Broadway Christian Church · Columbia, Missouri
The Worship of God · April 8, 2012
Litany of Praise
Based on Psalm 118
There are glad songs of victory in the tents of the righteous.
The right hand of the Lord does valiantly.
We shall not die, but live, and recount the deeds of the Lord.
The stone the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.
This is the Lord’s doing and is marvelous in our eyes.
This is the day the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it!
Christ is risen!
Christ is risen, indeed!
Let us pray:
You are our God, and we will give thanks to you and extol you.
Just as it seems the world has crushed every hope, you arise, O Lord of Life!
On the dawn of this day, O Holy God, we join with the women who rose early in the morning to go to your tomb, expecting to be met by cold hardness of stone, sealing the death of hope. Instead, we find that the stone has been rolled away, and you are not there!
For many of us, it is too easy to let this become an Easter just like any other, with Easter bonnets and Sunday’s best, with the ringing of bells and hymns of joy, with the preparing meals, gathering around tables, and hunting for eggs. But let this be an Easter like no other. Grant us to see and hear with resurrection eyes and ears. Let us discern signs of new life in all the usual places—a new baby, the beauty of nature; but also in the unusual places. Who knows where we might find you if we but look?
But it can be daunting to be a resurrection people in the face of what we experience, read, and watch in the world — continued violence, poverty, suffering, and despair. Even Easter morning can seem an idle tale in the wake of lives destroyed by war, children abused, a creation spoiled, and endless bickering among our leaders.
We drink in these stories with our morning coffee, day after day, and wonder where Easter’s gone. One year ago, we celebrated your resurrection, and sometimes, it seems little has changed in our world since then. Even in this past year, we have continued to feel the sting; through deaths in our families and in our community, with those who continue to struggle to survive the loss of a job, and with those people entombed by depression or a crippling illness.
But we know resurrection eyes are not blind to pain. Resurrection ears are not deaf to the cries of suffering. Resurrection people, in all things, see your goodness that outlasts and overpowers any darkness we can experience or concoct. Remove the stones that block the tombs of our minds, shine in the dawns light so that it may take over the darkness within, and fill our thoughts with your perfect vision for creation.
So we call upon you to resurrect us, O God of new life—resurrect us from our suffering, our complacency, our fears, and even death itself. So that we may go, and tell, and be, and do.
We pray these things in the name of the one who rose from the grave—Jesus the Christ, our Risen Lord, who taught us to pray saying...
Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed by thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: for thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory, forever. Amen.
I Corinthians 15:1-11
Now I should remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you—unless you have come to believe in vain.
For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to someone untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace towards me has not been in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them—though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. Whether then it was I or they, so we proclaim and so you have come to believe.
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 towards 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 round and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus 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.” 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.
End and Beginning
Christ is risen!
[Congregation:] Christ is risen, indeed!
In recent weeks, we have been traveling through the wilderness. We have traveled with the likes of Moses, Ezekiel, Jonah, Ecclesiastes, and Jesus, himself, in his wilderness sojourn and time of testing. We entered Jerusalem and witnessed two parades, that of the Romans and that of Jesus and his band. We sat at table with him on Maundy Thursday and shared the bread and the cup. We experienced the anguish of Good Friday and his crucifixion. Now, here we are today, the day of his rising.
As you read the resurrection stories from each of the four Gospels, something hits you almost immediately. The details all differ about what is arguably the most important story in the Christian tradition. How can this be? The main ideas are there, of course; Jesus was crucified, and he was raised. What differs, however, are the particulars. They all differ as to who was there; with or without soldiers; with or without angels; how many angles; what they do and what they say; who gets the first look at the tomb from the outside; who first looks inside the tomb; who goes to tell the rest of the disciples, if they go at all; if Jesus shows up outside the tomb and is seen by whom, and whether they may touch him. Mark’s Gospel has what looks like a broken ending, with everyone just scattering in fear and telling no one. Matthew has a big angel entrance with flashing light, rolling away the stone and shocking soldiers so they fall over like dead men. Luke has two angels with an amiable chat on the inside. Mark has one who just looks like a man. Then there is John, our text for the morning. Nobody does it quite like John.
In John’s story, there are not several women who come to the tomb, but one and one alone – Mary Magdalene. If you remember, she was also at the foot of the cross with the other women. Here, in John, she goes it alone, which is not accidental, because, besides Jesus, she has the leading role. John is saying something very particular about Mary’s role.
She has waited until the Sabbath came to a close, and then early on Sunday morning she goes alone to the garden tomb. Unlike other gospels, Mary was not there to anoint the body for burial; Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus already did so. Mary was not there for burial preparation. She was coming for her own reasons.
Mary arrives at the tomb and finds it opened. But rather than looking inside, she runs like lightening to inform the other disciples. When she finds them, she tells it like an episode of the body snatchers: “They’ve taken him, the varmints!” She really thinks there has been foul play.
The two she finds are Simon Peter, alpha disciple, and the mysterious “one whom Jesus loved.” We meet this nameless disciple along the way in several places, most conspicuously at the Last Supper. Many scholars believe that he is the author, himself, John, referring to himself in the third person.
“Tim Carson had a great Easter breakfast. Tim would like to see you after the service.”
The beloved disciple is the author. Whoever he was, he was the soul mate, the bosom buddy of Jesus. And when Peter and the beloved disciple had a foot race to the tomb, the beloved one got there first.
He took a look inside, but didn’t go in. He was being deferential, letting Peter, alpha disciple, go first.
Peter looks inside and sees linen body coverings where there used to be a body. The beloved disciple comes in and sees them, too. Amazing, awe-inspiring, shocking. What do you think they did next? What would you do? They went home. That’s it, home.
What has John done here? What’s happened is that John has moved the alpha disciple and bosom buddy offstage, so we can focus on what he really wants us to see: Mary Magdalene, who is the real heroine of the story.
You see, the others had their turn at taking a look. And what did they see? [Editor’s note: A six-year-old girl in the congregation replied, “Nothing.”] Yes! “Nothing,” she said, and she wins the golden ring. Nothing! They say an empty tomb. And they could draw their own conclusions based on that. But then comes Mary and it’s an entirely different experience.
Mary is just weeping outside the tomb, gut-wrenching sobs. She still believes she is living an episode of the body snatchers. Someone has stolen his body. When she finally does look inside it is through a veil of tears. And what she sees are two angelic beings sitting where the body used to be. All they say is, “Why are you weeping?”
You have to stop and ask yourself why Peter and the beloved disciple didn’t see anything – same tomb, pretty much the same time. The answer, for the gospel writer, is that Mary was seeing through more than a veil of tears. She was seeing through the eyes of faith. She was becoming the preeminent witness of the resurrection, because she is seeing more than what’s before her. She is seeing through the eyes of the Spirit and that allows her to see what the guys just missed. Women are sitting here thinking, “Well, yeah, of course.”
But it doesn’t end there. On the heels of the angels’ question, she runs into the risen one, again seeing through tears. And mistaking him for the gardener, she asks about Jesus’ whereabouts.
It is only when he speaks her name, “Mary,” that she hears the voice she knew. “Teacher!” she cries. After her encounter, she went back to the disciples and shared her experience with them. She was the first witness to the resurrection telling all the rest of the disciples.
This encounter with Jesus sets Mary up in the primary and authoritative position of spiritual leadership in the church, exceeding even that of Peter who didn’t see and, well, went home. During Jesus’ life, Mary was a part of the inner circle. She was also the first and primary witness to the resurrection.
John wants us to know these two things, at a minimum – the preeminent role of Mary and the truth that the deepest spiritual things in life may only be seen through the eyes of faith. That includes the resurrection. The resurrection isn’t just something that happens “out there.” The resurrection is an event that takes place in the faith of the person that holds it. It enables you to embrace what has happened. It is the eyesight of faith that is required to understand the resurrection, the Lordship of Christ, and the Spirit working in the world. You can look through the eyes of Peter and see an empty tomb, or you can look through the eyes of Mary and see angels.
The gospel of John moves past what he inherited from other witnesses. They would say that an empty tomb is somehow evidence for resurrection, like an empty bread wrapper is evidence that the bread was eaten. But John wants to move us way beyond that. In fact, he says that people can peer into empty tombs and see nothing and just go home. What is required is something much more than an empty bread wrapper. What is required is the eyesight of faith.
Martin Luther said that that the key to understanding the risen Christ is not to be found in vacant places like empty tombs. Rather, if we want to experience the risen Christ we need to find that in a Christ-filled world.
That is exactly Mary’s experience, and I believe it is the key to perceiving God’s presence. Faithful looking and loving finds God in myriad places.
Is Christ present in the bread and cup at communion? I don’t know. It depends on your seeing. Am I inspired in worship and feel the Spirit speaking through everything that’s happening? I don’t know. It depends on your spiritual mindset. Is God present in suffering, redeeming tragedy, restoring, and healing? It depends if you’re looking through the eyes of Mary.
Is God present in the discoveries of science and medicine, the new physics, exploration of the universe? It depends what lens you’re looking through. Doesn’t it?
Is God providing, guiding, and speaking to us now? It depends if you’re expecting only empty tombs or are you expectant for more.
I remember Leslie Weatherhead telling about an old man who was so gravely ill, and the family called for their pastor. When he came into the man’s room, he could see an empty chair sitting beside the bed. The pastor said, “Well, I see I’m not your first visitor today.” The old man looked up, smiled, and then told him a story. “Years ago I found it very hard to pray, and when I shared that with a friend who gave me a suggestion I never forgot. They said to simply put a chair opposite me and imagine Jesus sitting in it. Then talk with him as you would a dear friend. Well, I’ve been doing that ever since.”
A short time later, the daughter of the man called the pastor. When he answered, he knew what the call would be – he had died very suddenly. The pastor went by the house and met with the daughter, and she said, “I had just gone to lie down for an hour or two, for he seemed to be sleeping so comfortably. And when I want back he was gone.” She paused and then added, “Except now his hand was on the empty chair at the side of the bed. Isn’t that strange?”
Empty tomb, empty chair, empty world. What do you see? Or is it really the presence of Christ everywhere, God present in every cell and every galaxy, the Spirit working in the unseen as well as the seen. You can choose to live in a disenchanted world, flat, two-dimensional, carved up into bits of material data. You can do that, and you can stay with that empty tomb. Or by grace, you can dare to see life through Mary’s veil of tears, through her big heart and soul. I know what I’m choosing.
Christ is risen!
[Congregation:] Christ is risen, indeed!
May the assurance of Easter resurrection go with you and fill your lives with hope and joy both today and forever. Amen.