Rev. Dr. Molly Scherm
This morning we remember and celebrate and give thanks for the resurrection of Jesus, the Christ. We remember an empty tomb that gave hope to Jesus’ disciples, who were grieving his loss after having witnessed Jesus’ execution three days before. It is a story that gives hope to us today as well, as we grieve the profound troubles of our own world.
The New Testament actually gives us four different accounts of what happened on the third day. The resurrection story told in John’s gospel, which we have heard this morning, is the most complex and interesting of the Easter stories in the canonical gospels: it involves three disciples who each had a different experience.
John’s account of the third day begins with Mary coming to the tomb in the dark, only to discover the stone rolled away. Imagine Mary’s distress – already deeply bereaved by Jesus’ death, now discovering that the body of her teacher has disappeared. Startled, grief-stricken, probably frightened, Mary runs to secure the company and the assistance of two of the other disciples, Simon Peter and John. Unlike the gospel accounts in which the rest of the disciples don’t believe the women’s report of the empty tomb, John tells us that Peter and John respond quickly to Mary’s witness, and they hurry with her to the burial site.
What follows, in John’s text, is where the story gets interesting. When the men arrive John initially lingers outside while Simon Peter enters into the tomb itself. Peter observes the linen wrappings in which the body had been interred, but he doesn’t seem to react. Perhaps Simon Peter is troubled or bewildered, maybe just taking time to process what his eyes tell him. John then joins him, and observing the burial cloths, immediately believes. John tells us that up until this time the disciples had not understood the scriptures indicating that the Messiah must rise from the dead, but, by implication, they now are starting to get it.
John reports then, simply, that the disciples returned to their home. He doesn’t tell us what they made of their strange experience or what they intended to do with it. I suspect that they needed to talk with one another and probably with the others, to puzzle over the strange things they had observed.
But Mary was not ready to leave; we don’t know whether the other disciples even suggested that she do so. She stands weeping, and, taking up her courage, finally leans in to take her own look into the burial place. Mary sees a vision that the other disciples apparently had not – two angels sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying.
And then finally, the most surprising claim of all. Mary turns and sees a figure that she takes to be a gardener, though John tells us that it is, in fact, Jesus, himself. The figure speaks, asking who she is looking for, but she does not recognize his voice any more than she has known him by sight. Despite not recognizing him, Mary opens her heart to the stranger: Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.
When Jesus speaks once more and calls her by name, Mary knows. She understands. She believes. Just as her world changed when Jesus was crucified three days before, Mary’s world is again, suddenly, different. John tells us that when she returned to the disciples, she told them: I have seen the Lord.
Why did the three disciples who visited the empty tomb that morning have such different experiences? Simon Peter saw linen cloths and returned home. John saw the same cloths and believed, but then also returned home. Mary saw angels, and then met Jesus.
Perceiving and understanding are separate processes, even though they often happen together. We see or hear something, and we identify what it is that we have seen or heard, and we figure out what it means. Two or more of us can witness the same evidence and see very different things.
And often, what we EXPECT to see determines how we interpret what we’ve seen; sometimes we’re not even capable of seeing what we don’t expect, what we are not open to seeing.
When Mary first saw and heard the risen Christ, she saw a gardener. There was something in her heart, however, that resonated with some familiar tone, some subtle nuance, when he spoke her name. There was something in her that allowed her to discover the unexpected – something that enabled her to know that Jesus had risen from the dead, that Christ was present with her. Something that changed everything.
Beginning with Mary at the tomb on Easter morning, the good news that Christ is alive transforms lives. The good news that Christ is alive makes things new. Just as some quiet readiness in Mary’s heart enabled her to perceive what the other disciples had not, it is within us whether we can perceive the risen Christ around us, whether we can open our hearts, whether our lives can be made new by that presence. We are surrounded by the marks of God’s power and promise – but it is in us whether we can see.
Two and a half years ago two parishes in Western Massachusetts were both faithfully following the gospel, but both were facing the challenges that confront all communities of faith in today’s shifting landscape of religious practice.
One parish had a wonderful long history and many active ministries serving the surrounding community, but they were confronted by the daunting reality of a large, aging campus in a period of declining church income.
Another nearby parish was quite a bit smaller but no less faithful, with deep bonds between members and strong and committed leaders, but equally challenged by declining numbers.
The easier and apparently safer perspective for these parishes to take would have been for both to keep soldiering on as their parents and grandparents had, before them. But somehow, as the lay and ordained leaders of the parishes began a conversation together and then extended the conversation to include all of the members, the seed of a new vision took root - a vision of joining together to become one new parish.
Many of you were there – it happened with astonishing speed. In mid April of 2017 – on an unforgettable Sunday morning right after Easter - St James Episcopal Church and St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church became the Episcopal Church of Saints James and Andrew.
In her sermon that morning Heather offered the analogy of a marriage in which the new partners would need to figure out how to merge the details of their lives – not only how to spend Christmas Day in their new life together, but where to put the coffeemaker and what brand of toilet paper to use.
Merger has involved discovery, joy, new energy and tremendous creativity. It has also required patience and generosity in the face of loss, as many have had to let go of dearly-cherished ways of doing things, as the new parish has walked into its new life.
Our story of new life is part of the larger story of new life discovered by Mary, John, Peter, and the other disciples. Just as something in them enabled them to meet the resurrected Christ in a gardener, and in the upper room, on the road to Emmaus and on the lakeshore, something in these two former parishes enabled them to perceive the stirrings of the Holy Spirit, inviting them into a bold risk of new life.
Trust in the God of whom Jesus spoke and who Jesus trusted compelled the disciples to continue Jesus’ ministries and to preach the Gospel to all lands. Trust in the God we know in Jesus Christ is our calling, as well.
Life after death. The drive of all beings toward wholeness, toward healing. Life renewing itself, through the power of God, the presence of the risen Christ.
Our opportunity – our privilege – is that we can make a difference in this world despite the death, destruction and divisions we see around us. We can open our eyes and ears and hearts to the moments of resurrection with which we are surrounded. We can move forward boldly because the love of God in Christ transforms things.
Alleluia! Christ is risen. Christ is risen indeed. Alleluia!
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