Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord!” †
Did you notice a couple of weeks ago the Best of Bristol list was published? Did you notice the big winners included the best churches? Did you notice Emmanuel didn’t make the list? I admit that I looked and that I was just a little disappointed. The Best of Bristol list was presented in categories: Food, Automotive, Shopping, Financial, etc. Know which category the best churches were in? Entertainment.
I preached five sermons last week. The reviews were mixed. One thing is certain. The shortest one was the most popular!
We did the hard work of Lent and Holy Week. We looked at the cross and challenged ourselves again to find the words to express why Christians love and venerate it. Now our task shifts to the resurrection and it may be even harder. How do we find the words to describe what happened that first Easter Sunday?
Well, we don’t. None of the evangelists do. Mark, Matthew, Luke-Acts and John all tell their stories but neither of them tells what happened that Saturday night when Jesus rose from the dead. Their stories are of discovering the tomb is empty and encountering the risen Christ.
I spoke last Wednesday in the chapel of how John used character development. He introduces us to Jesus and the people with whom Jesus interacted. The gospel is character driven more than plot driven. John introduces us to Nicodemus, a member of the religious establishment who struggled with things spiritual. “You must be born from on high—born again—if you want to enter the kingdom.” John introduces us to a woman who came to the village well in the heat of the day to draw water. He asked for a drink from her ladle. She was a Samaritan, a woman, and was apparently living with man who was not her husband. Her witness resulted in the entire village coming to Jesus. There was a man who for thirty eight years had waited by the pool by the Sheep Gate hoping to be cured and depending on handouts from passers-by. Jesus healed him but was condemned for doing so on the Sabbath. John introduced us to a woman caught in adultery who was brought to Jesus as an object lesson. He talked to her. Then there was a man who was born blind and when Jesus was asked whose sin had caused the man’s blindness, Jesus again refused to see the man as an object for discussion but cured him. The Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead showing that even the dead are beloved in the Kingdom of God. Lazarus’ sister, Mary, washes his feet with expensive ointment and dries them with her hair and, later in the Upper Room, Jesus washes the feet of his disciples. All the while Jesus talks with these characters of water and light and bread, of abundance and things spiritual, of the Comforter who would come to us when Jesus returned to the One he calls Father.
Now we come to the resurrection. The people who come to the open tomb, as you would expect from John, are described true to their characters. Mary Magdalene was the first one there. She had come to tend to the body but fond someone had, she thought, taken it. The runs to tell Peter and the disciple Jesus loved. Peter rushed into the tomb. The beloved disciple did not enter the tomb. He looked in and believed. Then they left and went to their homes leaving Mary alone to be the first to see Jesus after the resurrection. She thought he was the gardener. Mary tried desperately to figure out a rational explanation for why Jesus’ body was gone. It wasn’t until she heard his voice, not until he said her name that Mary believed. He is risen.
The point of the gospel is to introduce us to these characters and to ask us what we will do with this Jesus.
The point is that we are witnesses to the resurrection. Not protagonists, advocates, champions, or apologists, certainly not propagandists. Witnesses. Like Mary Magdalene, Peter and the Beloved Disciple, we come to the open tomb. Some of us believe, like the disciple Jesus loved, quickly and naturally. Some of us are aptly impressed, like Peter, but remain unchanged. And there are those who like Mary Magdalene are task driven until finally we hear him say our name. However we come to the faith, we are witnesses.
One of my favorite authors is the late Reynolds Price. He wrote prolifically. As much as I admire his writing, I am a fan more because of his own story. I find him as interesting as the characters he created in his books. He didn’t go to church even though he was raised in the South when going to church was the norm. He saw the resist as the culture changed its attitude toward racial segregation so he opted out. That’s what young people do. But he never lost his faith. He convinced me that it is possible to be a Christian without the Church if you define the church organizationally. When Reynolds Price was stricken with a horrible, life threatening disease, he was cured. He had a vision in which Jesus told him he was forgiven and Price said, “Yes, but am I going to be healed?” Jesus answered, “yes, that, too.” When asked what Jesus looked like, Price answered, “Just like his pictures!”
We are called to be witnesses to the resurrection.
Good Christian people disagree about all sorts of things. This congregation includes people with all sorts of ideas and convictions and opinions. Our search for common ground is futile. It’s a waste of time. Remember when the husband and parents of a patient disagreed about discontinuing treatment and it became a national story? At the time I was the President of our state hospice and palliative care organization so I was asked to comment on the case for a church publication. I don’t remember what I said but I remember the conversation I had with my mother. She totally disagreed with my position. My own mother who gave me not only have my DNA but inspired my values and my faith, disagreed with me about what was right in that particular situation. This illustrates two things. First, good, Christian people can disagree about what is right or best in a particular situation and, second, my mother can on occasion be wrong.
We are not going to find common ground on which to stand because the ground beneath our feet is stained with the blood of the innocent. We are not going to agree because we are sinners.
We are called to be witnesses. We are called into a new baptismal covenant community defined by the love of God. We are called to be the body of Christ, broken and given to a spiritually hungry world. If we respond to whatever divides us with the light of Christ whatever divides us can stay harmlessly hidden in the dark shadows, out of sight and out of the way.