Easter: The First Day of New Creation (John 20:1-18)

This is my Easter sermon.

Intro_

For me it was at a church I recently begun attending with my family back when I was back in Ohio when I was a kid. Our was a big, patchwork family. There are six kids on my mom’s side of my family. My step dad, who I have talked just a little about in the past, had a gentle inner soul, but his exterior was enough to make many folks pause and turn away. His hair went down to the middle of his back, and between his dark sunglasses and full red beard you could see much of his face (One image that came to mind was ZZ top). His cut off T-shirt, and combat boots were a Sunday morning staple. My mom was not much more “traditional,” and you can see that it has rubbed off. I always was kind of proud of that fact that she rarely wore shoes to Sunday morning worship.

Well, if my memory serves me correctly, the first Sunday we arrived at a small church in Alliance Ohio (I think it was 1994 – I was 14) all 8 of us. I don’t remember anything about that Easter service except for one thing. Before we ever left the rear doors to the parking lot of that meeting house that day, three different families had invited my very large, very unchurchy looking family over to dinner in the next week.

That was the first time in my life anyone had ever accepted me, or my family, in such an open armed way before. We’d been in church as long as I could remember but this was different. These people didn’t know us from Eve, but they were living out of a completely different set of convictions, rules, and associations. I think that we often stress believing in the resurrection (which is fine) but it’s not enough to believe in the resurrection, Easter is about realizing that the church becomes the resurrection. It lives, we can live under the guidance of our resurrected Lord. The church is the embodiment of Christ in the world. And on that one Easter morning we experienced that in a real and tangible way like never before.

I am afraid that too often in our society the church has focused so much on believing the right things about resurrection that it has stopped living it out. The world longs for a real-life tangible experience of Jesus today, a community deeply knows one another (friend, stranger or family), that deeply loves and forgives, and that is deeply curious about how to share life with others. And this is what we experienced on that Easter morning, people who lived as a new kind of family, a new community, a church who were trying to live under the reality that in the resurrection there is a new creation.

Have you ever experienced something like this? (How might we offer this?)

The Cross and Darkness_

Our Gospel text begins in darkness. How fitting, since the man they thought was the messiah was murdered as a political insurrectionist only two days earlier. (After all what is all this business about crowns, robes, and the king of the Jews?) On the cross, real, total darkness is revealed. This is unbridled human ego, let loose [oh wait isn’t that reality TV show?]. Now I don’t think the cross is about the raw fury of God’s wrath revealed, no matter what we learned growing up, the cross has nothing to do with God’s wrath and has all to do with the climax of human rebellion, and wickedness. The cross is a picture of a suffering God who physically sustained that rebellion. The headline on the underground newspaper the morning after would have read, “Even God can’t clean up this mess.” Because that’s how dark this was. For some, Jesus was a real threat to the mass crowd, his sermons, his acts of justice, his healing, his prayers all challenged the empire way of life. And so he had to be shut down. The political and religious leaders wanted it, and so did the “people” of his day. Jesus was killed while working to liberate people from religious, social and political imperialism.

And so Easter morning begins in darkness.

The timing of all of this is of some importance. In John 19 we are told that Jesus dies on the sixth day, the day of preparation just before the Sabbath. And When Jesus died he said “it is finished.” // What was finished?

Does anyone remember how the Gospel of John begins? / In the beginning…
I think the Gospel of John is trying to jog our OT memories. What is finished? What happened in the beginning?

“God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day. Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all their multitude. And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done.” (Genesis 1:31–2:2 NRSV)

I’d like to suggest that John is presenting his own remix of Genesis. The Gospel of John is in a sense an updated creation story. We are even told that Jesus’ tomb was in a garden where no one had been laid to rest yet (19:41).

And just like in the beginning where it says:

Gen. 1:1 In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, 2 the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. 3 Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light.

The light is born out of the Darkness. The old world is dead. The old order, the old covenant, the old way of doing business, the old rulers, the old politicians, the old theologians, the old religiosity, all old associations, and hierarchy are dead.

It’s thrown into a box and not given a proper burial. It’s all dead. It is finished. The cross is a fresh start through death. It is the flood of Noah’s time, it is the red sea experience, it is the escape from egypt with one main difference, the OT stresses that these were God’s judgements for the rebellion of humanity, but in the cross the tables are turned. Humanity gets its revenge on God, it is the climax of human wickedness poured out upon Jesus hanging on a cross.

And so it is important we start in darkness.

And In the cross it looks as if that the old order has finally won, once and for all. There will be no new messianic movements, no return from exile, no reconciliation. The old order is here to stay and not even the anointed messianic leader could change it.

And so on the sixth day Jesus said “It is finished” and on the seventh Day God rested and Jesus laid in a tomb in the middle of a garden. All the disciples were in hiding, resting on the Sabbath, mourning the death of Jesus.

The First Day_

And then the writer of the Gospel pens (in chap. 20): Early on the first day of the week, in the middle of complete darkness. Things began to look even worse.

Right? Isn’t this really what’s happening. Mary shows up to the tomb while it’s still dark, she probably couldn’t see much at all but she can see that the tomb is open and instantly she realizes one of her worst fears has come true. Someone has stolen the dead body of the one they loved. Was it to mock Jesus’ disciples? Was it meant so that they could not properly honor him?

But something is happening. Even though Mary, and the two men who follow her to the body-less tomb don’t yet “see,” this is the first day of the week.

[And so we go through this whole scene of Peter and the beloved disciple (the one who more than likely wrote this Gospel or at least stood behind its retelling) and all about this who is faster stuff? Great! Thanks for letting us know who’s faster!]

The big picture here I think is that Mary is the key person, keep your eyes on Mary. Everything is a little off, things don’t work they way they normally. For instance, the men find the linens laying there but no body. That’s really unusual. Did someone really steal a naked corpse? No thief in their right mind would have done that.

And who really is Mary? We know very little about her, as far as we know she had no official status in Jesus’ band of followers, the way Peter did, or the beloved disciple, or even Jesus’ own mother. Why is it that the spotlight turns to this first century Jewish woman, who has no central role in the Gospel? In fact, as a woman in that time period, and let’s be honest, in most time periods since, she had no rights. The culture back then thought that a woman was the last person you wanted to have witness something if you were hoping to give it credibility. And so God starts with a little light, on this first day, and begins to restructure everything.

Mary Lingers_

The men return home, I’m guessing in even more sorrow than before. I don’t think they yet believed that Christ had risen. There are different ways to read this, but when it says that they looked in and saw the empty tomb and believed, I think it means they believed Mary’s story that the body had been stolen. And this is why it says, “because they did not yet understand the Scriptures.”

But it is Mary stays, her grief causes her to linger just a little bit longer. And on this first day of total darkness, the sun for sure has begun to come up, a little light has begun to shine through that darkness. Things are changing. It is in the air. The first day started out in darkness, it looked bleak but as the sun rose the new creation was evident. If God is going to re-write the creation story, he is going to do it in a way that confounds the wisdom of the world. I like how Walter Wink it:

Easter is a scandal, not a comfort. It answers death—by blowing our whole world away! It is unintelligible, impossible. And the gospels do nothing to soften the shock. Women are its earliest witnesses—in a society that rejected women as witnesses!

And so on this first day, Mary stands there weeping. She doesn’t yet know that all things have changed. She stands there, her grief holds her there just a moment longer. She lingers at the grave, maybe it was her curiosity, maybe she had no place to go, maybe she couldn’t face telling the others that Jesus’ body had been stolen, maybe she sensed in the air something had changed? Whatever it was, I think Mary was awake, awake to that moment, awake to her emotions, and so she lingered.

Have you ever lingered just a minute longer and because of that something happened to you that you would have otherwise totally missed?

I think Mary is our example of someone who is awake in this story. It is her lingering just a moment longer that allows her to be present to actually she Jesus. Not only does she see the angels, but then Jesus appears to her. And finally, when he speaks her name tenderly, when Mary hears the master’s voice. Everything is opened up to her.

In fact, as far as the Gospel of John is concerned she is the first apostle, she is the first one sent with a message to proclaim Christ is alive. ((She was the first to the tomb and went back to the other disciples and announced a message albeit an incorrect one, “Jesus’ body was stolen.” Then after meeting Jesus in the garden, he corrects that message “My body has not been stolen…‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” (John 20:17 NRSV) and she goes again to announce.)) See Mary, and the disciples thought they were living in the last days, for them the end was near. But then with a slight adjustment to the lens, they realize they are not in the last days, but in the first days (NT Wright 39?).

The New Creation_

Because Mary lingered just a little longer she was the first person to witness the first day of new creation. In fact, I think it’s fitting that she initially confuses Jesus as a gardner. If this is the scene of the new Garden of Eden, one where God and humanity are reconnected, where reconciliation is forever woven back into the fabric of the world, if Jesus truly is re-embodied, resurrected, then he is the tender, the keeper, the cultivator not just of the garden but of a whole new creation. He is the new Adam for a new community of people who live and act and worship in light of the resurrection.

There are many ways this new creation is lived out. In the new creation both men and women announce the good news, that we have returned from exile, that God is present among us, and that the powers and principalities in our society do not have the final say. Like Mary, it doesn’t matter who you are or whether you had a role in the story up to now. This is why we also talk about the new creation in terms of new associations. There is an Easter way of relating to one another that doesn’t spread across families or ethnicities, but allegiance to Jesus and his way. From this point on, Jesus’ disciples become a social force, people who announce peace and who are for all people. They are a resurrection movement, a movement of people living within the reality of the new creation.

Quakers call this Gospel Order. If the old order died on the cross, then we now live in the time of Gospel Order. Everything is ordered now according to the resurrection and present reality of Christ and so we, the church, set out to live that way. We build upon that. The new creation is fully participative, in fact the only way it works, the only way it grows is if it takes roots in us. Quakers stress Easter, Christ really is leading us. And so this is why we do things a little differently at times.

The disciples are helpful for us because they could not see all this it at first, and we too struggle with seeing this. The kingdom of God had come and all they saw was an empty tomb. They thought all was lost, the body was stolen, and there was no more to see. The new creation was here but they misunderstood and went home. God had finally returned, death was defeated, and Mary still wept. But then the master spoke her voice, gentle but firm and her imagination was made new, her eyes saw for the first time, that it was there all the time and she had simply missed it. Resurrection has a way of opening our eyes, rewiring our imaginations, speaking our names and calling us to respond because it is Jesus himself teaching and leading us. For the church then, the practice of our faith must be a to have a new perspective, a new way of interacting with and relating to the world. The new creation is here, it is in your home, at your work, how will you help it grow?

And that is how it is today. We are the church of Easter, not good Friday. We live not at the end of the 6th day, but in light of the first day of new creation. And though we may not always see it, though we do not always know it is there, though we may not always believe the witnesses who bear its truth, the signs are there. On my first Easter, I experienced a sign of the resurrection, my family experienced what it means to be a resurrected people. To be a people who love without limit, to be a people who make those who are not family part of our family, who extend forgiveness (even when it is not extended to us), who live lives of radical peace, who extend grace and mercy to those in need, who see that “Justice is thicker than blood.”

May we be awake enough to not just see the signs of resurrection, but to be the resurrection, to go and announce new creation. May we be the signposts of God’s kingdom present here in this world. May we live in light of this new creation and plant signs of God’s kingdom wherever we roam. May we linger long enough in life to see Jesus, the resurrected Lord. May we come to know this Jesus who is here among us.

“So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (2 Corinthians 5:17 NRSV)

Open Worship_

Silence worship is the Quaker communion, it is the way of remembering we are an Easter Church rather than a good Friday one.

Published by

Wess

...is the William R. Roger Director of Friends Center and Quaker Studies at Guilford College in Greensboro, NC., PhD in Intercultural Studies from Fuller Theological Seminary, served as a "released minister" at Camas Friends Church, and father of three. He enjoys sketchnoting, sharing conversation over coffee with a friend, listening to vinyl and writing creative nonfiction.

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