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”  That is God’s story. Desmond Tutu – a man whose people have known more persecution and violence and humiliation than most of us can imagine – is more full of the delight and hope of resurrection joy that anyone I have ever encountered before.  I saw him speak once in Indiana and everything he says or writes exudes that joy.  He has a Bible story book in which the emphasis and repeated theme is “God’s dream” – the dream of that beautiful kingdom where violence is no more.  Where the light has dawned.

In the light of this Easter morning, that dream, the new story, is what we are celebrating.  Some of you might remember way back to the beginning of Lent.  I talked about the rainbow connection.  I talked about God’s promise to all people – to all the earth – to every living thing – to create and sustain covenant with us.  I talked about the rainbow being the reminder not only to us, but to God of that promise to maintain connection.  When we were walking back from the Lake City stations of the cross, the sun was shining, but it was still raining and across the eastern sky in front of us as we headed from the corner of 125th and Lake City Way to the doors of the church, a rainbow guided our way.  And not just any rainbow, but triple deep on the canvas of a blue sky.  A reminder of God’s promise that threaded it’s way through history, through the Hebrew Bible, into the life of Jesus, his death and bursting out in resurrection assurance.  I don’t really believe in signs, but a rainbow is still a rainbow.  It was and is still powerful symbol of that deep love of God for humanity.

We are – no doubt about it – a people who need evidence – hard evidence not just light refracted through a few drops of water.  We are cynics and skeptics.  We are like Thomas (whose story we will hear next week) who needs to touch Jesus.  We are like Mary who needed to see Jesus and hear him call her name before she could believe that he was alive.  We are people.  We all have doubts, cynicism, guilt, shame, pride: things that separate us from God and obscure God’s dream from our vision the way Mary’s tears and confusing separated her from Jesus even as he was right in front of her.   Jesus resurrected can retell that story – can retell all our stories – into stories of.  But Mary didn’t find Jesus without searching for him.

Maybe, like for Mary, like for the disciples who left that morning, the idea of resurrection is inconceivable.  Maybe you can’t make it all the way there, to the point of totally buying a dead man coming to life. But I encourage you to keep searching.  Keep after the one who died.  I wish us all an Easter season filled with searching that results in joy, and persistence that end in life.  May we have the tenacity of Mary in her questions, that we too will be able to proclaim, “I have seen the Lord.”

Happy Easter, my friends.  Christ is risen!

[i] Pheme Perkins, “I Have Seen the Lord,” Interpretation, January 1, 1992.  p 199.
[ii] Brendan Byrne, “”The Faith of the Beloved Disciple and the Community in John 20,” in Journal for the Study of the New Testament. 1985. p. 85.
[iii] Gail R. O’Day, “John,” in Women’s Bible Commentary, Carol A. Newsom and Sharon H. Ringe, ed.s, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998. p 389.
[iv] Rob Bell, Love Wins: A book about Heaven, Hell and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, New York: Harper Collins, 2011.