April 20, 2014: John 20

April 21, 2014

Easter Year A                                                               
            It was my first Ash Wednesday as a priest and I was a little nervous about leading the church through Lent all on my own.  I was planning on visiting someone and stopped in the sanctuary to retrieve the reserved sacrament from the aumbry.  The aumbry is the wooden box between the main church and the side chapel.  When we have left over consecrated bread and wine, we put it in the aumbry.  In the Episcopal Church, we believe that Christ is present in the sacrament.  We call the bread the body of Christ and the wine the blood of Christ.  Even once the service is over, Jesus is still present in the bread and the wine.   When I looked in the aumbry, I realized that the container that held the bread was gone.  That container is always supposed to be there, even when it is empty. The only time it comes out is when we take it out during the service itself.  Of course I panicked.  My first thought was, “Oh dear God, someone stole Jesus. It’s my first Lent and Easter as a priest.  I am all by myself and I have already lost Jesus.”   I realize that my reaction was a little irrational, but I was very sincere.
            When Mary Magdalene saw that the tomb was empty, her first reaction was that someone stole the body of Jesus.  That reaction might seem a little irrational to us now.  Who would steal a body?  Didn’t she know that he was going to be resurrected?  Hadn’t she been listening?  It was a fairly reasonable fear, one that the other disciples probably shared.  One of the concerns of the Roman and Jewish leadership was that Jesus would be worshipped after his death.  This could happen in a couple of ways.  His followers could steal the body and tell everyone that he came back from the dead.  Or…his body would remain there and his burial site would become a place of worship for his followers, which would create problems for the Romans. 
While there was a rationale for a missing body I am still surprised that disciples thought the body was stolen after all that Jesus had told them when he was with them.  Yet we look at it through the lens of already knowing the end of the story.  Jesus’s followers didn’t have the Gospels all written out. Jesus told his followers about his resurrection, but he did not give them concrete details.  They had no idea how it would happen or what it would look like.  We really cannot blame them for expecting to find the body of Jesus in the tomb where he was buried and then be confused and scared when it was gone.
            Peter and the beloved disciple reacted to this fear and confusion by leaving the garden and locking themselves in a room with the other disciples.  Yet Mary stayed.   She wept and continued to gaze into the empty tomb. Through her tears she saw two angels in white who asked her why she was weeping.  She told them she was weeping because they had taken away her Lord and she did not know where to find him.  The angels did not respond and then for some reason she turned.  She turned away from the tomb and the angels within.  Perhaps she sensed there was someone behind her.  Maybe the sight of the angels disturbed her.  When she turned, she found Jesus.  But she did not know it was Jesus.  She thought he was the gardener. 
            One cannot help but wonder how Mary, someone who knew Jesus well, was not able to recognize Jesus.  Some have hypothesized that it was her tears that clouded her vision, literally and figuratively.  Perhaps her grief was so great she could not see properly.  She was so convinced that this was a stranger was not Jesus that she asked him to tell her where he had taken the body of Jesus.  Then Jesus said one word, her name.  That was all it took.  She heard him call her name and she knew that it was Jesus.  
            I often run into people from the parish outside of the church.  It might be a restaurant, the grocery store, the gym, any number of places.  Usually I recognize the person, but occasionally I don’t because the person is not in the right context.  But most of the time, I recognize the person long before they recognize me because I am really out of context.  I am not wearing my robes or my collar. We tend to put people in certain categories– in boxes and it can be disconcerting when we encounter that person in an entirely different environment.   It’s not that we do not want to see the person; we just don’t expect it.  And in that moment we don’t always recognize the person, even someone we might know well.  I wonder if that was what happened to Mary on a much more dramatic scale.   She had seen him die.  She was there to mourn him, weep for him.  She was there to close this chapter of her life. Yet when she saw that tomb empty, everything changed. The paradigm shifted.  Her role as a disciple of Christ was not ended; it was just beginning. 
            While seeing the living Christ was comforting and hopeful, it was also disconcerting.   The first thing he said to her after he said her name was, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father.”  What?  There was no, “So good to see you, thanks for being one of the few people to stick with me through the end.”  No big hug.  Not even a reassuring hand on her shoulder. 
            It’s not that Jesus didn’t want to show Mary that he loved her.  I am sure he wanted to comfort her. However, he knew that the person she was clinging to was the person who died on that cross…the same person she was expecting to find in the tomb.  But he was not that person anymore.   He was the resurrected Christ and he could not be confined to the tomb, nor could he be grasped by human hands or hopes.
            It would be nice if we could always find Jesus in the last place we left him, like a tomb or an aumbry.  That way when we needed him, we could just visit him there, or possibly take him out and hold on to him for a while.  Yet Jesus refuses to be confined to a tomb.  He likes to surprise us and come to us in different forms when we least expect him.  I fear that often we get so wrapped up staring at the empty tomb (because that is where he is supposed to be) that we ignore the stranger standing behind us.  We are afraid to turn around because while the tomb is dark and empty, it’s what we know and understand. 
            I eventually found the consecrated hosts.  Someone had mixed them with unconsecrated hosts…which really blew my liturgically correct mind.   I ate them all…and there were a lot.  I have no idea if that was the right thing to do.  I wanted to make sure that the consecrated host was consumed, but I did not want to jumble them all together since some were not consecrated. 

Often we find that things that are holy and sacred are jumbled in with the ordinary.  Sometimes Jesus looks more like a gardener than God.   What we have to decide is if we are going to leave him in a box or allow him entry into every aspect of our life.  God does not typically come to us in bite sized pieces.  God comes to us in inconvenient times when we have 1000 other things we are supposed to be doing.  As lovely as our Easter service is, this is a tiny tiny glimpse of God.  And if this all we are experiencing of God, we are missing out.  We could leave this service and consider our Christian duty complete.  Or like Mary who finally turned from the empty tomb to start a new life, we too can leave and realize that our role as a disciple is just beginning.