John 20: 1-18
Resurrection of the Lord/ Sacrament of Holy Communion/ 24th April 2011
It’s love mixed with grief that sends her to the tomb. It’s early; still dark. The Greek suggests sometime between 3 a.m. and 6 a.m. Alone, Mary Magdalene approaches the garden and discovers that the stone was removed. Startled, she immediately runs for Peter (the leader of Jesus’ followers) and for the disciple whom Jesus loved, probably John. She assumes, without looking in, that someone removed the stone and stolen his body. That’s what she tells Peter and the other disciple. Love mixed with curiosity sends them running back to the tomb. Peter gets there first.
There’s something we need to know about these tombs. They weren’t graves as we think of them, in the ground. Joseph of Arimathea didn’t just place Jesus in a cave and roll a large boulder in front of it. When John tells us the stone was removed, we have to imagine a large stone wheel placed into a groove, a stone wheel that was rolled down an incline, so that the weight of the stone and the force of the roll would have firmly lodged it over the entrance, leaving it in place. You would need a small army to remove such a stone. Matthew’s gospel tells us the stone was sealed by Roman guards (Matt. 27:64). You don’t just push a stone like this out of the way. Knowing this helps us see just how astonished they must have been to hear the news.
The two men bent down and looked in, peered in and to their amazement found that the body was missing. But that’s not all. John is quite descriptive of what they saw: “linen wrappings lying there.” And the cloth used to wrap Jesus’ head, “was rolled up in a place by itself.” Now contrast this with the way John describes Lazarus coming out of the tomb earlier in chapter 11 (vss. 38-44). Lazarus’ hands and feet are still bound with the burial linens and his head cloth is still wrapped around his head. John’s description of what he found in Jesus’ tomb, literally in Greek, “the linens were still in their folds,” suggests that the body evaporated away in place, leaving behind the burial cloths. When John saw that sight before him, he believed—the first to believe in the resurrection. Then the disciples return to their homes.
And they leave Mary behind! They guys leave her all alone, crying outside the tomb: missing the one whom she loved, missing the one who loved her unlike any person had ever loved her. It’s a poignant scene; Mary weeping among the tombs. As she weeps, she bends over and finally peers into the tomb—according to the text, her first look in. She then receives her own revelation, her own epiphany. As if all of this wasn’t enough, she sees two messengers of Yahweh dressed in white, sitting apart: one was situated where Jesus’ head had been, the other sits where Jesus’ feet had been. And in between the two of them,—nothing—and an absence there means a presence some place else. “Woman, why are you weeping?” “They have taken my Lord and I do not know where there have laid him.” Then she turns around and sees someone standing there who asks the same question, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Thinking this man, assumed to be the gardener, would know what happenedd, she enquires after Jesus’ body. The tone here in Greek is very polite, “Please [kind] sir, if you have carried him way, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” (As if she could carry dead weight all by herself.) But then everything changes when the gardener says, “Mary!”
Don’t you wonder why Jesus asked about her tears when he knew full-well why she was crying? Why did he ask that question when he knew full-well who she was looking for? It looks as if he was playing with her. But put yourself in her place, how would you want to encounter resurrection? Get it all over at once or receive it gradually?
I’ve come to believe that God always meets us where we are, the revelation is always particular, the encounter with Jesus always personal. Peter’s way and John’s way of encountering resurrection was different, as it was for Thomas the Doubter, as it was for Mary. While I don’t subscribe to some of the more outlandish stories about Mary’s relationship with Jesus, the gospels are pretty clear that they were close. The enormity of her grief testifies to the dept of her love, the same grief and love which brought her to the tomb. What she was looking for and needed was different from all the rest. Mary is in such a frantic state. She asks the gardener, “Tell me where he is,” and then she obviously turns away from him without waiting for a reply and continues looking, because it is from behind her or away from her that she hears someone call her by name – and then she turns.
On Maundy Thursday, I visited someone at Charlestown who also shares the name Mary: Mary Lawrence Forkel. For those who don’t know her, Mary is a long-time, beloved member of this congregation who has given heart and soul to the people of this church for decades. She loves this church and its people and this people of God love Mary – deeply. Mary is under hospice care and has been through a very difficult year. The cancer is advancing. She has lost her sight. It’s very difficult for her to swallow and eat and even to talk. Her cheeks feel like stone. Nevertheless, she welcomes visits and is grateful, immensely grateful, for the support she has received from this community of faith. Someone in the church bought her a talking wrist-watch. She can just push a button and hear a voice that tells her the time. That works great. This week Mary told me about a new phone that her son, Charles, bought for her. It took about three hours to set it up. It allows her to make outgoing calls all by herself. She just picks up the receiver, says a name, a digital voice repeats what it hears and then dials. It works remarkable well. She showed me. Mary reached for the phone, picked up the received and said, “Ken Kovacs,” and soon it was dialing my number. But it’s not perfect. With her speech being what it is, the phone has difficulty picking up certain sounds. When Mary says, “Steve Russell,” the phone says back, “Judy Kloetzel,” and then begins to dial Judy. Mary showed me. She said, “Steve Russell,” and I heard the phone say, “Judy Kloetzel,” and then it began to ring. We hung up. Then a few minutes later the phone rang. It was Judy Kloetzel calling from about 6500 feet up in the mountains of California, wondering if everything was alright and I said, yes. I put the phone back and then sat down to Mary’s right, put my left arm around her, and held her hand and talked into her left ear so she could hear me. After a moment of quiet, shifting topics, Mary asked, “So, Ken, what’s your sermon title for Easter?” And I said, “Voice Recognition.” And then we both laughed out loud, long and hard.
It’s a poignant expression, isn’t it, of the power of the name: to be able to say the name of another clearly and to clearly hear the speaking of one’s name. We know what it feels like to hear our name said by someone who knows us and loves us. It goes right to the depths of our being, into our souls. It doesn’t sound the same coming from everyone else. It’s a powerful thing indeed, long after the death of someone dear to hear their voice in your inner-ear still evoking your name. Perhaps the power comes with knowing that behind the voice saying our name is one who truly loves us. It must not be overlooked that it was only upon the hearing of her name – Mary! – did she respond and “see” with the turn of recognition; it’s as if her ears searched and found Jesus before her eyes did, searching for what they could not see. It was the voice she knew as the voice of one who loved her, the object of her love and her grief. That’s what she needed in order to recognize resurrection.
Peter and John saw the evidence of the resurrection and left satisfied. Thomas, later on, wanted proof. He too, wanted to see. There’s a little bit of Peter and John and Thomas in all of us, to be sure. But most of us, if not all of us, I suspect, desire what Mary searched for and found —to hear our names said by someone who loves us profoundly, deeply, completely, unconditionally. Hearing the voice is very importance in John’s gospel: “Very truly, I tell you, the hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live” (John 5:25). “Do not be astonished at this; for the hour is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice…” (5:28). Jesus as the good shepherd, says he “goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice… My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me” (10: 4, 17). As we heard on Good Friday, Jesus said to Pilate, “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice” (18:37). It’s been said that the way to the human heart is through the ear. It’s the voice that calls us and claims us and loves us. As T. S. Eliot (1888-1965) once said, “With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this / Calling/ We shall not cease from exploration/ And the end of all our exploring/ Will be to arrive where we started/ And know the place for the first time.”
It’s love that draws us to an empty tomb; it’s what sends us searching in the dark; it’s a love that’s found when we hear the Lord of the universe utter our name and know who stands behind that voice. In fact, love is infused all through John’s resurrection story. It’s the only way to read it. We don’t approach it through blind-faith (because faith isn’t blind). We don’t believe in the resurrection through intellect (although thought matters), we don’t come to resurrection through reason (although that matter too). Neither Mary, Peter, nor John reasoned their way to the resurrection. We don’t confess the resurrection because of speculation about what might be possible in an open-ended universe, and we don’t fathom the fact of the resurrection like an historian or a detective, looking for evidence and just the facts. These are all appropriate ways of coming to some forms of truth, but as the long history of Western philosophy and theology have shown us, they all lead to dead-ends, not to resurrection.
It was, oddly enough, the Jewish philosopher and mathematician, Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951), who might be the most helpful here, for he points us in a very different direction. He helps us get into the text and see what’s going on here in John 20. Wittgenstein was one of the great minds of the last century. Now, it’s not every day one hears Wittgenstein cited in an Easter sermon (or any sermon, for that matter). I’ve surprised myself. He’s notorious difficult and mystical, however, in a cleansing moment of clarity he wrote in his notebooks from 1937, these words that really struck me this week: “What inclines even me to believe in Christ’s Resurrection?” he asks. He then offers a long list of possible rationales and ends with faith, “And faith,” he insists, is a particular kind of faith; faith “is faith in what is needed by my heart, my soul, not my speculative intelligence. For it is my soul with its passions, as it were with its flesh and blood, that has to be saved, not my abstract mind.” Then he writes: “Perhaps we can say: Only love can believe the Resurrection. Or: It is love that believes the Resurrection…redeeming love.”
Resurrection only makes sense when seen as a demonstration of God’s powerful love to restore and redeem. It’s the voice of love that we recognize when Christ calls us by name, a “love [as] strong as death” (Song of Solomon 8:6), a love that “wilt not let us go,” that can’t bear to be apart from us, that will not allow anything, even death and loss, from separating us from God (Romans 8:39), for God so loved the world (John 3:16). This too is what resurrection means.
As we approach the table of the Lord this morning, when we receive bread and wine from a minister or elder and hear these words, “…the bread of heaven broken for you…the cup of salvation shed for you…” imagine that Christ himself offers to you and calls you by name.
Maybe we will feel in the depth of our souls a love that calls each of us by name. Hearing his voice we too might turn and recognize resurrection face-to-face. A voice, a turn, a love which changes everything, when tears of sorrow become in time tears of joy!
Image: “The Risen Jesus & Mary Magdalene,” Fra Angelico (c.1385-1455), Church of San Marco, Florence.
I remember theologian Thomas F. Torrance (1913-2007) saying this in a lecture he gave at Princeton Seminary back in 1989. It’s a theme that’s found throughout his writings.
[3 Ludwig Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, trans. Peter Winch (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980), 33e. The Wittgenstein reference is found in N. T. Wright, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (HarperOne, 2008), 72-73. Wright considers this an “epistemology of love.”