John 20:1-18 "Enough"
Dan Brown's suspense novel, The DaVinci Code, has been a New York Times #1 bestseller for over a year now, having sold over six million copies to date. Soon, however, it may get some competition from the just-released concluding installment of the "Left Behind" series, Glorious Appearing. It's an open question, I suppose, which of these two bestsellers contains the most nonsense passing itself off as theological fact. But I thought of The DaVinci Code this past week for the simple reason that Mary Magdalene occupies a central place in both Mr. Brown's novel and in John 20's account of the resurrection. Without wishing to give away any plot details in case any of you are reading this book, I think it can safely be revealed that at the center of this novel is the contention that for two millennia now the Church has been engaged in a kind of fierce battle. What is at stake in this struggle? Preventing the world from finding out that Jesus had been married to, and had had children with, Mary Magdalene.
Well now admittedly, that would be a, shall we say, quite startling thing to discover! But here is the laughable part of The DaVinci Code: Mr. Brown seems to think, and hence the characters in his story seem to think, that this revelation would destroy the Christian faith because it would prove that Jesus was human. But if that is news to you, I invite you now, beloved, to turn to the back inside cover of the Psalter Hymnal where you will find a copy of one of the church's most ancient of all creeds: The Nicene Creed. Scan down to about the middle of that creed and notice the little article of faith that says of Jesus, "born of the Virgin Mary and was made human."
So we can chalk up Mr. Brown's notion that Jesus' humanity would destroy the faith as one of recent history's sillier errors. After all, if Easter Sunday has any real meaning, if this worship service this morning contains any real hope or joy, it all comes from precisely the fact that as a real human being, Jesus really and genuinely died. Without a real death, there also cannot be a real return of life.
Think of it this way: week before last a Wisconsin college student disappeared, apparently the victim of a kidnaping. Alas, we all know how those situations turn out nine times out of ten: the woman's raped corpse washes up on a beach somewhere or is stumbled on by a hunter in the woods. But this time the young woman was found, alive and well. The news media rejoiced, her roommates went on the Today show to express their relief and joy. And then it all turned out to be a staged fake. Hence, even if you initially felt relief or happiness, you now know this was all bogus. Without an actual kidnaping having happened, there is in the end nothing to feel relieved about.
So also today: If Jesus, as a true human being, had not become really and truly dead on Good Friday--if his death was just some play-acting on the part of a divine being--then Easter's celebration of new life would be no more genuine than celebrating the Wisconsin girl's lucky escape from a threat that never existed. You just cannot crank up any true joy unless the human being who had been Jesus of Nazareth not only had the utterly human ability to die but he really did get to that mortal point when the heart's electrical activity stops, the blood within the body pools and discolors, and the brain goes dead.
Anyone here who has ever had to deal with the death of a dear one knows that the finality of death can make you desperate and a little crazy. You can't fix it, reverse it, or make it go away. The person you loved is just gone in such a way that you cannot reach him or her any longer. My heart breaks when some of you say to me, in the months following the death of a longtime spouse, "Just about every single day I still catch myself thinking, 'I can't wait to tell him about this.'" The sickening feeling of finality descends on you anew the moment you find yourself wishing that. You can't tell him anything. Not anymore.
That is our common human lot, and it was Jesus' human lot, too. So if he was just that dead, just that irretrievably gone, but even so returned, then that is the good news we celebrate today because it is precisely that facet to the larger drama that gives us hope. The whole gospel is based on the notion that if God could do that for Jesus, then we have, quite literally, living proof that he can and will do it for every one of us, too. The Bible makes everywhere clear that Jesus could not raise up himself. Yes, we believe Jesus was fully divine and well as fully human. But theologically we've been saying for two thousand years now that it was the power of God the Father that did for Jesus what Jesus, as a dead human being, could not do for himself. Even the fact of his divine nature did not automatically mean that it was inevitable that Jesus would not stay dead.
No, he could have moldered in that tomb the same as anyone else. Jesus was not like some bouncy rubber ball such that, no matter how far you drop the thing, it will bounce back. Jesus was raised from the dead only because of and by the power of God his Father. And that is my hope and your hope: we too would, without God's help, stay deader than dead the moment our hearts kick out on us. But Jesus demonstrates God's fierce determination not to let that happen. We can and will be raised because Jesus was raised. That is what today is all about.
That is also why all the astonishment and joy of John 20 is so authentic. John 20 tells the climax of the gospel story but you perhaps noticed that he does so in about as understated a way as can be imagined. Here we have no pre-dawn earthquakes, no soldiers fainting dead away. Like all four of the gospels, we also have absolutely no description of the moment Jesus emerged from the tomb. Instead John purposely keeps this whole story on the level of ordinary expectations precisely so that when those typical expectations are shattered by the new thing God has done, our amazement and awe will be the greater.
We begin simply: Mary Magdalene treks to the tomb. She notices the stone has been moved and, apparently without any further checking, concludes that there is something fishy going on. Similarly, if you went to the grave of a loved one only to discover the headstone cracked in two and mounds of freshly dug dirt all around, you wouldn't bother, probably, to hop into the hole to see if the casket was still there. You'd high-tail it out of there to call for help. What had happened was obvious. Since Jesus had been dead, and since Mary knew what dead looked like and how undeniably Jesus had fit the bill that past Friday, if he wasn't in the tomb where they laid him, then someone else had taken him. As a general rule, dead folks don't do a lot for themselves.
Peter and the other disciple, probably John, make the same conclusion, albeit only after a bit more of a thorough investigation of the alleged crime scene. Taken together, verses 8 and 9 of this passage indicate that Peter and John and Mary did not tumble to the notion that Jesus had been raised from the dead. What John says he "believed" in verse 8 is obviously the conclusion that something fishy, and maybe even grizzly, had gone on.
What follows is the now-famous scene of Mary Magdalene weeping her eyes out over this latest indignity visited upon a man she loved. Twice the Jesus-incognito figure asks Mary why she is weeping. Often we read this ironically: that is to say, we know there is actually no reason whatsoever to weep and so we inflect Jesus' words with a tone similar to what a parent would take toward a child who is crying over a dead pet when, really, the pet is just fine and sleeping over in the corner. "Jimmy, why are you crying? Knock it off and open your eyes--Squeaky is right over there!" But I suspect that is the wrong way to inflect the voice of Jesus here. Jesus knew better than anyone that Mary Magdalene's tears are representative of the tears of all humanity. This is the weeping, the bitter spilling forth of salty tears, that has enveloped the human race for ever-so-long now.
Why was Mary crying? For the bluntly obvious fact that all of us are altogether too familiar with death, that we know about death's irretrievable finality. Mary wept because death had done to Jesus' body what death does to each person's body: renders it vulnerable to decay, decomposition, as well as totally defenseless against the whims of those who might be minded to abuse a corpse. Only recently we saw the horrors of indignity that were inflicted on those four murder victims in Fallujah, Iraq. A dead body can become a toy, a pawn, just another thing. And that is enough to make us all weep.
Jesus twice asked his logical question out of a deep well of both compassion and empathy. Mary Magdalene on Easter morning is an emblem of the whole human condition. Mary is at once every single one of us and the whole lot of us taken together. And so it is precisely into that situation of dereliction that Easter must burst forth. Listen: Easter does not happen here in this room or in any similarly bright, airy, and decked-out-in-white church sanctuary. Easter doesn't happen around the dinner table this noon when we have our family around us and mounds of delicious food to tuck into. Easter doesn't happen on all those hillsides where this morning people gathered to watch the sunrise.
Listen: Easter happens in the E.R. at Butterworth when the doctor comes out to the waiting area and shakes his head. We couldn't save him. Easter happens at Zaagmans when that first glimpse of dad in the coffin hits you like a cinderblock to the solar plexus. You can't breathe. Easter happens in the crack house where men and women watch each other slowly kill themselves with drugs, where life has become a living death. Easter happens on the nursing floor where once strong-bodied men and women watch their peers disappear one by one and where these wheelchair-bound precious people know that all of life has now come down to this long waiting for death. Easter happens where death is, because that is the only place it is needed.
So this day, no less than on that long ago morning outside Jerusalem, Jesus still comes up from behind to ask, "Why are you weeping? Why are you depressed? Why are you filling your veins with heroin? Why are you so afraid that you, too, will end up in that wheelchair? Why are you so sad?" Every one of those questions has a perfectly logical answer. We none of us weep without cause. Mary Magdalene didn't either. She, like each one of us, had an absolutely iron-clad good reason to cry that morning, and had God not done that day a new thing the likes of which had never before been known, Mary's reason for crying would have also been correct. That's why Jesus doesn't rebuke her for crying. There is here no hint of "Knock it off" or "Silly woman, open your eyes!" Jesus himself knew that he and Mary both needed the tears if the truth of what had just happened was going to come to mean exactly what it still means: we have the hope of new life smack where we need it most: in the midst of a world full of death and dying.
But John 20 knows something else, too: for now we hold onto that hope of new life without our just yet escaping the very death in whose midst the good news of the gospel becomes truly great news indeed. Once she sees who it is behind her, Mary leaps to her feet and does the utterly logical thing of throwing herself at Jesus in one whale of a hug. And Jesus stops her. That doesn't seem very nice. In all of life there are some people who hug at the drop of a hat and some who clearly prefer a civil handshake. But even those of us who are not "huggers" typically allow an embrace in certain situations of singular joy and astonishment. You may typically dislike hugs, but if your kid swished the winning basket for Christian High with 1 second left on the clock, I'd wager you'll be happy to get a hug from everyone around you in the bleachers!
But not Jesus. "No hugs," he as much as says. "You can't hold onto me until I have ascended to the Father." OK, but hugging Jesus after he ascends into heaven won't be a cinch either, will it? What does this mean? I think it is part and parcel of John's larger Easter portrait, all of which is understated. Imagine you were a composer and had to write a musical score to accompany this chapter. This morning, as usual on Easter, we have brass to accompany us, and on a day like this, that seems so very fitting. And yet, in the musical soundtrack to go along with John 20, it's difficult to know where the brass would come in. Most of the music here would have to be a bit somber. The closest we could come to a full trumpet flourish is in that moment when Mary wheels around and lunges toward Jesus. But you'd have to stop the trumpet the moment it started to blare. Jesus himself says, "Hold it!"
What does it mean? Perhaps it means that for now, we just cannot grab Easter fully. "You can't hold me here, Mary" Jesus says. Surely she wanted to do that. I'm sure she wanted to hug his neck and not let go. I'm sure she wanted to grab his hands and then just sit there, staring into his eyes. Now that she had this beloved Lord with her once more, she never wanted to lose him again. Yet Jesus said she had to.
The ascension had to happen, and if there would be no holding onto Jesus before the ascension, we sit here today as living witnesses to the fact that there is no embracing after that ascension, either. It seems that if Mary Magdalene stood for all humanity when she was weeping over the sadness of death's presence in our world, she likewise stands in for all of us even after she learned the truth of Easter. She, like we, can't quite yet take hold of that resurrected person in the middle of the story. She, like we, couldn't hold him there, keep him there. Life goes on, death continues to stalk us, and we are left with many tears that have not yet been dried from our eyes.
But before this stage of the Easter drama closes, Mary runs back to where the other disciples are and becomes the first apostle and minister in the history of the Christian Church as she becomes the first one to declare to another, "I have seen the Lord!" She saw him, even if she could not hold onto him.
And the good news on this Easter morning in the Year of our Lord 2004 is that if you have faith, then you also have seen the Lord. The trumpets may not always blare at every moment of your life as a result. In fact, you may well still do your share of crying, too. But it is in the midst of those bitter tears that Easter happens. We discover a hope, and then cling to the joy of that hope, so as to remind ourselves that death is not the end.
John 20 is unstinting in its realism. Probably many would find that statement shocking. How can a story about something as unreal as the resurrection be said to be a good example of realism? Yet John 20 does what Jesus himself has always done and still does: he comes up behind us in a world that properly makes us weep; he quietly calls our names and points us to that grand thing God once did for his Son and will again do for every one of us and for every one we love. We can no more prove that now than we, or Mary, can hold Jesus to any given spot. But our eyes have seen God's Easter glory. Perhaps the light of that glory gets refracted into our hearts through the prism of our own tears, but we have seen it. By faith, we also have seen the Lord. And for now, it is enough. Enough. Thanks be to God and Amen.