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Easter Sunday: On Grief and Resurrection

A sermon on John 20:1-18.

[for an audio recording of this sermon, click here. Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash]

John’s resurrection story is unique. While the synoptic gospels focus mostly on fear, and power, and awe in their accounts, it is only John’s gospel that dwells on the grief of the scene.

Mary approaches the tomb in the dark and alone, a figure of solitude and mourning.

When she finds the tomb empty, she runs to the disciples in distress, believing that Jesus’ body has been stolen away by the authorities. The disciples return with her, but once they have verified the missing body, they depart, leaving her alone again… standing outside the tomb… weeping.

As New Testament scholar Jin Young Choi describes, “John’s resurrection is not triumphant but instead leads us to look into the reality of death….”[1]

After the year that we have lived since last Easter, we need a gospel that leads us to look into the reality of death, because we need to understand how this story of resurrection can, indeed, speak to the reality of death. For we have experienced that reality in so many ways. We have lost two beloved members of our community, one to COVID, and several others have been seriously ill. Many members and friends of our community have lost loved ones to the virus.We have lost faith in the ideals of our nation, witnessing escalations of hate speech, and racial tensions, and horrifying violence, including in our Nation’s Capitol (most recently just two days ago). And so many expectations, dreams, and familiar patterns of life have died in the last year, leaving us all disoriented and mourning.

This Easter Sunday, some weeping probably makes sense to us.

In John’s resurrection story, we see the honesty of Mary Magdalene’s faith, as well as her emotional integrity. When others hid in fear, displacing grief with anxiety, Mary went to the tomb. She gave herself the chance to mourn. She knew that this is what death requires.

There is a lesson for us there, if we will pay attention to it. A lesson about how important it is to not try to distract ourselves from grief, tempting as it might be to displace our grief with frustration, or anger, or anxiety. If Mary had not gone to the tomb to weep, she would have missed the evidence of resurrection.

That’s not to say, of course, that Mary had perfect understanding of that evidence. She didn’t understand what the empty tomb meant. She didn’t recognize in God’s angels a signal of miraculous divine action. When she encountered the risen Jesus, she didn’t even recognize him! But she was there… and so, she was the first to encounter the Resurrected One!

Or, to put it another way, resurrection speaks most clearly to the reality of death when we are willing to resist running away from it, choosing instead to be truly present in the pain and grief with which death confronts us.

This was a truth that our dear Evelyn Bowden understood well. In the last week of her life – the week that followed Easter Sunday last year – she shared a perspective of deep wisdom with her son Robert, a wisdom that he has given me permission to share with you. As her body struggled against the virus she could not get tested for, she told Robert, “There’s something for me to learn in this, if I pay attention.”

She knew that she had to stay present, not just endure and get through, to find what was there for her in the pain.

As it turns out, what she had to learned is what it is like to see her risen Lord face-to-face. She knows the joy of resurrection now as a present truth, not a hoped-for future. But her words offer us a different lesson and a different hope… the hope that comes from her example of facing the truth of struggle and pain, but also looking for resurrection in the midst of the pain. Because, really, that’s what she was doing when she talked to Robert about her faith that there was a lesson for her in her illness. She was teaching him, teaching all of us, about resurrection… about what it means to be raised to NEW life here and now.

It means always looking for what life is offering us, having faith that the lesson, the learning, the growth is there, if we will only pay attention.

Robert shared some of his reflections on this lesson with our Faithful Innovation Guiding Team. He shared that, as he has thought about his mom’s faith that there was a lesson for her in her struggles, he has recognized two lessons for himself.

The first lesson is that he cannot go back to life before her death.

This is, of course, the inevitable, painful truth of death: that it is irreversible. But we can react to this reality in different ways. We can hide from it by burying the pain, or by ruminating on our longing for what is gone. Or we can look forward to the life we are called to lead now, after loss.

Christ’s resurrection can speak to the reality of death by calling us forward into life. When Mary laments that “they have taken my Lord away” she is not entirely wrong. Although Jesus has risen again, he has not been resurrected to return to the same life and ministry for which he was executed. Once revealed, Jesus offers Mary comfort, but he also informs her that he is not there to stay. He will soon ascend to heaven. In making this plain, he calls her forward into new life as well. He is ascending “to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” This awareness of the hope and identity she shares with Christ is the promise of resurrection in the face of death for Mary, and for us.

This call forward connects to the second lesson Robert shared: He has learned that some of the pain of grief comes from trying to hold onto what was, and that there is healing and comfort to be found in learning to let go.

And I can’t help but wonder if this truth is why the resurrection story contains that little detail of Jesus telling Mary “do not hold onto me.” Clinging is a reaction of fear that what we love will be taken away, or an effort to control that which is not ours to control. And it is a posture that resists the work of resurrection in our lives.

Instead of clinging to him, Jesus sent Mary with a message to the disciples. He commissioned her as the first witness to the resurrection. He called her into the new life that required her to release the old, because the work was different after resurrection.

Of course, none of us have yet had a chance to see our resurrected loved ones, and even with the vaccine all that we have lost in the last year cannot now automatically be resurrected. But that does not mean that we are not being called into the new life of resurrection, here and now.

Called to look ahead, rather than looking back.

Called to release what came before and listen for what new work God has for us now.

Called, if we listen to Evelyn’s wisdom, to pay attention to the lesson there is for us to learn in each moment of grief and struggle.

John’s resurrection story is NOT, as Choi noted, triumphant. It does lead us to look into the reality of death. But Choi completes that thought by observing that this look is “where we unexpectedly but intimately encounter the risen Jesus.”[2]

Today we are invited to intimately encounter the risen Jesus. To encounter the hope and the call of resurrection in a way that touches our own deep pains, and fears, and losses. To hear Jesus call our name, and recognize the life he embodies where we only see death. To hear him call us into a new life that lets go of what we are clinging to, so that we can tell the story of his new life and ours.

Thanks be to God.


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