Where Do We Go From Here?
First United Methodist Church; April 1, 2018
Toni L. Carmer
I don't know why she had gone to his tomb by herself. In the other gospel narratives the women had come together to prepare the body of Jesus for burial, after he had been laid in the tomb over the Sabbath. But in the Gospel of John, Mary Magdalene comes to the tomb by herself…before the others arrive. While it's still dark.
It's been a dark week: a confusing week, spirits had been high to begin with! Everything was looking so good! Better than she had ever imagined it might be! She couldn’t help but wonder: maybe all the people who knew Jesus, who knew about him, whose lives had been changed by him—maybe all of them together could be a voice for change—for good! Maybe Jesus really would make a difference in a bigger way than she had anticipated.
But things had taken a turn during the Passover meal. Jesus had told them how glad he was to share that meal with them…before he suffered, he had said. I won't eat this meal with you again, he said, until we share it together when God’s kingdom has come. And then he passed around the bread and after the meal, the cup, using these words: This is my body, broken for you, Jesus had said. This is my blood, poured out for you. The disciples had looked at one another and back at Jesus; they were puzzled. What was he saying? What did he mean by that?
Later, in the garden, Jesus had been arrested, and then he was paraded back and forth between the religious and political leaders. They had all come after him with such venom, and he hadn’t even tried to defend himself. It was a hard thing to see, though his disciples had scattered after his arrest. If the authorities were after Jesus, then surely they would be in danger, too. Peter was the only one who had ventured close enough to see what was happening at the chief priest’s house, and he was recognized. Out of fear, he had denied knowing Jesus 3 times.
It seems that only one of the disciples was there when Jesus died on the cross. But Mary Magdalene was there, along with Mary his mother, and other women who had followed him, and who had been an encouragement to him and to his ministry while he was in Galilee.
So, Mary had been at the cross and had watched him die, and she is now the first to come to his tomb on that morning after the Sabbath. The stone is gone. She doesn’t hesitate, she doesn’t look around or try to figure it out—she runs to Simon Peter and to the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, the one who had remained at the cross—and she tells them: “They’ve taken the Lord, we don’t know where he is!” These 2 disciples engage in a foot race to the tomb, with the one whom Jesus loved arriving first, Peter second, but Peter is the first one to enter the tomb. He sees the burial cloths that had been wrapped around Jesus’ head and body. The second disciple steps in after him, sees the burial cloths, and believes. Believes that Jesus has risen? Believes that he is the Son of God? If he had ever held any doubt, he doesn’t now. He sees and believes.
Both disciples return to their homes while Mary remains. Sometimes crying makes more sense than anything else. Mary stands crying outside the tomb. But she has to look again. She knows he’s not there, but she has to look. Now there are 2 angels sitting there, where his body once laid.
Why are you crying? they ask. She tells them the same thing she’d said to the disciples: They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him. She then turns around and sees a man who she mistakes as the gardener. He, too, asks her, why are you crying? And then he asks, who are you looking for? She still thinks someone has carried his body away, maybe this guy did it. But when he says her name, she recognizes who it is. It's Jesus. Now she believes. Her immediate response is to embrace him, but he stops her, telling her not to hold onto him because he hasn’t ascended yet. He then instructs her to tell the others that he is ascending to his Father and to their Father, to his God and to their God. Mary does what he tells her to do, and becomes the first witness to the resurrection.
Each year we look at a different Gospel, each year viewing the resurrection from a different perspective, finding different details that catch us as we try to bring it all together in our hearts and in our minds. This year—maybe I’ve seen it before and have just forgotten—I noticed how Mary Magdalene tells the disciples “we” don’t know where they’ve taken him, after we’ve already been told that she’s come to the tomb alone. Later, when she speaks to the angels, she makes it her own observation: “I” don’t know where they’ve taken him. I’m not sure there’s great significance in that little detail, it’s just that I hadn’t noticed it before, which reminds me that scripture is always fresh…it always has something to teach us, it always has something new for us to see…to consider. There's always a bit of mystery in the Bible; it's never completely tied up in a perfect bow of understanding. And so it keeps bringing us back. Teaching us.
On Sunday mornings as we've prepared for this day during the season of Lent, we've been looking at the Gifts of the Dark Wood, a book written by Eric Elnes. We've been talking about those experiences in our lives that we would prefer to avoid all together, because they frighten us, but we can’t avoid them because they are a part of being human. We’ve talked about the gifts of uncertainty…of emptiness…of being thunderstruck (which means the ability to be “wowed” by life). There are the gifts of getting lost, of temptation, of disappearing, of misfits (which means choosing to fit in with the expectations of the world, but allowing ourselves instead, to march to the beat of a different drummer—to be shaped by God’s Word, God’s way).
What we’ve discovered is that even though we would like to completely avoid the Dark Woods [of feeling lost or uncertain or empty or any of the others], it is in the midst of these moments where we learn more about ourselves, about God, about other people, about life, that can help us to live more fully. Deeper. With greater confidence and joy.
There have been a lot of Dark Wood moments for the followers of Jesus in these past few days.
I think of Mary Magdalene. We know a little about her before she met Jesus, and it seems that her life was a mess. And then she became a follower, and a friend. She was walking through a Dark Wood before she met him, and then in these past few days of his life, here it is again. But now she has a community, now she knows who she is and how beloved she is…and so she is able to keep walking…even to the tomb on that first Easter morning. When she discovers the open tomb she runs for help, she asks questions, and finally at the right time, she is ready to see her resurrected Savior.
I think of Peter. Always the impulsive one, ready to step out, whether or not he’s really thought through what he is doing. It hasn't been so long ago: Peter sees Jesus walk on water, and asks if he can do it, too. Jesus says sure, come on out, so out steps Peter, and he does fine for a few steps, until he thinks about it, and then he sinks. Like a rock.
Just a couple of nights ago, Peter enters another Dark Woods moment: he denies knowing Jesus. He’s been a leader among the disciples, Jesus’ right-hand man in a lot of ways, but when Jesus is standing in the middle of his own Dark Wood experience, Peter says no, I don’t know him. Three times he says it.
And yet, here's what happens: this imperfect, sinking, Jesus-denying, very-much human Peter has been told by Jesus that he’ll be the rock upon which Christ’s Church is built. Even the gates of Hades will not prevail against him! Peter is the sinking rock upon which the church is built. Imperfect, but learning…gaining wisdom and knowledge and he will indeed be strong.
And then, there’s Jesus…who is sinless. Who does exactly what God calls him to do…who is who God calls him to be. He is abandoned by so many of his followers, even his closet friends. He dies a terrible death on a cross. Wouldn't that be our deepest fear in the Dark Wood? And yet, without his death, there would be no resurrection…there would be no new life. Through his death, the ultimate sacrifice is offered for our sins, and new life given to each us.
We all experience Dark Woods moments. There are times when we fall short. When we don't do what we know we ought do, and do what we know we shouldn't. There are times when we've really given our best, but that wasn't good enough. Or when we get sick, physically or emotionally…when our relationships go through a tough time or they're torn apart completely. There are times when we feel far from God.
These are each awful moments, moments we would prefer to avoid…and yet God is working in them all. We can't always see or understand at the moment, but ultimately, the good that we're able to do doesn't happen despite our near-sightedness, our short-comings or failures but in and through these things. God works in everything that touches us and all of these experiences contribute to who we are and who God calls us to be. They form us into our best selves, and into the people God can use to bring new life in the places of our world where we reside.
But even more than that, Easter means that the Dark Wood moments are ultimately swallowed up the love of God. Death is broken by life. In this world, there are difficult and painful chapters that break our hearts…as well as joyful, beautiful moments.
Easter tells us that God, and love, and life have the last word.
Right at the beginning of his Gospel, John tells us that in Jesus the light of God has entered the darkness and the darkness could never extinguish that light. There are times when it is difficult to believe that, but Easter reveals this to be a true thing: in Jesus there is a light, a truth, a love, that no darkness can extinguish.
Love wins. Hate fails.
Life endures. Death is broken.
God has the last word.
So here's the deal about Easter: something amazing happened in that Judean tomb. It was a miracle. But it wasn't a "once and done" kind of experience. Resurrection is still happening in us and around us and in our world. Jesus is working miracles inside people's hearts and minds today, offering hope, offering life, offering truth.
[Samuel Wells, who is the priest at St. Martin-in-the-Fields in England, wrote recently (Christian Century, February 28, 2018) about a message he received from a man who had been a member of the church Sam served years ago.
Sam, in those days, had just begun in ministry. Now, years later, the former parishioner had heard Sam Wells on a brief morning radio show on the BBC.
The man called Sam and wanted to make a confession.
Years before, as a part of the church’s celebration of Holy Week and Easter, Sam had handed each church member three nails. These were distributed three weeks before Easter. “You told us,” the man on the other end of the phone said, “to put these three nails someplace where we would see them every day. Then, on Easter Sunday, you wanted us to bring them back and we would celebrate what those nails really mean.”
The man –a firefighter- wanted to tell Sam that he had never returned the three nails. It had been 25 years since they had both been at St. Luke’s parish, but the man wanted Sam to know what he had done with the nails.
“When I took the nails home,” he said, “I knew what I wanted to do. The next day, I took them to the fire station. I picked up my firefighter’s overalls and I sewed each one of the nails into its own pocket across my chest. And then I gave each one a name.
“The first one, the largest, I called Faith. The second one, the rusty one, I called Courage. And the third one, the twisted, almost broken one, I called Hope. And from then on, for the next 20 years, every time the bell went and we jumped down the chute into the fire (trucks), I would put my hand on my chest. My hand would cover the pocket with the first nail, and I would say, ‘Be close to me, I need you with me.’ I would move across to the second nail and would say, ‘Give me strength to do what I need to do today.’ And then I’d find the third, twisted smaller nail, and I’d say, ‘Help me make it through to live another day.’
“I kept those three nails in my overalls until six years ago when I retired. I thought it was time to tell you why I never brought them back on that Easter Day.”]
Easter changes everything, and it sends us out to live resurrection every day.
Faith, Courage and Hope send us out to live differently because we know the tomb is empty, death is done, and love wins.
So, where do we go from here?
We live our lives with faith, with courage and with hope, seeking to follow God's Word, knowing that wherever we are and whatever we're doing…whatever is happening in the world, God is at work in us, in the world, in the midst of the messes, even in the midst of those Dark Wood moments when it seems that all is lost and gone.
Hold fast. Hold strong. Have faith. Amen.