They Did Not Understand---A Sermon for Easter

MaryAnn McKibben DanaIdylwood Presbyterian Church April 17, 2011 Easter John 20:1-18


They Did Not Understand

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. 2So 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.’ 3Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went towards the tomb. 4The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. 6Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, 7and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. 8Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; 9for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. 10Then the disciples returned to their homes.

11 But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look* into the tomb; 12and 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. 13They 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.’ 14When she had said this, she turned round and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?’ 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.’ 16Jesus said to her, ‘Mary!’ She turned and said to him in Hebrew,* ‘Rabbouni!’ (which means Teacher). 17Jesus 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.” ’ 18Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

It’s happened again, like clockwork. Every year around this time there’s an article in which someone breathlessly announces some piece of Jesus-related archaeology. This year? Someone has found a pair of nails that could have been those used to nail Jesus to the cross. (It’s always amazing to me how these discoveries coincide with Easter.)

These artifacts always get used as evidence by all sorts of people to lend credence to their own points of view. “You see, this all really happened and we’ve got doodads to prove it!” some people crow triumphantly. Others sneer, “You faith people really grasp at straws. Even if the nails were used to nail Jesus to the cross, that doesn’t make him the Son of God and it certainly doesn’t mean he rose from the dead.”

At the heart of all of those statements and arguments and what’s at the heart of our even being here today is one simple question… one profound question:

Is it true?

Is it true that the body was not just stolen by grave robbers, but risen from the dead?

Is it true that the pile of linen wrappings and the cloth rolled up like a beach towel were signs that Jesus was alive?

Is it true that the man whom Mary saw in the garden with dirt under his fingernails and a smudge on his face was not the gardener, but the resurrected Christ?

Is it true? they asked on that first Easter. Is it true? we ask, 2000 years later.

We ask with the skepticism of our age: Is it true? Do people really still believe this? Can’t this holiday just be a nice cultural festival to celebrate spring? Nobody takes resurrection seriously anymore.

Or we ask with our radar attuned to the hypocrisy we see on the part of seemingly pious people: Is it true? Because the people who call themselves Christians sure don’t act like it’s true… what with their judging and hating gays and scapegoating immigrants and committing the very same sins they condemn in others.

Or we ask with all the desperation and hope we can muster, because we have loved ones struggling for life, we have despair over the state of our planet, we feel beaten down by the suffering that seems to flow to the ends of the earth: Is it true? Is death really not the end? Does the fate of this tiny planet in a remote corner of the Milky Way really matter? Is our history and our civilization heading somewhere?

…Today may be Easter but it sure looks a lot like Good Friday out there.

* * *

Mary arrives at the tomb, spices in hand, ready to anoint a dead body. She’d waited, you see, during the Jewish Sabbath (and the Passover, no less) until she could prepare the body. She went with haste, while it was still early morning, not because she expected “it” to be true, not because she knew this was the first day of a new creation, but because she had a job to do. For all she knows, it’s still Good Friday.

Mary is the first one there, and she’s the first one to see the resurrected Christ and to touch him, and to be spoken to by him. But she’s not the first person to believe the resurrection; she’s not the first to realize what has happened. That happens earlier in the story, and someone else gets that honor. Someone else “believes” the resurrection, there in verse 8, before Jesus even shows up to Mary in the garden… but we don’t know his name.

Peter runs to the tomb with a person John calls “the other disciple,” who gets there first. And this disciple does not stand at the tomb’s entrance and peer in. He does not squint into the gloom, refusing to cross that threshold. No, he goes into the tomb. And then, and only then, does he see and believe. He goes into a place of death and finds life instead.

And here’s the comforting thing, for me anyway: (verse 9) This other disciple believes, even though he has not understood the scripture up to now. Think of it. The very first person to believe in the risen Christ didn’t see the signs at all. The first believer was confused about who Jesus was and what he was all about. He didn’t get it.

When he saw Jesus turn water into wine, he didn’t get it.

When he heard Jesus proclaim a message of love and forgiveness, he didn’t get it.

When he saw Jesus break a couple loaves of bread and bless a basket of fish and feed 5,000 people, he didn’t get it.

When he heard Jesus thunder “Lazarus, come out of that tomb!” he didn’t get it.

I’m thinking that if Jesus’ disciple and constant companion believed in the resurrection without understanding the whole thing, maybe it’s OK for us not to understand it.

So let me say to you today: I don’t get it.

But if the resurrection is something we crave, if new life is something that we want to stake our life on, if a reborn creation is the master story in which we dare to live and move and have our being… we can’t just stand at the door of the tomb and analyze things. We can’t perch our glasses on our nose and survey the scene. We’ve gotta enter in. We’ve gotta bend down, get close to it, we’ve gotta see it first hand. We’ve got to enter the tomb in order to see and believe. We’ve got to be that unnamed disciple. Someone asked me this week, “Do we not know who that guy was?” Do we not know who the unnamed disciple was who believed but did not understand?

I say, we know that disciple’s name.

The disciple’s name is MaryAnn.

The disciple’s name is David.

The disciple’s name is Emily… Myrtle… Steve… Bruce.

The disciple saw and believed, but did not understand.

* * *

The disciples’ names are Luc, Christophe, Christian, Jean-Pierre, Paul. They were Trappist monks, originally from France, living in Algeria during the 1990s. Their story is the subject of a new movie called Of Gods and Men.

These monks live peacefully among the Muslim villagers, they run a clinic, they attend coming of age festivals for the children, they study the Koran as well as the Bible, they worship Christ and love one another as family. A group of Islamists, extremists, begin to terrorize the village. They systematically and brutally begin to murder all foreigners. The Muslims in the village recognize this as an utter corruption of Islam, and they are frightened. And so are the monks.

They have a choice to make: do they leave the village and return to France? Or do they stay with the people of the village, whom they love? Do they leave and go to a safer place to serve another community for the remaining years of their lives? Or do they remain committed to be the body of Christ among and with their Muslim neighbors, knowing that that commitment could lead to their deaths?

Most of the movie centers around the process of making that decision. At one point Christian tries to explain what their Trappist community is all about and he says [paraphrased], We are called to love our neighbors. We can’t do that from a distance. We are called to be intimately involved with their lives. Close to them, their joy and their pain.

We are called to be close to them.

We are called to enter into the tomb, not stand at arms’ length. We are called to enter into places of suffering, places of pain, places of mystery and darkness and perplexity. Because that’s what Jesus did. In his death he crawled inside every agony we can imagine and proclaimed that those agonies are not the end. He emerged on the other side, looking something like the gardener, disheveled, but ready to plant and cultivate a new heaven and a new earth with those willing to pick up the shovel and the plow alongside him.

As I watched the film I was stunned at the monks’ commitment to the way of Christ, especially since I knew how their story ended. I felt convicted by their faith, even as I felt grateful that I will probably never have to make such a stark choice.

But maybe the lessons of the film are not so divorced from our own experience. Because while they are wrestling with this decision, they are chopping firewood. They are putting honey into jars and selling it in the marketplace. They are digging through a box of donated shoes to find just the right size for a little girl and her mother. They are rejoicing at another shipment of medicine that comes in. They are celebrating with friends. They are washing dishes. They are singing and they are keeping silent. They are drinking wine and eating. They are doing ordinary things… ordinary things with great love. They are in the tomb, completely immersed in human experience and human suffering and human mystery and joy… not peering in from a safe distance.

So maybe while we are asking, Is it true? we might try some things.

We might try looking the person in the eye who’s holding the cardboard sign or the battered paper cup half-full of loose change.

We might put away the smartphone when our loved one is talking to us and hear what they’re saying and maybe even the message behind the words.

We might write a letter or make a phone call; we might make our voice heard in the halls of power to speak up for justice and peace for all people.

We might plant a tree that we will never see fully mature.

And we might tend to this moment as if it is the most precious thing in God’s kingdom.

We might go about our work, or our relationships, with the same great love as those monks, working to partner with God in this reborn earth that we seek to believe in even as we fail to fully understand it.

Is it true?

How does the life we live answer that question?

What do you, the unnamed disciple, say?