This message was given on the Sunday after Easter. The text was John 20:19-31, telling of Jesus’ appearance to his followers on Sunday evening and, because Thomas was absent and refused to accept the testimony of the others, Jesus’ appearance the subsequent Sunday evening when Thomas was present. But the message also looks back to the reading from Easter Sunday, John 20:1-18, concerning the discovery of the empty tomb and Jesus’ encounter with Mary.
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Before I begin this morning, it’s important to say that it’s hard to talk about anything in John’s Gospel without talking about everything. The themes of John’s Gospel weave in and out, forming an amazing tapestry. What happens at the end is connected to the beginning and flows through everything in between. This is not a collection of stories about Jesus, but a single, large, wondrous canvas seeking to portray for us the face of the infinite.
The open door
The text we have before us this morning from the Gospel of John is the second half of the story we began to read last Sunday on Easter morning, so I want to go back a bit and talk about what has already happened.
In John’s Gospel, Jesus is given a royal burial. Joseph of Arimathea gets permission from Pilate to take up the body of Jesus, and Nicodemus brings a hundred pounds of a perfumed oil with which to anoint the body. Remember the small jar that Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, used to anoint Jesus’ feet? It was worth a year’s wages. Nicodemus has a hundred pounds! This is a burial fit for a king!
So, Jesus receives a royal burial in a new tomb in a garden. (On Good Friday, we mentioned the significance of John calling this a ‘garden’, because the biblical story begins in a garden.) This burial happens on Friday before sunset. Now, at Sunday dawn, while everyone is still “in the dark” about Jesus, Mary comes to the tomb. John wants us to just focus on Mary. He has pared away all the other elements of the story. She has not brought spices, there are no other women, there is just Mary and the open tomb.
There is something here we struggle to put into words. John is always aware there is a surface meaning to his narrative and a deeper one; how shall we articulate that deeper reality this moment represents? Mary is standing alone before the mystery at the heart of the universe: here where death reigns, a door stands open. What does she see?
By stripping away all the other elements, John is placing each of us in that garden facing the majesty and mystery of the cosmos. We each stand before that open door. We each stand before the silence. We each stand before the darkness of the tomb. And what do we see?
Matthew, Mark and Luke all choose to say that the stone was ‘rolled’ away – and that is the way these tombs are built. They carve out a cave and provide a small opening wih a large, wheel-shaped stone that rolls into a slot to seal the tomb. John, however, says the stone was ‘lifted’. No words are used casually in John, and this word ‘lifted’ is the word John used at the beginning of his Gospel when John the Baptist says of Jesus, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away (literally, ‘lifts away’)the sin of the world!”
Something has been lifted off the back of human existence. The shame of all humanity has been lifted. The shroud of death is lifted. Our sins are lifted. The fierce grip of death has been broken. The tears that define us are wiped away. The new wine of the wedding feast stands ready. The lame walk. The blind see.
At the heart of the universe is Life. God is the open door, the new creation, the font of grace, the imperishable Life.
Only the ordinary
Something happens as Mary stands there before the tomb. Something happens as we stand there before the face of the eternal.
But then we are pulled back to the ordinary. Mary doesn’t “see” what stands before her. She doesn’t understand. She runs to Peter and the beloved disciple saying: “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” It is, for Mary, as it was for Nicodemus in the night. When Nicodemus heard Jesus say that he must be born anew, he was stuck in the ordinary. He could only imagine a physical birth. He knew there was something deep and profound in Jesus, he was groping towards that truth, but then his mind pulled him back to earth. “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” In the same way here, Mary falls back into the ordinary; the physical body of Jesus has been removed: “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.”
John doesn’t tell us who she thinks has taken the body. Presumably she thinks it is the leadership that arranged for Jesus’ death, but that information would lead us away from the mystery into the realm of the ordinary, so John doesn’t distract us with that information. We just have Mary and the lifted stone and the mystery.
So Mary sees the stone lifted but falls back onto the ordinary. She goes to Peter and the other disciple and they race to the tomb. The beloved disciple is portrayed as quicker afoot – and quicker to see and believe – but Peter is given his due as the first one into the empty tomb. They find the linen wrappings, but John tells us they do not yet understand the scripture that Jesus must rise from the dead.
“Why are you weeping?”
After the two men leave, Mary remains. She is weeping. The body is missing. Jesus has been robbed of the possibility of resurrection on that final day when all the dead are raised. The obligation to bury the dead is supreme in the ancient world because the bones provide the frame God uses for the resurrection. Your bones retain your identity, your personality, your story. The idea of scattering the bones of your conquered enemy is to destroy them completely, so they cannot rise at the resurrection. Without the bones there is no future.
Without the bones there is no future. Mary is stuck in the ordinary.
Then Mary bends to look into the tomb and, through her tears, sees two angels who ask the penetrating question: “Woman, why are you weeping?”
Questions in John’s Gospel are meant to push us towards insight. And this is a profound question: “Why are you weeping?” It is not just a question posed to Mary; it is posed to us all. It is not a question about the natural human emotion of grief. It is an existential question about our understanding of the world.
Is Mary weeping because she has lost a friend and teacher? Does she not understand who Jesus is? Does she not understand that he is the embodiment of the eternal word? Does she does not understand that he is the source and goal of all life? (He is “the way, the truth and the life.”) Does she not understand that all things belong to Life?
Do we not understand the power of life that vibrates through all things? Do we not understand that matter itself is, rather literally, vibrating energy. All around us the universe pulses with life. Go, stand outside, and look. The grass, the ground beneath it, the trees above it, the air around it – it all vibrates with life.)
“All things came into being through him,”says John at the beginning of his Gospel, “and without him nothing was made.” “In him was life and the life was the light of all people.” “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.” “We have beheld his glory, glory as of the only son of the Father.”
Do we not see?
“What are you looking for?”
Mary answers the angels in a very mundane way: “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” She is stuck, like Nicodemus, on the surface of things. And so she does not recognize Jesus until he calls her name.
She doesn’t realize the risen Christ is present. She imagines she is talking to a gardener. And Jesus asks the same double-edged question, “Woman, why are you weeping?”But then Jesus adds: “Whom are you looking for?”
This question takes us back to the beginning of John’s Gospel and the very first words Jesus speaks: two disciples of John the Baptist hear him say that Jesus is the Lamb of God, (the lamb of God who liftsaway the sin of the world) and they follow him. Jesus turns and asks them: “what are you looking for?”
This is the fundamental human question. “What do you seek?” “What are you looking for?” “Towards what is your life oriented?” “What path are you following?” And here, in the garden, Jesus changes the question to “Whom do you seek?” It’s not a thing we need; it’s a person, a presence, a life.
But Mary is still stuck in the ordinary, and so she answers,“Sir, if you have carried him away [if you have liftedhim!], tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” She is stuck in the literal that cannot imagine a birth from above. She is stuck in the literal that cannot see how water is transformed into wine or tears into joy. She is stuck in the literal that cannot understand a blind man seeing or a lame man walking. She is stuck in the literal that cannot imagine that there is anything more in the feeding of the five thousand than five thousand full bellies. She doesn’t see the bread of life and the healing of the world.
Outside the tomb, Mary knows only her grief, her loss, the cruelty of events, the limits of the ordinary, the finality of death. She does not see the divine presence; she does not see a world radiant with life – until Jesus calls her name.
What is it that we hope happens in worship? Why do we persist in reading these words and telling these stories and helping them connect with our lives? Because the heart of the universe is calling our name. We are here to see the divine presence; the power, the life that vibrates through all existence. We want the world to see grace, to see mercy cast upon the world like a sower sowing seed. We want all creation to see the extravagance of God, to taste the bounty of God. We want all existence to see, even in the darkest days, that we are immersed in light.
We come to hear God call our name.
This is not like school where we are shrinking down in our seats hoping not to get called upon. This is not like a parent calling for us to do some chore or account for some wrong. This is the most gentle of kisses. It is the calling of our name that brings us back into the arms of love. It is the calling of our name that fills our hearts with light and life.
“Mary,” says Jesus. Jesus speaks her name, and immediately she is drawn into Christ.
So now it is evening and Jesus appears and shows himself. He speaks peace. He brings peace. He conveys peace. And he breathes out his Spirit upon his followers. They are sent. They are now in the world as the living presence of Jesus. They are now light and life in the world. They are grace and mercy. They are truth and compassion. They are fidelity and hope.
They are not an army sent to conquer the world. They are the voice sent to speak every name.
But Thomas is not there. He did not see the hands. He did not hear the word of peace. He did not feel the breath of God. He is bound in the realm of the ordinary. And how can he show allegiance to light and life when he cannot see it. How can he show allegiance to grace and peace when all he sees is the shame and sorrow of the cross? How can he show allegiance to loving one another when he sees only brutality and suffering? How can he live the life that is eternal when he sees only death?
Thomas was not there. But Jesus does not leave him behind. Jesus comes again the next Sunday. He speaks the word of peace. And then he turns to Thomas. He offers his hands and his side. He summons him to not be faithless, but faithful. And Thomas hears his name. He sees. He yields his life. He recognizes his risen lord and the face of the divine.
We are here to see the wounded hands in the bread. We are here to stand before the great mystery of existence. We are here to bend and look into the empty tomb and answer the questions why we weep and what we seek. We are here to see that all existence radiates with grace and life. We are here to hear the voice of the divine call our name.
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https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sagrada_Familia,_interior_(21)_(31130118082).jpgRichard Mortel from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D