Sunday, April 16, 2006

Easter Day
Acts 10:34-43 or Isaiah 25:6-9
Psalm 118:1-2, 14:24
1 Corinthians 15:1-11 or Acts 10:34-43
John 20:1-18 or Mark 16:1-8

But go, tell his disciples and Peter, He goeth before you into Galilee: there shall ye see him, as he said unto you.

He is risen! He is risen, indeed!

Today's lessons can easily stand on their own. The Gospel message found in the Easter story is certainly not a thing that needs a great deal of expounding or interpreting. They went to the tomb and found it empty, and then Christ appeared before them as proof of God's amazing grace. Death no longer had a hold; forgiveness and eternal life were now theirs to keep. Peter's sermon in Acts is perfect. There is nothing we can do to add to it or make it easier to understand. Christ died. Christ is risen! Alleluia!

Yet, there are so many wonderful things we can say in conjunction with this amazing proclamation. John's version of the Holy Day events focuses on Mary, who went to anoint Jesus' body early that morning. She discovered the empty tomb and went to tell the disciples. Peter and John ran to the tomb and found her to be telling the truth. They believed that He was gone. When they returned to their homes, Mary stayed in the garden, weeping. She first encounters two angels who ask her why she is crying. "They have taken my Lord." But she does not wait for them to give her an answer. She turned around, perhaps because she sensed the man standing behind her. He asked, "Why are you weeping?" He adds another question, "For whom are you looking?" She was no longer looking at the man, perhaps because she did not recognize Him. She answered, thinking He was the gardener, "Tell me where you have taken Him and I will take Him away." Then He said her name, "Mary." She turned back to Him and said, "Teacher."

I never noticed before how distracted Mary was during this encounter. She saw angels at the head and foot of Jesus' grave site but she did not pay any attention to them. She saw Jesus, but gave Him little heed because she thought He was the gardener. She had her mind on other things – like how to get the body of her master so that she could bury Him properly. Her mind was on earthly things and she was not paying attention to the heavenly things.

Jesus answered her cry and excitement with, "Do not hold on to me." Mary was so distracted by earthly things that it would have been easy for her to just stay with Jesus and hold on to Him so that He would not disappear again. But Jesus still had work to do, and work for her to do. "I have something to do, but go tell the disciples that you have seen me." She did as He asked and the story, for today, ends there.

In Paul's letter to the Corinthians, we hear about Jesus' appearances after the Resurrection. Paul writes that He appeared to Peter and to the twelve, then to five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, then to James and to all the apostles, then finally He appeared to Paul. This list brings to mind some questions. Where is Mary's name? Who are the Twelve? Judas was dead and Mathias was not yet chosen to replace him. Who are the apostles, since the Twelve have already been listed?

Perhaps some scholar could explain this to me, but I do not think it is necessary to address these issues on Easter. We come that day not to meet the needs of our minds, but to worship the Risen Lord with our hearts. Yet, this is the very thing that makes preaching on this day most difficult. Our congregations are filled with people who might come only once or twice a year. They don’t hear the whole story; they don't hear about the journey Jesus took to get from the cradle or the resurrection. They don't really hear about the cross. Though they might know that Jesus died there, they do not truly understand why. And there are many that see these questions as inconsistencies, contradictions that make the entire story difficult to believe. So while "He is risen! He is risen indeed!" should be enough for Easter Day, we have to find some way to touch their hearts with the entire message so that they will be transformed.

The text from Mark does not help the matter. In his version of the story, Mary did not go to the tomb alone. She went with other women who were going to help her anoint Jesus. When they arrived at the tomb, they found the stone rolled away. They went in and found a man in a white robe. They were afraid but he said to them, "Do not be alarmed, Jesus has been raised." He told them to tell the disciples, including Peter, that Jesus is going to Galilee. "There you will see Him, just as He told you."

In Mark's story as we hear it today, the women fled from the tomb in fear and amazement. And they did not say anything to anyone. Mark's Gospel continues with a few passages that most scholars accept were not part of the original text. These verses tell the story as it is written in John, that Mary went to the tomb alone, met Jesus and then went to tell the disciples. Mark 16:10 tells us that the men did not believe Mary. They didn't believe anyone until Jesus appeared to them.

So, too, we will have among us this Easter day people who will hear the texts and leave with the unanswered questions even if we never mention them. Some will be like the disciples and not believe the word they've heard. Others will be like the women and they flee from church without saying a word to anyone. While most of us gathering together in the sanctuary on Easter day will say that we have faith – that we believe in the risen Lord – none of us will be transformed unless we have a personal encounter with the Living Christ.

When we consider what we will do as a church, we often ask ourselves the question, "What are they looking for?" We want to know what our visitors are seeking so that we can provide them with the programs that will keep them coming back. As we look at our scripture lesson for today, however, we see that Jesus asks a different question. "For whom are you looking?" People may want Easter egg hunts and BBQs, basketball leagues and teen dances, but they will never be transformed by those things. Even as folk are listening to our sermons and lessons, they think they are looking for something – to be fed, to be uplifted, to learn something. However, they will never be truly satisfied until they encounter the living Christ. It is through that encounter that we, like Mary, will be transformed so that we too might go out and say, "I have seen the Lord!"

So, what does it mean to see the Lord? Paul tells us that Peter and the Twelve, five hundred brothers and sisters, James and the apostles and then finally himself had encounters with the Living Christ. Will we meet Him bodily as did they? We encounter Him in the word and in the sacraments. We experience Him in the communion of the saints as He dwells among us. While it is vital to gather with other Christians regularly to worship and pray together, our experience of Christ need not be limited to our time in Church.

In Mark's Gospel, the man in the tomb said to the women, "But go, tell his disciples and Peter, He goeth before you into Galilee: there shall ye see him, as he said unto you." The experience of meeting the risen Lord did not happen for them at the tomb. They had to go to Galilee and there they would see Him. What would they see? We know from John's story that Mary did not recognize Him. Perhaps that was because she did not expect Him to be there. Perhaps His appearance had changed since His death. She was certainly distracted and her eyes will be filled with tears. Would they recognize Him in Galilee?

Imagine the hope to be found in such a journey. "Jesus is alive and we will see Him when we get to Galilee!" I would be constantly looking around, hoping to catch a glimpse of His face, listening intently for the sound of His voice. The disciples probably went forth in hopeful expectation, longing for that moment when He would be with them again.

Viktor Frankl was a prisoner in one of the Nazi concentration camps. Each morning well before daylight, the men were gathered together to go out to a work camp. It was a rough journey because they stumbled over rocks and were beaten if they did not march in precisely. One morning a man next to him whispered, "If our wives could see us now! I do hope they are better off in their camps and don't know what is happening to us." Viktor wrote in Man's Search for Meaning, "That brought thoughts of my own wife to mind. And as we stumbled on for miles, slipping on icy spots, supporting each other time and again, dragging one another up and onward, nothing was said, but we both knew: each of us was thinking of his wife. Occasionally I looked at the sky, where the stars were fading and the pink light of the morning was beginning to spread behind a dark bank of clouds. But my mind clung to my wife's image, imagining it with an uncanny acuteness. I heard her answering me, saw her smile, her frank and encouraging look. Real or not, her look was then more luminous than the sun which was beginning to rise."

It was the image of his wife in his mind's eye that kept him going. It gave him hope. I'm sure it was the same for those disciples on that glorious day when they learned that Jesus had been raised. Some of them did not believe at first, but there was hope in the promise.

Yes, the Easter story is both the easiest message to preach and the hardest. For those who have heard the story a hundred times before, the words "He is risen" deepens the hope we have as we wait in expectation for the fulfillment of all God's promises. However, on that very day when the faithful gather, there are also many who only know a part of the story. They know that Jesus Christ is Lord, but they don't quite understand why. They know they are seeking something, but do not realize that it is actually Christ for whom they have come. They desire to be fed, inspired and to learn, but what they really need is to be transformed. They are distracted by the earthly concerns and they miss seeing the one for whom they have come.

It is easy because it speaks for itself. Jesus Christ is Lord. He has been raised from death into new life and we who believe will live with Him for eternity. This message gives us a sense of hope that we did not have before, hope that leads us to lead a life of watchful expectation. But what of those for whom the message leaves questions unanswered and for whom there is no encounter with the Living Christ? Like the disciples, they will not believe the word and like the women, they will flee without telling anyone.

This Sunday, what will happen after we've experienced the Living Christ in worship? Will it be a transforming experience in which we hear Jesus' call into the world? Jesus was going to see them in Galilee. Where does He meet us? He met Peter on the shore next to a raging fire as He made breakfast for the tired fishermen. He met two men on the road to Emmaus and broke bread with them. He met the disciples in a locked room when they were afraid. He meets us in the waters of Baptism and at the Eucharist. We meet Him in the Word and in the fellowship of the saints. But we also meet Him in the journey of our life. We meet Him in the face of the stranger who needs kindness or the friend who needs mercy. We meet Him in the laughter of our children and in the words of instruction from those who have wandered the path before us.

As we journey, we walk in hopeful expectation to see Christ's face. All too often we miss Him because we are caught up in the distractions of life. Tears cloud our eyes, earthly needs block our vision. But we can, by the grace of God, be Christ to another and in doing so we will see His face in those we are serving. There may be a time for considering the questions raised by these stories, to better understand what the writers meant with their words. But for today, it is enough to know that Christ is risen. He is risen indeed! His new life transforms us, giving us new life, a new life that begins today as we go out into the world watching in hopeful expectation for His face in all our experiences, encountering Him in the most unexpected places. Thanks be to God.

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