“Early on the First Day”
My first time at a funeral was my great grandmother’s. I was about four years old and I didn’t actually know her very well. She lived in Florida while I lived in Ohio. I remember being confused as to why someone was sleeping in the casket. I remember my grandparents making speeches and flowers being up front and the white walls of the funeral home, but at this funeral, death seemed abstract. It seemed distant. It didn’t seem real. It was more like a play. Death hadn’t yet changed my life.
My second time at a funeral was very different. It was my grandfather’s, who I called Papa. As a child, I think most of us have a favorite relative – usually a fun uncle or aunt or grandparent. Up until I was seven years old, Papa was mine. He was a carpenter. He showed me how to build things. He had a big laugh and smile. Whatever mess I made, he always said, “That’s okay.” He loved running around with us in his backyard and playing games.
But before my seventh Christmas, he had a stroke outside of his home. We went up there for Christmas while he was still alive and in the hospital. It was a somber holiday. I remember receiving one final gift from him that Christmas. Before the stroke, he had bought me a Mickey Mouse watch. I remembering treasuring it for years, because it was the last gift he gave to me.
Before his funeral, I didn’t think death could touch me. I was going to be tough. I was going to be stoic. But as I saw him for the first time in the casket, I realized how much I already missed him. I realized how much I loved him. The tears just flowed out as I realized this is a really crappy thing. There was still so much more I wanted to do with him. So much more I wanted to learn. Death wasn’t something abstract or distant any longer. Death was real.
As we remember the cross, we sometimes think of it as abstract and distant. It is something God had to do, had to check off to get to the Good News of this morning. We have heard the story of the cross so many times, it now seems to us more like an act in a play than a real world event.
But 2000 years ago, Jesus really died on that cross. God was crucified and died on the cross. Not a lesser God. Not some small, insignificant part of God. The fullness of God made flesh. The Son of the Trinity died. And it wasn’t something abstract or distant. It was real, especially to those who had met Jesus and followed him. Those who knew Jesus had lost a friend. They had lost a teacher. They had lost someone who loved them more than they had ever been loved before. They had lost their Savior.
Jesus was not hiding. He was not play acting. He was dead. Death, that unstoppable force which comes for everyone, had taken him too. On that cross, Jesus, the fullness of God made flesh, joined with us, with humanity, completely, even to a place we never believed God could journey with us to, to a place we never thought God would be willing to go with us to, to the point of death. On that cross, God bridged that gap between humanity and the divine. But it cost God everything. Jesus was dead.
So on that first Easter morning, as Mary Magdalene and the women are journeying towards the tomb to anoint him and the disciples are in their locked room hiding, they believe death has once again claimed final victory. They are there to mourn and grieve. They think the world is still as it always has been.
As we hear this passage, we may wonder, why doesn’t Mary Magdalene recognize Jesus? Why doesn’t she believe right away when she sees the stone rolled away and the tomb is empty? Because it is too fantastic. It is too incredible. It doesn’t make any sense.
While Peter and John come to the tomb and believe there is some hope, Mary knows she saw Jesus die. And this stone rolled away, it makes for a nice fairy tale, for a nice story, but it’s not real. It is not as real as death.
Until she hears something. Until she hears her own name being called. “Miriam.” In that one word, her world has changed. Because no one ever said her name like that except for Jesus. No one knew her and loved her in that same way as Jesus. This is not some fairy tale. It is not a nice story to tell children. This is real. Death has met something more powerful than itself.
Just as death is not some abstract concept, neither is Resurrection. It is real, breathing and speaking, touching and walking. And because Jesus’ resurrection is our real, so is ours.
Easter is not just a story about Jesus. It is about humanity and about all of us. As Mary is about to go off and tell the rest of the disciples that Christ is alive, Jesus tells her one last thing: “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” In that one phrase, Jesus is telling Mary you are now included with me in everything. This moment, this Resurrection, it’s not just for me. It’s for you. It is for all of you.
The Scottish Presbyterian theologian Tom Torrance was once asked, “When were you born again?” When were you saved? The man was trying to find out if this scholarly person was really a Christian. And he wanted to know a specific date and time to match his test. But coolly and collectively, Tom Torrance said back to him, “I was born again when Jesus Christ was born of the Virgin Mary and rose again from the virgin tomb, the first-born of the dead.”
Tom Torrance knew he wasn’t saved because of anything he did. “This Tom Torrance you see is full of corruption,” he told the man. He wasn’t worthier than anyone else. He hadn’t passed any test to be welcomed with God in everlasting life. Instead, Jesus did it all for us. “He took my corrupt humanity in his Incarnation, sanctified, cleansed and redeemed it, giving it new birth in his death and resurrection.”
When Jesus speaks those words to Mary Magdalene at the tomb, he is telling her, what has happened to me is now open to you. You are invited into everlasting life. You are invited to the victory over death.
Jesus’ story is our story. Because he rose, we will rise. Because he lives, we will live. He is not just calling the name, “Miriam.” He is calling your name. He is calling my name. And he is inviting us too.
Because that carpenter from Nazareth 2,000 years ago rose from the tomb, so will that carpenter I once called Papa. He will live again. And so will I. And so will you. We will meet again. We will build and play. We will hammer and run. We will laugh and talk. We will see each other face to face. Death is real. We all know that. But because of Easter, so is Resurrection.
“Death has been swallowed up in victory.
Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?”
Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”