Sermon: Go and Tell
April 16th, 2017 Rev. Betsy Perkins
First Baptist Church, Delavan WI
Scripture passages: John 20:1-18
The Easter hymns are among my favorites! One that I didn’t include in the service this morning is a favorite because there is a well-loved and well-told family story that goes with the hymn. It took place nearly 80 years ago. My grandparents were sitting in church on Easter morning with my father and his brother, John, on the pew between them. It was getting toward the end of the service and young John’s mind must have drifted to the Easter dinner that would be served up when they got home. The congregation began to sing the hymn “Christ Arose!” The chorus goes, “Up from the grave he arose, with a mighty triumph o’er his foes.” Do you know that one? The first verse begins, “Low in the grave he lay, Jesus my Savior, waiting the coming day, Jesus my Lord.” They had just finished singing that when John leaned over to his mother and asked, “Why was Jesus laying in the gravy?” I’ve always wondered about the picture in his mind – Jesus lying low in a really big gravy boat!
John takes his time telling the Easter story in his Gospel account. He includes details of several comings and goings from the tomb; details about who ran faster and who went into the tomb first. Then details about what they saw in the tomb – the burial linens neatly rolled and the cloth which had been on Jesus’ head folded and set separately from the linen. The gardener, the tears, the conversation. As a result of all those details we can create the picture in our minds, we can imagine the morning as the sun began to rise and a new understanding, a new reality dawned.
The other gospel accounts begin with the first light, with early dawn. But John starts in the darkness of that night, just before the dawn. As we have already seen, the imagery of darkness and light is very important to John and he uses it to help us understand the Gospel story. If you recall, John begins his gospel with the words, “the light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it, the darkness has not overcome it.” Do you remember that Nicodemus, who did not understand at all, came to Jesus in the dark, at night. The Samaritan woman, who ends up understanding, who ends up seeing the light, meets Jesus in the brightness of mid-day. The man who had been blind, in darkness from birth, receives his sight. He receives light to his eyes along with the light of the true knowledge of who Jesus is.
Mary Magdalene goes to the tomb while it was still dark. The light of the day and the light of realization breaks slowly in John’s gospel, like a gradual dawn where the sky lightens bit by bit from the early glow, to the pink sheen, to the full sunlight streaming. The first scene is Mary alone, going to the tomb. She sees the stone rolled away from its place covering the entry to the cave. She does not stay to investigate or to seek a deeper understanding at that point. Mary turns and runs to get Simon Peter and another disciple – the one Jesus loved.
It is commonly believed that John is referring to himself as ‘the disciple Jesus loved’. He uses that phrase rather than refer to himself by name. He emphasizes the relationship he had with Jesus. It also leaves it open for each one of us to place ourselves there at the tomb, for each one of us can be a ‘disciple Jesus loved’.
In scene two, Peter and the beloved disciple hear Mary’s breathless report, “They have taken the Master out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!” At that, the two of them jump up and sprint to the tomb. Peter is slower, but perhaps a bit more courageous, for he goes straight into the tomb while the other disciple is still catching his breath and taking a peek. Not only is the stone moved, but the tomb is empty; Jesus’ body is indeed gone. They see the evidence, and John tells us that he “saw and believed”. We assumed that means more than believing Mary’s word that the body was not there. They surely did not believe that the body had been taken, for no grave robber would unwrap the body first and leave the linens neatly stacked. But John also notes that they still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus would actually rise from the dead. Peter and John leave with some dawning of belief, but it is still missing the full understanding and the full Easter joy. They simply go back to where they were staying, no running, no announcing the news, no hallelujahs.
Then comes scene three: Mary makes another trip to the tomb, which we now learn, as the light of day brightens, is located within a garden. Mary is weeping. She gets close enough now to look in and sees 2 angels sitting where Jesus’ body had been. But Mary is so caught up in her emotion and distress that the fact that she is seeing angels doesn’t dawn on her immediately. She is focused on finding Jesus.
The angels ask Mary why she is crying. That seems like a pretty silly question! Of course she is crying, Jesus is dead, she watched him die a horrific death. She loved him dearly. But the angel’s question is not intended to shame her for crying; their question instead seems to be directed toward providing the opportunity for Mary to express the reason for her grief, to explain and articulate what she believes is true in that moment. Then Jesus appears behind her and asks the same question, “Woman, why are you crying? Who are you looking for?” Again, the repeated attention to Mary’s tears should be heard not as questioning or challenging her response, but rather validating her response. And again, she has the opportunity to ask about Jesus, to express her confusion and her longing.
Then comes the moment that changes everything, Jesus says, “Mary!” A new day dawns and the sun of faith rises! In that moment, Mary understands. Jesus is alive! He is right there with her, talking to her, calling her name! Earlier in the gospel of John, after the encounter with the man born blind, Jesus had explained to his disciples why that man, who had only been able to hear his voice but couldn’t see him, had obeyed him and been given his sight. The Pharisees, on the other hand, who could see him did not seem to be able to hear what he was saying. Jesus had explained to the disciples, “The shepherd of the sheep opens the gate for them, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. He goes ahead of them and his sheep follow him because they know his voice.” (John 10:2-4) Mary knew her Shepherd’s voice as he called her by name.
Our Shepherd, Jesus, knows each one of us and calls us by name. Every follower responds uniquely to Him, everyone come to the dawning of Easter faith in their own unique way. John highlights this through the varied stories of people who encounter Jesus and have their own special journey to understanding who Jesus truly is. Nicodemus who takes a very long time – months, possibly years. It is not until the impact of Jesus’ sacrificial death hits him, that he makes that full commitment to being a disciple. The Samaritan woman realizes quickly that Jesus knows all about her, her life story, her struggles, her questions, her deep longings, and puts her faith in Jesus right away as she rushes to call her community to come and see him. The Blind Man hears the voice of his Shepherd telling him to go and wash, and he responds. As he shares the good news of his restored sight with his incredulous neighbors, his hesitant parents and the resistant religious leaders, he encounters the ridicule but Jesus finds him again and the man worships. Martha, who has had a long and loving relationship with Jesus, comes to a clearer and fuller knowledge of the Lord of Life, the Son of God, when she enters into a time of deep grief at her brother’s death. For Mary Magdalene, it takes a couple trips to the empty tomb, and it takes that moment in the garden when she hears her Shepherd calling her name. Each one of us is different. God knows our hearts and knows our needs – will our recognition of Jesus as our Lord and Savior come through the words of the Bible or the words of a friend? Will our deepening relationship with Jesus come in a momentary flash or will it be a slow dawning, a gradual journey? Will it happen while we are alone or gathered with a community of people in a place of worship? Resurrection happens in each of these ways. How did it happen for you? How might new resurrection moments come to you in the future?
In his blog this week, David Lose wrote that resurrection isn’t a one-and-done, but instead resurrection reflects the dynamic and ongoing nature and work of God in Christ. “The promise of the resurrection is not simply what God has done,’ he writes, “but what God is still doing, still leading us forward into new life and possibility and forgiveness and love. Easter is not over, it is on-going…”
What kind of resurrection work is God doing in your life? Is a relationship with God being restored? Is the Spirit leading you to a new faith in Jesus as God’s saving presence in your life? Or are you being led into a deeper and fuller relationship with Jesus? Are you just starting to learn and understand that Jesus loves you and knowing everything about you, he went to the great extent of dying on a cross in order to open the way for you to come back into a relationship with the God who created you.
Mary answers, “Teacher,” and relationship is restored. Jesus is her Teacher and she is His student. Jesus is her Master and she is His disciple. Jesus is her Leader and she is His follower. She is a newborn child of God, and Jesus is her brother. His Father is her Father; his God is her God.
What happens next? Mary is given a task. She is not to linger in the garden with Jesus; she is to go and take the message to her brothers and sisters. Jesus directs her to ‘Go, … and Tell’. So Mary becomes the first to preach the Easter message, the first to share a testimony of resurrection hope, the first to raise the joyful Easter hallelujah . It was a simple, yet profound statement: “I have seen the Lord!” As a result, she is known to some as the “the apostle to the apostles”. The other disciples will receive their commission later, before Jesus’ ascension to heaven when he directs them to ‘Go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing and teaching’. But Mary receives her commission on Easter morning. Go and Tell.
Every person who has a life changing, life transforming encounter with Jesus Christ is commissioned likewise – to go and tell. Go tell your children and grandchildren, go tell your friends and neighbors, go to the far corners of the earth if that is where God sends you. And in each place, to each person proclaim, “I have seen the Lord!” We share the stories of encountering the living Jesus, for amazingly, through our words God is still raising the dead, through our words God is creating joy amid fear; through us God is sharing words of comfort and invitation that continue to give life.
I received an email yesterday that had been forwarded a couple times. It came, originally from a woman named Lisa, who runs the animal therapy program at Rainbow Acres, the home for adults with developmental disabilities in Arizona where David and I worked. Lisa was mucking out the stalls this past Friday, Good Friday, feeling both the weight of the day along with the weight of some personal difficulties. No sooner did she start to speak out loud to God, sharing her sadness and fears, than she looked down at the gravel she was scooping and saw God’s response under the rake. She grabbed her camera so she could share the news, and she tells us in the message, “God can be found everywhere, even in Danny’s stall!”
Jesus Christ is on the loose. He has defeated death. He has opened the way out of the darkness of sin and shame, of guilt and grief. No telling who his next encounter will be with, or where. But this I know for sure: Jesus does not only know Mary’s name. He knows yours as well!
Closing song: He Lives #248
I would like to close with a piece of a poem by Jan Richardson, a poem titled “Seen” that was written as an Easter blessing:
So why do you linger?
You have seen
and so you are
You have been seen
and so you are
There is no other word
There is simply
There is simply
May God bless both your going and your telling.
Alleluia! Christ is Risen!