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Never Normal Again – Easter 2024
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SCRIPTURE John 20:1-18


Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’s head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed, for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. 10 Then the disciples returned to their homes.


11 But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb, 12 and she saw two angels in white sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. 13 They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” 14 When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15 Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” 16 Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). 17 Jesus said to her, “Do not touch me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’ ” 18 Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord,” and she told them that he had said these things to her.

About 30 miles north of here, about 30 or so miles south of Denver, in the foothills west of the small town of Sedalia, is a pretty remarkable facility that very few people actually know about. In fact, it’s probably better known outside of Colorado, at least among those people from across the nation and around the world who come in to take advantage of its offerings and support its mission. I’m talking about the Sacred Heart of Jesus Retreat Center in Sedalia. As its name suggests, it’s a Roman Catholic ministry, but they are very intentionally accommodating of groups and individuals who aren’t Catholic as well. They host things like women’s and men’s group retreats, Church Board planning retreats, even the occasional family reunion. Their facility offers a common dining room with simple but healthy food, a range of overnight accommodations from group bunk rooms to individual bedrooms. They have miles of trails, a large library, a beautiful chapel with daily services, areas set aside for reading and prayer – it really is an amazing ministry, not only to Catholics, but to all who feel drawn to the idea of some time away from it all to pray, think, decompress, plan, re-energize – what have you.


A number of my clergy colleagues have spent time down there – typically anywhere from 3 to 7 days – in order to think and pray through challenges related to their ministries or their personal lives, and they all talk about how blessed they’ve been by it. It’s by design very affordable, and flexible as to their guest’s needs for their retreat. While they do handle a lot of group functions, really the bulk of their service is provided to individuals coming on a personal retreat. There aren’t TV’s in the guest rooms, and while they certainly don’t frisk you when you check in, they urge you to turn your cellphones off and leave them turned off for your time there. In any case, cell service is pretty lousy in the area, a fact which brings a sort of proud smile to the face of Father Edward Kinerk, director of the Center. 


The most intense of their offerings, though, is one they almost discourage people from undertaking – unless they’ve had experience with it previously. It’s the Individual Silent Retreat, and its name tells you just what it involves. You are to refrain from talking or participating in any of the group activities, and the staff is trained to literally leave you to yourself. You can arrange your own Silent Retreat with a length of anywhere from 1 to 8 nights, but if you’re trying to set up one longer than 3 nights, you’ll have to speak with Father Kinerk first. He explains that often people love the idea of not talking or listening to city noises or human voices for 8 days, that it sounds like heaven to a lot of people who have never done that for more than 8 hours while they were asleep, but the reality is far more challenging. In fact, Kinerk notes, even with some of the people who’ve been approved for a Silent Retreat longer than 3 days, it’s very common for them to check out and drive back to their daily noise well before it is officially scheduled to end. Kinerk points out the obvious – the lessons we learn, the thoughts we have, are often much clearer and far more intense when they’re churning in our minds in silence. 


That’s part of what’s been going on for the disciples and the other followers of Jesus who have been waiting, huddled together possibly even in that same Upper Room where they’d gathered for that Last Supper on Thursday evening. That last time together before it all came to a head, and their hopes and their plans and their dreams were shattered as the One they’d come to love, to call their Lord, had died in agony on a Roman cross the next day. None of the Gospels gives us any real account of what went on among that group of devastated disciples between Jesus’ death and the amazing morning we just heard about from John’s Gospel. There are a few verses in John about Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus claiming his body and hastily preparing it and placing it in Joseph’s tomb before the Sabbath started at sundown. Matthew gives a few sentences about Pilate posting some guards at the tomb at the behest of the Pharisees and Temple Authorities in an effort to deal with a fear they have of the disciples coming to steal Jesus’ body under the cover of darkness.


But the Gospels are silent when it comes to telling us what was going on in the huddled gathering of the 11 disciples who remain, augmented by a number of other followers of Jesus, including many of the women who literally enabled His ministry to happen over those three years. Frankly, I’m pretty sure the Gospels are silent because the truth is, that time between the despair at sundown on Friday and the joy that’s to come on Sunday morning was just that: silent. The kind of silence that doesn’t refresh you, but instead bears down on your soul. Forcing you to question your choices and actions, not only in the days before Good Friday for those in that room, but even for the years before as they chose to follow the one who they believe is now lying in a borrowed tomb.


Those in the room who expected Jesus to rise to prominence and victory in Jerusalem that year are disappointed and questioning their beliefs and decisions. Those who felt He was the one who would lead the uprising that would finally overthrow Rome and restore Israel to the glory it had under Kings David and Solomon are disappointed, maybe even angry at the letdown. Not only did Jesus fail in that undertaking, He made it clear in his final moments that was never his intention, never his mission among us. Those who loved him as a friend, as someone who had touched their lives, cast out their demons, fed their soul, mourned his death in silence. And those who finally had come to hear and believe Jesus’ words that He was God the Son perhaps felt the heaviness of silence the most of all. How could God, coming to walk among us and teach us and change us, now lie dead in a cold dark tomb just steps from where he’d been so cruelly executed?


And perhaps most notably, in that quiet room among shocked fellow travelers and believers, one voice was seemingly most painfully silent – even absent: God’s voice. We ALL know that feeling, I think. Sometimes, in what are the hardest times of our own lives, even in the midst of our prayers and cries of “Why God?” or “what now God?” we hear only silence, and it bears down with a weight like almost nothing else can. But the lesson of this silence the disciples went through in those hours is a lesson we need to learn as well. The truth is, often the best, the most valuable lessons in our lives come not from conversation or classroom, but in despair and silence. 


One of the most remarkable figures of faith in our lifetimes has to be Mother Theresa – I’m sure you’d agree. Her work among the poor not only touched their lives, it called all of us to think and act differently as well. Her bold proclamations about the holiness of all life in a world that has somehow fallen into an infatuation with death and judgement and emptiness were perhaps her greatest legacy of all. You’d think that Mother Theresa, more than anyone, would have had some sort of direct connection with God – a direct hotline with our Creator to receive her marching orders and get that divine support 24/7. But, it turns out, that wasn’t the case. Portions of her diaries were published in a book titled “Come, My Light” 10 years after her 1997 death, and the press immediately labeled them as Mother Theresa’s crisis of faith. But they absolutely missed the truth, as they so often seem to. You see, Mother Theresa understood that God uses silence, his silence, to work his will in our hearts, our lives, even our world. That silence forces us to confront, wrestle with, the questions and doubts we all have. That silence teaches us there’s a time for us to be quiet as well – to stop pretending we have all the answers, that we know it all. And most of all, that silence prepares us for what God has in store for us, for each of us, when the dawn breaks and the hours of darkness flee.


That’s where we enter the story this Easter morning, with our reading of the account of the Resurrection from John’s Gospel. All four of the Gospels provide slightly different focuses on this most important event, not only in Christian history, but in the world’s history, whether the world realizes it or not. But in all of them, the sun rises, the enforced inactivity of the Sabbath ends, and the women who have been in that room prepare to perform the solemn duty that is truly only theirs. 


John’s gospel focuses on Mary Magdalene in this scene, although, as the other gospels show us, the other women were there as well. Mary is the subject of a lot of untrue assumptions, including her supposed career as a prostitute before she met Jesus – that’s nowhere in the Gospels. We do learn that Jesus freed her from demons, and she was among his earliest, and most devoted followers. We’re sometimes reluctant to call people beside the inner 12 “disciples”, but when you understand the meaning of the word as a student and follower, Mary is absolutely a disciple. 


It's possible that she was the woman who anointed Jesus feet with an incredibly expensive perfumed ointment, symbolic of her understanding Jesus’ declarations that he was about to be executed. Mary Magdalene alone seems to have understood that before the events of Good Friday unfolded. And when it came time for those agonizing hours of Jesus being on the cross, none of those official 12 disciples, with the exception of John, seemed to have been on the scene. But Mary Magdalene was. Given all of that, it’s not surprising that Mary, after sharing those hours of silence and dread with the others, intends to lead the way to Jesus’s tomb (she’d also seen him placed there, so knew where it was). There was work to be done, respect and love to be demonstrated, even as Jesus lay dead. 


While Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus no doubt did what they could as they hurriedly prepared to lay Jesus body in the tomb before the sun set on Friday and the Sabbath began, Mary knew there’s no way they did it right, did it as it should have been done, as she felt it HAD to be done. There were the appropriate spices and balms to anoint the body with, the customary wrapping of the body as well, and those two men hadn’t had the supplies or the knowledge to make that happen. So as the sun is about to rise, and now she CAN go to the tomb and give the last blessing she wants to offer to the one she so loves, she gathers what she needs and heads out. 

No doubt she and the other women discussed how they would deal with the stone that would have been rolled across the opening of the tomb. It would have been a rounded stone, placed in a sort of track in front of the opening, weighing probably somewhere between 1 to 2 tons. It was designed to roll with the efforts of 2 or 3 strong men, but it would be pretty much impossible for them to accomplish on their own. Maybe they could find some men in the area who might help them, they undoubtedly hoped. But as they approach, they find to both their relief and concern, the stone has already been rolled away. Their pace would have picked up a bit, and then as they looked into the tomb, their shock must have been overwhelming.


But Mary, immediately on just seeing that the stone has been rolled away fears the worst. She assumes, even before she’s looked in, that Jesus’ body is gone, has been taken. It’s a reasonable conclusion. Rome typically didn’t allow those they crucified to have the privilege of a dignified burial, especially in the private tomb of a rich man like Joseph of Arimathea. Did the Romans come and take Jesus’ body to a paupers’ mass gravesite, as they often did with those they crucified? Or perhaps grave robbers, another common thing back then, had come and taken the body to steal any jewelry on it, or perhaps even hold it for ransom to be paid by loved ones. In any case, she has to let the others know – they have to do something!


She runs to tell them, and John and Peter race back, John, the younger man, easily beating Peter. John holds back, though, unsure of what he’ll find, frightened of any of the possibilities. But Peter, oh dear Peter – my favorite disciple because his impulse control filter seems to work as badly as my own – has no such qualms. He runs in, and sees the truth. Jesus isn’t there! The rudimentary grave cloths Joseph and Nicodemus had arranged lay there, but Jesus’ body is nowhere to be seen. John’s gospel hints that Peter seems to finally get at least a glimmer, a recollection that Jesus had said he would rise again after three days. And John, now emboldened by Peter’s entrance, goes in and seems to have the same thoughts. It’s not all there yet, but the pieces of the puzzle seem to be coming together. They return home, to tell the others certainly, but also to think about all that has happened. But Mary Magdalene returns to the tomb. And there she finds two men sitting on the stone platform where Jesus’ body had been laid. They’re angels, we’re told, but Mary has a singular focus. Finding Jesus’ body, offering him the service of love in the preparation of his body that she had intended that morning. 


She stands there weeping, and the two men ask her maybe the most insensitive angel question ever, given this is all taking place in a tomb! “Why are you weeping?” Through her tears she tells them Jesus has been taken, and she needs to find him. She turns around to the opening of the tomb, and there stands a man. She doesn’t recognize him just yet – possibly there are tears in her eyes. Maybe in her mind she can only see the battered and wounded body of Jesus that she saw being placed in the tomb. “Maybe he’s the gardener,” she thinks. Maybe he knows what happened. Maybe he can help her retrieve Jesus and make things right, or at least as right as they can be. 


But then Jesus speaks her name, and understanding rushes in. “Rabouni” she calls out. Teacher. Lord. Master. And she falls at his feet, grasping him in the hope that he won’t disappear, won’t go away again. The NRSV in vs. 17 gives an unfortunate translation of Jesus response to her recognition: "Don’t touch me.” A much better translation, that the NIV and NASB use is along the lines of “Don’t cling to me – don’t hold on to me.” Jesus continues explaining that he hasn’t ascended yet – in other words he isn’t going away yet. There’s still time to reunite, to continue the lessons, to prepare for their future of being the church, the body of Christ for the world. “Go and tell the others” Jesus tells her, and she goes to do just that. 


And Mary’s words become our words, too, every Easter. He is not dead – he is risen. And just like Mary, Jesus wants us to tell the others too – all of the others. We tell of Easter because now we know that God will never let the worst thing in our lives, in our world, be the last thing. The Resurrection makes everything different, everything new. We will never be normal again. The tomb is empty and new life is the result. New life for each of us, as we look into the empty tomb and see and believe that Jesus has risen. Peter and John proclaim the Good News, reminding us that it is just as He said. And we see Mary finally understanding when Jesus speaks her name. Finally, that He’s speaking our name as well. Waiting for us to truly see him, waiting for us to call him Lord, Master, Savior.


At Easter we realize that the God who created us, who loves us more than we can understand, who came to be with us in Jesus, who came to be like us in Jesus, who came to save us in Jesus, has risen from the dead, and death no longer has dominion here. At Easter we learn the same lesson that those men and women we read about this morning learned, the message that prepared them for the greatest joy they could ever imagine: God loves us, Christ is with us, and we are saved. Christ is risen – Christ is risen indeed!


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