On the first day of the week, at early dawn, the women came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.”We know this story. Well, many of us do. We know the Easter story from hearing it on many Easter Sundays, from movies and novels and children’s books and pictures.
Luke 24:1-5, New Revised Standard Version
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. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.”
Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. 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. Then the disciples returned to their homes.
But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.”
When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.
John 20:1-18, New Revised Standard Version
From all those sources, we can imagine what that first Easter looked like, and felt like. Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, John writes to start the story. We can imagine the setting, always a lush garden in the pictures, palm trees, flowers, but still dark in the time before the sunrise, as a favourite song says, while the dew was still on the roses. The women who had followed Jesus during his ministry come from the city to the tomb. In Luke’s story that we read at the start of the service, there are several women; John mentions only Mary Magdalene but she says “we” so she may not have been alone. They move through the pre-dawn darkness, coming to do their duty and finish anointing the body of Jesus. They are still in grief, in shock, they had gone through a living nightmare as they watched Jesus die on the cross on Friday, a cruel, agonizing death for an enemy of the state, destroying their hopes and breaking their hearts. But they have come, even though the male followers of Jesus have gone into hiding and, it seems, abandoned Jesus, and them. We know a bit about how they feel, all of us who have gone through the death of a loved one or a relationship or a job, who have experienced pain and isolation, who have felt overwhelmed by the injustice and violence of the world.
They talk in whispers, as they walk gingerly in the dark, about how to open the tomb to reach the body of Jesus. And they come to the rock wall where tombs have been dug, and the sun is still below the horizon, but they can see enough now to realize that the tomb is open, the heavy stone that sealed it has been rolled back. They don’t know what to think. Who could have done this? Who would have opened the tomb that they had seen shut on Friday? They’re confused, and scared, and run, hearts beating fast, lungs labouring with the effort, running back into the city to find where the male disciples are hiding. Mary Magdalene races through the empty streets to the house where some of the men are sleeping, and wakes up Simon Peter and another disciple – John doesn’t name him, but says that this is the one whom Jesus loved – to blurt out to them that the tomb is open, the body must be gone, and who knows where it is? So they get up, and run, faster than Mary can so she falls behind, they run through the city, the other disciple in the lead so he arrives first at the tomb, adrenaline pumping, out of breath, sees the stone rolled away, panting as he bends down to look in and glimpses the linen cloths the body of Jesus had been wrapped in, lying on the shelf where the corpse had been laid. And Peter arrives, pushing past the other disciple into the tomb, as impulsive and brash as Peter always is, to look at the burial cloths lying there. He has no words, he has no explanation, his thoughts are a jumble. The other disciple enters after Peter, and, John writes, he sees and believes. Then the two men leave the tomb, and just go home. It’s left to Mary, in the light of the new day, to encounter angels, then the risen Jesus himself, who says her name, says it the way only a dear friend can, and she gasps as she recognizes him in a moment of surprise that turns to pure joy. Tears of grief become tears of happiness.
What a story. From darkness to light. From death to life. From sadness to joy. You know, a few weeks ago as we were sitting with my mother in law in the days before she died, I brought the 1913 Kresge’s catalogue for her to look at. On one page are books, 10 cents each for hardcovers so you can tell that it’s a very old catalogue, including what are described as “books for red-blooded boys, all written by Horatio Alger Jr., the well-known writer of boys’ books. Besides being full of snap and life they all teach a beautiful lesson.” These books have titles like Strive and Succeed and Making His Way. The hero in these books of 100 years ago always starts at the bottom but prospers through hard work. We would call these “rags to riches” stories. And this Easter account is a rags to riches story, from the cloths of burial to the riches of resurrection.
Now, these riches aren’t immediately apparent to the characters in the Easter story. The other disciple sees the cloths and believes, believes that what Jesus promised has come true, that he would be killed but rise after three days. Peter takes his time to digest what has happened but later Jesus appears to him too, and Peter can preach that God raised Jesus on the third day. Mary Magdalene knows that she has spoken with her teacher and friend, somehow come back from death.
It took time for that little group of believers to think this through, to appreciate this rags to riches story and its meaning for the followers of Jesus and for all of humanity. In a few decades the Apostle Paul could write that because Jesus died and rose again, through Jesus God will raise all who have died. And it took a while, centuries even, but the church developed several ways of thinking about the riches that are ours when Jesus is raised and leaves his rags behind. The Easter story of resurrection is about the riches that are ours from God, who raised Jesus from death to confirm God’s love for Jesus and for us, for whom Jesus died. Paul says nothing, not even death, can separate us from that love. The Easter story is about the riches that are ours from Jesus. The grave can’t hold Jesus. The glory of his resurrection undermines our ideas of what is possible. The Easter story is about the riches that are ours from the Holy Spirit. We participate in the new life of the risen Jesus by the power of the Spirit. The Easter story is about the riches that are ours as the resurrection proclaims God’s triumph over all earthly empires and their injustice and violence. The Easter story is about the riches that are ours as the resurrection is the beginning of God’s new world, the world where death is defeated for all of us, the world that the United Church’s Song of Faith describes as “a future good beyond imagining, a new heaven and a new earth, the end of sorrow, pain and tears, the making new of all things.”
But all of this did not occur to Peter, Mary Magdalene and the other disciple when they encountered the empty tomb. And, you know, we may be like them as we come to this Easter story. We may believe like the other disciple, believe right away that Jesus has been raised from death. We may be like Peter, just knowing that something momentous, even world-changing has happened to Jesus. We may be like Mary, fully knowing the truth of Easter when we have some kind of experience in our lives of the presence of the risen Jesus. The way John tells the story, these are different ways of processing the transformational experience of Easter; one way of believing is not superior to another.
I said that we can know something of the grief at the beginning of the Easter story. And, whether we are most like Mary, or Peter, or the other disciple, we can know something of the joy at the end, the joy we find whenever signs of resurrection appear in our lives, in our world, whenever a tomb that we assumed was shut forever opens up and rags become the riches of God’s kingdom and hope triumphs over despair, good wins out over evil, love prevails over hatred, life comes out of death. And then, this Easter morning, this Easter day, and every day, we can tell others as Mary did, that in some way we too have encountered this mystery, this good news, of resurrection, and joy has scattered the shadows and sorrow has turned into song.