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Sermon: Easter Sunday Year A

April 12, 2020

The Rev. Eileen Weglarz

Acts 10:34-43; Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24; Colossians 3:14; John 20:1-18

Bishop Assistant Mary Glasspool of the Diocese of New York writes a weekly letter to the clergy. Since I am canonically resident in the Diocese of New York while serving in the Diocese of Albany, I receive all the news from both Dioceses. I always find Bishop Mary’s letters to be insightful. And so today I want to share her thoughts about coming to faith through the resurrection of Jesus.

Since the Resurrection is the very center of our Faith, seemingly it should be a relatively easy task to preach on Easter. But sometimes that is not so, even in the best of times, and this year is particularly challenging. We were certainly able to preach on Good Friday, and then feel the complete emptiness of Holy Saturday. But will we be able to heartily proclaim the good news of Jesus’s Resurrection today, Easter Sunday, when we will continue to be in the middle of a pandemic, with sickness and death and isolation all around us. How do we come to faith in the Resurrection?    

Well, it depends on what we see, and what we believe. And the accounts in John’s Gospel give us two interesting, yet different, models of how a person can come to faith in the Resurrection: the Beloved Disciple and Mary Magdalene. Obviously these are not the only two ways that one can come to faith, but they do demonstrate for us that people come to faith in different ways, and they can open the door for us to be encouraged and to grow and to experience resurrection in our own lives, even in today’s world.

The Beloved Disciple – the one whom Jesus loved – models for us a kind of intuitive understanding, a seeing with the heart. The Beloved Disciple, Simon Peter, and Mary Magdalene are the characters in the first part of John 20:1-18 (John 20: 1-10). Each of them sees something as the drama unfolds. 

Mary Magdalene was the first to arrive at the tomb that day. She came early and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb. She runs and tells Simon Peter and the Beloved Disciple who, in turn, run to the tomb. Although the Beloved Disciple gets there first, he does not go in. When Peter arrives, with characteristic boldness, he goes into the tomb and, we read, he saw the linen wrapping lying there and the cloth… 

Then the Beloved Disciple goes into the tomb and, we read simply that he saw and believed.

What’s fascinating is that while each of these three people saw something in the story, and we use the same word in English: saw. In the Greek, however, three different words are used, and each of these words points us to different kinds of seeing. 

Mary Magdalene saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb. The Greek work used here is bleh-pay, which means to look at. Mary Magdalene looked at the scene, saw that the stone had been taken away, and without looking any further assumed that Jesus’ body had been taken somewhere else, either by grave robbers or by friends who might have moved it to some other resting place.

Although the Beloved Disciple arrives first, Simon Peter is the first to actually go into the tomb, where he saw the linen wrapping. The Greek word used here for saw is theo-ray, which literally means to notice or, put a bit more strongly, to investigate. Simon Peter comes into the tomb and what he sees he investigates, he takes notice of.

Then the Beloved Disciple comes into the tomb. He saw what Peter had seen: the empty tomb and the linen wrappings and abandoned cloth. But the Beloved Disciple, unlike Peter, grasps its meaning. The Greek word used here that gets translated as saw is ey-dun, which really means to perceive, to see with the heart. What we read in the narrative is that the Beloved Disciple saw and believed.

Mary Magdalene looked at the scene; Peter investigated what he saw; and the Beloved Disciple saw and believed – he saw with the heart; he perceived. 

Who knows why the Beloved Disciple was gifted with particular insight as he experienced the empty tomb? Maybe it was at that moment that everything Jesus had ever said and taught finally made sense to him. Maybe he thought about the time Jesus raised his friend Lazarus from the dead, having said, I am the resurrection and life. The one who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die. Perhaps he remembered Jesus saying, I am the door, and if anyone enters by me he will be saved. … I am the Good Shepherd … I am the light of the world … I am the way, the truth and the life. 

Jesus, for this disciple, has overcome death! He is risen! He has been given new life by God! The Beloved Disciple knows this in his heart. He experiences the Risen Christ even as he stands there, looking at the linen wrappings. Something inside him that has been dead comes back to life. He experiences the Resurrection for himself, and what he sees is that others can and will experience it too, for ages to come.

For us the Beloved Disciple is a wonderful model of a kind of seeing of the heart. It’s like the difference between looking at a window and looking through a window. If we look at a window, we may see fly specks, dust, and maybe a crack or two. If we look through the window, we see the world beyond. 

If we look at the Resurrection, we may only see a story about an empty tomb, some used linen wrappings, and three confused disciples trying to make sense out of a really bad weekend. But if we look through the Resurrection with a loving heart, willing and ready to believe, we will be able to see beyond the historical events themselves to the incredible love that overcomes death, and to the power that causes all that separates and injures and destroys to be overcome by what unites and heals and creates.

Well, not all of us are blessed with the kind of intuitive seeing of the heart. There are other ways to come to faith. Mary Magdalene, for example, did not come to faith by the empty tomb. The empty tomb did nothing for Mary Magdalene, except increase her grief. The appearance of the two angels neither allays her grief nor prompts faith in the Resurrection. Even when Jesus himself appears, she does not recognize him.

Unlike the Beloved Disciple, Mary Magdalene comes to faith not by the evidence of the empty tomb and grave cloths; not by the revelation of the angels; and not even by the sight of the Risen Christ. She comes to faith by his word – and that word was her name. Jesus said to her, ‘Mary’. She turned and said to him in Hebrew, ‘Rabbouni!’ (which means Teacher). She came to faith when he spoke her name – a word that prompted the memory of a relationship that had already been formed and which, by the resurrection, was vindicated and sealed as an abiding one. 

Easter for those who have followed all the way, who have stayed with their grief and pain, even to Golgotha, is a confirmation of trust, a promise kept, a relationship revealed. For us Mary Magdalene is a wonderful model not of a seeing heart, but of a broken heart, not able to see because of being blinded by grief. To us, when we are not able to see with the eyes of the heart, the Risen Christ comes and calls us by name and confronts us with new life, resurrected life, our own life in Christ.

So, in this Good Friday world, colored so heavily with the sickness, death, grief, fear, loneliness, and loss of the COVID-19 pandemic, there are still many ways to come to faith in the Resurrection – to proclaim our Easter Faith. 

The Beloved Disciple and Mary Magdalene present us with two models, and there are others. Simon Peter’s faith depended on the testimony of others; Thomas’s faith depended on direct evidence; the two disciples on the road to Emmaus on a sacred meal. 

You have a story of coming to faith, and I do, too. However we come to faith in the Resurrection of Jesus the Christ of God, and even if we have not yet come – it is ours today as a free gift: for a seeing heart or a broken heart; for a sleepy disciple, a doubtful disciple, a believing disciple—all alike.

As sure as the rising sun, hear the proclamation: Alleluia! Christ is Risen! The Lord is Risen indeed! Alleluia!