Easter Sunday 2011: Running and Crying

Alleluia, Christ is Risen!

It’s the greatest news that we can hear, and we come on this day especially to hear it. Last Friday you came to church to hear about the man who was crucified, dead and buried. You left when we placed him in the tomb, and left the church in somber mourning.

But today, we come and we hear that Christ has risen from the grave. Death has been defeated, sin has been cast out, hope has arisen again. This is the day we are really looking forward to the rest of the church year It’s the day we are anticipating at Christmas when we celebrate a baby who has just come, because we know he is going to do incredible things. And it’s the day we are anticipating all through Lent, and especially on Good Friday, because we know that in the end God will not allow pain and suffering and death to be the last word.

This is the day that makes every other Sunday that we gather here make sense. We come every Sunday morning because it was a Sunday morning so long ago that Christ rose again and everything was changed. This is the most joyful, most promising day of the entire year.

It’s hard to remember that it didn’t start that way. On that first Easter morning so long ago, the disciples didn’t know the news yet. They thought they had seen the final word on Friday. They had watched Jesus be crucified. And they had watched him die. And they had watched him be buried.

The disciples were good Jews, and they would not have been near the tombs on the Sabbath day. So it was not until Sunday that they could go to mourn. But as soon as she could, Mary Magdalene went to the tombs. She had loved him so much. And just like any of us go to visit the graves of the ones we love, she went to see him. Maybe it made her feel a little closer to him. Maybe it made her feel a little less alone. Maybe it was the only thing that made the pain lessen just a little.

And she gets to the tomb and she looks and the stone has been taken away. And the tomb is open. And no one is there.

The only thing that she can think is that someone has moved his body. Maybe someone who didn’t want him to have a decent burial. Maybe someone who was too scared of what Jesus stood for to even let his followers have a place to go to mourn him.

She goes back and finds Simon Peter and John and she tells them, “They have taken Jesus and we don’t know where they’ve laid him.”

The two disciples have to see it for themselves. They start out and they don’t walk, but they run. You can picture them running towards the tomb, John pulling ahead. That had to know what happened.
They look in the tomb, and all they see are the linens that he was wrapped in. And they don’t understand. And Scripture tells us that maybe, maybe, they were starting to believe something extraordinary had happened. But they didn’t know yet, and so the disciples went home.

But not Mary. She refused to leave.

I picture her there, standing outside the tomb baffled. Weeping. Looking for some answers. Looking for some explanations in a world that made no sense in that moment. She didn’t hear the man come up behind her or recognize the voice that asked her gently, “Why are you crying?”

She thinks it’s the gardner, and she says, “They’ve taken him. They’ve taken him away and I don’t know where he has gone.” And then she turns. And then she sees him.

Mary became the first Christian preacher ever that Easter morning. She saw him first, and she went first to tell the story. Jesus gives her the job of telling the disciples he is back for the first time. The empty tombs, the discarded linens, they weren’t enough. And so he lets her see, and he tells her to tell them he is back.
You have to wonder what those first hours were like. Before telephones. Before email. Can you imagine the disbelief when she went and told the disciples what had happened? Can you imagine the words being passed from one person to another, each more skeptical than the last. They wanted to believe, but it sounded so unlikely.

Who would ever believe the story of a man risen from the dead? A man who loved so extravagantly and without reservation, that he would give his life for the whole world? A man who had come back? That first day, I wonder who would have believed Mary. But I also wonder, who wanted to believe?

We’re not so different here today.

Here we stand, on the other end of Christendom, and we want to believe. Gone are the days that people would just show up to church on Easter morning without a second thought. Gone are the times when you moved to a new town and found your new church. Gone are the years when you didn’t ask folks whether they went to church but rather where.

We sometimes mourn those days. We sometimes worry they will never come back again. We sometimes look fearfully at the future and wonder what faith will look like.

A friend asked me once why I spent all my time working for a dying institution. They meant the church. They look at declining attendance rates and think that we are just another business striving to meet our bottom line. But they’re wrong.

The truth is that if we believe in Christ, we have to believe that the body of Christ, the church, will never die. That God will never allow that to happen. It may not look like what it looks like now, but that doesn’t mean it won’t be good. In fact, I believe it can be better.

We are in a new era in the life of the church. One in which people choose to come on Sundays not because their neighbors go. Not because they don’t want people to talk. Not because it’s what they’ve always done. But because they genuinely believe. Or, at least, they want to.

I think about Simon Peter and John. They saw with their own eyes the empty tomb, and they wanted to believe. And so Jesus sent word to them through Mary that he was back. And everything changed.
I see so many people who want to come to believe. I always tell people that I counsel who have doubts about their faith that in many ways our doubts are the surest signs of our belief. They are the spiritual equivalents of us running to the tomb doors to see what has happened. They are the same as us weeping openly for a Christ we want to find.

And we will not be left alone. And if Christ came to those who were unsure on Easter morning, he will come to us.

This morning, we celebrate that fact. That Christ has risen again and we are not left at the entrance to a tomb. We are not left to cry without consolation. We are not left to go home baffled. We are only embraced in the sure love of a Christ who loves us regardless of anything else in this world.

And that’s the message to proclaim. Because, like Mary, we are given a proclamation to make as our tears are dried. We are given a story to carry to a world that needs it now more than ever. We are given a common ministry.

Look around our world. Have we ever really lived into the true meaning of Easter? Even in the years of packed cathedrals and overflowing membership rosters, did we really live by the Gospel? Or is that maybe the work of our generations, and those yet to come?

There is good news to preach. Compassion for those who need it most. Healing for those in pain. Justice for those who need it. Peace for the whole world. It is needed, now more than ever. And the Christ who stood at the door of a tomb and comforted Mary before he sent her to proclaim it? He’s standing here with us today. Telling us he is risen, and telling us to tell everyone that good news.

Yesterday a friend of mine from seminary led a stations of the cross service in Liverpool, England, where he pastors. He led the worshipers through the heart of a city that probably had no idea what was happening all around them. He led them finally to the broken down remnants of a burned out church that had been bombed in the Nazi Blitzkrieg of World War II and never rebuilt. And they worshipped there. They found Christ there.

In so many ways standing at that bombed out church was like standing at the door of the tomb and looking inside. It was the most unlikely place to find Jesus risen again, and yet he was there at both places wiping away our tears and sending us out to proclaim the message again to a new generation. If Christ can show us new life in the broken places of the world. In the bombed out churches. In the graveyards. Then Christ can surely take root in our heart and in the hearts of those with whom we share that love.

Alleluia, Christ is risen. The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia. Amen.

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