Sermon / April 16, 2017 / The Rev. Anne F.C. Richards / John 20:1-18 / Easter
Happy Easter and welcome to everyone! Thank you for coming to Grace Church to celebrate the resurrection of the Lord.
The longer I am a Christian, the more I realize how beautiful Christianity is…and how difficult it is to understand. This may be one of the reasons tons of people don’t consider themselves religious anymore: They just don’t get it. They think it’s all about guilt. As the famous evangelist Dwight Moody said, “Most people know just enough about religion to make themselves miserable.”
But once you understand it, then life makes sense. It coheres in a beautiful way.
There are two great mysteries at the heart of our faith: the womb and the tomb.
Jesus’s mother Mary had an empty womb. But God sent the Spirit and Jesus was conceived. It caused a great scandal. Because something appeared where it was not supposed to appear: a baby in the womb of a virgin. An empty place began to fill with life.
The other empty place was the tomb. Something different happened there. Instead of something appearing where it was not supposed to appear, at the resurrection something disappears that is not supposed to disappear. A corpse is supposed to stay put in the grave. But Jesus’s corpse is not found in the grave. There is, instead, an empty place. And somehow that empty space is filled with life.
In these two empty places lie the meaning of Christianity.
Many of you were here on Palm Sunday, when we read the narrative of Jesus’s passion. It is a very convicting thing to hear, that story, especially since we all took the part of the crowd and shouted “Crucify him! Crucify him!” You can’t leave a Palm Sunday service and not realize your own cowardice and sinfulness. And we have to sit with it for the week that follows.
Then we get to return on Easter and hear about the resurrection, which is God’s answer to all of that. It’s as if God says to us, “You tried to take death in your hands and hold your own against me, and my answer to that is this: “An empty tomb, and my Son walking in a garden, talking with a friend.”
Have you ever noticed how often Jesus tried to tell us that the spiritual life is not really about sin? Over and over in the gospel stories, people come to Jesus worried about their imperfections and misdeeds and guilt (or complaining about other people’s imperfections, misdeeds, and guilt), and Jesus says, “Why are you people always talking to me about sin? Faith is not about your compulsive desire for perfection and your need to be blameless. Faith is about letting God put life in an empty place. And that empty place is you.”
What did you all do yesterday? Holy Saturday is to Easter what Christmas Eve is to Christmas Day…we’re all rushing around, getting ready, cooking, shopping, plus fitting in all the regular stuff, the sports, the kids, the meetings. And so Holy Saturday is often just the space we fill between Good Friday and Easter Day.
Well, I don’t mean to wreck your Easter, but on Holy Saturday Jesus went to hell. He descended to the place of the dead, where anyone who chooses to be separated from God gets to go, not because they’re sent there by God, but because that’s where they have already been, in life. It just continues. We get what we want. God is not going to force us to be with God, now or later.
I wish it weren’t the case, but to understand what happened to Jesus on Easter as a reality for us, we need to recognize the degree to which we also have gone to hell. The big myth is that hell is where you go after death if you are guilty of terrible things and you haven’t repented. Maybe.
But hell is, I think, mostly here on earth. It’s the place of emptiness and absence, a non-place, a no-place where there is only hopelessness. It is where we are when we are afraid of life and love. And so when Jesus descends to hell, he takes all this no-thingness and no-placeness and no-hopeness in his hands and he pulls it all back up into life. He is so gracious that he resurrects us even before he himself is resurrected by his Father. God can’t even keep up with him!
As post-modern Christians, we need to update our medieval understanding of our relationship with God. Of course we need to acknowledge our individual sinfulness, because the way we live has an enormous impact on the world. But I think we also need to see the ways in which we have created and capitulated to a more subtle kind of sinfulness, by which I mean a culture of emptiness and loneliness and absence, a culture of technology and consumerism that separates us from each other and from God and that sucks out our souls. We’re so linked in we’re locked out. We’re trying so hard to be who we think we are we don’t listen to who God is trying to make us. We are so addicted to megabytes and messages and multi-tasking that we are losing the ability to be present to ourselves, to be present to life and to each other, to be present to God.
Just think about how many times you’ve checked your phone since you got up this morning, or maybe even since you’ve been in this church.
We are not iPhones. We are not work machines. We are not grades factories. We are not shopping carts. We are not slaves.
We are fragile creatures, each of us with an enormous space in us filled with goodness and love. From the beginning of time, that goodness and love have been threatened by our disobedience to our own humanity. It is this goodness and love that Jesus went to hell to resurrect. And he resurrected it with his presence.
I bet you have noticed that the resurrection is not a witnessed event. The gospels have no details about how it happened. The writer of John’s gospel could easily have had the angels who speak to Mary tell her details about it. But he didn’t. The resurrection is not witnessed because it can’t be witnessed. Conception and resurrection are both invisible because they are both relational. Resurrection is what God did with Jesus and it’s what God does within us and among us. Resurrection is always about God filling our absence with God’s presence.
That’s why every Biblical account of the resurrection is a story about people. It’s a story about an absence becoming a presence. Mary finds Jesus in a garden. A man, a woman, and a garden. Remind you of anything? Of course, the Garden of Eden! And here it is again, resurrected! And instead of a man and a woman disconnecting from each other and God and having to leave the garden so that it becomes a place of absence, here we see Jesus and Mary coming back together and filling the garden with presence. It’s a new beginning for the human race. And it happens when they look up and see each other and behold the life of God in each other. “Mary!” “Teacher!”
And so yes, the resurrection was an event in time. God pulled Jesus up from death. But the resurrection was also a disclosure of a reality…which is that God is always resurrecting life itself. So you could say that resurrection lies in the DNA of the cosmos. It is our destiny, not only at the end of time when God makes all things right, but now. Because as humans and as children of God, we are all walking relationships. And any life that’s worth living is going to be a life with and for others. And to have that kind of life, we are going to have to be like Jesus and Mary. We are going to have to look up from our password-protected private hells, from whatever keeps us severed from each other, from our iPads and our ellipticals, and we are going to have to really see each other and recognize each other and be present to each other and behold the life of God in each other.
Then we will know we are not robots. We are not droids. We are human beings, and we will have the grace really to live. That is God’s answer to every empty place, including the ones in us.
And so the story of Jesus begins with an empty place, and it ends with an empty place. The womb and the tomb. Something appears where its not supposed to appear. Something disappears when it’s not supposed to disappear. God enters emptiness to make a new beginning. The resurrection is always happening. It’s the secret, sacred engine at the heart of the universe. Nothing can stop it. Ever.