31 March 2013
Easter C (RCL)
Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24
One year, at the Cathedral Church of St. Paul in Burlington, Vermont, I heard the bishop say, to open his Easter sermon, “Easter 1982 is not all that different from Easter 1981.” I don’t remember much else of the sermon. Preaching Easter presents a challenge. First, there are all of those folks one doesn’t normally see — how to speak to them in a single shot. Second, most folks have the dinner they will attend after service as much on their minds and any doctrine of the Church.
But, these readings have too much to say. Isaiah’s Vision of a new heaven and a new earth goes well beyond the simple restoration of Jerusalem. During the Exile, on strand of theology came to see God’s purpose for Israel to be the restoration of the whole world, not just the selection of a single people. It is a creation marked by justice — each will eat the fruit of their own tree, each shall live out a life-time. The vision is magnificent in its simplicity.
When John wrote his Gospel, that vision had been challenged again. The Temple had been destroyed a second time, and the city razed. The vineyard was desolate. The question became “Who are God’s people? Where do we find and encounter God?” John, despite being the most anti-Jewish Gospel is also the most Jewish Gospel. The question in dispute is “Who is the true Jew?” John’s community made that claim.
John’s Gospel opens with the question, on Jesus’ lips, “What do you seek?” to which the two disciples of John the Baptism reply, “Rabbi, where do you stay (remain)?” and Jesus responding, “Come and see.” The whole Gospel has been the process of coming to see where Jesus remains. Mary and the two disciples come to the garden, to see where Jesus no longer remains. The disciple whom Jesus loved entered the tomb and saw the grave clothes neatly arranged (as opposed to Lazarus’), and “trusted.” We’re not told what he believed or trusted, but then told that as yet, the disciples did not understand the scriptures that Jesus must rise from the dead.
Mary, on the other hand waits at the tomb, and enters after the other two have left. She sees the two angels seated, one at the head and one at the feet, of where the body of Jesus had been. These angels are reminiscent of the cherubim of the Holy of holies. Only the high priest would have entered the inner chamber, and then only once a year. Mary enters and converses with the angels.
She then goes back into the garden and sees who she believes to be the gardener (is there a reference here to God walking with Adam and Eve in the first garden in the cool of the evening?). Jesus asks her whom she is seeking — exactly the same vocabulary as in that first interchange between Jesus and John’s two disciples. We are about to learn the answer to their question, “Rabbi, where do you remain?” She asks him where they have laid Jesus’ body.
Jesus responds, “Mary.” She recognizes him and says, “Rabbouni — my dear teacher.” Then, he says, “do not hold me, but go tell my brothers that I am ascending to my father and your (plural) father, to my God and your (plural) God.” Jesus, earlier in John’s Gospel, has promised to go before us to God, to prepare a place, so that where he remains, we may remain. Jesus remains with God: I am in the father and the father is in me, and together we will come and dwell (remain) with the one who believes.
God may have left the holy of holies, but we can enter through the resurrected Jesus — the empty space between the angels is the evidence of the resurrection. God has come to dwell in the community of believers through the indwelling Jesus has so often described. In the next episode, Jesus will come into the midst of the community, give them the gift of the Spirit, and empower them to release or retain sins — exactly the ministry of the high priest on the Great Day of Atonement, when he entered the holy of holies. This is where God dwells. And Jesus is ascending to his God and our God, his father and our father — we are taken into that divine plan.
And Mary does not at first recognize the resurrected Christ. We don’t always see where the work of God is going on. Often we see our involvement in God’s work only in retrospect (they did not yet understand the scriptures). When we have healed a breach, included someone in community, embraced the outcast, or opened the eyes of the blind, we have been involved in doing the works of the one who sent Jesus while it is day, and we may not see it except in retrospect. We need to keep our eyes open to the resurrected Jesus wherever we might encounter him.