A meditation on Easter Sunday, the story of resurrection in John 20:1-18.
The great English writer G. K. Chesterton once quipped: “Look at things familiar / Until they look unfamiliar again.” Look at things familiar, until they look unfamiliar again. Think about the way the sun rose in the east this morning. You’ve seen the sun rise maybe a hundred times before. But never the way it rose this morning. Did you see it? There was something new, something unprecedented, something spectacularly sacred in the way the sun rose this morning. The way all the colors of the universe blushed in its rising. The way it lifted its gaze and smiled on your Easter Sunday. Did you see it? It seems to me that our human challenge is to unlock our own astonishment. To let the new and wondrous be new and wondrous. Look at things familiar, Chesterton quipped, until they look unfamiliar again.
In a sense, that’s our challenge, every Easter Sunday. Because it’s so easy, every spring, to take this story for granted; to assume we know all there is to know about Easter and resurrection. After all, we’ve heard it a hundred times before. It’s so familiar as to risk becoming routine. You’ve got the empty tomb. You’ve got the befuddled friends. You’ve got the risen Lord. What else could there be? It’s so tempting to anticipate this story’s trajectory—without investing in its pain, its sadness and its sudden surprise. After all, we know where it’s going.
But, of course, we don’t. We don’t know where this story is going any more than we know where our own stories are going. Look at things familiar, until they look unfamiliar again. This Easter story—this story of fear and fearlessness, this story of grief and resurrection—it’s new, it’s different every year. Like that sun rising over the hills this morning. If we dare to invest in Mary’s courage. If we dare to identify with Peter’s fear. If we risk looking for Jesus in that garden tomb. So we return to this sacred story, to this Easter story, not because we’ve heard it all before. We return—to be surprised, to be astonished, to be stunned by the wonders of life. Your life. My life. Our life together on this planet.
For starters, don’t you find it kind of curious that it’s Mary Magdalene who goes back to the garden tomb? After everything that’s happened—the betrayals in Gethsemane, the violence on Golgotha—Mary Magdalene’s the one who goes back first, in the dim hours of a new day, while it’s still dark. Not Peter, not James, not John, not the others. We remember that, in the last hours of Jesus’ life, Peter and James and John: they fled, scattered in a dozen different directions. Their anxiety is familiar to us. Fear sends us scurrying for safety in the shadows. No matter how much courage they thought they had; no matter how much enthusiasm; Peter and the others are easily intimidated. They’re hiding out, sleeping in, waiting for things to settle down in the frenzied city.
But not Mary Magdalene. Mary Magdalene refuses to hide. No closets for Mary. No doors double-bolted. She refuses to hide. It’s as if love—this extraordinary love—dissolves any fear, all fear in her heart. It’s as if compassion overrides anxiety. And she rises early in the morning and goes back to the tomb. To see. To hope. To keep this strange story alive for us. This is a woman, this is a disciple who fears nothing. Mary Magdalene.
What do we know about Mary Magdalene? Not a whole lot. Rumors abound, of course. A questionable reputation. A curious past. You have to wonder if the others are just jealous: her courage, her devotion, her getting there first. This woman whose shadows dance with light, this woman who discovers in Jesus the hidden wholeness she’s ached for all along. Jesus promised her that he wouldn’t leave her orphaned. Jesus promised her that even if world could see him no longer, she’d find a way. To see, to know, to love, to befriend. “Don’t let your heart be troubled,” Jesus said. “Don’t let it be afraid.” So here’s Mary Magdalene, while it’s still dark, going back to the tomb, taking Jesus at his word.
Imagine her courage. She’s been through everything the others have been through: watching Jesus arrested and beaten, spat at and stripped of his clothing. She’s seen him carry a huge, ugly cross up the hill and seen him crucified there with other criminals. And still, and still, she goes to the tomb on the first day of the week. Love dissolves fear. Compassion overrides anxiety. Mary’s taking Jesus at his word.
The thing is, this is just what Jesus taught her. Her teacher, her rabbi: this is just what he taught her along the way. Be curious. Fear nothing. Keep your heart open. Love your brothers and sisters. And look for me, look for me there. So Mary Magdalene takes Jesus at his word. She fears nothing. Nothing in her past. Nothing in her future. Nothing others say about her. None of their gossip. Jesus said, “No longer do I call you servant, for you are now my friend.” My friend, he said, my friend! Mary gets it. She believes him. And she fears nothing.
And there, in the garden, in the dim light of morning, she sees someone who looks something like a gardener. Is that because he’s got dirt stains at his knees and his elbows? Is it because he seems delightfully at home amidst the blossoms, the greenery, the wildlife of spring? Mary supposes him to be a gardener, and she asks for help in finding her dear friend’s body. “If you’ve carried him away,” she says, “tell me where you’ve laid him. I need to know.”
And Jesus says that one word, that one lovely word that reveals the hidden wholeness in her heart. The blessing in her being. The peace that will always be hers. “Mary!” He promised never to leave her orphaned. He promised she would see him always at play, always alive, always dancing on the good earth. And now Mary Magdalene hears him speaking that one word, that one lovely word. Her name. Mary.
You see, this isn’t just a story about Jesus’ resurrection: it’s a story about Mary’s as well. It’s a story about fearlessness and tenderness. It’s a story about love being stronger than death and perfect love dissolving all fear.
And when you get to that point in the story, to that moment, when the nicked up gardener calls Mary by name, I want you to make this story your story too. I want you to hear Jesus calling you by name. Life seems frenzied, disjointed, yes. But there is a hidden wholeness in your soul. The world pulses with violence and danger. But there is a peace in your heart that will bind up all the broken parts. Jesus calls you by name. Mary, Roger, Gabriel, Lynn, Nancy, Elizabeth. Fear nothing. Fear nothing. You are mine.
So, friends, here’s the Easter challenge. What if you walked out of here this morning, what if I walked out of here this morning—and we simply gave up on fear? The little stuff, the big stuff. We just gave up on fear. For the next three months. Let’s say three months. What kind of difference would that make in our lives? In our world? That’s the Easter challenge. What kind of difference would it make?
If you rolled out of bed every morning, put on your pot of fair-trade coffee, and you feared nothing? You don’t fear those ten extra pounds on the silly scale in your bathroom. Ten extra pounds of you is ten extra pounds of sweetness. And you’re not afraid of getting sick; the journey into old age thrills you. Better than Disneyland. You don’t fear getting a C on your history final. And you’re not afraid of bullies at school and the bully bully things they say. Who cares about bullies? What if you and I walked out of here this morning and simply gave up on fear?
For three months, say. You don’t fear your boss. And you’re not afraid of losing your job. You’re just going to live your life with passion and integrity—and let all the rest work itself out. You don’t fear vulnerability or your own weakness. The people you admire most are vulnerable folks, willing to take risks. So you’re not afraid to tell your friends the truth: what you really need, what you really crave, what you really want to be. You could walk out of here this morning and give up on fear. Say, for three months. See how it goes.
Albert Einstein, remember Albert Einstein: rarely accused of being a simpleton. But he simplified things just the same—on occasion. He once said: “There are only two ways to live your life.” Remember—this is Einstein. “There are only two ways to live your life,” he said. “One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as if everything is.” Everything is!
If there’s a choice to be made this morning, if there’s a fork in the road this Easter, it may just be this one. Two ways to live your life, Einstein said. One, as though nothing is a miracle. The other, as if it all is. Think about it. Think about that pot of coffee, that pot of fair-trade coffee, on your table tomorrow morning. You’ve had a good night sleep, a warm shower. What if the whole thing is a miracle? The whole of your life. The whole of our cosmic life together. What if you feared nothing?
Suddenly, though, the man realized there were bricks all around. He picked up a loose one, just a brick, and tossed it into the water. The sound of the water struck his ears like words spoken by a delicious friend. And because he was so happy hearing the water sing, the man began to tear down the wall, tossing brick after brick into the stream.
He imagined someone, somewhere asking, “What do you think you gain by doing this?” And the thirsty man replied: “Two things I gain. The first is that I hear the sound of the water—which is like an oboe, a clarinet, a lullaby to a thirsty man. The sound’s for me like the Angel’s trumpet: it awakens life in one who was dead! And the second gain for me,” he said, “is that with every brick I tear down and throw in I come closer to the running water. Every brick removed makes the wall lower—and lowering the wall is a way of reaching the water.”
And the great mystic, Rumi, concludes: The thirstier the man on top of the wall is, the quicker he tears down the bricks and tufts of grass. The more in love with the sound of the water, the greater are the clumps of brick he tears down.
So I imagine, this Easter Sunday, that every one of us is sitting on some kind of wall. There’s a stream below, a running stream with living water, and we’re thirsty. Oh, how we’re thirsty! But these walls, these anxieties, these fears make us sad. We sit and watch and wonder.
But then, in a hymn or a prayer, in the words of a friend or a stranger, in the rising sun of a new day, you hear your name. Mary, Roger, Gabriel, Lynn, Nancy, Elizabeth, Clara, Matilda, William. And now you know. You’re in love with the water below. You’re in love with life itself. You’re in love with God—whose love shines in you in a precious and unique way. And the wall you’re sitting on? Just a bunch of bricks. And one by one, you take them. One by one, you bless them. One by one, you toss them into the stream, into the running waters, into the singing waters below. Here’s the thing: the wall is just a wall. And fear is really just fear. You are created to swim. You are created to splash and laugh and love. You are created to play in the living waters of God’s joy. The wall is just a bunch of bricks. And brick by brick, you have everything you need to dismantle it. Faith, hope, love, courage. Christ is risen, this Easter Sunday! The wall's coming down. And it’s time to swim. It's time to swim. Amen.