Sermon, 4/4/21. The Empty Tomb: The Need for a Hubble Faith Telescope

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Easter Day

Psalm 118:1 – 2, 14 – 24; Acts 10:34 – 43; I Corinthians 15:1 – 11; John 20:1 – 18

Supposing him to be the gardener, she [Mary] said … (John 20:15)

A synopsis:

  • Mary Magdalene discovers an empty tomb.
  • Mary Magdalene goes to inform Peter and the disciple whom Jesus loved.
  • Peter and the disciple whom Jesus loves return with Mary, to verify Mary’s observation.
  • Peter and the disciple whom Jesus loves inspect the tomb, verify Mary’s findings, and leave.  No information given as to their destination. 
  • Mary Magdalene remains behind, in order to seek the reason for this turn of events.
  • Mary Magdalene’s further discovery requires a telescope of faith.

Today is Easter Day, and once again, due to restrictions imposed by our efforts to combat the Covid-19 pandemic, we are not assembled to hear the traditional account of an event that shattered, and challenges, all previously held reasonable expectations and assumptions.  We were not prepared for this pandemic: its severity, its far-reaching invisible tentacles, its challenge to assumptions of the intellectual superiority of the modern era.  In a sense, these last 14 months have challenged even our faith in the God, whom we claim, created Heaven and Earth.  And then Easter, our second Easter Day under a pandemic, returns center stage and reminds us that challenge is not a stranger to those who seek to uncover truth.

We attempt to understand one of the most intriguing, if not perplexing stories of all time.  Should the account of the Resurrection be assigned to the same storage barrel as the story of Santa Claus or Father Christmas, useful in our more youthful years, but set aside in our maturity?  Jesus defied all that we knew, and still think we know, about nature.  He died, but lived to tell about it.  Rationally, this history-changing event called The Resurrection just does not add up.  In an earlier era, we could perhaps gloss over the challenge of Easter by holding a great coming out party, as exemplified by the song “In your Easter bonnet, with all the frills upon it.”  Easter was not the occasion on which we wrestled with the impossible.  It was a cotillion, preceded by a parade down our own local Fifth Avenue.

Yet, behind every Easter Parade remains the incomprehensible haunting tale of a man, declared legally dead by a centurion, a Roman soldier, returning to life.  That tale and all that it signifies is the basis of our faith.  If Jesus has not been raised from the dead, then all that we believe, has no meaning and no value.  And it does not take a St. Paul to remind us of that.  The story of the Resurrection requires a telescope that enables us to see beyond our human eye of understanding.

And the story of the empty tomb is made further complicated because, although the event is recorded in all four gospels, none of the writers reports the first Easter morning happenings precisely alike.  Moreover, none of them claims to have firsthand knowledge.  They all report what has been reported to them, and they do so with absolute certainty in its validity!   Easter, for the lineally directed mind is a Hearsay Story.  In science, there is the expectation that, when a researcher puts forward his or her findings, those findings, if they are to be believed, must be able to be reproduced by a laboratory thousands of miles away.  Verification is essential.  This is our expectation of the vaccines which mitigate against the virus that brings on Covid-19.

But, should we expect the writers of the Gospels to report the same event in the same way?  Mark and John indicated that Mary Magdalene was the first person to arrive at the tomb on Easter Day.  Matthew and Luke state that Mary Magdalene led a small group of women to the tomb early on Sunday morning.  Will we, should we, discredit the veracity of The Resurrection, as a good defense attorney just might want to argue, because the details differ?  What do we lose sight of, if we challenge The Resurrection on those grounds?  After all, even in our world, “the real world,” if two individuals were to witness the same accident, the individual recount of that event, will vary based on the physical location of the observer, not to mention possible distractions just prior to the event.

However, I wonder, just wonder, if for you and me in the 21st Century, there is another way to look at what Easter is all about.  If looked at seriously and not with the lenses of simply repeating the ancient story, if we let the story tell us what it wants, we might just be surprised by what emerges.

What fascinates me about that first Easter Day was that it was Mary Magdalene, to whom Jesus first appeared.  Mary Magdalene, a woman and a not so pristine woman at that, as her story is told!  In spite of all the sermons that I have heard, or delivered myself on this Holy Day, I ask myself: but why first to Mary Magdalene?  What about all the other individuals who might have, and perhaps should have been more credible, because of their rank in society?  Jesus could have chosen his disciples who had been his constant companions prior to his crucifixion.  After all, did he not appear to them later in the Upper Room where they were sequestered?  Why could he not have done so immediately, at the time of his Resurrection?  He could have shattered their fears and ambiguity regarding his divine status and power, once and for all.

Had Jesus desired to demonstrate his incomparable divine power over death to those who had demanded or approved his crucifixion, he could have made a personal appearance to Pontius Pilate, or to the chief priests, or to Caiaphas, the high priest.  After all, it is from among this group came the mockery: ‘if you are the Son of God, come down from the cross and save yourself;’ or ‘let us see if God will save him; then we will believe.’  And then, there was his family.  Would not the bereaved Mary, the woman who gave him birth, have been ecstatic?

Yet it was, our Book of Records informs us, to none of the above to whom Jesus made his first appearance.  It was to Mary Magdalene that he came for his first risen-from-the-dead conference.  Why Mary Magdalene, one might well ask?  Perhaps, the better question should be, why not to Mary Magdalene?  

If you were granted the privilege to return to this earth in resurrected form after your death, whom would you choose for your first face-to-face audience?  Would it be the person whom you despised the most?  Would it be the individual who gave you your first job?  Would it be the person you missed the most, or probably the person who missed you the most?  Mary Magdalene was Christ’s first choice because of her devotion, dedication, and dependence.  And so it is, on this Easter Day 2021, that I suggest that the disciples missed a splendid opportunity to make use of a telescope that was presented to them and which challenges even us today.  

The scriptural record speaks for itself on this matter.  Shortly after the ascension of Jesus, the first major item of business for the disciples was to fill the vacancy left, when Judas Iscariot took his own life.  Peter announced that any candidate for the position must meet two qualifications: (1) “The man” must have been a noncommissioned disciple who actively participated in the ministry of Jesus “from the baptism by John until his ascension.” (2) The candidate must have been a witness “to his resurrection.”  Matthias and Joseph called Barnabas met the requirements.  The name of each was written on a small stone, placed in a container which was shaken, until one of the stones fell to the ground.  The winner was Matthias.  However, if the eleven apostles had been brave and bold enough to think outside their limited, and limiting, cultural box and had chosen the right person, instead, and without casting lots, a highly unusual individual would have been chosen.  What if they had looked beyond their own biases and assumptions and had chosen to recognize the prominence that Mary Magdalene had in Jesus’ heart, both prior to his death and at the very time of his resurrection?  

It was Peter who laid down the requirements for membership into the twelve.  But, at the very time of the Resurrection, where was this ‘let-us-build-three-booths’ Peter?  Where was the ‘you-are-the-Son-of-the-living-God’ Peter?  Where was that ‘I-will-never-deny-you’ Peter?  We know where Judas Iscariot was, but where were the other ten?  Nowhere to be seen! Where was Matthias who was chosen to join the eleven later?  That the right person, indeed, the most qualified candidate should be passed over, is nothing new to our own thinking.   

If we would but only look at what is before our very eyes in the story about Easter, the Feast of the Resurrection, what we see is that the Resurrection shatters old previously held assumptions.  Easter challenges us in ways not anticipated.  Easter challenges not only our intellectual sensibilities, but our spiritually and culturally and socially erected walls.  Easter begs us to look anew at the possibilities that can arise out of being open to the unlikely, the unexpected.  Easter is not about the new bonnet with frills upon it.  Easter is not about scientific evidence.  Easter challenges our senses and sensibilities. Easter reminds us that the path which God chose then, and chooses now, is not necessarily that path that we would choose.  The hand of God appears in some of the most unusual and unexpected places and God’s plan for the creation is often carried out by the least likely individual.  That is what Easter teaches us.

I have often asked myself where we as a Christian Community might now stand had the apostles dared take that step of elevating Mary Magdalene to their ranks.  Where would we 21st Century believers be, had it not been for Mary Magdalene who went to Peter’s hiding place to alert him to what she had seen and experienced?  Mary Magdalene’s hands-on leadership of numerous activities related to Christ’s death and resurrection, if our Book of Records is accurate, cannot be denied.  Her involvement produced more than ample credentials to demonstrate to the rest of the apostles that she fully met the requirements and possessed God-given character traits to be elected to the circle of the Twelve!

If we are to believe scripture, the disciples of Jesus were themselves on the fringe of their society.  If we are to believe scripture, Jesus sought to expand even beyond his immediate circle, to include those who existed on the fringe of the fringe.  Old assumptions were shattered on that first Easter Day.  The Hubble Faith Telescope was turned on Mary Magdalene.  And so it is today that we encounter a Jesus who shatters and defies the norms of his time, to make possible a new covenant, one of inclusivity and risk-taking.  The Resurrection is an experience that requires a powerful telescope, a telescope with lenses which allows us to reach beyond our own comfort zone.  If we take the story of the Resurrection seriously, we will find it to be the most liberating story ever told.  Amen