April 9, 2023 Easter Sunday homily on John 20:1-18 by Pastor Galen
When I was growing up it was quite popular for churches to put on “Passion Plays.” Passion Plays are dramatic portrayals of the events leading up to and including Christ’s death on the cross, generally starting with Jesus’ “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, and then following through as he ate his last meal with his disciples on Thursday, and then was betrayed, arrested, and tried, and then crucified on Good Friday. The play frequently culminates with the resurrection of Christ on Easter Sunday. The background music swells to a crescendo. Trumpets blast and Jesus emerges victoriously from the tomb accompanied by flashing lights and a fog machine.
And indeed, Jesus’s Resurrection has all the right ingredients for a dramatic stage production. In Matthew’s Gospel account (Matthew 28), there’s an earthquake, and an angel of the Lord descends from heaven and rolls back the stone that had been placed over Jesus’s tomb. Matthew tells us that “[the angel’s] appearance was like lightning and his clothing white as snow. For fear of him the guards [guarding Christ’s tomb] shook and became like dead men.” (Matthew 28:2-4).
But here in John’s Gospel account, there is no earthquake, no flashing lights, no trumpets blasting or flashes of lightning. There’s just a garden, a weeping woman, a couple of confused disciples, and some angelic messengers. Jesus shows up without fanfare in the early misty morning and is mistaken for a gardener.
What John’s account may be lacking in the way of theatrics, is more than made up for by the beauty of its simplicity—an attribute that I believe lends credibility to the story. And, if we look closer, I believe that in John’s telling of the resurrection story, we may find even resonance with our own stories and our own encounters with the risen Christ. So join me if you will, and let’s dive in.
The Empty Tomb
John tells us that “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” (John 20:1). Most likely Mary wanted a few moments of quiet contemplation at the place where her Lord had been buried. She was no doubt still in shock about the events that had taken place over the past week. It had been just seven days since Jesus had ridden into Jerusalem on a donkey, with crowds of people waving palm branches, and shouting “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” (John 12:13). And then, just five days later, Jesus was dead. They had seen him breathe his last breath. His body had been taken down from the cross, and he had been buried right there in that very tomb.
I imagine that many of the disciples had spent the past two days painstakingly going back over every single detail of what had happened this past week, trying to sort it all out. How had everything gone so wrong? Why did Jesus allow himself to be crucified? Why didn’t he fight back – or at least allow them to fight to stop it from happening? Others were focused on trying to figure out what to do now that Jesus was gone.
But Mary was tired of all the talking. She was tired of all the analyzing, all the going back and forth and arguing as to whose fault it was, all the disciples trying to justify why they hadn’t stood with Jesus in his greatest hour of need.
Mary just wanted to be alone – alone with her thoughts so that she could try to sort everything out for herself. Alone so that she could cry out to God in her anguish and grief. Alone, but she wanted to be as close to Jesus as possible—and so she went to the place where she had last seen his body. She went by herself to the tomb, early in the morning, while it was still dark.
But when she arrives, she finds that the stone that had been placed over the entrance to the tomb to protect Jesus’s body has been rolled away and she rightly concludes that Jeus’s body is no longer there. She is distressed. How could anyone do this? Why would anyone do such a thing? Jesus, who had never done anything wrong in his life, who had never said an inappropriate word, who had spent his life doing good—had been unjustly tried and crucified, and now they had to go and move his body without even telling his disciples where his body was taken? It felt like a kick to the stomach when you’re already down on the ground. It was insult added on to injury.
And so Mary goes and tells two of the other disciples that Jesus’s body is no longer in the tomb. The two disciples run to the tomb to see for themselves, and when they get there they see that sure enough, the stone covering the entrance to the tomb had been rolled away, and Jesus’s body is no longer there. They seem to agree that Jesus’s body must have been stolen, and eventually, they leave and go home. But Mary Magdalene lingers in the garden, weeping outside the tomb, refusing to leave until she finds Jesus’s body.
A Quiet Resurrection
She looks inside the tomb and sees two angels, but of course, she doesn’t recognize them as such. They don’t have wings or halos around their heads. They look like two ordinary people just sitting there, and they ask Mary why she is weeping. She tells them that someone has taken away the body of her Lord, and she doesn’t know where they have laid him (John 20:13).
And then someone that she assumes to be the gardener walks up behind her. And she turns to him in all of her anger and frustration, saying, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away” (John 20:15).
And then the one she assumed to be the gardener says her name, “Mary,” and immediately Mary knows he is Jesus. Resurrected and in the flesh. His body was not in the tomb, because he had risen! He tells her not to hold onto him because he has not yet ascended to heaven, but he tells her to go and share the news with the other disciples, which she then proceeds to do, saying simply, “I have seen the Lord” (John 20:18).
And this in fact is how Jesus rose from the grave. No flashing lights, no fog machine, no dramatic crescendo, no trumpets. Jesus just shows up, in everyday clothes, looking like a gardener, with dirt underneath his fingernails. Jesus—God in the flesh—walking and talking in the cool of the morning in a garden with one of his beloved—just as God walked and talked with Adam and Eve in the cool of the morning, enjoying God’s creation. Indeed, Christ’s resurrection is a signpost pointing to God’s new Creation, and the fact that in Christ God is making all things new.
Learning to See and Recognize the Risen Christ
Like so often today, Jesus just quietly shows up, without fanfare, and calls Mary’s name. And she recognizes him only because she has spent time with him and has been healed and restored and redeemed by him and has learned to recognize his voice. When Jesus calls Mary’s name, she recognizes him for who he is, and she immediately knows he has risen and he is alive.
And then Jesus entrusts to Mary the sacred task of sharing the earth-shatteringly Good News of Christ’s resurrection—which she does by simply telling her story—her testimony, her experience with Jesus, saying: “I have seen the Lord” (John 20:18).
So often we expect that if God were to show up in our midst there would be flashes of lightning and earthquakes. If God were to speak we would hear a loud booming voice from the sky. But so often God shows up in the faces of the people we least expect. In our friends and family members who are there for us when we are experiencing grief and loss. In a random act of kindness from a stranger when we’re stranded on the side of the road. In the faces of those in need when we share our bread with the hungry. In the cool and quiet of the morning when we take a walk in a garden, in the dew on the grass on a misty morning, in the little buds that spring forth from the earth in springtime.
Jesus shows up when we’re hurting or grieving, or angry, or experiencing loss, but he often shows up in ways we least expect, in ways that at first, we may not even recognize. Sometimes he seems to come out of nowhere, and often we’re not even sure that it’s him, and we may mistake him for someone else, but if we will linger in the garden a bit longer, if we will be willing to sit with him just a while longer, if we will even turn to him and bring him our anger and pain and grief, then we just might see Jesus, and recognize him for who he is.
Now, I know, we may think that it would be nice if Jesus showed up in the flesh as he did for Mary, and later for the other disciples. It would be nice if we could touch his nail-scarred hands, and see for ourselves that he is risen. But because Jesus ascended into heaven and gave us his Holy Spirit, now he is no longer bound by time and space, but rather he can be right here with each and every one of us, no matter where we go.
Because Jesus rose from the grave and ascended into Heaven, now Jesus can be at work simultaneously in me and in you, and all over our city and country and indeed our world. And Jesus is not just here with us in church, but when we go home, when we go work or school or the grocery store. He’s not just with us in our sorrows, but also in our joys, in the good times and the bad. He has promised to never leave us or forsake us, and he can in fact live inside each and every one of us, if we will only invite him into our lives, and if, like Mary, we will only press in, and linger a while longer, and listen for the sound of Jesus calling our name, and learn to recognize the voice of Jesus. When we do we may discover, like Mary, Jesus is in fact right here with us, and has been for quite some time.
This morning I’m reminded of one of the favorite hymns of many in this congregation, a hymn which we’ll sing together in just a few moments (“In the Garden”) which says,
1. I come to the garden alone while the dew is still on the roses,
and the voice I hear falling on my ear the Son of God discloses.
2. He speaks, and the sound of his voice, is so sweet the birds hush their singing, and the melody that he gave to me within my heart is ringing.
3. I’d stay in the garden with him though the night around me be falling,
but he bids me go; thru the voice of woe his voice to me is calling.
And he walks with me, and he talks with me, and he tells me I am his own;
and the joy we share as we tarry there, none other has ever known.
So let us stay, let us linger, let us press in, and bring to the risen Christ our anger and sorrow and grief and loss. Let us not give up until we see Jesus in our midst. And like Mary, let us help each other see and recognize the risen by sharing our own encounters with the risen Christ.
May the words of the hymn “He Lives” be our testimony:
I serve a risen Savior He’s in the world today. I know that He is living, Whatever foes may say. I see His hand of mercy; I hear His voice of cheer; And just the time I need Him He’s always near. He lives, He lives, Christ Jesus lives today! He walks with me and talks with me along life’s narrow way. He lives, He lives, salvation to impart! You ask me how I know He lives? He lives within my heart.
Amen! May it be so!