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A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church
A new church for a new day, in Fremont, California,
on Easter Sunday, March 31, 2013, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  John 20:1-18
Copyright © 2013 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Earlier this week, an older couple received a phone call from their son who lives far away.[1]  The son said he was sorry, but he wouldn’t be able to come for a visit over spring break after all.  “The grandkids say hello,” he said.  The couple assured him that they understood, but when they hung up the phone they didn’t dare look at each other.

Earlier this week, a woman was called into her supervisor’s office to hear that times are hard for the company and they had to let her go.  “So sorry,” the supervisor said.  She cleaned out her desk, packed away her hopes for getting ahead, and wondered what she would tell her kids.

Earlier this week, someone received terrible news from a physician.

Earlier this week, someone heard the words, “I don’t love you any more.”

Earlier this week, someone’s hope was crucified.  And the darkness is overwhelming.  It seems as if it is all over.  That is the natural thing to assume.

It sure seemed like it was all over to the disciples.[2]  By some political maneuvering, they’d managed to prevent the soldiers from feeding his broken body to the wild dogs.  With pain filled faces they took him down from the cross, maybe they washed him, but they probably didn’t have time to anoint the body before they wrapped him in a shroud, and laid him in a borrowed tomb.  It was a better fate than being fed to the dogs.  But not by much.

The One who’d told them he had no place to lay his head, was still far away from home.  When his flesh had decayed, would his bones be gathered to those of his ancestors?  Over the coming generations, would anyone remember him?  I imagine that all that day and the next, a stillness hung over his disciples.  Occasionally, the stillness was broken by the fear filled sobbing of his disciples … and the glad cries of those who had sought his life.

Then, something happened, something that is so hard to explain, perhaps the only way to explain it is with stories.  Matthew tells the story this way.

In the last moments before the sun rose on the third day, there came a noise.  At first the soldiers who guarded the tomb listened to it in amazement.  Then they covered their ears and fell to the ground in terror.  For angel voices, the ones who sang a wondrous pianissimo of beauty over the stable of Bethlehem, burst into a fortissimo of sheer, raw, unadulterated power.  Blinding light sprang forth, not from the sun, but from the rocks themselves as the earth heaved and pushed the stone away.  And in a roar never before heard on earth, the bonds of death were shattered forever.

Death became a joke in that moment.  It can no longer win.  Evil can no longer win.  Darkness can no longer defeat light.  Seemingly powerless love has triumphed over loveless power.  And for all eternity the angels’ song rings through the heavens and in the hearts of those who open them to hear.  Alleluia!  Christ is risen!  Christ is risen indeed!  Alleluia!

Easter, the Sunday of the Resurrection is not only the greatest day of the church year; it is also the only one that is set by the moon.[3]  Easter always falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon on or after the spring equinox.  As complicated as that sounds, it makes ancient sense, since it means (at least in the northern hemisphere, where this dating scheme was created) Easter coincides with the greening of the earth.

Christ is risen and the whole world comes to life.  Sap rises in dormant trees, spring peepers start their peeping, and trumpet lilies spill their sweet smell on the air – causing people like me to reach for the Zyrtec.  The connection is a happy one, guaranteed to renew our faith in the creative power of God.

But it is also a misleading one, because spring is entirely natural.  Buy a daffodil bulb in the winter and it looks like nothing in your hands – a small onion, maybe, with its thin skin and scraggy roots.  If you have had any experience with bulbs, however that does not worry you.  You know that all you have to do it wait.  Come springtime it will escape the earth and explode with color, a yellow butterfly of a blossom shedding its cocoon.  As miraculous as it is, it is completely natural.

Resurrection, on the other hand, is entirely unnatural.  When a human being goes into the ground, that is that.  You don’t wait around for the person to reappear so you can pick up where you left off – not this side of the grave, anyway.  You say good-bye.  You pay your respects and you go on with your life as best you can, knowing that the only place springtime happens in a cemetery is on the graves, not in them.

That is all Mary Magdalene was doing that morning – paying her respects, going to his tomb to convince herself it was all true, John tells us as he tries to explain what happened.  It was still dark, but even from a distance she knew something was wrong.  She could smell damp earth, cold rock from inside.  Someone had moved the stone!

The conclusion was obvious.  Afraid he would become a saint, afraid his tomb would become a shrine, someone had taken him away – God knew where.  To a steep cliff?  To the town dump?  Allowed his body to be fed to the dogs?

His body was all she had left and now it too was gone.  So she ran and brought two of the others back with her, but once they had satisfied themselves that what she said was true, they left her there weeping.  If they tried to lead her away, she refused them.  She was like an abandoned pup who had lost her master, staying rooted to the last place he had been, without the least idea of what to do next.

Even angels could not soften her resolve.  They were there when she worked up her nerve to look inside the tomb, sitting where the body had lain.  “Why are you weeping?” they asked her.

“They have taken away my lord,” she answered them, “and I do not know where they have laid him.”  It never occurred to her they might be the culprits, apparently, but it was not as if she were thinking clearly.

She was operating on automatic pilot, so that when she left the tomb she bumped into the gardener without even seeing him.  His only value to her was that he might know the answer to her question.  “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.”  What did she think she would do – have the gardener lay the body over her shoulders, or pick it up all by herself?

It was not a reasonable request, but the gardener did not seem to mind.  Perhaps he was even a bit amused.  “Mary,” he said to her, and she turned to stare at him.

“Rabbouni!” she cried out.  “My Teacher!”

“Do not hold on to me,” he cautioned her, “because I have not yet ascended to the Father.”  What peculiar thing for him to say since there is no evidence she was holding on to him in any way.  Unless it was by what she called him – my Teacher, the old name she used to call him.  Maybe he could hear it in her voice, how she wanted him back the way he was so they could go back to the way they were, back to the old life where everything was familiar and not frightening like it was now.

“Rabbouni!” she called him, but that was his Friday name, and here it was Sunday – an entirely new day in an entirely new life.  He was not on his way back to her and the others.  He was on his way to God, and he was taking the whole world with him.  This may be why all the other gospel accounts of the resurrection tell us not to be afraid – because new life is frightening.  It is unnatural.

To expect a sealed tomb and find one filled with angels, to hunt the past and discover the future, to seek a corpse and find the risen Lord – none of this is natural.

Death is natural.  Loss is natural.  Grief is natural.  The good news is this:  the story does not end with death and loss and grief.  Our stories, our lives are changed by this highly unnatural truth:  those stones have been rolled away.  By the light of this day, God has planted a seed of life in us that cannot be killed, and if we can remember that then there is nothing we cannot do.  We can move mountains, banish fear, love our enemies, change the world.

The only thing we cannot do is hold on to him.  He has asked us please not to do that, because he knows that, all things considered, we would rather keep him with us where we are than let him take us where he is going.  Better we should let him hold on to us, perhaps.  Better we should let him take us into the white-hot presence of God, who is not behind us but ahead of us, every step of the way.


[1] Adapted from Craig Barnes, “Savior at Large,” published in the March 13-20, 2002, edition of The Christian Century, quoted in an email from dated 26 March 2013.

[2] This next section of the sermon (through Matthew’s telling of the Easter story) is adapted from an email Frank Fisher sent to Sermonshop_Sermons on Ecunet on April 11, 2004.

[3] The rest of this sermon is almost a direct quote from a sermon “The Unnatural Truth” by Barbara Brown Taylor, printed in one of her books, Home By Another Way (Boston: Cowley Publications, 1999), 109-112.



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