Sunday, April 8, 2012

The Easter Experience (Easter Sunday, Apr 8 2012)

Easter Sunday, 2012
(Gospel:  John 20:1-18)

The Easter Experience
We gather this morning to celebrate Easter, just as people all around the world have been doing for nearly 2000 years now.  And today, all over the world, billions of people are doing the same thing.  In hundreds of languages the call will go out “Alleluia, Christ is risen”, and the response will come back “The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!”

Have you ever stopped to ask yourself what it is that we’re celebrating?  What exactly is the Easter experience?  What are you seeking as you join in worship here this morning?

I suppose you could say that we’re celebrating the fact that God raised Jesus from the dead, and I don’t suppose that I could disagree with you.  But I do find it interesting that the Easter gospel from John that we read today is not a story about Jesus.  Oh sure, Jesus does make an appearance.  But today’s gospel is really a story about people like us, people like Mary Magdalene, and Peter, and the one called the beloved disciple.  Whatever it is that happened to Jesus, whatever this thing is that we call the resurrection, it’s already taken place before today’s story even begins.  There were no witnesses in the tomb to tell us what it looked like.  The transformation of Jesus from earthly death to eternal life with God, we don’t know exactly when it happened or where it took place.  In fact even the words ‘where’ and ‘when’ probably don’t apply to something which in all likelihood burst the constraints of physical space and time as we know them. 

What we do get to see, what we do get to hear about in the gospel narratives is the amazing transformation that takes place in the lives of ordinary people like ourselves when they encounter the risen Jesus in their midst.   Somehow a small group of men and women who are sad and frightened following the death of their friend, somehow they’re transformed into a courageous, joyful community of believers and apostles who spread their proclamation throughout the world, and ultimately to the billions of people who celebrate Easter with us on this day.

What is the Easter experience that gives rise to this amazing transformation?  Our gospel today tells us the story of one woman, Mary Magdalene.  As we pick up the story early in the morning we know that the resurrection of Jesus has already taken place.  Mary, however, doesn’t know it yet.  She is, as the first words of the story remind us, still in the dark.

Now Mary was one of Jesus’ closest friends and followers.  She had been terribly ill when she first met Jesus, but he had healed her, and she in turn had joined his group of followers and had provided for them financially as they traveled from village to village.  She had followed him all the way to Jerusalem, she had been present at his execution on the cross and she had watched and wept as his body had been placed in the tomb late on Good Friday.  It must have been a crushing blow to one who loved Jesus so much.

And now early on the Sunday morning, at the first possible opportunity, she comes to the tomb.  Why did she go to the tomb, risking a possible confrontation with Roman soldiers?  We can only speculate.  Why do we go to the tombs of our loved ones?  To mourn.  To pay our respects.  To try to get a sense of closure.  Perhaps the visit becomes an annual ritual, perhaps there is some sense of obligation.  Perhaps we are trying to hold on to the memory of that which has been lost.

But Mary’s visit on that Easter morning brings her no peace.  Instead she is thrown into a panic when she sees that the stone has been removed from the tomb.  The body is gone.  She runs to get help.  And she weeps.

“Woman, why are you weeping?”

“They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.”

It is the final injustice, the final blow.  Those who killed Jesus, it seems, have even taken away the very little she had left of him, the body in the tomb.  And overwhelmed by confusion, and sorrow, and despair, Mary weeps.

And again, a man who she takes to be the gardener, asks her “why are you weeping?  What are you seeking?”

Again, she pleads for his help in finding the body.

And that’s when Easter happens.  Jesus says to her “Mary”.  He calls her by name.  And she turns.  The transformation begins.  She begins to see, to understand, to get it.  She encounters Jesus as alive and present.  At first, she still tries to hold on to what is familiar, calling him Rabbouni once more, clinging to him, perhaps out of fear that she’ll lose him again.  But Jesus propels her forward into the unknown, into something new, a new intimacy, a new relationship that will always be there, one that death cannot erase.  My father is now your father, my God is now your God.  Do not be afraid, my father and I will make our home with you, now until the end of time.  It is the same promise that Jesus had made at that last supper on Thursday, but then, she didn’t get it.  Now Mary understands.

And having called her, Jesus then commissions her.  He gives her a job to do.  “Go and tell the others what I have said.”  And Mary lets go of Jesus, and again she runs, this time however, not out of fear and distress, but out of joy, and she proclaims to the others “I have seen the Lord.”

The Easter experience is for Mary Magdalene what we might call a paradigm shift.  It is a new way of seeing and experiencing and understanding the world based on a discovered awareness of the divine presence in our midst.  Mary is transformed from a distressed, fearful woman trying to hold onto a dead body, to a joyful, purposeful apostle of the Lord sent to proclaim the good news of the divine presence in our world and in our lives.  This is the Easter story, this is the Easter experience.

What were you seeking when you decided to come to church this morning?  Are you here to pay your respects?  Are you here to celebrate something familiar?

Or is what you’re seeking this morning an encounter with the risen Jesus?  Did you come here in the hope of an encounter with the living God, an experience that could change your life as surely as it changed the life of Mary Magdalene on that first Easter morning?

I want you to have the same Easter experience today that Mary Magdalene had 2000 years ago.  I want you to learn to see the living God in our midst, to hear him call your name, to enter into an intimate relationship with him, to hear him commission each of you to your unique purpose and mission in life, and then to go out from here and do it.  Because if this is your experience today and in the days to come, your life will be transformed in ways that you can’t possibly imagine.  You will be propelled into a life that is full of joy, full of purpose and meaning, a life that receives the gift of love that is offered by God and in turn offers that love to others, transforming their lives in the process.

May each and every one of us be blessed with a joyful and holy Easter.  May you encounter the risen Christ in your life and hear him call your name.

Alleluia, Christ is risen.

The Lord is risen indeed.  Alleluia!

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