Scripture: John 20:1-18
We have all walked “tomb-ward” like Mary, on a morning of defeat or despair or deep grief. Pick up the daily paper. Evidence that evil is growing, death reigns, and sin is triumphant is splashed across the front page. It is not the newspaper’s fault. That is just life. Defeat, despair, and deep grief are all around us and yes, within us. I recall walking into the hospital in Corpus Christi years ago and encountering a fellow pastor, now a retired bishop. We exchanged greetings. I asked why he was there. He shared a tale of a member of his church battling serious illness. In responding to his queries, I spoke of a beloved grandmother in my congregation slowly dying of cancer. He sighed and said, “Every family has some kind of heartache or tragedy they have to battle.” I concurred.
In the joy of Easter morning, we must start where the biblical story does, with a journey to the tomb. We all know what it is like to walk that road with Mary. It is as ancient as the first Easter and as contemporary as today. The reality of defeat, despair, and grief are as near as the loss of loved ones in accidents, the heartache of a child gone astray, the sinking feeling of never quite measuring up, and the deep grief of death. The reality of such a tomb-ward journey is as global as the tragic loss of life in conflict or a hurricane hitting the shore. Mary’s journey that morning is our journey on many a morning.
In life’s all-too-common journeys, we encounter small signs of a great victory. Those signs were there on that first Easter. The Bible says, “Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb.” She does not understand its meaning. She runs to get 105 others. She jumps immediately to the common supposition that “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.”
Whatever else is to be said, at this point it is clear that the grave is not the end. I remember a colleague telling of pausing in a cemetery after he had finished a funeral. He looked at a massive stone crypt set near where he had just concluded the service. Clear, specific instructions had been left. “Not to be opened upon any circumstance” was chiseled on the stone door facing of the crypt. And yet, there it was. The tiny shoot of a plant, possibly a tree in the making, had slowly but inexorably forced the door of the crypt open. A shaft of light was streaming in.
So it is for us this day. A shaft of light breaks through the darkness. Mary struggles to believe; so too do Peter and the other disciple as they peer in to examine what is left behind. They examine the grave like befuddled detectives, one starting to believe; the other, Peter, clearly not knowing what to make of the empty tomb.
We are so like them that at times it is painful. We believe, and yet we are overwhelmed in grief and loss. We believe, and yet we shake our heads at how awful the world is. We believe and yet . . . we are not sure. We believe, and see small signs of a great victory.
Notice what the disciples and Mary did. They relegated the extraordinary— the stone rolled and the tomb empty—to the ordinary. They sought to explain it all with a sensible supposition—the body has been taken. All the while they confronted massive evidence of the truth. Christ has been raised from the dead. Death and sin are conquered. Belief dawns slowly with the light. The Bible says, “For as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead.”
This too is our struggle. Small signs of this colossal victory are all around us. Mary and the two disciples of that first Easter morning would teach us to look for signs of the extraordinary in the ordinary. In love shared, in care given, with hope amid despair, and laughter in the place of grief, comes the dawning of belief. One of the followers gets it. “Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed.” Let that be us. Begin to see the extraordinary—God in resurrection action—amid the ordinary.
In a scene that could be taken from any cemetery, Mary encounters the triumphant Jesus. It is so ordinary that she, at first, doesn’t recognize him. She thinks Jesus is the gardener.
It is important for both proclaimer and listener to pause and catch the full impact of what is being said. Jesus is first encountered near the tomb! Angels are inside the tomb, at the very epicenter of defeat, proclaiming the triumph. We encounter Jesus first, often best, at the very place of our defeat, despair, and deep grief. Where we struggle to believe, God is most present. Where we have come to the end of our resources, there God breaks through in triumph.
Focused on her grief, Mary teeters on the edge of faith. “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Then the full impact of the gospel hits. “Jesus said to her, ‘Mary!’ ” In the naming, she is claimed by the Lord. Christ’s triumph becomes her destiny! Our morning begins in a graveyard. It ends in a shout. “I have seen the Lord.”
Our path of faith is similar. Near the tombs of our life, be they physical or symbolic, we are named and claimed by the risen Lord. Lift your head when defeat, despair, and deep grief settle in. Look for the triumph of Christ. It is at hand. You are named and claimed.
Death is defeated. Oh, to be sure, death is real. Jesus wept by a grave and so should we. Our grief is a sign of our love, but it is not the end. The story is not finished. Through the triumph of Christ, “in life, in death, in life beyond death God is with us. We are not alone” (The New Creed). The Lord names you and claims you this day!
Sin is conquered. Oh, to be sure, sin is still with us. We know the pain of its wounds too well. But it does not have the final word over your life or mine. Sin remains, but it no longer reigns. However scarred and marred your past, the triumphant Lord of the resurrection offers new life for you this day. In triumph, you are named and claimed.