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Imagine hearing Jesus say your name

An Easter Sermon on John 20:1-18.

[for an audio recording of this sermon, click here. Photo by Jon Tyson on]

Imagine waking up in the cold and dark.

The sun is still asleep, and you wish you could lose yourself in oblivion again, but the grief sits too heavy on your chest. It presses into you, making it hard to draw enough breath.

So, you sit up. And then you find yourself standing, pressing your feet into sandals, wrapping your outer robe around your shoulders before stepping out into the pre-dawn stillness, letting your legs carry you toward the aching center of your emptiness. The tomb.

You are alone.

You carry nothing but the tears that sit sharp and hot behind your eyes.  

You are not even sure why you are going, except that you know you cannot stay away. Even when life and hope are gone, he is still the magnet that draws you.

Numbly, your brain reminds you of the stone. You won’t be able to see him, to touch his cold cheek, to spill your tears onto his lifeless form. You will still be separated by a barrier more solid and tangible than death.

But it is not this thought that makes your steps falter. It is the sight that meets your uncomprehending eyes as you round the corner and see the empty opening where the stone used to be.

Someone has removed the barrier.

Why do you not rush forward? Why not approach? Claim the last form of closeness that is left to you?

Why did you come here, in the dim stillness, if not to take the final steps that are unexpectedly unhindered?

Still, you hesitate. Uncertainty and anguish warring in your chest.

What if he’s not there? Why else would the stone be moved?

And with a rush, the question turns to certainty. And loss morphs into frustrated anger.

They have taken him away. Some shadowy enemy, the merciless powers that have torn through the vision of a new kingdom that Jesus birthed in your heart… THEY have taken this one last piece you had of him.

You turn and stumble away, stumble toward those who will share your shock.

Maybe something can be done.

Not about his death, of course, which is what really matters.

But this last indignity, this theft is an easier focus for the pain that is twisting in your gut. An almost welcome deflection… a problem to solve.

You burst in where your friends are only just waking from their grief-clogged slumber.

You have no gentleness to soften the news. You blurt it out: “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb…”

And then, they are rushing past you out the door, running back the way you have just come.

And you follow. Not alone this time, although you struggle to keep up with their longer legs and the initial adrenaline-fueled spurt of their pace.

When you reach the place of loss again, they have gone inside.

Your breath catches in your throat. Maybe… maybe you were wrong. Maybe he is still there. Maybe you can finally take those last steps to kneel at his side one last time… now that you are not alone.

But then they are coming out again, and the look on Peter’s face confirms your final fear. Jesus is really gone. Completely. Beyond all reach.

You choke on a sob. You long for your friends to come to you so you can comfort each other, or at least share the impossible task of mourning this loss.

But they stumble past you, almost unseeing. They are leaving.

But you cannot leave. Not again. Where would you go? You cannot comprehend what comes next.

Unless, perhaps, it is to finally approach. To see the hollow emptiness of the tomb for yourself. To face the finality of Jesus being gone.

Tears blur your vision as you bend to peer into the dark hole… and you try to blink them away, thinking for a moment that it must a trick of refracting light confusing your vision.

But, no. They are clearly there. Two figures in dazzling white, sitting on either end of the slab where you had seen the soldiers lay down Jesus’ limp body. The body that is not there.

Your brain stutters in shocked confusion.

Where did they come from?

Peter would not have left them there, unquestioned, if he had seen them. But you have been standing outside…. None of this makes sense.

But… really. Does any of that even matter? Jesus is still gone.

And with that thought, the tears well up again, spilling your pain down your cheeks. Spasming in your chest.

Then one of them speaks, in an unearthly voice that wraps around your heart, assuring you that you can trust them. They will not leave you alone in your pain. They want to help.

So, although the question was about your tears, you answer with the need that feels most pressing, the problem that could actually find a resolution.

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

You turn your head, as though to begin the search. Perhaps they can guide you, or at least accompany you, offer the comfort of their reassuring presence as you look for a path forward.

But there is someone new in front of you. A shadow in the grey early-morning light.

You cannot make out his face, but he can see your tears, and – somehow – he also knows their reason, at least in part.

He asks why you are crying, and also who you are looking for.

How can you answer that question? His name is not enough. It is not big enough to hold all that he is… was to you. All of the love, all the awe, all that you learned from him and hoped for…

To the other disciples he is the Lord, because you have shared the experience of serving his mission together.

But to this stranger, who belongs to the garden, not to your found family, how can you explain that you are looking for your life’s source, now dead?

But if he belongs in this garden, then maybe he knows. Maybe he is the one who moved the stone. Maybe he can take you to Jesus, let you take Jesus back.

You ask him, beg him… “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where…”

Your anguished plea hangs in the air between you for one moment. And then he speaks. Just one word: Your name.

And EVERYTHING changes.

Morning light breaks through the heaviness of night, and you recognize him.

The bright air rushes into your lungs as you gasp in joy.

The loneliness, the hopelessness, the desperate urge to search for what you thought had been stolen… it all dissolves like a mist in the light of the new-risen Son.

He is alive! Moments ago, your failing hope had been to recover his lifeless body. And now he is here.

And he is pronouncing your name in that beloved voice.

And you are here to hear him.

Because you came, and spilled your anguish out in the dark morning.

You faced the unbearable emptiness. You gave your grief a voice.

And his voice answered.

He has not taught you his last lesson yet.

Your heart swells with the understanding that he is teaching you right now. Teaching you how clarity, and hope, and healing come when we are willing to linger in the pain and confess our need for help.[1]

And now you know the name to call him by: “Rabbouni!” Teacher.

You move toward him, wanting the tangle your fingers in his robe and hold him here, because he has come back when you thought that was impossible.

And that trauma has not left you unscarred, even in this moment of overflowing joy.

There is a new anxiety vibrating through your hands, clutching for reassurance, wanting to know not just with your eyes and with your ears but with the strength in your fingertips, wanting to keep him where no one can take him away again.

But he says, “No. Do not hold onto me…” He never was your possession, and he has not returned to become that now.

His purpose here was always the mission. The vision of God’s re-working of the world that rejects the will to power, because the better way is love… that sees, and honors, and values, and never seeks to dominate or control.

And you feel the comfort in that reminder even as your hands relax, release him.

It’s not just Jesus who is alive again. It is everything he came to teach. Everything he came to change. Everything the powers of hatred, and violence, and division thought they had defeated.

The mission is why you followed him all those months ago.

That’s why his death felt like it stopped your life.

Because he gave your life a purpose you had never known was possible. A way to live in wholeness and hope, and you couldn’t imagine life going on if that was gone.

But it is not gone. Jesus has risen. And his vision of the kingdom is alive. And you don’t have to cling to him, because he will never abandon you.

He is returning to the Father in body, but his Spirit and his mission are alive.

And he has given you a message. “Go… and tell… I have seen the Lord.”

Thanks be to God.

[1] This sermon was, in part, inspired by this reflection from a lectionary essay by Debie Thomas: “In my own life, I find it increasingly true that clarity, hope, and healing come when I am willing to linger in hard and barren places, places where the usual platitudes fall flat, and all easy answers prove inadequate.  Jesus reveals himself in the shadows, and sometimes it takes a long time to recognize him.  He doesn’t look the way I expect him to look.  He doesn’t let me cling to my old ideas of him.  He disappears again just as I grab hold of him.  But he comes, he calls my name, and in that instant, I recognize both myself and him.” Full essay available at:


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