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Leave The Tomb Behind

April 12, 2020

This year we’ve been reading the gospel of John for most of Lent… all of Holy Week… and now we tell the story of Easter from John 20:1-18. Listen for the Word of God speaking to you.

READ John 20:1-18

This week while we are still dealing with Covid-19… a terrifying childhood memory kept coming to my mind. I can’t remember how old I was at the time… probably in the single digits… and I had pink eye. And not a mild case I’m guessing… but one of those oozy gooey pink eye experiences. Now… look… I know pink eye is no Covid-19… and I’m not trying to downplay what the world is dealing with with this pandemic. But for a young child… with oozy gooey pink eye… imagine what it was like when one morning I woke up and I could not open my eyes. The goop had dried and sealed my eyes shut. I still remember how terrifying that was. I have forgotten so much of my childhood… but that experience of waking up and not being able to open my eyes… that is seared in my memory. And I’m not using that word “terrifying” lightly… it was terrifying and I went into major child freak-out mode… you know what I mean… flailing about screaming about how I couldn’t open my eyes. Full on meltdown mode. Mom came to help me with a warm washcloth… but I’m sure I probably fought her off a bit. You know how it is when a child is in full on melt down mode. They fight against whoever is trying to help them… making matters just a bit worse than they have to be. So I’m sure I protested and fought Mom and her warm washcloth which was exactly what I needed to unglue my eyelids. Which is what she did finally manage to do… the light of sight pouring in through the crust and the goo that was still caked on my eyelids. As a child… I was blind forever… although as an adult I’m sure it wasn’t that long. But because of that exaggerated child’s perspective that is part of my memory… it was like seeing for the first time.

There’s a reason why this experience of seeing for the first time is such a popular scriptural motif. That in-breaking of light… that experience of the darkness falling away. This is the experience of Easter… where we find that it has been us who have truly been in the tomb all along… dead through sin… and as the stone is rolled away the light comes streaming into this place of everlasting darkness. We walk from the tomb… different from when we lived in the dark… different as the light of resurrection shines upon us… as we leave the tomb of sin and separation behind.

Every year… that seems to be the message… no matter which gospel from which we read the story. Easter is leaving the tomb behind. The tomb that is constructed from sin in which are dead body has lain… and the tomb that is the actual burial place of Jesus’ body. He is not there. He is risen. Go and tell and live into the light of resurrection! It is a message on how to leave the tomb. The tomb that is the spiritual metaphor of living dead in sin and separation… living dead by the spirit that doesn’t extend away from the concerns of the self… living dead without grace being received or given. Chist is not there. He is risen. Go, therefore, and tell and live into the light of resurrection! The tomb and its darkness is no place for you to be. God created you for life. God’s spirit fills you… giving you life. Christ is the life and the light. Abide with him. Love like him. Be resurrected like him.

Reading from John’s gospel this year some of the details of this Easter story are a little different from what we might expect… like the body of Jesus was already prepared with a mixture of myrrh and aloes by Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus before it was placed in the tomb. That’s different from the other three gospels. Missing from this gospel telling is the excuse as to why the women would even be at the grave that morning. In John’s gospel, Mary Magdalene comes to the tomb not to anoint the body and to finish what should have been done when the body had been placed in the tomb… but couldn’t because of the rush… Mary comes to the tomb this morning out of grief. And she comes alone. No one else is with her. She doesn’t expect to find anything but a sealed tomb. Of course, the theological twist is… she is the one who is still sealed in her own tomb. She has not encountered resurrection. She is not looking for resurrection. It’s the furthest thing from her mind.

We can imagine what it would have been like for Mary Magdalene finding the stone rolled away and an open tomb… the wave of surprise and panic that would come over her at that moment. However, what’s interesting in reading this story from John’s gospel is that his is the only gospel that tells the story of the resuscitation of Lazarus… a story we read just a few Sundays ago. The Mary Magdalene in John’s gospel would have known about Lazarus. She may have even been there to witness his coming out of his tomb… to have witnessed Jesus standing outside of that tomb and calling Lazarus out. But now at Jesus’ tomb where the stone has been rolled away all she can think about… the only answer she herself can imagine is that “they have taken the Lord out of the tomb,” and she doesn’t know where they have taken his body. No light comes into her darkness. They have taken his body. She flails about in darkness. Terrified. Not understanding.

That’s the tomb message that the disciples receive from her… and then Peter and this other unnamed, but beloved disciple… race off to see for themselves. But you have to wonder… what do these two think they will find there at that empty tomb? Is there a brief flash of light that shines into their darkness? When they reach Jesus’ tomb, there is no talk about the stench of death as there was with Lazarus and his tomb. You can almost image the heavy scent of the myrrh and the aloe still in the air since the linen clothes in which the body was wrapped is still there… the perfume we use to cover the stench of death lingers about still.

Then comes the odd sentence in this gospel concerning these two disciples. “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.” Did their eyes open just a bit… perhaps still blocked by the crust and goo so that they can’t actually see clearly yet? The light breaking in…beginning to expose the darkness that still surrounded them? In a way, I think many of us today are very much like these two disciples who believe… in something… what that something is isn’t always clear to us… and we leave the empty tomb of Easter without really letting anyone know what it is we believe or really showing that we believe anything at all.

As the two disciples leave and head to their homes, they don’t even take the time to stop and tell Mary their experience. Mary is still standing outside of the tomb weeping with grief… Mary, is still standing outside thinking that “they” have stolen the body of the Lord. It makes sense… this tomb realization of hers. Yet, standing outside of the tomb weeping… she still stoops and takes a peek into Jesus’ tomb, which is now no longer empty. Two angels are sitting there… although by her reaction it’s hard to tell whether she recognizes them as angels or just two men in white who are in the tomb… men that must have gone in while she was off telling the disciples how the stone had been rolled away. Mary Magdalene is still looking for Jesus’ body. Maybe these two moved him to a different tomb. Peter and that other disciple had been no help to her; maybe these two know what is going on. And then the gardener sneaks up on her while she isn’t looking. Maybe he knows where the body is… maybe he’s the one who moved it.

We already know this gardener is Jesus. That surprise has long since gone as she turns around and looks at him… immediately flinging her arms wide to embrace him. The light floods into her eyes. She experiences resurrection and Jesus wants her to go. Go and tell the disciples. There is nothing more for her here. Leave your sinful entombment here as well. Leave its darkness behind. There is nothing at this empty tomb for us to hold onto. Go and live a resurrected life.

On Easter we revisit and we rediscover the empty tomb and we learn once again that there is nothing here for us. There is no reason for us to linger here at the tomb… to hang around this place. If we are ever to learn what it is we are supposed to do about this tomb being empty, it’s not going to be discovered here. It’s going to be out there in the world… remembering and reliving the story of Jesus that came before… the story that now breaks into our open eyes like a first light.

Saints, we know the story of Easter… and if we are honest with ourselves… we know to what this story is calling us. The world needs us to leave this tomb behind and bring instead the living redeeming love of Christ. It needs us to break the deathly political systems of the Pontious Pilates who serve their own empires and not the common good… a common good that has become more and more worldwide in scope. It needs us to break the deathly prejudices and practices that surround us with our servant’s love that creates true community that gives and receives from one another for the building up and betterment of one another… and not the way of life that comes through the economic and environmental bondage of some for the freedom of a few. It needs us to boldly proclaim and live out a faith that doesn’t seek to serve only the self and one’s own personal salvation alone, but one that goes out feeding the hungry, healing the sick, embracing the other, challenging the self-righteous, and casting out the demons that surround us and tell how we are less than what God has created us to be.

In the warm grace of resurrection… although we still want to fight against it… making matters a bit worse than they need to be… in the warm grace of resurrection sin is wiped away and our eyes… our hearts… our whole selves are set free to see the light of Christ in all its glory. Amen.

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