Homily: Easter, March 27 2016. (John 20.1-18) St. Albans
At Easter, it gets personal. What I mean by that, is that in order to tell the Easter story, in order to be able to make the great Easter proclamation, “Alleluia, Christ is risen” as we did, and as billions of other people all around the world are doing this morning, we have to talk about the very personal experiences of specific individuals. That’s what John does in our Gospel this morning. The focus of the gospel reading we just heard is not so much on Jesus as it is on three particular people: there is one called the beloved disciple; there is Simon Peter and there is Mary Magdalene. And next Sunday as we continue on in John’s gospel, we’ll add a fourth, Thomas, the one often called Doubting Thomas.
Four people. Four Easter experiences. Four unique stories.
Now, we can talk about Easter in bigger ways. We can speak of Easter, as Paul does in 1 Corinthians, in great cosmic terms. As the turning point in history, as God’s great victory over powers of oppression, as the liberation of all of creation, as the defeat of death itself. We can speak of Easter, as Peter does in the reading from Acts, as the total reshaping of the human family, as the moment when tribal and ethnic and gender and social differences are set aside and we are all called into one human family, born into one family as children of God.
But before we can speak of Easter in such grand terms, it has to be personal. Easter begins with the encounter with the risen Christ. And that is a very personal experience.
Peter hears the news that the stone has been removed from the tomb and so he runs, and when he arrives at the tomb he boldly goes right in and he sees the linen wrappings lying there. But he is perplexed. He doesn’t understand at first and he returns home. His moment will come later that evening.
The other disciple, the one Jesus loves, he too runs to the tomb at the startling news. He gets there first, but afraid perhaps, he doesn’t go in to the tomb right away. But then, after Peter has already gone in, he too goes in, and sees the linen grave clothes in which the body had been wrapped lying there, with the cloth that had covered Jesus’ head at one side. And he believes. But that’s all we’re told. It seems that he’s not yet at the point where he’s ready to share the news. A work in process.
Mary Magdalene goes to the tomb not once but twice on that first Easter morning. The first visit is a bit of a disaster. When she arrives she sees that the stone has been removed from the tomb, and she panics. Confused and afraid, she assumes the body has been stolen. And she runs, she runs for help, she runs to get Peter and the other disciple, tells them what has happened. And they in turn promptly take off and run as fast as they can back to the tomb, leaving her behind, bewildered, exhausted, traumatized, alone.
And as the adrenaline wears off, the grief takes over. The tears start. Somehow, for some reason, she is drawn back to the tomb a second time. Weeping, bent-over, she leans in.
“Woman, why are you weeping?”
“They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.”
And again, a man who she takes to be the gardener, asks her, “Why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?”
Again, she pleads for help in finding the body.
And that’s when Easter happens. Jesus says to her, “Mary.”
What’s it like to be called by name? What happens? What does it mean?
A number of years ago, just after I was ordained, I received a call that one of my elderly parishioners had suffered a stroke. She was at the Arnprior hospital, in a coma and not expected to recover. I happened to be right next door, at the Galilee Centre, on retreat with a group of teenagers preparing for confirmation. So I took my prayer book and anointing oil and trudged across a farmer’s field to go to the hospital to provide the sacrament of anointing, which is sometimes, incorrectly, called the Last Rite.
When I arrived in the hospital room, my parishioner was in bed, eyes closed, and I was told that she had been in a coma for three days now, would not regain consciousness and would soon die. I got out my things, sat down by her side and called her name.
She opened her eyes, and a faint smile appeared and her lips moved. She even lifted her head for a moment as if to sit up. I said the prayers, we confessed, we accepted God’s forgiveness, I anointed her with oil and we prayed the Lord’s Prayer together, her voice mumbling but audible. Then, when we were finished, she closed her eyes once more and slept.
When someone calls your name, it can be a powerful experience. It is transformative. It can change your life. It can bring you back to life. It did for Mary.
Mary turns and sees someone she takes to be the gardener. It is no accident that John the gospel writer has set this scene in a garden. There is a new creation happening here which parallels the first creation scene in the garden in the first chapters of Genesis. God formed the first human being from the dust of the earth, but Adam was not yet alive. Then God breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and he became a living being.
Jesus said to her “Mary”. And she wiped the tears from her eyes, and a faint smile appeared and she said “Teacher.” And in that moment, she came alive. In that experience Mary was transformed. Her sorrow became joy. Despair was replaced by hope. Fear gave way to faith. And she was raised from death to new life.
When your name is called, you are no longer alone. You are no longer invisible. You are no longer disconnected. When your name is called, you are recognized and reconnected, there is a wiping away of tears, there is a smile of delight. Sometimes it can even bring you back to life.
And this is just the beginning of Mary’s story. “Go,” Jesus tells Mary, “Go to my brothers and say to them I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” And so Mary runs again, this time not in fear and panic but in joy and wonder, to announce the good news to the others. And she does it in the most personal terms possible.
“I have seen the Lord.”
Called by name, sent to proclaim. It is personal. It is powerful. It is life-changing. The Easter experience ushers us into a new world, a new way of seeing and experiencing and understanding the world we live in based on a discovered awareness of the divine presence, risen and alive, in our midst, calling each one of us by name.
That, in a nutshell, is the good news of this Easter day. Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, is calling you by name. The one who made you, who knows you intimately, is reaching out to you, personally, individually, uniquely, reminding you that you are God’s beloved child, made in God’s image, made for a unique purpose and called to be in relationship with your brothers and sisters. That no matter what it may be that is getting you down or holding you back, God’s love can overcome it. Nothing in this world, not anything we’ve done or failed to do, not illness, not violence, not sorrow, not addiction, nothing in all of creation, not even death, can separate us from the love of the God who calls us by name. It’s personal, it’s powerful, it’s life-changing. When we hear that voice, when we hear our name, we are ushered into a whole new world and a whole new life. And then we are told to go, sent to tell others what we have seen and what we have heard so that they too may know the power of being called by name.
May God bless you with an Easter experience today like the one that Mary Magdalene experienced 2000 years ago. May you encounter the risen Christ in your life, may you hear him call your name and may you be blessed with a joyful and holy Easter.
Alleluia, Christ is risen.
The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!