Alleluia! Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!
A few years ago, my oldest daughter went to sleep away camp for the first time. The drop-off was so much harder than I’d expected. I was completely comfortable with the place. She was going to Shrine Mont, the Episcopal retreat center and camp for this Diocese, a place where this parish goes for a weekend every summer and where I’ve been for countless clergy events. I even knew the camp director fairly well. But I was nervous. I was worried that she’d miss us, or get scared, or have a mean girl in her cabin, or feel claustrophobic with the lack of privacy. And so my stomach was clenched as we awkwardly and fairly silently gathered under the open air pavilion with the hundred or so other families waiting in line to check in their children in. Waiting to leave them in cabins with perfect strangers and kiss them goodbye and get back in our cars alone.
And just then, there was a commotion behind us. All hundred families turned to look as a big Toyota Camry with music blaring pulled up. A young man got out of the back seat of the car and started dancing. He was followed by a young woman. And another. And another. And as we watched 14 people (I kid you not) got out of that car, each sillier than the one before. These, it turned out, were our children’s camp counselors. In just moments, they’d turned a nervous, uncomfortable horde of waiting parents and children into a laughing community in on a joke. We could see that the people in charge of our children were fun, relatable young adults who cared about each other and would care about our kids (though perhaps lacking in motor vehicle safety). Through this encounter, we all felt included in the Shrine Mont family.
I think our story this morning invites us into an experience like that.
This group has gathered here at St. Aidan’s this morning for all kinds of reasons. Some because you are regulars and this is where you’ve found community. Some because you know yourselves to be on a spiritual journey and have found support for that journey here. Some because you have questions, or your kids have questions, that you’re having trouble answering. Some because you were invited by family or friends, and some because you were dragged by family or friends. Some because it’s Easter and coming to church is a part of what you’ve always done on Easter. And some are just dipping your toe in the water. No matter what our reasons, I’m betting that for most of us, they have very little to do with Certainty. I’m betting that many of us find the Easter story is a hard one to swallow or make sense of. This is the day when we claim the hardest things to believe: The miracle of life after the horror of crucifixion. The vanquishing of sin and death. Resurrection.
And then we hear that story from John’s Gospel. There is so much absurdity in the story we just heard. A missing body, people racing on and off stage, mistaken identities, bizarre details, needless weeping, and confusion everywhere. It barely touches any of that big theological, hard-to-believe stuff. Instead, it lets us laugh at the absurd plot line, and raise our eyebrows at the strange details, and find ourselves in the all-too-human, relatable characters. This story invites us to encounter Easter through its characters.
There’s Mary Magdalene, who gets an unfairly bad rap in Christian lore, branded as a prostitute by the patriarchal church who couldn’t stand her importance to Jesus. Mary of Magdala is the one who is always there, through thick and thin. She accompanies Jesus during his ministry. She holds vigil with him at the cross after most of the disciples have run away. After encountering Jesus, she wrapped her life around his and now she can’t imagine a future without him. So here she is at the tomb, mourning her teacher and friend, the only one who has ever accepted and welcomed her so fully.
And there’s Peter, called the Rock by Jesus, though less because of his strength or reliability than because of his hard-headed stubborness. He is brash and bold and full of shallow certainty. Waving his arm wildly in the air to be called on by Jesus, wanting to be affirmed, wanting to be right, wanting to join Jesus in walking on water. But more often than not his boldness becomes blundering. His desire to be first turns into cowardice. Just two nights ago, Peter rushed to defend Jesus from arrest by cutting off the ear of a soldier. But then a few hours later, he denied knowing Jesus three times at Jesus’ time of greatest need and ran away from the cross. And here he is, racing to the tomb to be the first inside.
And there’s the so-called Beloved Disciple, unnamed and so the subject of all kinds of interesting theories and conspiracies. He sat next to Jesus at the Last Supper, followed Jesus to the high priest’s courtyard after his arrest, stood below the cross to be chosen to take care of the Mother Mary. And here he is, racing to the tomb, silent and observant, an ever-present witness.
And then there are all of those offstage friends and followers who haven’t come to the tomb. The ones that stayed back, waiting and worrying, too fearful to be seen in public, too lost to move at all. But they’re here too, because that’s how this story spread and grew and lived to surround us.
And here are we. I wonder where you are in this story? Are you in the racing or the waiting? The weeping or the fear? The searching or the silence? The blindness or the blunder?
Because while this story may leave us with more questions than answers, one thing it makes abundantly clear is that there is no one right way to encounter Easter.
When Mary arrives at the tomb, she’s still in the darkness. For Mary, Easter doesn’t arrive with the empty tomb - to her, that just seems like evidence of more tragedy. But she is determined. She stubbornly stays at the tomb, asking questions of everyone she meets. Even when Jesus is right in front of her, Mary doesn’t recognize him at first. It’s only when he calls her by name that Easter arrives for Mary. Though even then, she misinterprets him, understanding him to be a resuscitated version of his old self. She thinks Jesus has somehow cancelled the cross, turned the clock back, and that she can return to the way it was before, when she accompanied him in his ministry. She is ready to wrap her life around him once again. But Jesus tells her that she can’t hold on to that version of him, or to that version of herself. It won’t be as it was before. Everything has changed. God doesn’t remain inside the boundaries we set. So Mary has to let go of what she thinks she knows, let go of the way it used to be, let go of her dreams of how it could have been, in order to move forward.
Maybe, like Mary, we encounter Jesus in the midst of our despair. Or by stubbornly asking questions. Or by hearing the echo of a familiar voice calling us by name. Or maybe we encounter Jesus only as we let go of some old understanding of Jesus or faith or ourselves or our future in order to enter into the possibility of what God can do.
Or maybe we’ll be more like Peter. I don’t think Easter arrives for Peter until after this story. A week or so later when he is out fishing and the Risen Jesus gives him three chances to profess his love, redemption for Peter’s triple betrayal of Jesus before his death. Peter encounters Jesus when he experiences the forgiveness that he needs to recover from all the ways he hasn’t lived up to his own impossible standards.
Maybe, like Peter, we encounter Jesus in an experience of forgiveness. When we have a glimpse of ourselves as God sees us - beloved and accepted, foibles and all.
Or, maybe we’ll be more like the Beloved Disciple, for whom the empty tomb and cast-off burial cloths are enough for Easter to arrive. In that moment, we are told, the Beloved Disciple believed even though he did not yet understand. His belief wasn’t one of following a Creed or subscribing to some approved litany of theological statements. His belief was all about giving his heart, entrusting himself to Jesus, and being comfortable with sorting out what it all meant as he went. I’m sure he still had plenty of questions, plenty of uncertainty, plenty of doubt along the way. The God we encounter, the Easter stories that matter most, are “too big and mighty to be encompassed by certainty.” (Barbara Brown Taylor)
Maybe, like the Beloved Disciple, we will encounter God in a belief of heart made possible even before we understand, in some moment of trust that goes against rationality, in some quiet confidence that makes sense only to us.
For me, the greatest promise of Easter is that Jesus shows up in the absurdities of our stories, in the bizarre details of our lives, in the ridiculous characters that are US. God meets us where and as we are. It isn’t guaranteed that we will understand, or that it will all make sense, or that it will go a certain, comfortable way. We are just promised that encounter is all around us. However and whenever we arrive at the empty tomb. Early or late, breathless or plodding, excited or weary, joyful or weeping, eager or cynical, certain or dubious. Right here is where we start. Easter isn’t the end of the story for Mary Magdalene, for Peter, or for the Beloved Disciple. And it isn’t the end of the story for any of us. Easter is only the beginning.
When it was time to pick my daughter up from Shrine Mont camp that summer, I went to the camp’s closing ceremonies. After great music and prayers and a Eucharist, we all turned and faced the mountain and a few of the kids led us in the Shrine Mont shouting prayer, which is a pretty good Easter message in itself, so we’ll end that way too. You just shout back what I say:
Alleluia! Christ is Risen!
The Lord is Risen indeed!