First Reading Acts 10:34-43
Second Reading 1 Corinthians 15:19-26
Gospel Reading John 20:1-18
From it earliest verses, the gospel of John contrasts light and dark to speak of the contrast between belief and unbelief, between those who faithfully follow the will of God and those who will not. John tells us that Nicodemus came to Jesus at night – supposing him to be a special teacher, perhaps even a prophet, but certainly not the light of the world. He walked slowly into the light, being perplexed at Jesus’ words when he told him he must be born again. Later, we read of Judas who had been with Jesus, in the light of the Upper Room, just a few evenings before – near him at the table, then left to go out into the darkness night to betray him. Light and darkness used in this way is one of John’s major themes.
The prologue to John’s Gosple gives us these words – (John 1:4-5 NLT) “The Word gave life to everything that was created, and his life brought light to everyone. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness can never extinguish it.” These beautiful words were never truer than on Easter morning. Not even the terrible death of the cross could extinguish that light. Jesus had warned his followers many times what was to come – that he would be killed, but would rise again on the third day. But somehow, in the darkness of grief and fear, they failed to remember on that morning. We could have hoped that they would have approached the tomb with hope and possibility, but no – they had to experience the “light of the world” anew for themselves – each in their own way.
When we are confronted with a difficult problem or puzzle that we finally figure out how to solve, we often remark – Oh, Now I see! The clues and patterns inform our fuzzy brains – incrementally providing the light needed to finally perceive the truth. We can be pretty blind when we have wrongly assume a particular situation cannot exist. It was like that for the women, who were also Jesus followers. The Gospel writers tell us they were there at the cross. They saw Jesus suffer and die. They saw the guard pierce his side with that cruel long spear, they saw the separated blood and water pour from the wound. Several had even followed to the tomb. It was brand new, in a little garden area. It would have had a small entrance, typical of the time – only about 3 feet high. They saw Joseph of Aramathea and Nicodemus wrap his body with the spices and lay his remains on a stone shelf inside. They saw and heard the entrance sealed with that heavy stone rolled into place. They knew he was dead and buried. They had witnessed it all.
Now, after the Sabbath was over, they come back to the tomb, apparently to finish the hurried work that had been done Friday evening. Other gospel writers tell us there were several women involved – but John focuses only on Mary Magdalene. She had started out very early that morning, in the twilight of dawn – before the sun had even risen. In that dim light, she made her way to the tomb. She could see well enough to get there and to spot the unsealed opening. That was enough to trigger panic, frustration, confusion and sent her running to find Peter and the one we presume was John himself. I imagine she was out of breath and in quite a state when she found them – yelling at them “They have taken the Lord’s body out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!” That seemed the only possibility – whoever “they” might be. The Romans? The Religious leaders? Somebody! She didn’t have enough light yet to see any other possibility. Light is like that – we must have it to see. Without it, our own minds supply fears and assumptions instead of the truth.
Peter and John’s foot race ended at the tomb a few minutes later – a little more light was available now – physically and perhaps spiritually. John tells us that he stopped outside at first – But not Peter! He barged right on in to see for himself. John couldn’t see much standing outside wondering. Peter had the right idea here – he had to go in to look for himself. That is the way it is with faith, it must be experienced, not just speculated about, or heard a about from somebody else. No doubt he called for John to come in to join him and have a look at the scene – now illuminated somewhat by the dawn’s light outside. The “eyes of faith” can see evidence that evades others. To those who believe, the Words of Jesus come to life. And there perhaps his words began to come back to conscious memory.
They had been there when Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, but this was different. They had to move that stone – this one was already open. Then – Lazarus had to stumble out still bound hand and foot. They had to unwrap him and set him free. Those strips of linen would have been scattered everywhere! But here, they were neatly arranged and empty – what kind of grave robber does that? I imagine that it was as if the body had just vanished from inside them. John seems to have put at least some of it together. He believed it was possible! Perhaps he remembered that Jesus had told them he would rise on the third day. Could that be what happened? They left and returned home wondering. John seems to have grasped belief at once – without full comprehension or explanation of what it could all mean. But Peter, wanting desperately to believe, still needed more. God is good that way, we get what we need from God in God’s own way and in God’s own time.
John tells us that by now Mary Magdalene had made her way back to the tomb. Still believing that Jesus’ body had been moved or stolen. Curiosity, led her to look in that small low opening and now she saw that the tomb was not empty as she supposed, and as Peter and John had seen – now, there were two angels sitting there where Jesus’ body had been placed. The angels, of course, knew exactly what had happened – they knew that most amazingly wonderful thing had happened since creation had been spoken into being and since that night when they had all sung together in the heavens for the Shepherds! The power of sin and death had been broken for ever! So why was she crying? … Mary could not see any of that yet. Its not even clear that she registered the fact that they were angels. In her grief, she could not think or see clearly – but still more light was coming – Jesus was standing right behind her. But she didn’t know that either at first. Her assumptions and inner darkness were still too strong – dimming even the light from those angels.
Jesus now asks her the same question as had the angels – “Dear Woman, Why are you crying? Who are you looking for? So, she begins to spill out her questions and frustration – until… until he spoke her name – “Mary!” That was the critical bit of light – she knew that voice – when he called her name. It was just as he had said earlier – “I am the good shepherd who calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.” Where? out into the light – where he cares for them and sees to their needs to be fed and watered. This was her beloved Jesus who had saved her from those horrible demons that had tormented her so. Quite naturally, she instantly wanted to grab him and never let go again. But she still didn’t understand as she needed to.
Jesus, in essence tells her “don’t keep on trying to hold me.” What has happened is much bigger than just this moment. This is all part of the larger story of his birth, ministry, death, resurrection, and now soon, his ascension to his Heavenly Father. There is still more to come and she is to be a faithful messenger to the other disciples. This story has to move on forward and can’t be frozen in the past or even in that one special moment with only her. The news must be shared. Light that doesn’t radiate out is not light at all. She was sent out with the best news of all: “I have seen the Lord!”. He gave her a message for them: “Go find my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”
I wish that news was received with that same joy with which it was no doubt shared. But the disciples would have their own experience with the Lord later that day. How I wish that all those whom we meet this week could hear our joyful news and accept the grace of Jesus with faith and thanksgiving at the first hearing. It would take several more meetings for even his closest followers to put aside their doubts. We will be hearing those stories in the coming weeks as we continue to celebrate Easter until Pentecost. What a wonderful message it was – “Go tell my Brothers”, he said – he called them brothers, just as he had called them “Friends” at the Passover dinner a few days before. These are words of belonging and relationship. He said: “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” The denials and abandonment are past – Resurrection light makes everything new and fresh. As Paul tells us, the Resurrection of Jesus is the first event in the renewal of all things. For us, for our brothers and sisters, for our neighbors, for those even that we don’t know yet. That joyous news must be shared. Christ is risen! New life is possible where even Hope seemed dead. God is making all things new – starting with us!
That sharing of the good news would spread far more broadly and quickly than either Mary or the disciples yet realized. The passage we read from Acts this morning, recalls one of those unexpected opportunities for further sharing that involved Peter. God sent Peter a lunch time vision of a sheet filled with all sorts of creatures no good Jew would eat to give him more light to better see God’s intent. Then God sent him an invitation to the home of a Roman named Cornelius, a gentile. Amazingly, this gentile was eager to hear the gospel message and urged Peter to speak to his whole household. What did Peter tell them? He told them, of Jesus’ life, death and his resurrection of course. The resurrection became the basis of every single sermon we have from those early days: Jesus, the only son of God: (Acts 10:39-42 NLT) “We apostles are witnesses of all he did throughout Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a cross, but God raised him to life on the third day. Then God allowed him to appear, not to the general public, but to us whom God had chosen in advance to be his witnesses. We were those who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. And he ordered us to preach everywhere and to testify that Jesus is the one appointed by God to be the judge of all-the living and the dead.
The light of the resurrection gave Peter the ability to see beyond the old distinctions of clean and unclean, beyond Jew and Gentile. His preconceived notions of who could be accepted by God were completely rewritten, and we are here today as a result. The new life in Christ is available to all who believe. We just need to be willing to tell them and invite them into the light. The mission of the church is still the same for us as it was for Mary that first Easter morning: Go and share the light of the Good News to this dark and hurting world – Jesus Christ is risen from the dead, Alleluia!