Sunday, April 16, 2017

It Has Just Begun . . .

Easter Day
Acts 10.34-43; Colossians 3.1-4; John 20.1-18
St. Gregory’s, Long Beach

Spoiler alert! Christ is risen!

Although the details of the Easter narratives as contained in each of the four Gospels vary in specific details, in all of the accounts women are the first to arrive at Jesus’ tomb on Easter morning. In John’s version, Mary Magdalene, common to all the accounts, is the only woman to come to the tomb that morning. Having a women be the first witnesses to such a monumental event is a remarkable thing in and of itself. In that day and age, women were not considered credible enough to give testimony in Jewish courts. Yet, women were the first to offer witness to the fact that Jesus had risen from the dead, just as he promised. And Mary Magdalene is the first to have a face-to-face encounter the Risen Christ.

John’s version of the Easter event offers a far less dramatic encounter between Mary Magdalene and the Risen Lord than the other Gospels. Instead of a profound revelation, this scene reflects a progression toward resurrection faith. It is a slow movement from witnessing Jesus’ death on the cross, to discovering the empty tomb, to encountering angelic messengers, to mistaken identification of the Risen One as a mere gardener, to a joyous encounter with her Risen Lord. To full faith in the Risen Christ.

After Mary Magdalene finds the tomb empty, she notifies Simon Peter and the disciple whom Jesus loved (presumably John) that, by all appearances, someone has taken Jesus’ body. Peter checks it out for himself. Yep, the tomb is empty. He has no reported reaction. Men! Maybe this is why the job of witnessing to the Resurrection is left to the women. They seem to take it for the significant event that it is. The beloved disciple then sees that the body of Jesus was indeed missing, but we are told that reality of the Resurrection didn’t even enter his mind.

After the two disciples return to their homes, we return to Mary Magdalene, in the garden, grieving the fact that the body of her beloved Master is gone. She looks inside the tomb, whereupon two angels ask her why she is weeping. Even Mary still doesn’t comprehend what has happened. She continues to believe that Jesus’ body has been stolen. As she turns around, she sees a stranger. A man she presumes to be the gardener. Only when this “stranger” calls her by name, “Mary!” does she finally recognize him. And in her joy, she cries out, “Rabbouni!” In this moment, when the familiar voice of Jesus calls her name, she now sees with new eyes. She sees that what Jesus had told them before his death was indeed true. That on the third day he would be raised from the dead. Her sorrow – at the death of her Lord, at the presumed loss of his body – turns to joy. And in that moment, she realizes that everything has changed. That the future would never be the same. If only she knew how much so.

Of course, Mary wants to throw her arms around her Risen Lord, to kiss him, to hold on to him. He was gone, and now he’s back. She wants to hold on to this dear and cherished friend. The one who had saved her life. The one who had given her a future. The one, who through his death and resurrection, had given her new life, new purpose.

But Jesus tells her, “Don’t hold on to me.” There is much speculation among scholars as to what he truly meant in these words. Why would he not want to be embraced by one of his cherished disciples? Why would he not want to greet her with a loving embrace? Quite simply, because things have changed. He has changed. Not that he didn’t love her any more. But the relationship between them had changed. He was now the savior of all humanity, through the actions of the last few days.

And Mary’s life has changed, too. She has a new part to play in the drama. She can’t hold on to what is passed, to previous images of who Jesus was, to the previous relationship they had shared. She can’t just stay in the moment, worshiping him. There’s work to be done! Someone has to go out and proclaim the Resurrection. To share the good news that Christ has indeed risen. And that she does. She goes to the other disciples and announces, “I have seen the Lord!”

And things have never been the same since. In that one moment, everything changed. For that day was a pivotal event in the history of humanity. The third day is nothing short of the center of history. As Christians, this day is what gives meaning to our lives of faith. This day is what gives meaning to our lives, period. The past, present, and future all coming together. The stories of salvation history – the events not just of Holy Week but of God’s actions from the beginning of creation to be in relationship with his people – coming together with where we are now in our own individual lives of faith, coming together with the present and future fulfilment of the Kingdom of God. In God’s time, all these events, all time, converge in this one day.

In the events of the last few days, the fate of humanity has changed. In the Crucifixion, in Christ’s death on the cross, he defeated the power of sin. The power of sin that put him on the cross. And the power of sin to have hold on each of us. In the Resurrection, God has overturned the power of death – the injustice of Christ’s own death on the cross, but also our own deaths, as well. For the reality of death is that it is necessary for greater life to occur. Christ’s death leads to his own resurrected life. And through that, our own deaths lead to resurrected life. Today is not just a celebration of Christ’s resurrection. It is also a celebration of our own resurrections.

Peter seeks to convey this in our reading from the Acts of the Apostles. This is the first proclamation of the Gospel to the Gentiles, made in the home of Cornelius the Roman centurion. Peter gives a first-hand account of the life, death, and Resurrection of Jesus. In so doing, he bears first-hand witness and testimony to what happened on that first Easter morning. He declares the significance of the Resurrection for believers – “That everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name” (Acts 10.43). And Paul, in our reading from Colossians, talks about how Jesus’ death and resurrection reshape the entire focus and motivations for our lives.

On this third day, we truly stand at the center of history, in the coming together of salvation history, of Christ’s death, of his Resurrection, of our own individual lives of faith, of the fulfilment of the Kingdom of God. That means we have our own part to play in the drama of Easter.

The story of the Resurrection, the story of that first Easter morning, is our story. Mary Magdalene, filled with grief and sorrow, is greeted by the Risen Lord, erasing that pain. So too, does our Lord come to us in our own times of need. Particularly when we are in grief and pain, feeling abandoned and in despair, when we face those Good Friday moments in our own lives – and even in the ordinary times –  Christ breaks into our lives. Christ calls us by name, making his presence known. Christ calls us by name, letting us know that we are his beloved. In so doing, he gives us the hope and assurance of his love that provide us the strength to carry on.

In our lives of faith, we are each, like Mary Magdalene, called to go forth and share our experiences of the Risen Lord in our lives. Of how he has come to us. How he has broken through into our lives. How he has called us by name. How he has called us beloved. We are called by him to proclaim, “I have seen the Lord.” This is the part we are called to play in the Resurrection drama. This is the part we care called to play in our own resurrection lives.

Father Basil Pennington, a Catholic monk, tells of an encounter he once had with a teacher of Zen. Pennington was at a retreat. As part of the program, each person met privately with this Zen teacher. Pennington says that at his meeting the Zen teacher sat there before him, smiling from ear to ear and rocking gleefully back and forth. Finally the teacher said: “I like Christianity. But I would not like Christianity without the resurrection. I want to see your resurrection!”

Pennington notes that, with his directness, the teacher was saying what everyone else implicitly says to Christians: “You are a Christian. You are risen with Christ. Show me what this means for you in your life—and I will believe” (Synthesis, “Resurrection and Life,” April 16, 2017).

We celebrate the Resurrection on this day. We celebrate the benefits that we derive from the Resurrection. Our salvation. Eternal life. And in so doing, we celebrate our own resurrections. But if we truly believe what happened on that third day, we must also live it out in our lives. We must be willing to step out with Mary Magdalene and boldly claim our transformation, our resurrection. To proclaim “I have seen the Lord,” in our words and our actions.

Perhaps unwittingly, my sister eloquently summed up what this means in a Facebook comment. Friday night, after our Good Friday service, I posted a picture of the altar, with an empty, overturned chalice lying on it, with the large cross leaned up against it. The caption I included was “It is finished.” Jesus’ final words on the cross. To this, my sister posted a comment, "But it isn't finished. It has just begun . . .” Indeed, for us it has just begun.

Alleluia! Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!

Now, go proclaim that reality to the world.

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