With assurance that the risen Christ is in our midst, we pray…
God of Easter surprise and wonder,
on this joyous day we feel as if anything is possible.
In the mystery and power of faith
you encourage us to join with you
in transforming our world with love and compassion.
On this day the power of hope springs eternal
and your love emboldens us to face the challenges
and opportunities which we face day by day.
In the name of the risen Christ,
with faith and hope we pray.
The resurrection story from the Gospel of John that we heard this morning is my favourite telling of the Easter story. All four of the gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John include a story of Jesus’ resurrection but John’s version is the longest and most detailed account. It is also the most dramatic telling of the story. John includes all the flair and detail of a good story. There is suspense and foreboding, heightened anxiety and emotion, confusion, action, drama, and a surprise ending. In John’s version a single person, a woman (Mary Magdalene), approaches Jesus’ tomb early in the morning while it is still dark. These two details are very important.
Regarding the significance of darkness, it is the emphasis in John’s Gospel of the power of light to overcome darkness. The statement at the very beginning of John (John 1:3b-5) is the synopsis for his book, “What has come into being in him [Jesus] was life, and the life was the light of all people. That light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” This short summary reveals the purpose of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection according to John. John, as you may recall, proclaims in his gospel that Jesus is the light of the world. John, says of himself, that he has been called as a “witness to testify to the light…the true light which enlightens everyone.” (John 1:7-9) It is no accident that John includes the detail that it is dark when Mary approached the tomb. The tomb is symbolic of darkness and death. All the disciples’ hopes and dreams had been destroyed by the torture and execution of Jesus. This was a bleak time of literal darkness and all of Jesus’ followers, including Mary, were devastated.
The second significant event is that Mary comes alone to the tomb, the place where the body of her beloved teacher was laid. The closest she could be to him after his death was his grave, or so she thought. Grief stricken she could not fathom what she saw when she arrived at the tomb. The huge stone blocking the entrance to the tomb had been rolled away and the tomb was empty. In her confusion and panic she assumed that someone had desecrated the tomb and moved Jesus’ body. She knew not where or why. It was in the numbness of grief and in the shock of losing Jesus yet again, first in death and then the loss of his body, that she fled to tell her friends the shocking news.
So compelling must Mary have been in her distress that Peter and another disciple came running. Some commentaries describe this the “great foot race”. John seems to think it is important to include the fact that an unnamed disciple was faster and got to the tomb before Peter. They both saw the empty tomb for themselves and then returned to their homes. Mary, alone, remained outside the tomb and wept bitter tears.
Mary, then looked into the tomb again and saw two angels who asked her why she was weeping. She turned around and a stranger, a man whom she assumed was a gardener, asked her the same question, “Woman, why are you weeping?”. Thinking that this person might have moved Jesus’ body she implored him to tell her where Jesus’ body had been taken so that she could retrieve it. Then came the biggest surprise. The man spoke again, and simply said her name, Mary. As soon as he called her by name she immediately recognized that the man was her beloved teacher, Jesus.
In a time and culture where women were not recognized as persons, it is significant that a woman, who was on her own, was the first witness to the risen Christ. This supports other stories in John where marginalized persons are the ones to recognize the presence of Christ and to contribute to the realization of God’s commonwealth. For example, in John’s version of the Feeding of the Five Thousand it is a little boy that provided the barley loaves and fish for the feast. Remember that children, like women, were not valued as persons.
The detail in John’s resurrection story is what most interested me this week. For instance, Mary doesn’t recognize Jesus until she hears him call her by name. A person’s name is deeply connected to their sense of self and identity. Women, in Jesus’ day, were known by their relationships to their male relatives. They were referred to as the wife of…sister of…or daughter of…the man to whose household they belonged. To be recognized and called by name was to be shown respect and given honour, a value which was consistent with how Jesus treated all people regardless of their gender or social status. The community that formed around Jesus was built on respect and equality. Tending to relationships and caring for one another was paramount. This combination of a genuine depth of caring, associated with knowing others by name, has significance in our time and place. It is not an accident that many churches have name tags for regular members and guests alike. To have a conversation and call another person by name is the beginning of a meaningful relationship and a sense of belonging.
In my reading this week I discovered that in 1961 there was a group of essays published entitled, Nobody Knows My Name. I haven’t read the essays but the article I read about them says they were written in the context of the 1960’s in the United States from an African American perspective. The article notes,“The title suggests the profound truth that the African American experience in the context of the dominant white culture of America is not exactly that of being nameless, but rather that of not having one’s name known and called. When nobody knows or calls one’s name, one stands outside the embrace of the surrounding community. When one’s name is known and called, one is enfolded in community.” (Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 2, p. 380)
In the mainstream popular culture of the United States in the 1980’s, there was a television series called “Cheers”. Do you remember it? It was a situation comedy that was set in a bar. The premise of the show was that people were drawn to this place because there was a sense of community. The tag line for the show was “You want to go to the place where everybody knows your name!” In other words come to the place where you are known and loved with all your idiosyncrasies and shortcomings and you are listened to and loved just for being yourself.
I’ve read a number of books in the last few years about the challenges and opportunities that face mainstream churches in the twenty-first century. One of these books, I can’t remember which one, talked about the “Cheers effect”. This is the phenomenon where people are seeking a sense of community and are looking for a church where they are welcomed, loved, valued, and feel a sense of belonging. They are looking for a place where “everybody knows their name”. In today’s Gospel story, Mary, upon hearing Jesus call her by name, immediately understood that she was known and was in the presence of Christ. To acknowledge her recognition and relationship with Jesus, she simply said, “teacher”. And, because of her recognition and response Jesus commissioned her to go and share the good news with the other disciples.
That, I believe is the essence of the message in John’s gospel; recognition of the sacred in our midst and the need to respond with faith-filled action. Mary is not unique. She is not the only one who can experience the living Christ and respond to Christ’s call to go forth into the world and proclaim the good news of Easter. Mary represents any one of us sitting here this morning. An ordinary person capable of seeing with the eyes of faith and a heart filled with love. A person who is willing to experience pain, is attentive enough to hear Christ calling, and courageous enough to respond with courage and conviction.
With trust, in the living Christ, we also can roll away the stones of our fears and complacency, our prejudices and shortcomings, our excuses and reluctance to risk our comfortable lives. Christ calls each one of us by name and coaxes us to be daring and follow him wherever he leads us. When we do, we are empowered in ways that are greater than we could ever ask or imagine.
With this Easter assurance I’ll close with an excerpt from a poem by John Harvey, of the Iona Community, that reflects Jesus’ call and accompaniment:
We, who dare to say we are following you,
know how faltering are our footsteps,
how delicate our discipleships,
how feeble our faith.
Yet still you call us
and invite us into your company
and onto your road.
So give us courage
and the commitment we need:
help us to look out for one another on the road;
show us how we may share the duty
and the joy of discipleship,
knowing that, in the end,
it is you who have blazed the trail,
you who accompany us all the way,
you who will meet us on the road,
and say our name.
Thanks be to God for the risen Christ who walks with us always on this journey of faith.