Freed From, Freed For

Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church
April 1, 2018
Easter Sunday

John 20: 1-18 (CEB)
Early in the morning of the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb. 2She ran to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said, “They have taken the Lord from the tomb, and we don’t know where they’ve put him.” 3Peter and the other disciple left to go to the tomb. 4They were running together, but the other disciple ran faster than Peter and was the first to arrive at the tomb. 5Bending down to take a look, he saw the linen cloths lying there, but he didn’t go in. 6Following him, Simon Peter entered the tomb and saw the linen cloths lying there. 7He also saw the face cloth that had been on Jesus’ head. It wasn’t with the other clothes but was folded up in its own place. 8Then the other disciple, the one who arrived at the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed. 9They didn’t yet understand the scripture that Jesus must rise from the dead. 10Then the disciples returned to the place where they were staying.
11Mary stood outside near the tomb, crying. As she cried, she bent down to look into the tomb. 12She saw two angels dressed in white, seated where the body of Jesus had been, one at the head and one at the foot. 13The angels asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?”
She replied, “They have taken away my Lord, and I don’t know where they’ve put him.” 14As soon as she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she didn’t know it was Jesus.
15Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who are you looking for?”
Thinking he was the gardener, she replied, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him and I will get him.”
16Jesus said to her, “Mary.”
She turned and said to him in Aramaic, “Rabbouni” (which means Teacher).
17Jesus said to her, “Don’t hold on to me, for I haven’t yet gone up to my Father. Go to my brothers and sisters and tell them, ‘I’m going up to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”
18Mary Magdalene left and announced to the disciples, “I’ve seen the Lord.” Then she told them what he said to her.

I feel like I’ve been standing at the tomb a lot lately. I feel like Mary Magdalene; standing face-to-face with barrenness, emptiness; in the midst of the desolation able to summon nothing but tears and weeping. Since the beginning of the year, I have stood at the gravesides of six of our members. Many of you have been there as well. I’m starting to feel like I’m seeing you all at the funeral homes as much as I am seeing you in the walls of this church. We’ve dealt with a lot of death, and that says nothing of other family members, friends, neighbors, or co-workers who have passed on in the same period of time. For some of you death has hit close to home recently. And you, like Mary, have found yourself standing at a graveside, weeping.

If Easter is to have any true meaning for us, we first have to acknowledge our grief. John intentionally points out to his readers that Mary Magdalene stood at the tomb of Jesus and cried. He uses some form of the word “cry” four times in four verses! Grief is real, and it’s something we all deal with. Stand with Mary in this moment. Bring your grief. If there are tears, let them flow. It’s okay. What we have lost is significant. It is total. Not only had Mary Magdalene lost her friend and her Lord; now she faces an empty tomb. There is nothing even residual of him, no touchstone of remembrance, no vestige of what he was. The powers of darkness have not only killed him, they have wiped out all trace of him. Mary’s weeping is a testament to the darkness that we all face.

Sometimes, that darkness we face is death. And sometimes we stand facing the darkness of our own shattered lives. Because the truth is, we all mess up. We make mistakes—big and small—on a regular basis. We sin against God and our neighbor. We hurt ourselves and our relationships, sometimes in irreparable ways, until we come to this place where all we can do is weep. This is a reality we have to face because it is so much a part of who we are; we are dead to who we should be, and so we should grieve.

Earlier this week, Owen came home from preschool with a note. The note reported that during recess, Owen had bitten one of his classmates on the hand. Both Ken and I talked to Owen about why he did this and he said because he didn’t like it when his peer hit him and bit him. So Ken and I explained that when a friend does something that hurts him, he needs to either tell him to stop, or go and tell the teachers. We explained that he should never hit and bite in return. We then told Owen that because he bit his friend, he would not be allowed to watch Daddy’s iPad that night (which for Owen is like watching cartoons on TV). We didn’t get angry with Owen, or condemn him, or tell him he was going to spend eternity burning in hell. Although, he probably felt that way losing his iPad privileges. But the idea of not being able to watch Daddy’s iPad was unsettling enough to Owen, that he suddenly started to tell us that he hadn’t bitten his classmate at all. At that point, I knelt down to his level and started to explain to him what lying was; that when you say you didn’t do something that you did, that’s lying. And I told him lying was as bad as biting. It must’ve made some sense to him because he stopped telling us that he hadn’t actually bitten anyone.

I tell you that story to say this. Owen is barely a three-year old. He’s a little toddler who in many ways still doesn’t know right from wrong. He couldn’t tell you what lying is, or even give you an example. Yet, he lied to me. And on that night, I grieved. I grieved that my perfect little son isn’t so perfect anymore. But it was also a reminder to me me that we are not perfect either. We are not perfect and because we are not perfect, we need forgiveness. Through the season of Lent, we have talked again and again about our need for forgiveness, and our need to offer forgiveness. We’ve talked about how we are imprisoned by sin, guilt, shame, anger, and vengefulness when we do not give and receive forgiveness. We’ve acknowledged how such feelings can sap us of the abundant life God intends for us. So we stand today before the empty tomb, grieving the loss of life.

As you stand there, weeping with Mary Magdalene, grieving in the face of loss—whatever loss it may be that you are grieving today—when the moment is right, stoop down and take a look inside that tomb, and be prepared for a surprise. Peter and John and been in the tomb only moments before, but they had returned to the place they were staying. Now, as Mary looks again inside the tomb, she sees two angels sitting where Jesus’ body had been. It’s surprising that they weren’t noticed before when Peter and John were there, but then again, maybe they were. Or maybe sometimes we can only see angels through tears. Whatever the case, the angels see her pain, and they ask her why she is weeping. What Mary Magdalene describes is total loss. “They have taken away my Lord….” What about you? Why are you weeping?

Now, as you turn away from the tomb, away from this reminder of everything that is gone, notice this one now before you. Another to ask why you are weeping. Isn’t it interesting that in John’s gospel, the first words out of the mouth of the resurrected Jesus are this question, “Woman, why are you crying?” Mary thinks she is speaking with the gardener in that moment, and she bares her soul to him, too. We, of course, know she is talking to Jesus, but isn’t it comforting to know that Jesus is concerned about us; he comes asking the meaning of our tears. Christ wants to comfort us, to restore what is broken or lost. Jesus has come to relieve us of our burdens. He has come to free us of our grief, our guilt, our sin, our shattered lives. He has come to make our imperfect lives more perfect. He has come offering forgiveness that we might have life and have it abundantly. He has come to free us. We stand at an empty tomb not because all is lost, but because new life has come! Christ is risen! And we can know that this is true when we hear Jesus calling our names.

Christ has a plan for us. That’s part of this wonderful news of Christ’s resurrection. You know, Mary Magdalene had been following Jesus around through his ministry; maybe for as many as three years, and their friendship might have gone back further than that. She had heard Jesus talk of being resurrected. And yet, when she turned away from the tomb and the resurrected Christ was standing before her, she didn’t recognize him; that is, until he called her name. “Mary,” “Clair,” “Owen,” “Stephen.” It is greeting, and consolation, and invitation all rolled into one. “Of course we know him. Of course we don’t know him. He is the same. He is different. He is alive, with a new sort of life” —a life like we’ve never seen before. But in the recognition, there is relief. And in the resurrection, there is new life.

Yet there is something we must understand about this new life; it is not received passively. Even as Christ calls out our name, freeing us from grief and sorrow, and opening our eyes to the new reality before us; he also summons us to this new life. What he says next confirms that, “Don’t hold on to me….” It is as if Jesus is telling Mary Magdalene, and each of us, that the past is now fully behind us, and there is a new way before us. We cannot cling to Christ as he was because we have to go out and proclaim the risen Christ, Christ as he is now; the Christ who put away all the darkness of our lives by his death on the cross; the Christ who made for us a new life by his own resurrection. The Christ who makes forgiveness and reconciliation possible. Indeed, Christ’s death on the cross and his resurrection can restore our broken lives, can give us hope in the face of grief. But this is a reality and a truth that must also be proclaimed, not only received. No sooner has Jesus said, “Don’t cling to me…,” then Mary, who had been standing at the tomb crying all morning about Jesus being gone, turns away from him to go out and proclaim, “I have seen the Lord!”

Christ’s resurrection can give us hope in the midst of grief. Christ’s death and resurrection makes possible the restoration of our lives—freeing us from the burden of sin, of guilt, of shame, of anger, of vengeance. Christ’s death makes possible the forgiveness that we need, and the forgiveness that it is so often difficult for us to summon on our own. But we are freed from these burdens because God has a greater purpose for our lives. Christ’s resurrection is a reminder that we are a forgiven and reconciled people, a people who can live new life in God. Our freedom means nothing if we do not respond to God’s call upon our lives. Our reconciliation means nothing if we do not go out and share the good news!

“I have seen the Lord!” (Say it with me…)
Christ is risen! (Again…)
Christ is risen, indeed! Praise be to God. Amen.

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