JOHN 20:1-18

APRIL 8, 2012

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            When Al Smith was governor of New York, he took a tour of New York’s Sing Sing Prison.  When the warden asked if he would address the inmates, the question surprised him.  He hadn’t prepared a thing. His awkwardness was revealed when he began like this, “My fellow citizens . . .”   He stopped himself.   He wasn’t sure if inmates actually had the full rights of citizenship.             So, he changed course.

            He began again, “My fellow convicts.”  Everyone laughed.

            He tried a third time.   He said, “Well, anyhow, I’m glad to see so many of you here . . .” as if his audience had any choice.

            Well, you had a choice and I’m glad to see so many of you here today.  You could  have been be elsewhere, but I’m glad you chose to be with us today.

            We live in a faddish world, and even Easter is not exempt from some of the fads that sweep through our land.

            A soldier wrote recently to Reader’s Digest to tell about an incident that took place on Easter Sunday in the chapel on their military base.  The pastor called the children to the front and told them the story of how Jesus was crucified by the Romans, his body placed in a tomb, and the front covered by a stone.

            “But on the third day,” the pastor said, “the stone was rolled away, and Jesus was not there.”  Then the pastor turned to the children and asked, “Do you know what happened next?”

            One kid shouted, “Jesus turned into a zombie and went after the Romans!”

            If you did not know it,  zombies are quite the rage among the younger set these days ... but Jesus didn’t become a zombie and he didn’t go after the Romans.  The real story is far more beautiful.

            Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, a woman named Mary Magdalene came to Jesus’ tomb.  Mary was one of Jesus’ most prominent converts. Legends say that she had been a prostitute.  The Bible does not say that.  It only tells us that Jesus had delivered her from seven demons.  We don’t know what those demons were, but no doubt she had been a troubled woman when she met Jesus for the first time.  Then after Jesus delivered her from her demons, she became a faithful follower of his.  Christ became the Lord and Master of her life.  Furthermore, of all the New Testament cast of characters, Mary Magdalene is the only person mentioned by all the gospels as having been at the cross until the very end.  The male disciples, except for John, were in hiding.  Even Jesus’ brothers and sisters were nowhere to be found at the end.  But Mary Magdalene stayed faithful to the very end.

            Now it’s the morning of the third day and it’s Mary Magdalene, of course, making her way to Christ’s tomb.  She discovers the stone has been removed from the entrance of the tomb and Jesus’ body is missing.  We can only imagine the thoughts that ran through her mind.  She ran to two of Jesus’ closest disciples and reported to them that someone had taken the Lord’s body.  The two disciples ran to the tomb and confirmed what Mary had told them.  The body was gone.  Since there was nothing more that could be done, the men then went home, leaving Mary, alone, crying at the tomb.

            Crying at the tomb.  Many of us have been there mourning the loss of a parent, a friend, a spouse, a child.  We’ve stood there by a tomb, a grave, and wept, and like Mary, perhaps we wept so hard that we did not sense the risen Christ standing next to us seeking to comfort us.  And now we are here, as we are most Easter morns, to hear our name called, to experience the kind of transformation Mary Magdalene experienced, to have the fog of doubt and fear lifted from our mind and heart and to know that the Good News really is true.

            It is natural for us to have these yearnings, and as we reflect on John’s version of Easter, I want to say three things.  First, we are hard-wired for eternity and we all have a longing for immortality.

            A report appeared sometime back in the The Futurist magazine.  The Futurist is a magazine for people who seek to anticipate the changes that are taking place in our society.  The subject of this particular report was “virtual immortality.”  What is virtual immortality?  Well, it has to do with humans and computers.

            Imagine that everything that there is to know about us, our appearance, our mannerisms, our voice, and even our knowledge and experience were all digitized and dumped into a very sophisticated database.  The computer churns all this information together and then begins bringing to life a virtual representation of ourselves, an avatar, if you will.  This virtual representation would preserve our personality, our preferences and our appearance for eternity.  In a sense we would have a form of eternal life inside a computer.

            This may not sound very appealing, spending eternity as a computer avatar, but we are rapidly approaching a time when this is very much a possibility.  Vastly improving information storage and processing and graphics already create nearly lifelike experiences ... just check out the latest version of Call of Duty or Madden Football on an XBox or a PS3.  Add the growing wonders of artificial intelligence into the mix, and who knows what is possible?

            You may be familiar with the name Ray Kurzweil.  Kurzweil is a brilliant scientist, inventor, author and a man who is greatly influencing thought about humanity’s future, particularly as it relates to the rapid increases in the power of computers.  He was featured recently on the cover of Time magazine with an article titled, “2045: The Year Man Becomes Immortal.”  Ray Kurzweil claims no religious affiliation; no belief in God. And yet Kurzweil hungers for immortality.

            One of the motivations for his life’s work is the dream of resurrecting his dead father.  That is not a joke.  That is his dream.  He hopes not only to avoid death himself, but also to reconnect someday with his dead father by somehow resurrecting him through the wonders of science.

            It is a shame that Ray Kurzweil, this brilliant scientist and thinker, is not able to relax and believe the good news of Easter.  Christ has provided a way for him to be reconnected with his dead father.  And it has nothing to do with complex algorithms. There is nothing virtual about it, and it is real, as real as life itself.

            Crying by the tomb.  Many of us have been there. Ray Kurzweil has been there. Even the most skeptical among us have a glimmer of hope that the Easter story is true—that Christ has been raised from the dead - and because he lives, we will live also.

            Now to the second thing I want to say about John’s version of Easter ... Jesus spoke her name.  When Mary heard the risen Christ speak her name her veil of doubt and dread vanished.

            Remember Helen of Troy?  Hers was “the face that launched a thousand ships.”  An ancient Greek legend relates a story about Helen of Troy from later in her life.  In the legend Helen is captured and carried away.  She becomes a victim of amnesia.  She can’t remember who she is.  Neither can she remember that she is of royal blood.  And because she can’t remember and there is no one to remind her, Helen of Troy becomes a prostitute.

            Meanwhile, back in her homeland Helen’s friends didn’t give up hope of finding her.  One old friend in particular goes looking for her.  One day he finds himself wandering through the streets of a strange city.  He comes across a wretched woman in tattered clothes.  It is Helen.  Time has not been kind to her.  Her face is deeply lined with wrinkles.  Believing he recognizes her, however, this friend walks up to Helen and asks, “What is your name?”

            She gives him a name, but it is another name, not Helen.

            “May I see your hands?” he asks because he remembers some distinctive lines in Helen’s hands.  She holds her hands in front of his face.  He can’t believe his eyes. “Helen!” he exclaims.  “I’ve found you!  You’re Helen!”

            At the sound of her name, Helen’s memory begins to return.  The fog begins to lift from her brain.  She recognizes her name and she falls into her friends’ arms, weeping with gratitude.  She is restored to the queen she was meant to be.

            It’s only a myth, but it reminds us of Mary Magdalene’s experience.  Even though her grief had blinded her to his presence, when Christ spoke her name, she knew who he was.

            Have we ever heard Christ speak our name?  If we are crying on the inside this morning, let’s wipe our tears for a moment and listen.  God is here.  Christ is alive.  He’s speaking our name.  He’s saying to us, “It’s all real.  I am with you.  I have conquered death.”

            That leads me to the third thing I want to say about John’s version of Easter ... something dramatic happened in Mary’s life that day.  Mary Magdalene was the very first person, male or female, who knew for certain that Christ had conquered death.

             Tony Campolo, an author and sociology professor, grew up in a black church in West Philadelphia.  He’s one of a handful of whites in this member of the 2,500 member congregation.  As you may know African-American congregations and pastors have their own unique and wondrous approach to the Gospel message, and Campolo remembers when he went to his first black funeral.  He was seventeen years old.  A friend of his named Clarence had died.  The minister was magnificent.  Campolo described that preacher like this:


            He preached about the Resurrection and he talked about life after death in such glowing terms that I have to tell you, even at seventeen I wished I was dead just listening to him!   He came down from the pulpit.  Then he went over to the family and spoke words of comfort to them.  Last of all, he went over to the open casket and for the last twenty minutes, he preached to the corpse.  Can you imagine that?   He just yelled at the corpse. “Clarence! Clarence!”’ he yelled.  He said it with such authority ... says Campolo ... I would not have been surprised had there been an answer.

            ‘Well,” this preacher said, “Clarence, you died too fast.  You got away without us thanking you.”  He went down this litany of beautiful, wonderful things that Clarence had done for people.  Then he said, “That’s it, Clarence.  When there’s nothin’ more to say, there’s only one thing to say, good night!”

            Now this is drama.  White preachers don’t do this! . . . The preacher then grabbed the lid of the casket and he slammed it shut and he yelled, “Good night, Clarence!  Good night, Clarence!”   As he slammed that lid shut he pointed to the casket and he said, “Good night, Clarence, ‘cause I know, yes, I know that God is going to give you a good morning!”   Then the choir stood and started singing “On that great gettin’ up Morning we shall rise, we shall rise.”  People were up on their feet and they were in the aisles hugging and kissing each other and dancing. I was up dancing and hugging people.   I knew I was in the right church, the kind of church that can take a funeral and turn it into a celebration.  That’s what the faith is about. It’s about the promise of eternal life . . . death doesn’t threaten us any more.


            If you are weeping by a tomb this day . . . whether it be a tomb of a family member or a good friend ... or a tomb of a lifelong dream . . . or a tomb of disappointment or despair . . . or a tomb of heartbreak or rejection . . . or a tomb of fear and frustration . . . if you’re crying beside any tomb this day . . . hear the good news.  Jesus is calling your name.  He’s here with reassurance.

            The Gospel is true. Jesus is alive, and because he is alive, we can live, too.