My earliest church memories are of Easter Sundays.We didn’t go to church. Ever. Well hardly ever. We went once a year. The guilt would finally get to my mom and she would drag me to an Easter service. A different church every year. And I cared about a single thing. Every service was followed by an egg hunt. But, as we all know, churches are cruel; they made you earn that egg hunt. You had to sit still for an eternity. Through bright lights, loud music, and confusing celebration. But above all, you had to sit still through a long and excruciatingly boring sermon. The only thing that kept me going in those services was the dream of the egg hunt. Eggs filled with reeses cups, money, or maybe baby butterfingers.
I just wanted to stand up during the service, and yell out, let’s get to the point! Those eggs aren’t going to find themselves. And as I grew older, and it became less and less appropriate for a grown man to participate in a children’s egg hunt, I started to question the point of Easter altogether. None of the celebration, none of the joy, and especially none of the sermon, mapped onto my actual life. What does Easter have to do with bullies on the bus? What does Easter have to do with a father that left? What does Easter have to do with hospital rooms and grave sides?
And then there is the Gospel of John, quite unlike anything else. There is no triumphant heavenly hymns, or ear splitting earthquakes. Just a garden, a pile of rags, and a woman, crying for the loss of her beloved friend. Something we all can relate to. Easter confronts us with a question: Where is Jesus? If he’s not in the tomb, where is Jesus?
At the beginning of John’s resurrection account, we find Mary Magdalene, by herself at Jesus’ grave, overcome with grief. The crucifixion is still fresh in her mind, and she misses her friend. Mary gets a bad rap. Many folks, me included, learn at a young age that Mary’s previous career was less than admirable. But this isn’t true at all. We actually know next to nothing about Mary before she met Jesus. We know a little from Luke’s Gospel, but in John’s story, she just join in, another of the countless followers magnetized by Jesus’ presence. Mary arrives at the tomb, sobbing, and finds it empty. A pile of rags, just some burial garments, cast aside on the floor. She panics. She runs from the scene and finds Peter and another, unnamed, disciple and tells them, “Someone has stolen Jesus’ body!”
John asks us the important questions. What do we do with that pile of rags? 2000 years and counting, what do we do with that pile of rags? Do we celebrate or grieve? Do we sing hymns, or gather up a search party?
Where is Jesus? If he’s not in the tomb, where is Jesus?
John tells us that Peter and the unnamed disciple return home. But Mary sticks around. Weeping. John tells us, “But Mary stood weeping.” And as she weeps, she notices a man standing behind her. Since she’s in a garden, she assumes he’s the gardener. He asks her, “Why are you weeping? Who are you looking for?” And she answers him, with what I can only imagine as grief filled rage, “If you have taken him, tell me where.” But the gardener responds with one simple word. The most important word Mary could have heard in that moment. The one word that undoes her. The one word that slices through her grief. The one word that resurrects her.
Her name. Mary.
As the syllables hit her ears, the scales fall away. The gardener is her beloved. Blinded by grief, she didn’t see it before, but she sees it now. And all it took was a single word. Her name.
Her doubt evaporates and she knows the truth. Jesus is risen. He is risen indeed. Notice that Jesus does not condemn her lack of belief, he embraces it. He accepts it. And he soothes it away. Faith is at home among grief, and loss, and weeping. As Mary weeps, she doubts, we know that. She doesn’t believe that Jesus rose from the dead. But as she weeps, and as she doubts, her ears are open. Her heart is open. Even in her doubt, she hopes. And she listens. And Jesus speaks, and she hears, just one word.
In our doubt. In our confusion. In our grief. Even in our certainty. Are we still listening for God’s voice? Are we still listening for God to call our name? Where is Jesus? If he’s not in the tomb, where is Jesus?
I know many Christians that have banished the idea of doubt from their minds. They are certain of their convictions. But are they listening? Are there ants in their pants? There is as much danger in blind faith as their is in cynical doubt. Both lead to hubris and a hardness of heart. Both have their ears firmly shut. Madeleine L’Engle, the Christian novelist, says it best, “The minute we begin to think we know all the answers, we forget the questions, and we become smug like the Pharisee who listed all his considerable virtues, and thanked God that he was not like other men… Those who believe they believe in God, but without passion in the heart, without anguish of mind, without uncertainty, without doubt, and even at times without despair, believe only in the idea of God, and not in God himself.”
Have we fallen in love with idea of God? Are we still listening for his voice? Where is Jesus? If he’s not in the tomb, where is Jesus?
Easter is a celebration, but it is not primarily about church services on Sunday. Easter is meaningless if it is contained to Easter Sunday. As we celebrate, do not forget that our celebrations on Sunday are only as good as the hope they bring on Monday. Our celebrations today point elsewhere. Easter is at the bedside, as cancer wrecks havoc. Easter is on the school bus, as the bullies torment. Easter is in the driveway, as a careless father leaves his son. Easter is at the graveside, as the widow throws gravedirt on her beloved. Easter is in the doubtm, the grief, the rejection, and even in the death. Because that is where the risen Christ meets us. Jesus is on the loose. And he is whispering.
Just one word.