Conversations at the Tomb

Easter Message by Rev Elder Glenna Shepherd, Elder Serving MCC Region 4

The Text:  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' 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.   Then the disciples returned to their homes.

But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; 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. 

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."   When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus.  

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."  Jesus said to her, "Mary!" She turned and said to him in Hebrew, "Rabbouni!" (which means Teacher).  

Jesus said to her, "Do not hold on to 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.'"  

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.

Conversations at the Tomb - The Message

In thousands of Good Friday services around the world, worshipers have meditated on the last words of Jesus.  On Easter, I invite you to consider the FIRST WORDS of the resurrected Christ, the crucified, transformed living Jesus. 

His first words were to Mary Magdalene - the first witness to the resurrection.

Woman, why are you weeping?  Whom are you looking for?
Mary!  Do not hold onto me.

Mary came to the tomb that morning seeking a dead body!  A corpse!  
The very same body that had been crucified.
It was something she could do that might ease her grief.
Just one more glimpse of him.
Even though his body would be wrapped, she could be close to him.
Remember who Jesus was to her.  When she was shunned by others, he was the one to reach out, to offer life and dignity, purpose and respect. Love.
Mary looked in the tomb and found it empty.
     But she didn't say, "Alleluia - Christ is risen!"

Rather, as most anyone would, she assumed his body had been taken.
Mary looked into the face of the risen Christ, and found a gardener.
     She didn't say "Alleluia, it is you!"
     She assumed this was someone she didn't know.
Mary looked and did not find who or what she was looking for.
According to John's gospel, the very first thing Jesus said to anyone - after he had been dead for many hours and had felt the power of God enter him and do the unthinkable were these words to Mary:  Whom are you looking for?
It's especially interesting that earlier - in the first chapter of John's gospel, the very first thing Jesus said to those he asked to become his followers was basically the same question:  What are you looking for?
At the beginning and now at the resurrection....
Perhaps that question was for Mary and is for us a crucial one, and reminds us of how Jesus relates to Mary and to us:  
at the point of our need, at the place of our searching.
What are you looking for?  Who are you looking for at this Easter?
What is it that brings you to the empty tomb?  Or to Easter worship?
     Hoping to hear great music?  
     Because it's that day and that's what we do?
     For the scent of lilies in the air?
Or is there something more?
Has some deeper curiosity or need or quest brought you to this Easter moment?
Mary never did find what she came looking for that day:  the dead body of Jesus.
But she found something better than she could ever have imagined:  the risen Christ.
Maybe we'll be surprised, too, if we bring our open spirits and are willing to open ourselves to a fresh encounter.
Don't hold onto me sounds kind of harsh, doesn't it?  But it reveals the truth of the resurrection.
You see, resurrection is not going back to a former time and picking up where they left off.   Things weren't suddenly as they were before.  Life didn't simply carry on now that Jesus was alive.
Rather, resurrection means that the past is dead and a whole new life lies ahead.
It's true:  Mary didn't find what she came looking for that day: the body of Jesus.
And that she found something better than she could ever have imagined:  the risen Christ.
And when she found it, she wanted to hold on for dear life!
But Jesus told her to let go.  The story wasn't finished yet.  And it couldn't be until he was totally in the wonder and presence of God - ascended, he called it.
She wanted to hold on because she never wanted to loose Jesus again.  But she needed to let go so that she - and all of us - could have the presence and power of the Resurrected One always and everywhere.
What does that mean for us?
Perhaps it means that holding on to what we've always believed or clinging to notions of what we're looking for isn't always the way to the Living Christ!
Even if we've experienced life-turning moments, God is always doing a new thing in and with us.   If we hold on to the old, we'll miss the miracle of the present.
The poet Mary Oliver says:
                      To live in this world you must be able to do three things-
                           to love what is mortal;
                           to hold it against your bones knowing that your life depends on it;
                           and when the time comes to let it go, let it go.
Gerald May had these words to say about letting go:
I have never been able to positively let go of anyone or anything I really loved.
   Instead, these things, people, self-images, god-images, and dreams
       have been taken from me.
            And most of them are covered with my claw marks.
We hold on!  Afraid of losing.
In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, Harry encounters his parents who died when he was a baby in a mirror at Hogwarts, a mirror that shows the deepest desires of the gazer's heart.  Harry is gripped by the experience and savors these memorable, realistic moments with the parents he's never known.   He returns again and again.
In his wisdom, Dumbledore, the headmaster, lovingly cautions Harry about the dangers of the mirror.
Some, Dumbledore says, have even gone mad, living absorbed in their frozen-in-place desires.  They waste away there, in front of it.
As Harry holds onto his parents, Dumbledore says what Jesus could have said to Mary:  
            It will not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live.
Jesus had plans for Mary.   Work that she alone could do.
            He had called her by name.
As she let go, he could guide her.  And live in her.
What are you seeking?  What might you need to release in order to find it?
The Risen Christ awaits us all - ready to offer more than we've ever imagined!
May you encounter Jesus today - and receive the new beginnings of Easter.

Christ is risen indeed!  Hallelujah!  Amen.


Reverend Elder Glenna Shepherd

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