Sunday, March 23, 2008

Alleluia! Christ is Risen!

Alleluia! Christ is Risen!

On this Easter morning, I want to begin by focusing on Mary Magdalene as she is depicted in today’s Gospel lesson:
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"…
And then later, “Mary stood weeping outside the tomb.”

First, we need to clarify who Mary is, as there’s been much confusion about her throughout history. Mary Magdalene (her name refers to Magdala, a city in Galilee) first appears in the Gospel of Luke as a woman that Jesus cures of possession. Mary, along with a number of other women, join Jesus and the disciples and "provided for them out of their means." Her name does not come up again until the Crucifixion, where she and other women are found at the foot of the Cross, after most of the disciples have fled. And then we encounter Mary again on Easter morning, weeping outside the tomb of Jesus. That is what we know. Over the years, other women who show up in some of the Gospel accounts have been identified as being this same Mary. Such identifications are nothing more than speculation.

What we know is that Mary was healed by Jesus, became one of his followers, and so presumably came to understand his message about the radical love of God. She witnessed the events of Good Friday. Jesus, who she deeply loved, was killed. Now she arrives at the tomb, weeping because his body has been stolen.

Good Friday was a dark day for all the followers of Jesus, for those like Mary who were present for the crucifixion, as well as for us in this present time as well. Good Friday represented an ugly moment in the history of humanity. It represented our attempt to destroy God's gift of love, a gift revealed to us through Jesus Christ. Good Friday represents humanity’s rebellion against that gift.

And so Mary weeps. Love has died. Most likely many of us have experienced a similar kind of grief when one we love has died. Mary’s heartbreak is somewhat unique, however; she knows that Jesus' death did not have to happen. It was not a death from natural causes. It was a death caused by angry and frightened people.

In Jesus, Mary found someone who accepted her, who loved her. And in so doing, Jesus had pointed beyond himself to the love of God. The knowledge that she was loved, that she was lovable, was most likely an important part of Mary’s healing.

"Do you love me?" In the end, isn’t that the unvoiced question in each of us? "Do you love me?" If we are honest, isn’t our deepest longing to have that question answered with a resounding “Yes!” That’s what we all really want…and often that search for love is what drives our life decisions.

I’ve sketched for you a brief picture of Mary’s grief caused by the death of someone who loved her. Now I want to paint for you a picture of another kind of death; one that maybe some of you have experienced.

When I was eleven, my father packed up some of my clothes, put me in the car, and drove me to my grandparents' home, which was a few hours away. As I watched from my grandparents' balcony as my father turned his car around and drove away, I knew it would be a long time, if ever, before I saw him again. A part of me was relieved. Because of the mental health problems from which other members of the family suffered, life in my father’s house had become a type of hell. But another part of me began to grieve. I loved my father, and desperately needed him to love me. And, possibly, in his own strange way, getting me out of the crazy house was my Dad’s way of expressing his love. But as an eleven year old standing on that balcony, that’s not how it felt. It felt as if my father’s response to the question in my heart, “Dad, do you love me?” had been a clear and resounding “No.” That day, to me, my father died. And so did the hope that I would ever find anyone else who could love me.

When love dies, we are deeply wounded. So deeply wounded that it may seem like nothing in heaven or on earth can ever heal that wound.

Now, that’s not the end of my story, or Mary’s story. Let’s first return to Mary.

Mary turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, "Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?" 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!”
Just when all hope had left her, Jesus appears to Mary. Beyond all rational expectations, he came back! Not even death and the grave could keep Jesus’ love from Mary.

This is the power of the resurrection. As Paul describes it in his letter to the Romans:

For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
We are often told that the importance of Easter is that through the resurrection our fear of death is overcome…that by the resurrection of Jesus we are assured that we also will be raised up on the last day. That is part of the Easter message. But, personally, I think the whole “fear of death” thing is greatly over-rated. For some of us, it is not death we fear. We fear life, or at least a life in which we are not loved.

I doubt very much if Mary would have felt much joy if the result of Jesus death was that she was given life everlasting. It was the loss of the love of God, made known to her through Jesus, for which she grieved. It was when love returned that her heart leaped for joy.

Now for the rest of my story. After my father drove away that day when I was eleven, I didn’t see him again until I was 15 and on my way to reform school. The courts insisted he be present for my trial. So, he showed up, but we never really spoke to each other. It would be another four years before we saw each other again.

As the years passed, and I had children of my own, every once in awhile I would take them to see their grandfather. But he and I never really had much to say to one another.

Then, an amazing thing happened. Over thirty years after he had left me, my Dad came back. I was in a very difficult place in my life; I was alone, scared, and had no idea what to do. And, out of nowhere, my father showed up, and offered his help. At first I doubted his sincerity. But he showed up the next day, and the next day, and just kept coming back. We talked; really talked. He told me how bad he felt about what he had done, and asked if it was too late to make up for all those lost years. My father had returned from the grave.

We had five good years before he passed away last year. During that time, my father showed me that he really did love me. We talked often, at least once a week, and visited one another as much as possible. I was able to be with him during the last few days of his struggle with leukemia. Not only did he show his love for me, in the end he let me love him as well.

Now, I don’t think it was coincidental that my father had started seeking God in the years before he came to my aid. And I need to tell you that it was my discovery of the love of God at an early age, and the decision later to devote my life to serving God, that held me together over those thirty years, and allowed me to be open to my father’s offer of love. I am convinced that it was through the redemptive power of God’s love that my relationship with my father was healed.

So, in Mary’s story, and in my story, the end is similar; Love came back. That’s my understanding of Easter. And that is why I find this day to be the most joyous day of the year. On this day, we are assured that nothing, neither death, nor the wounds of this life, will ever be able to separate us from the love of God made known to us in Christ Jesus our Lord. Thanks be to God.

Our Savior has returned! Rejoice!

I have one final request to make of each of you this Easter morning. Recall that I have told you before that we, the church, are the embodiment of Christ in the world today. We are the concrete expressions that Jesus lives and moves in the world right now. So, I ask you, when you look in the eyes of someone else today, look beyond the surface; look deep within their hearts, and hear the question they are really asking you. What they want to know from you is ”Do you love me?” Be the presence of Christ in the world today. Respond to that question with a resounding; “Yes, I love you with the love of Christ!” And then commit yourselves to expressing that love with your every word and your every deed.

Alleluia! Christ is Risen!


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