Leader: He is not there!? Response: Not there, indeed!?

John 20:1-18
Steve Hammond
April 20, 2014 (Easter)

According to the story in John’s gospel the first Easter proclamation was not ‘He is risen!’ but, ‘He is not there.’

John’s story is more of a contemplative account. It’s so different than in Matthew where there were earthquakes. There was also an angel all in glistening white with shafts of lightening blazing from him while he rolled back the stone right in front of the women and the trembling band of soldiers. They had been ordered to keep anybody from entering or leaving the tomb. And in Matthew’s story, when the two Mary’s encounter the risen Jesus, it’s kind of like ‘Surprise! It’s me!”

In John’s story, though, it’s more of a one on one thing between Mary Magdalene and Jesus. (I am going to refer to her as Mary M. because there are, at least, three Marys in one or more of the resurrections stories). In John’s story, it’s just Mary M. She wasn’t going to finish the burial rituals. She wasn’t looking for anybody to roll the stone away. She just wanted to be there at the tomb.

It does say in Matthew’s story that Mary M. went down to the tomb with the other Mary to keep vigil. I understand that. I go out to Sarah’s grave all the time and I don’t know exactly why. I just need to be there. And I’m pretty sure that most of you here understand why we do such things. That’s especially true when the death has been so recent. We go to keep vigil, even though we don’t know what that vigil is about, what it is we are exactly expecting to see.

So Mary M. went to the tomb and the funny thing is that the stone had been rolled away and Jesus was nowhere to be found. In all the stories about the resurrection in the four gospels there are these two constants. The first was that Jesus had been raised from the dead and the second was that nobody was expecting that, not Mary M., not anybody. Well, maybe Pilate. Though I doubt he was expecting Jesus to be raised from the dead, I get the feeling he might have been the person least surprised by such a turn of events.

When Mary M. discovered the tomb was empty, she went running back to find the others. She didn’t say Jesus had been raised, but that he wasn’t there. Wherever their hideout was it must have been close by, because Peter and another disciple (the story says it was the one Jesus loved, perhaps Lazarus as I have speculated in the past) raced each other to the tomb. When the other disciple looked in he saw, believed, and didn’t understand.

I don’t know any better way to think about the resurrection. It is something beyond our understanding but not beyond our belief. In fact, if we think we understand it, that’s probably a sign we really don’t. The resurrection has to be something way more than we can wrap our minds around. But it seems, to me, that the resurrection of Jesus is something faith can grab hold of or, at least, pieces and parts of it.

Then John’s story simply says that after seeing nothing but discarded grave clothes inside the tomb, the two disciples went back. Mary M. stayed there by herself, crying outside the tomb. Then she did something that makes so much sense to me. Even though she had seen the tomb was empty, had it verified by, at least, two of her companions, she looked in the tomb again. That’s what I would do. I would keep looking in there. This was a real head scratcher.

It turned out that she wasn’t exactly alone, after all. When she looked into the tomb that time, there were two angels in there. I’m not quite sure why. Maybe they were cleaning up. Maybe they liked being in tombs. They weren’t there before when Mary had first gone into the tomb. And they weren’t there when Peter and the other one were there. And they don’t really add anything to the story, because no sooner than Mary M. began talking with them, somebody else showed up. She thought it was the cemetery caretaker. We know better.

So there was Mary M. talking with two angels, though I don’t think it occurred to her that they were angels, and Jesus whom she didn’t recognize. She was crying. They were all asking her why. All she wanted to know is which one of them took the body of Jesus. If they would just let her have his body back, she and the others would figure out what to do.

Even though Jesus had been standing right in front of her and talking with her, she had no idea who he was. See how hard it is to understand this resurrection thing? But when he spoke her name, everything changed. Like the other one, she saw, believed, but surely didn’t understand. But for Mary M. that was just fine. She didn’t have to understand. He spoke her name.

Jesus told Mary M. not to hold on to him though there is nothing in the story that says she was. If everything was different for Mary, think about Jesus. Remember a couple of weeks ago when I talked about how Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead the Sunday before Jesus was raised? In the encounter Jesus had that day with Martha he said ‘I am the resurrection and the life.’ He didn’t say that he was the one who resurrected people like Lazarus. Nor did he say he was the one who was going to be resurrected in just a week’s time. Instead he said he was resurrection, itself. He was life.

It’s interesting, I think, that when Lazarus was raised, somebody had to take the grave cloths off of him. But not so with Jesus, unless that’s why the angels were there. But I think that might be saying something about how Jesus always was life, always was resurrection, or at least, the person most unencumbered by death that I have ever heard of.

There’s one more thing I noticed here that seems worth mentioning. Jesus told Mary M. to go and tell his brothers what had happened. What about the sisters? There were plenty of them. Now there are two ways you can look at this. One is your run of the mill patriarchy enabling idea that it’s only the brothers who count. Or you can look at it as Jesus pointing out that the brothers are never going to figure this out without the help of the sisters. Another constant is that in every telling of the Easter story it’s the women disciples who get it before the men do. That was one of the things that made it so hard for first century folk to take this story seriously. It was women, not men, who were at the center of what happened that morning. And a lot of men don’t like it when everything doesn’t center around them.

“Tell my brothers,” Jesus commanded Mary M., “that I am ascending to God.” You see, none of us can keep hold of Jesus, keep him for ourselves, though we won’t quit trying. He won’t fit into our boxes. This is about resurrection and life, not the same old ways that are killing us. This is about the life of God. And because of the one who is resurrection and life, we are about the life of God.

They went to the tomb and he wasn’t there. But he appeared to them alive. They couldn’t recognize him, at first, because they had to learn how to see him in a new way. And that is always the Easter challenge for us. He isn’t where we have put him. Jesus isn’t going to stay in the tombs we carve out of the rocks for him. He is not there. He is alive and, like those women and men on the first Easter morning, we get to spend our whole lives seeing him in new ways. Amen