Easter Sunday Sermon: John 20:1-18
Here in the West we are enthralled by the pursuit of sight. How far and how close can we see? We have developed the technologies of X-Ray vision, telescopic vision, and microscopic vision. More recently are advances in our ability to see other people’s thoughts as we try and read the signals emitted by our brains. In these pursuits we have wanted to see the beginning and we have wanted to see the end. Somewhere along the way we have come to the idea that in seeing further and in seeing closer we will see the Truth, we will see the meaning of life. While this is perhaps seen most clearly in the sciences as it has been the case with religion and politics as we tell ancient and modern stories of our beginnings and future as a religion, as a country, or as a culture.
Our reading this Easter Sunday resists this sort of straining of our sight. The resurrection account this morning does not rely on this way of seeing. Mary Magdalene comes early in the morning. It is still dark but after all that has happened Mary knows that the tomb is the place to deal with her grief. She comes still in the deep shadows of pre-dawn light. But it is clear enough to see that the stone is moved. For Mary this can only mean that Jesus is gone. She runs to Peter and an unnamed disciple known as the Beloved Disciple. She tells them that Jesus has been taken and she doesn’t know where he is laid. There is no question of resurrection, she simply wants to know where Jesus is laid. She continues to want to attend to him in death.
These words trigger a strange footrace to the tomb by the disciples. The men set out together but the unnamed disciple pulls ahead and reaches the tomb first. He looks in and sees the burial clothes lying there. Then Peter catches up and passes the other disciples and walks right into the tomb. He sees the burial cloths but also see the fabric that would have covered Jesus’s face. It is not with the rest of cloths but is set aside wrapped up neatly in its place. This is an interesting detail and I was confused by it for a while but after reading more about these details this is what seems to have happened. The men leave Mary in the dust. They set out to investigate, to look into the matter. This is rigorous work and where the Beloved Disciple gets there first Peter goes further in his investigation. And what they find is in fact significant. The first disciple sees the burial clothes. If this were simply a matter of a grave robbery they would have taken these clothes for their value. Then Peter goes further and finds the fabric that would have covered Jesus’s face; further evidence that this was not a robbery nor the ransacking of a political agitator but the event seems to have had an orderliness to it. The men strain to see what can be seen. They gather their facts and . . . as quickly as they came so they left. What more is there to see?
The men here represent our quest for all seeing knowledge; the belief that our power of sight and reason are best suited for the highest understanding and awareness of life. And indeed they do gather some intriguing facts. This is long how I have felt about most ‘debates’ around the existence of God. At their very best these debates can have some interesting observations and showcase some curious facts but they do not re-assemble a living God. There is no proof on this scale and the resurrection is not a fact. Peter and the other disciple have gathered all there was on that score.
Somewhere along the way, as the men were investigating, Mary returns and as the men leave Mary lingers. Facts do not comfort grief. Greater understanding of chemical and biological processes do not fill the void of love lost. Here the text is very clear. Mary is not examining or investigating, she is weeping and as she bends over in grief she looks over toward the tomb and sees inside. She does not see any pieces of clothe but sees two angels in white sitting at either end of the place where the body of Jesus would have been. After the men had scoured the tomb Mary, doubled over in grief, sees a vision. This is also an important image. Whereas the investigations of the men yielded facts the grieving attention of Mary opened her to what is sacred. It has been commented that the angels in the tomb are symbolic of the angels that would have been on the Ark of the Covenant in the Holy of Holies in the Temple. Mary’s vision, Mary’s way of seeing opens her to being a high priest, the one enters the Temple to see God as though face to face.
After seeing the angels she turns, gets up from her weeping and the text says, she sees Jesus. Mary sees Jesus. But, again, this seeing does not appear to be sufficient. The person is before her eyes but something is hidden. Mary desired to be attentive to Jesus even in death, in this she was already able to see differently than the men who were just looking for the facts. But what is still missing for Mary is the relationship that can be restored, the intimate and vulnerable communion of two people that is new and different. Mary seeks the body, and that is good, but she was not prepared to encounter his living face.
This relationship is only restored when Jesus says her name. She had already heard Jesus’s voice when he, like the angels, asks why she wept. But in speaking her name there is, again, something more than just recognizing tone or pitch of his voice. Emmanuel Levinas, a twentieth century philosopher, writes about how the essence of being human is to encounter the face of an other. Not to simply see the face, as Mary first did with Jesus, but to encounter both the intimacy and distance of another life. Levinas says that all ethics and reason and meaning flow from this first encounter; this recognition of otherness and relationship. Science and reason cannot investigate this basic relationship because they flow from it, they come after it. This face to face relationship helps us to understand the way Jesus responds to Mary when she recognizes him. Jesus says do not hold on to me. You cannot enshrine my tomb establishing a fixed memory of my past and you cannot grasp and possess me fully in life because that would remove the intimate and vulnerable space of encountering each other face to face.
It is important to remember that this different way of seeing is not really about some mystical experience (though it can be). Our sight changes and shifts over time. It changes with the spouse who, after thirty years of marriage, can feel like he barely recognize the face of the person lying next to him. It changes with the parent who must resist smothering their maturing son or daughter who can only see the face of their little child in them. There is the doctor or politician who must resist reducing the human face to biological machines or demographic statistics. The vision of the resurrection comes only in the space that is both intimate and vulnerable but also distant and distinct; the relationship that does not smother the space between but also does not flee it.
As you probably noticed the distinction between approaches and between ways of seeing played out along gender lines in this story. And while this is not always the case I think historically this distinction has been all too true for the church and for the West. Men have rushed into spaces, investigated, interrogated, and attempted to gain a mastery of knowledge and understanding. At its best this approach is a partial way of bringing helpful insight and innovation to society. But perhaps more often than not it has carried destructive if not devastating forces as the attempts at mastery of competed and clashed.
You cannot interrogate the tomb to prove the resurrection. You cannot gain mastery over this knowledge. As I said earlier, the resurrection is not a fact. There are facts and there is evidence but this is of a different order than the resurrection according to John’s Gospel. You also cannot enshrine Jesus’s body and simply remember his past life as Mary was inclined to do. The resurrection is experienced in attending to life in a way that is both vulnerable and intimate but also distinct in allowing space.
There is one image that stays with me as I think about this way of seeing the world. I was visiting a woman whose husband had passed away about a year or two ago. If I had to guess I would say that they had been married for about 50 years. As we talked in her small apartment I noticed all the plants and flowers in her window. It was clear that she took great effort and care in nurturing these plants. She also told me that the apartment only gets the evening light and that the plants prefer the morning light. But nonetheless, it was clear she had done a great job of caring for these plants given their circumstances. As I got up to take a closer look at them I noticed a very interesting cactus that looked like a bunch of intertwining fingers. She said that she had that cactus for as long as her and her husband had been married. And then she drew my attention to the little white flowers that were blooming on it. She looked at me and said this is only the second time it has ever bloomed.
This story, this image of her tending to a plant that gave no real promise of bloom struck me deeply. I have always been skeptical of thinking about the resurrection in terms of seasons or nature but this one felt different. It was not the coming of what had been expected and proven over and over. It was not the result of thorough experimentation and analysis. It was what was noticed, what could be seen, through loving, attentive commitment. It was the continued attention of love in the face of lost love.
We cannot interrogate for the truth of the resurrection and we cannot lay hold and possess Jesus. But it is my prayer that as you linger over the places that feel like death you would encounter Jesus, that you witness the long forgotten blooming of life, as you lovingly attend to the places and people around you. This is not our proof or our knowledge but it is our hope. May this hope raise you up into new life.