It Starts In Darkness

Rev. Scott L. Barton
April 20, 2014
John 19:38 - 20:18

Before jumping into Easter, I want to back up, as it used to say in Prince Valiant, to our story so far.  Three days ago, counting today, we’re back at Friday, the day we call “Good” in the church but which hardly seems good without today.  And yet today is hardly a day for alleluias and lilies and tulips without some awareness of what led up to it.

Earlier, as we recalled last week, there was that little parade into Jerusalem, when Jesus rode not a big white horse but a donkey.  The crowds thought he would save them from all their religious and political oppressors, and they cheered his coming.  But those rulers decided he was too much of a risk, and they decided to execute him for sedition.  The death penalty would be a good deterrent to anyone else who flouted the law the way he did.   So the state nailed him to a cross, which was the humiliating form of execution in those days. He didn’t suffer long, not nearly as long as would have been expected, only three hours, but of course it was painful – physically, mentally, and spiritually.

Now, here’s a picture that followed.  The young pastor in my home church had a print hanging on the wall in his church office.  It was of a painting by the 20th century German impressionist, Emil Nolde.  In vivid colors, the painting, called The Entombment, depicts three of Jesus’ followers laying Jesus’ body in the tomb, after they’ve taken it down from the cross. On one side, someone has his arms wrapped about the legs of Jesus, and he’s staring wide-eyed in shock into the face of the dead Christ.  The one on the other side has Jesus’ crumpled body in his lap, his left arm tight around the neck, his right hand grasping the right arm, and he is clearly struggling under dead weight.  The third, maybe one of the women, is facing us with her eyes closed, mouth open, not knowing what to do.  The bloated naked body of Jesus, marked with black and red holes and a gash, isn’t pretty. His over-sized face is scowling, his eyes are scrunched closed, his hair, disheveled.  

A woman walked into my pastor’s office and saw the print.  She took one look at the picture, and said in something of a rage, “Take that down!”  It was too gruesome for her.  She couldn’t stand to see such a portrayal of her Lord.  Her picture of Jesus was more like Warner Sallman’s 1941 very calm and serene, boardroom-executive-portrait-like head of Christ that has hung in many a Sunday school room, that I’m sure many of you know. To disturb that picture was to disturb her faith in the God who has all things under control, the one to whom she could go when life was disheveled, and who would quickly and easily restore her sense of balance. But if that’s your only picture of him, you’ve missed something.

The painting by Emil Nolde reminds me of a famous photograph that was taken on September 11, 2001.  Five rescuers are carrying the body of 68-year old Mychal Judge, the beloved, recovering alcoholic, celibate-but-known-by-all-to-be-gay, street-wise, Irish Franciscan priest and chaplain of the New York City Fire Department.  He had just administered last rites to a firefighter, who had been killed by a falling body, when he himself was killed.  The three firefighters carrying him are covered in ash.  Their faces are looking down, and grimacing. Two others appear to be medics.  They are all struggling, not so much with the weight as the event.  Fr. Judge’s face is also ashen.  His right pants leg is pulled up, and his limp leg shows above his sock; of course, his pants and black dress shoes are covered with ash; and his damaged right hand hangs down below the steel chair on which he’s being carried.  Since his was the first body recovered, his death certificate was number 1.    

Were you there when they crucified my Lord? goes the spiritual.  And of course, we weren’t there.  But we can all make our own personal connections with the agony of those who were.  That’s what we need to do, if today’s story has any chance to make something of a difference in our lives.

So, to tell more of the story:  They’ve agonizingly taken his body to the tomb.  They can’t believe what’s happened.  Like firefighters and medics who knew the love of the person they carried, they’re in deep, ashen darkness, but there’s a job to do and somebody has to do it.  John tells us it wasn’t people who had been following Jesus around a lot, people whom he’d tried to get to understand his message, who took care of his body.  The people who shine in the darkness will often surprise you, won’t they?  Think of the people who ran towards the site of the Boston Marathon bombing, instead of the other way, in order to help the victims. Joseph from Arimathea was someone never before mentioned in the Gospels, and Nicodemus, who was the one who came to Jesus at night and had that talk with him about being born from above, both retrieve Jesus’ body from the cross. In John’s telling, it’s as if they just sort of stumbled across the tomb to use temporarily until the sabbath would be over and they could find a permanent resting place.  They lay him there, with all the spices that Nicodemus has hauled, and wrap Jesus’ body.  I think it’s very interesting that John, who doesn’t seem to know or care about the story of the birth of Jesus, has Nicodemus, the wise Jewish teacher, bring the myrrh for burial, just as the wise men had brought myrrh in Matthew’s story of the birth.  It’s as if death brackets his life.

And now it’s Sunday, and Mary comes to that temporary tomb, while it’s still dark.  She’s thinking of those exhilarating days in Galilee, which by now, after last week’s events, seem too far away to have been real.  Jesus was popular.  Everybody laughed with him, admired his way with words, didn’t even mind being chastised by him, because they knew he was never looking out for his own interests; never seemed insecure or defensive, but always trusted his Father who loved him, while showing steadfast love to everyone, no matter who you were. He always had your interests at heart. God knows he had loved Mary when she needed it most.  But now, that was all gone.

She comes to the tomb and sees the stone rolled away.  There’s a lot of running around. She runs to tell Peter that somebody’s taken the body.  It’s quite plausible, if the tomb was a borrowed one.  Peter and the other disciple come, and there’s a lot of hesitation, but eventually they both go in.  And now they believe Mary’s story.  But apparently they don’t know what to make of it. Because they just go home!
“Men!” Mary mutters (maybe!)  At any rate, she can’t go home.  She can only stand there, in the darkness, and cry.  Her grief is so great, her breakdown so real that she’s not even impressed when two angels appear inside as she dares to look in the tomb for the first time.  “They have taken away my Lord, and I don’t know where they’ve laid him,” she answers their question about why she’s crying.  She cries because of what the powers of violence have done. She cries because he’s gone from her life.  She cries because of this latest insult.  Then, when he appears, she mistakes him -- in the dark, yet -- for the gardener, who might have been the one to have moved the body. And people still make the same mistake, don’t they?  I mean, we mistake Easter for spring, for the turn of seasons, the rebirth from the earth and the buds on the trees and the flowers that pop up in the yard (someday!)  But Easter is about resurrection. It’s entirely unnatural. Entirely new. You’ve never seen this ending before.

Do you think this is why John says that Mary didn’t recognize him?  Because he was completely new, and John is smart enough to know that we rarely recognize the hand of God when it actually appears. It’s only afterwards. But finally, Mary does recognize Jesus when he speaks her name.  John is the one who called Jesus the Word made flesh way back at the beginning, and now he speaks, and she hears.  I think this spoken name makes resurrection personal. John is saying that with God all things are possible for you. Mary hears her name, and what a difference it makes! What a difference when you hear your name spoken in love when you’ve been in that deep darkness, when the world is going to hell in a handbasket, “Mary,” Jesus says.  [Arbitrarily naming names of people in the congregation as I look around] – he says.  Resurrection is for you. And you, and you and you and you and you.

But it’s not only personal.  It has to do with how we live together.  And the reason we know this is that Jesus gave Mary that strange command, “Don’t hold on to me.”  You kind of wish Jesus hadn’t said it.  What else might she have wanted to do but throw her arms around him?  Shouldn’t we do more of that with each other? But on this day, he knows better. It’s like those booths that Peter wanted to build on the mountain of the transfiguration. Remember how Jesus took them down off the mountain, then, to heal that boy? So Jesus tells Mary to go and tell the others what’s happened. They all need to come out of the dark, together. They can’t see him alone.

It’s at this point in the original version of my sermon last week that I had an example of how the church helps people come out of the dark.  But a friend who now lives in North Carolina and has just retired but still reads the sermon ahead of time had the bravery to tell me that maybe I should cut that part out.  He thought it didn’t fit.  Can you be more personal, he asked. So here goes.
This is my 35th Easter sermon. I had a few years off since 1977.  One last year. One when we first moved to Philadelphia. And one when my congregation in Northern New York was gracious enough to give me the week off so Gayle and Lindsay and I could travel to Spain. Other than those times, I’ve been trying to explain this thing. And now, I don’t have to anymore, because this is probably my last Easter sermon, having told my church pension board to make this retirement thing official, although until the interim arrives, I’ll be around here some in May and maybe early June. But I realized that since I don’t have to explain it any more, that that’s the point. It’s not that it’s not explainable, scientifically. We all know that. That’s one of those red herrings. Wrong issue. The real issue is, the gifts of God are entirely out of your control. They don’t make sense. So much of what we do, what we decide, what we commit or recommit ourselves to, or even try to do , we do it because it makes sense. But resurrection, dare I say it, is non-sense. Resurrection is nonsense. It is entirely gift. And it’s only when we see that, only when we see our lives that might not have been, but they are, and every one in those lives as sheer gift, that we will finally be alive.  What did Jesus say? “I came that you might have life, and have it abundantly.” He’s not talking about something religious.  He’s talking about something so deep, and so bright, and so full of joy, that it’s the kingdom of God. Like Mary, we can’t hold on to it for one minute. We can only receive it.  
Robert Frost, the great poet of this valley as well as of the nation, once wrote:  “There are three ages of [human beings]; first when [you] learn to let go with [your] hands [isn’t it wonderful to see a one-year old take those first steps?]; second, when [you] learn to let go with [your] heart [isn’t it heaven when you first fall in love, and long for that kiss, and your heart is taken?] ; and third [Frost said], when [you] learn to let go with [your] head.”  Easter is an invitation to enter the third age of our lives.  With this astonishing story, we’re invited to let go with our heads.  That’s when love will finally overcome hate, good overcome evil, reconciliation overcome self-doubt and hostility, forgiveness overcome sin and guilt and death.  With God, as Jesus says [Matthew 19:26], all things are possible. What starts in darkness, doesn’t end there. Resurrection is God’s program. It isn’t something you can explain.  You can only receive it.  And you can only live it.