Sunday, March 31, 2013

Resurrection People...

I hope you find the promise of Easter morning to be a renewing and sustaining gift. We are Resurrection people.

John 20:1-18
Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned to their homes.
But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” When she had said this, she turned round and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

This is the Word of the Lord.

This morning, we have been privileged to participate in the sacrament of Baptism. As Presbyterians, we practice what is called Covenant Baptism: the sprinkling of the water is a sign and seal of Xander assuming his identity as a child of God. And certainly, while anyone of any age can be baptized in the Presbyterian Church USA, the baptism of children holds a unique place as a witness to the truth that God's love claims people before they are able to respond in faith.

The Book of Order says that those presenting themselves for baptism “profess their faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, renounce evil and affirm their reliance on God’s grace, declare their intention to participate actively and responsibly in the worship and mission of the church,” and so on. Now, although Xander is an exceptionally bright youngster, he may not yet know what words like “profess” and “renounce” and “affirm” and “reliance” and “intention” mean. Thus as part of the baptismal covenant, we his parents, his godparents, grandparents, uncles and aunts and friends and church family have promised to guide and nurture him by word and deed, with love and prayer, encouraging him to know and follow Christ and to be a faithful member of his church.

We bring him up in the faith, with Christ’s help. We believe for him, until he himself can believe.

And in my mind there is no better time to celebrate this amazing sacrament of baptism, this act of affirming God’s love and acceptance of someone regardless of their ability to respond in faith, than Easter morning. The sacramental act of baptizing anyone, infant, toddler, teenager or adult, only makes sense in the light of the Resurrection, after all. This wonderful youngster gives us the opportunity to do take the question close to the bone, down to its bare minimum: What does it mean to be a Christian – to be a Resurrection person?

We Christians live not only in the shadow of the cross, but in the shadow of the empty tomb. We are all Resurrection people, we live in the Resurrection, and we've had two thousand years to contemplate, postulate, investigate, argue over, codify, verify, testify, solidify, sanctify, theologize, homogenize, and package for public consumption this idea of a risen Savior. We Resurrection people have developed our own language of multisyllabic words and a thesaurus full of ways to explain how and why and for whom Christ arose.

The danger in all of that, of course, is that it becomes perhaps far too easy for this idea of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ to be just that – an idea, a concept, a point of doctrine that we must mentally and verbally assent to in order to be allowed to take part in church. And yes, it has been necessary over the centuries to take the journey through understanding and verbalizing what it means to say “Christ arose,” and “Jesus is Lord,” to explain the whys and the hows, what we are blessed with on this particular Easter morning is an opportunity to peel away the layers, to look anew at this empty tomb, this central, astounding act of God's grace.

What does it mean to be a Resurrection person?

Mary woke from a fitful, accidental sleep, there in the corner of the room, the other women sitting around her. It's Sunday. Of course, if you're Jewish, like Mary Magdalene and everyone in the room, it's been Sunday since sunset, and they've all been cooped up in this room since Friday just before sundown. The tables are still set up from the Passover Seder, the couches still in place... Mary tries to keep from looking at that one couch, at the head of the table, but her eyes keep going back to it. That empty couch, the one He had reclined in during the meal. No one had sat there all weekend, of course, even if it meant sitting on the floor. No one dared to. She could see them all glance toward that couch from time to time, then look away quickly, ashamedly, knowing that the Master would never lay there again.

Some of them had been nearby when they laid him in the tomb. Mary and the other women had been very close, of course; it was the womenfolk's job to prepare the body for burial, though with sunset and the Sabbath fast approaching, there was precious little they could do. The stone had been rolled in place, and a wax seal had been placed across it with the Roman governor's seal. Guards were there to prevent anyone from stealing the body – Mary scoffed, thinking about it: steal the body? Who? These men, this band of cowards, jumping every time a dog barked in the distance, certain the Temple guards were coming for them like they came for Jesus? Or perhaps these guards were there for fear of the women of the group, who together couldn't muster the strength or leverage to roll the stone from the tomb's entry, much less lug a corpse any distance? Ridiculous.

And her eyes went back to that empty couch again. There had been hushed, urgent conversations at first, among the disciples. There had been tears and mournful embraces, but as the hours rolled on, everyone had grown more and more silent, more inside themselves, all contemplating, as best they could, what it meant. Jesus was dead. They had lost their friend, their leader… all that life, all that energy, the way he laughed and the way his eyes flashed when he commanded a demon to come out, his gentle jokes around the cooking fire and his way of teaching that cut to the bone… all of that was gone forever.

Jesus was dead, and with him lay dead the hopes for the coming Kingdom of Heaven. All the promises of God's Messiah lay mouldering in a rich man's donated tomb. There could be no kingdom if the king lay dead. There could be no redemption for Israel if the redeemer was gone. All of that big talk and all of those wild dreams were gone. For a group of people whose whole reason for living was found in this itinerant Jewish miracle-working rabbi, the future was black, hopeless, pointless.

The sun wasn't up yet when Mary had finally had enough of the cramped, airless room, fetid with the smell of fear and failure. She slipped out, and walked without thinking toward the last place she'd seen Jesus. Jesus, who had done so much for her, whose feet she had washed with her tears, whose words she had clung to like a drowning person clings to a lifeline. Whose words would offer her hope now? Where would she ever again find hope for the future, the promise of eternal life? All of that was gone, dead, wrapped in burial linens and sealed in the to...

Where are the guards? Had Pilate come to his senses, realizing none of Jesus' followers had the guts or foresight to steal the body, and taken the guards someplace they could do some actual guarding? ... but wait, the tomb, its entrance is open! With the sky becoming lighter, Mary can see the stone rolled away, the seal broken, why would anyone have done this?

She ran back to the house, and found Peter and John just outside the door, their faces creased from fear and grief. The horrible news poured out of her mouth in a confused gasp, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him!” There was barely time for a double take, for Peter and John had the same thought at the same moment. Like an arrow shot from a bow, they were gone at a full run. Mary of course ran behind, but slower, dreading what they'd find, but all the time knowing what they'd find.

They had stood there, in that empty tomb for what seemed like hours, but was really only a few minutes, watching the rays of the morning sun drift across the sepulcher floor to the shelf, and up across the empty linen wrappings and the cloth that had wrapped his face. Peter and John were silent, but she could see Peter was beside himself, fear fighting with rage over those who would steal Jesus’ body. John had had the strangest look on his face, though… as if he knew something that Peter, and Mary Magdaene, did not.

Finally, though, Peter and John had left, because what could they do? So now Mary stood alone at the tomb, alone in her confusion and grief. She bent down and looked into the tomb, there was no reason to do it, really, but she looked in, and there were... people there... sitting where Jesus had been. The exhaustion, the grief were taking its toll on Mary’s mind: all she could think was how odd it was that two people were sitting there.

Then they spoke, they asked her why she was crying, and she told them, but they didn't say anything else. After a long moment, Mary turned back from the opening, and saw the gardener. Suddenly embarrassed to be a woman alone in such a remote section of the city, she lowered her face and turned her body away, not daring to make eye contact. Even in grief, there were certain things that were simply not done.

Yet if he was the one who tended the gardens, who cared for the land around the tomb, perhaps he knew where Jesus had been taken! Who knows, after all, perhaps the rich man had second thoughts about giving his tomb to a man Pilate had condemned, and had ordered Jesus removed and taken to another sepulcher. It was worth a try, anyway!

“Sir,” she said, “if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Ridiculous, of course, there was no way she could carry a body that size anywhere, but still, she wanted to care for him, this man who had given her back her life...

And then he spoke…

Jesus said to her, “Mary!”

What does it mean to be a Resurrection person?

No one expected the Resurrection; not Mary Magdalene or Peter or John or any one of the other people who had spent the weekend in that Upper Room gave a thought to Jesus rising from the dead. Yes he had told them, yes he had promised, again and again he had spoken of his execution and of his ultimate triumph over death. But we know better, don’t we? There is a natural progression in all of nature after all, and as terrible as it is, everything born eventually dies, and that is it. The end.

The Resurrection turns all of that on its head. Now? Now there is no end!

One of the beautiful promises we are reminded of when we baptize a child – someone too young to know what belief is, who has faith because his parents have faith, because his family has faith, because he learns the language of faith as he learns to speak the language of his culture – is that God loves us, God has saved us, God has accepted and welcomed us into relationship even before we knew it, even before we believed it, even before we accepted it.

In that moment in front of the garden tomb, Mary Magdalene became a Resurrection person. Not because she understood what had happened, not because it made sense, not because of a solid grounding in theological teaching or because she had studied the Westminster Shorter Catechism or said the Sinner's Prayer or gotten baptized or recited the Apostle's Creed, no!

Mary Magdalene became a Resurrection person because Jesus was alive! Jesus had called her by name!

What does it mean to be a Resurrection person?

You and I are Resurrection people, too. If we dare to peel it all away – set aside the particular doctrines we've professed, the churches we were attending when we came to believe, our age or how wet we got when we got baptized, all of the stuff we've heard and learned and taught and thought, if we allow our faith to get down close to the bone, what we find is this:

We Resurrection people, we live in the Resurrection not because we know or understand or profess anything, but because Jesus is alive. Because Jesus loved us before we knew it, before we believed it, before we accepted it, he loves us in our doubts and our fears and our disbelief. We are Resurrection people because Jesus has called our name!

This truth gives us hope when we speak the words of the sacrament and witness the sprinkling of the waters of baptism on a young child’s head, and see this wonderful journey of faith begin even before that child knows it is a journey! This truth gives us hope when we sit at the bed of someone whose journey is ending, and we speak the soft words of assurance over the hum of the life support…

We are Resurrection people. Jesus is alive. Jesus has called us by name.

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