Easter: Discovering Life in Christ (Sermon)

“Easter: Discovering Life In Christ”

John 20:1-18

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

Easter Sunrise 2022

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.”

Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. 10 Then the disciples returned to their homes.

11 But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; 12 and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. 13 They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?”

She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” 14 When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus.

15 Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.”

16 Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). 17 Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”

18 Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her. (NRSV)

         On Sunday, Mary Magdalene rises before the sun. Maybe there is some starlight, but for the most part, her day begins with darkness swaddling her like a shroud.

         On Maundy Thursday, we talked about darkness as a negative thing. And yet, darkness is also a kind of equalizer. In the dark, we may know up from down, and we may still know our own left from our own right. But spin around a few times, and we might have to wait for daybreak to know east from west. And in the dark, we share our humanity entirely differently. It may be that we actually share our humanity more deeply.

         In his journal, Thomas Merton describes darkness as a kind of baptismal font. He writes of attending the night office during Holy Week when the choir sang without a single ray of light in the sanctuary. “I thought of the darkness as a luxury,” he said, “simplifying and unifying everything, hiding all the accidents that make one monk different from another monk, and submerging all distinctions in plain obscurity. Thus,” he says, “we are all one in the death of Christ.”

Merton then tells of singing the Benedictus, “the canticle of thanksgiving for the Light who is to be sent. Now He is sent,” says Merton. “He has come. He has descended into the far of night…” and gathered all things to himself.

         Merton imagines that in this gathering, “We will see one another with white garments, with palm branches in our hands. [And the] darkness,” he says, “is like a font from which we shall ascend washed and illumined, to see one another, no longer separate, but one in the Risen Christ.”1

         “In Christ” is a kind of mantra in the New Testament epistles. A quick search reveals that from Romans through Revelation, in the NRSV, the phrase “in Christ” appears 90 times. And for Paul, in Christ refers to an inviting and inclusive mystery. He’s bearing witness to God bringing “all things” together—the whole of Creation—and uniting them in Christ.

According to John, as Mary arrives at the tomb, she sees three figures—two “angels” and a man she assumes is a gardener. After reading Merton’s journal, I imagine Mary still submerged in the darkness of grief, and yet hers is a cleansing and enlightening grief. And when she hears her name, all things come together in Christ, including the three figures she has seen. They gather into the wholeness that was, and is, and will always be the presence of God’s Christ. It is very much like the experience Cleopas and his friend have on the road to Emmaus later that day, when they recognize the Christ in a complete stranger.

         Now, that’s one way experience Easter—as a mysterious and unpredictable revelation of God’s irrepressible, whole-making grace in the world. Recognizing this oneness, this gathering of all things in Christ, is the redeeming gift of Resurrection. It’s also a challenging gift because the world isn’t always open to wholeness and union. Indeed, more often than not, much of the world resists the in Christness of the Creation because, among other reasons, living in Christ involves so much give and take, and in an anxious, divided, and competitive world, we often become consumed with taking rather than giving.

To discover and experience the in Christ life, we are invited to give up all the selfish habits of being that divide us, habits that obscure the image of God within us and that prevent us from seeing the image of God in others. Habits like pride, greed, fear, and vengeance. Habits that humankind manifests in attitudes like racism, consumerism, nationalism, and other violence-breeding distortions of our God-imaged humanity.

         We call it Holy Saturday—the day between Good Friday and Easter. For people of faith, Saturday is, spiritually and liturgically, a day of darkness. In the grief of that day, past and future dissolve into a kind of timeless present when we are washed of all selfish expectations, and when, by the illuminating darkness, God grants us the opportunity to recognize that God is gathering together all things in Christ.

Caryll Houselander was a British writer, artist, and Christian mystic in the first half of the 20th century. Her most memorable mystical experience occurred on a subway in London when, in her heart and mind, she clearly saw “Christ in all people.”

“Quite suddenly,” she recalled, “I saw with my mind, but as vividly as a wonderful picture, Christ in them all. But I saw more than that; not only was Christ in every one of them, living in them, dying in them, rejoicing in them, sorrowing in them—but because he was in them, and because they were here, the whole world was here in this underground train, not only the world as it was at that moment, not only [all] the people…of the world, but all those yet to come. I came out into the street and walked for a long time in the crowds. It was the same here…in every passerby—Christ.”

         I imagine Houselander and her fellow travelers on that underground train buried in a kind of darkness. Sure, there were lights on the cars, but can’t you imagine heads bowed in dark silence, eyes open but seeing little and acknowledging less? All of them crowded beneath a shared pall of busyness, of anxiety about living in Europe in the 1930’s and 1940’s as the dark clouds of war gathered? So deeply did she see and experience her vision, that, through some uncommon grace, Caryll Houselander, like Mary on Easter morning, saw the Christ in each person and in all people together—all one in Christ.

Her vision lasted several days and shaped the rest of her life in relationship to all human beings.

Like Mary Magdalene, Caryll Houselander could not have held onto the Christ she saw in the people around her. He was not corporeal in the same way they were, but he was—and he is, even now—no less real, loving, and faithful.

My prayer for all of us is that we allow God’s Spirit to Easter us toward union with God in Christ every day. And one way to do that is to open ourselves to the font of simplifying and unifying darkness with the same expectation and hope with which we open ourselves to the Light. For in the darkness of our own difficult and disturbing days, we have the opportunity to do exactly as Jesus calls us to do, to lose our lives so that we might find them anew.

Please trust this, my friends: In the new light of Resurrection, we are being made one and whole through the shared embrace of God who is bringing together all things in Christ.

1 A Year with Thomas Merton: Daily Meditations from His Journals. Selected and edited by Jonathan Montaldo. Harper One, 2004. P. 99.

2https://catholicwomensforum.org/who-was-caryll-houselander-and-why-was-she-called-a-divine-eccentric/

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