Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Reading the Empty Tomb (John 20:1-18)

The empty tomb is a hard thing to explain. When Mary came to the tomb that first Easter morning she could not make any sense out of it. “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb and we don’t know where they have put him!” (John 20:2) It remains true today that people do not know what to make of the empty tomb. The story is told of a theologian who had an a priori belief that the resurrection did not take place. An a priori belief is a belief that we set out with before we even investigate a matter. It’s a presupposition that will of course affect our conclusion. When pressed by a student, “Well, then what did happen that first Easter Sunday morning?” he could only reply, “I don’t know but I know it wasn’t the resurrection!”

People still fail to read the signs of Easter correctly. Somebody sent me a greeting card last year which depicted two chocolate bunnies, one turns to the other and says, “Happy Easter,” the second one has had both his chocolate ears bitten clear off, and can only reply, “Pardon?” There is a kind of spiritual deafness that afflicts us so that the words “Happy Easter” and the event that Easter celebrates don’t register with us.

A radio announcer a couple of weeks ago asked callers to phone in and tell him the lies their parents had told them when they were children. Things such as “If you eat your crust you’ll get curly hair,” and “if the wind changes while you’re pulling that face it will stay that way forever (a favourite of my grandmother’s). One caller said that his parents told him that the tune that the Mr. Whippy truck played meant, “Sorry, all out of ice cream.” Now, that’s really mean, but an even greater tragedy is that parents still continue to tell lies to their children about the music the church plays at Easter. We sing “Christ is Risen! He is Risen indeed!” but people are told the resurrection is only a myth, or it’s a story some people listen to every year but it has nothing to do with us.

I heard two radio announcers mocking Palm Sunday last week. They attended the annual Palm Sunday peace march and when telling their Moslem taxi driver where they had been he asked them what Palm Sunday was. They didn’t know what it was except that it had something to do with Jesus riding a donkey. They didn’t want the told the taxi driver to think they were Christians just because they attended a Palm Sunday march. They joked with the taxi driver, “We wouldn’t want you to think we’re Christians just because we attend a Palm Sunday march, just like you wouldn’t want us to think you were a terrorist just because you’re a Muslim!” Now I’m all for the Palm Sunday peace march but it’s sad that many who attend it are not reading its message correctly.

When I bought a potted palm for Palm Sunday from a local nursery I told the young woman in the shop that I wanted it for a Palm Sunday service. She looked at me quizzically and said, “What’s Palm Sunday?” When I explained she said, “I’ve never heard of that. My partner’s religious, but I know nothing about it. He’s Catholic but he only goes to church for midnight Mass once a year at Easter.” When I asked if she had ever gone with him she said she had, and when I asked if she enjoyed the service she simply said, “It was interesting.” How are those young people interpreting the empty tomb? If the result is a once a year church attendance then they are misreading it as surely as Mary did when she go to the tomb and said, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb and we don’t know where they have put him!”

Even though the empty tomb is a hard thing to explain, attempting to do so can lead to curiosity. Even with Mary’s lack of insight her word of testimony to the other disciples led Peter and John to run to the cave to see for themselves (vv. 3-10). In verse 13, Mary repeats the same words she had used earlier, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb and we don’t know where they have put him!” this time to two angels who ask her why she is crying. Then she turned and saw Jesus but she didn’t recognise him. He asked her the same question as the angels, but he added, “Who is it you are looking for?” (v.15) Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.” She is still not reading this situation clearly, even when Jesus is standing right in front of her. Only the reality of the risen Christ fully explains the empty tomb.

It was only when Jesus spoke her name, “Mary!” that her eyes were opened and she knew it was the Lord. She replied to his single word exclamation also with a single word – “Rabboni!” an Aramaic word meaning “teacher.” He says “Mary” and she says “Rabboni” and a world is spoken in just those two words.

We are confused by the signs of God’s presence in the world until we hear him speak our name and then our eyes are opened. Jesus is not merely alive because he lives in our memory. We often speak of famous people as being immortal or we say that they will “live forever” because of the contribution they made to the arts and sciences or to society. The famous comedian and Hollywood director Woody Allen was once asked whether he wanted to achieve immortality through his work. He replied, “No. I want to achieve immortality by not dying.” Which is it? Is Jesus alive because there are those who remembered and cherished the fact that once we walked this “vale of tears” or he alive because he has once and forever battered down the gates of death? Gerald O’Collins has said, “In a profound sense, Christianity without the resurrection is not simply Christianity without its final chapter. It is not Christianity at all.”

Mary went from “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb and we don’t know where they have put him!” in v. 2, to her final exclamation in v. 18, “I have seen the Lord!” perhaps today we can take her journey and arrive at the same place. The empty tomb brought us to church again. After all it is Easter and you go to church at Easter right? You had your explanations perhaps about the meaning of the empty tomb or maybe you just figured it was a mystery too deep to explain and had put it in the too hard basket. But this Jesus is speaking your name. Perhaps with Mary, you will call out his name in reply and be able to say, “I have seen the Lord!”

6 comments:

Mr. Imperial said...

Wow, this is what I get for not checking your blog regularly...half an hour of reading and an overloaded brain!

Anyway, just wanted to say a couple things:
1. Great thoughts on Scripture.
2. I went with the Palm liturgy, but made sure that people understood its somber implications (especially the fact that right after Jesus comes in on the donkey he's lamenting because His disciples were making the ruckus, not Jerusalem, who should've welcomed him with open arms and hearts).
3. Great thoughts as well on Constantine. There's a podcast you should get your hands on, if you haven't heard of it already...it's called 12 Byzantine Rulers: the History of the Byzantine Empire, put out by Lars Brownworth, a Houghton alum. Excellent take on the age.

K E Alexander said...

Very nice to meet you! I was at that joint meeting in 96...small world! What paper did you present? Amazing that you were in Cleveland! Do you plan to attend the next joint meeting (next March, at Duke Divinity in Raleigh, NC)?

Nice reflection on the meaning...and importance of the Resurrection. I'm appalled at the way a "crucicentric" theology often (unwittingly, sometimes wittingly) robs us of the power of the resurrection! I've even seen some Reformed theologians who say the Resurrection was simply a "seal" upon the finished work of the Cross or some such thing. That seems to be a pretty poor reading of their own beloved Pauline canon: Romans.

Our pastor, a young, vibrant and anointed minister concluded his Easter message with several videos of various congregants whose lives had been dramatically changed through the power of the Resurrection, resulting in deliverance from alocoholism, other life-controlling problems and disease!

I struggle with the apologists who still try to "prove" the resurrection and get irate about those who try to disprove it through archaeological findings, new research, ancient texts, etc.

For those of us whose lives have been transformed, and continue to be so, there is no doubt about the validity of the Resurrection of our Lord. We have seen the Lord!

Glen O'Brien said...

I presented a paper on "John Wesley and the Toronto Blessing," in part a critical response to Steve Beard's book "Thunderstruck" which I felt had seriously misread the sources on the phenomena of early Methodism. I was an Asbury student at the time and one of my theology profs, Steve Seamands gave a response to the paper which was pretty intimdating. Walter Brueggemann was giving a paper in another room at the samne time which explains why so few came to hear my paper!

Glen O'Brien said...

Oh, and no I don't plan to be at the Duke meeting, much as I would like to. Airfares from Australia are a little steep.

Ross McPhee said...

I remember giving a devotional about this at spiritual focus once last year. I gather that in some quarters, the resurrection is questioned. It is asserted can take these things away, and still be a Christian by following the principles that Jesus taught. The problem here is that if Jesus isn't who we believe him to be, and if he didn't rise from the dead, our faith is useless, as the apostle Paul says in Corinthians. How can you be a Christian if you don't believe in the resurrection?

Glen O'Brien said...

Excellent question Ross.

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