Creekside Church
Sermon of April 4, 2021

"What A Morning!"
John 20:1-18

Rosanna McFadden


Good morning! And what a morning it is! This is the day that we celebrate that Christ has defeated death. Forever. Not only for himself, but for those who believe in him and accept him as Lord and Savior. That is cause for celebration for each one of us and the entire cloud of witness and company of those who have crossed into eternal life before us.

I want to share part of a poem with you which captures some of the wonder of this morning. It is by Church of the Brethren poet Kenneth Morse. He is the author of hymn lyrics which you may know, including “Move in Our Midst,” and “Strangers No More.” This is from the poem “Listen to the Sunrise,” from his collection of the same title.

Listen to the sunrise.
Listen to the sharp, bright morning.
Listen to the first and glorious day.
Listen to the sound of a heartbeat
announcing in the womb of winter
that out of darkness,
out of dying,
out of midnight,
out of sorrow and travail
God is bringing light to life,
God is bringing life to light.
Listen to the sunrise
Listen to the first and glorious day.

Easter was the first and is still the greatest Christian holiday. Easter is the reason we gather to worship on Sunday instead of the Jewish Sabbath. And although Easter ought to be something that Christians can all agree on, differences in the Christian calendar regarding Easter have divided Eastern and Western Christianity and Celtic and Roman Christianity.

If you do any comparative reading of the gospel accounts, you will find that, like the narratives of Jesus’ crucifixion, the accounts of his resurrection differ somewhat. I have seen some advertisements lately for a new movie streaming on Discovery + call “Resurrection” Have any of you seen it? I don’t have Discovery +, so I have not watched it, although I am curious. I’m pretty sure the book is better. When a familiar story is adapted into a film, there is almost always some dissonance between how you imagined the characters or the setting in your head while you were reading it, and how the filmmakers chose to translate it on to the screen. Easter is certainly an event which calls upon our imagination, because each of the gospel writers is describing something which no one has seen before or since. What does someone look like who has been raised from the dead? Not resuscitated, but resurrected. Artists, as well as the gospel writers, have portrayed this in various ways.

Empty tomb In Matthew, Mark and Luke, the resurrected Jesus does not appear on Easter morning. The women who are the first witness to the resurrection find an empty tomb, and either angels or a man in shining robes who tells them that Jesus is no longer there. Even if we don’t know exactly what that tomb looked like, the gospels tell us it was carved from rock. It isn’t that difficult to picture an empty space with linen grave clothes folded up where the body had been. But simply celebrating the empty space where Christ’s body had been does not make for a very satisfying celebration.

Running from tomb We might be able to picture a figure of Jesus in white robes departing that tomb in an un earthly blaze of light, but at least for me, those details are hazy. I picture a glow of light, but not the features of Jesus’ face or the form of his body. I like the fact that Jesus seems to be running out of the tomb: he seems to be leaving death behind with energy and purpose.

Only John’s gospel, the account which Tim read for us this morning, says that tomb was located in a garden, and John is the only gospel which records an encounter that a believer had with Jesus on Easter morning. In every gospel, it is women who are the first to the tomb on Sunday morning. In John, Mary travels to the tomb alone, finds the tomb empty, and runs back in distress to tell the disciples that someone has taken Jesus’ body, because there is nothing inside the tomb. She and Peter and John go back to the tomb, the men confirm that the tomb is empty and they leave. Only Mary stays weeping at the tomb, and sees two angels dressed in white, who ask why she is weeping. After she answers and turns around, there is a man standing behind her who she does not recognize, but assumes is the gardener.

This image is clearly set in a garden, but the man standing before Mary doesn’t look much like a grander to me. I know that gardeners come in all shapes and sizes, but in my experience, clean white robes aren’t typically part of the ensemble.

I like this Rembrandt picture where Christ has on a floppy hat, has a spade with some dirt on it, and a knife for. . . trimming roses, maybe. I want you to sit for a moment with the image of Jesus as a gardener, someone who tends and cares for the earth. We know the Creation story from Genesis that God made human and had them live in a garden. The early church used the garden as an image of the kingdom of God: a place of peace and plenty, where everything and everyone can flourish. I like this image of Christ in a floppy hat and muddy sandals, loving the world so much that he not only died for it, but came back from the dead to work within it, and to show us the work which needs to be done to care for it.

It has made me wonder how many incarnations of Christ that, like Mary Magdalene, I have failed to recognize. This young man standing in a garden is wearing sturdy boots much better suited to outside work than a white robe, but maybe he doesn’t fit the image of Jesus with shoulder-length blond hair. Maybe a blonde Jesus is more a projection of ourselves than it is of anyone who was born in 1st C Palestine. John doesn’t describe the appearance of the resurrected Christ -- his face or his clothing--we don’t know why Mary didn’t know who he was immediately, but the gospel does tell us that what causes Mary Magdalene to recognize Jesus: he calls her name. The stranger she thought was the gardener is actually her Savior, who knows her and names her. It is then, and not until then, that she knows she has seen Jesus, and when he tells her not to cling to him, she runs to tell the disciples that she has seen the Lord.

The 93rd Academy Awards are coming up at the end of this month. I don’t think the Discovery + film Resurrection is nominated for anything, but if this story was a film, here’s what I think you could expect: Best Picture: The story of the Bible. This is an epic story which began before time itself. The resurrection of Jesus is the narrative which has changed the course of history. It is a story which is ongoing, and that each one of us is invited to participate in. Not only by believing that Christ is our Savior, but participating in the work he began of loving and caring for the world. Best Director: God. God actively directed the events of this story, creating, leading, liberating, acting for justice, intervening in the world. Best Adaptation: Again, God. God took the covenants which God made and fulfilled with the children of Israel in the Old Testament and made the new covenant of Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, the Law made grace. God adapted the divine to become human, his only Son, so that we would not perish, but have everlasting life. Best Actor: Jesus Christ, Emmanuel, God With Us. Christ was human, but lived a life free from sin, and was faithful unto death -- even death on a cross. His performance in this leading role is what makes the whole story possible. Jesus acted in human history, and continues to act through the lives of those who love him and follow his teaching and his example.

Now, there is some tough competition for Best Actress in a Supporting Role -- both of them are named Mary -- but my Easter vote goes to Mary Magdalene. Here’s why: Mary is the character in this story whom I can relate to. Not because she’s female, but because she’s flawed; she is human in all the ways that I am human. We don’t know all of her past history -- there’s nothing in the biblical record to indicate that she was prostitute, but ancient church leaders (all of whom were men) speculated that she might have been, and like any juicy gossip, it caught on. Mark and Luke tell us that Jesus healed Mary of seven demons, and we know that she was a financial supporter of his ministry. She and other women stayed by the cross and came to the tomb when other followers had hidden or fled. Mary was flawed and in need of healing, but she was also faithful in her financial, and especially her emotional support of Jesus. She cared enough to go to the tomb early on Sunday morning, and to stay alone there to weep when she thought his grave had been robbed.

The resurrection would not have happened without the sacrifice and death of Christ, and without the power of God which raised Christ from the dead. But Mary is the witness to Easter morning. In John’s gospel she is the only witness to the risen Christ. In Eastern Christianity she is known as “the apostle to the apostles,” because she is the first to share the news that Christ is risen, and she has seen the Lord. There may be things that I cannot do, but I can look for Jesus and listen for his voice when he calls my name. I pray that I will recognize Christ even when that voice comes from someone who is different than I expect. And I pray for all of us, that the realization of resurrection is something we talk about: what a morning! Christ is not dead, his body is no longer in the tomb, Christ is risen! He has called me by name. We have seen the Lord! Halleluia! Amen.


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