Jeremiah 31:1-6 • Colossians 3:1-4 • John 20:1-18
Have you ever gotten back something that you thought you had lost? Something of great value? Perhaps even something of absolute value? If you have, perhaps you can imagine what Mary may have felt when she finally realized that this one she supposed was the gardener was Jesus standing before her. When he spoke her name and she realized this was her teacher, the one she loved, the one whose feet she had washed with her hair and perfume and her tears, the one who had given her back her brother’s life, the one whose body she had been looking for all morning long in that garden, Mary realized she had been given back to her what was most precious. She had been given back her life.
I think I can imagine something of what she’s experienced in John’s story. I’ve seen it recently, I think, something of the joy and astonishment and surprise and shudder I think she felt when she spoke that one word Rabbouni, teacher, and wrapped her arms around perhaps the only one in all the world who felt safe to her. I think I can imagine, because I’ve seen the tell-tale signs in the sobs of a grizzly, tough old-bird of a man who nearly lost his life and remembers next to nothing of the many weeks a machine breathed for him as his body slowly recovered from a massive trauma.
To put it lightly, he’s not one of your crying types. Some might even think of him as crusty, but I don’t think so. Regardless, these days he cries. Don’t get me wrong, it still doesn’t happen often; he’s pretty stoic. But now he cries. It happens when someone holds his hand and calls his name and tells him that he’s loved, tells him that a community has been holding onto him, praying for him, holding vigil. It happens whenever he remembers that he is a part of a story of grace undeserved, that the life he is living is a gift to him—that he could just as easily be dead right now, if for a few small details in a series of events that put him in a place where he could be saved. And then the sobs come.
They start deep, impossibly deep—deeper than the space his body occupies. It comes from a vast, open place, a hidden place where spirit dwells, a place, I think, of deep mystery and longing, a place that I suspect all of us know of. In the hand holding, in the prayer, in the look into the eyes of his wife who has set beside him all these weeks, in the realization of the value of life that has been gifted back to him as he lies in a hospital bed, all the worries, all the daily troubles, all the petty, self-conscious needs, all the fears that so often consume us suddenly dissolve into nothing, as if they never existed, and there is only love left. And it is enough. It is more than enough. It is, in fact, all there is, all there ever really was.
I think that’s what happens to Mary when she speaks that word Rabbouni, teacher. Mary is totally lost in a sea of worry and doubt and sorrow, until she hears that voice, and a key turns in her to unlock the door to that deep place of longing and hope and truth. She hears that voice and turns to see the one who holds the key, the possibility of life as she can imagine it to be in the scars of his hands and feet, in his suffering and in his example of service—washing feet, demonstrating the extent of love in his death that is the only hope of the new and full and joyful life that Mary and we crave—that the only safe terrain is the one where risk, sacrifice, and self-giving is present.
Mary remembers what he had shown her. We are only safe if we are for one another. We are only found if we learn how to lose ourselves. We are only full if we have emptied ourselves. This is not something we can ultimately do by ourselves. I think that’s why Jesus sends Mary back to the others. She needs them, and they need her if they are to believe too if they are to go this way.
“Do not be afraid,” he says to her, and he says to all who find they have back what they thought was lost. Go and tell my brothers and sisters, your brothers and sisters. In my wounds and yours, they will see me. In my life poured out, and in yours, they will see me. In the death of all that is petty, all that is treacherous, all that is self-absorbed, all that is greed—in the midst of all that death, I will be raised.
It is not accidental that John, the careful storyteller that he is, puts Mary and the risen Jesus in the garden. This is a naked reference to the garden of creation, and of God’s work to renovate what had been destroyed, to reverse a betrayal that began in the beginning of time and in the beginning of this story in a garden. Let’s say it another way. This is a new creation with a new Adam and a new Eve, with a new world and all its possibilities and yet, the very same God who walks in the garden, who creates something, who refuses to let death reign.
Love does not deny that people use God-given gifts for treachery and harm. Love does not deny that greed does misshape our life and takes for the few what belongs to the many. Love does not deny that big companies forsake people for profits, that unjust laws continue to privilege some, while imprisoning others simply because of their gender and the color of their skin. Love does not deny that many of the so-called blessings we give thanks for are in fact, stolen goods, that many of the clothes on our backs and much of the technology in our pockets have come to us so cheaply, because children and poor ones have made the sacrifice for us. Love does not ignore the cries of those suffering from malnutrition and starvation or the thirst of those with no clean water to drink.
Love does not deny that we live in a world that is unfair and broken, and in need of fixing. Love does not deny any of this. In fact, with wounded hands and feet, and a pierced side, it shines a spot light on these truths, it calls Mary’s name and your name and mine and says, there is a way. It says that what you have found yourself hoping for, longing for, crying out for in that deepest part of yourself is possible. It says, behold, behold, I make all things new, beginning with you. And in that moment, in our best, most fragile moments, we know it is true. We know, in fact, that it is the only true thing.
The great contemplative Thomas Merton understood the compelling and always fragile nature of the love that saves us:
Love is not itself
Do you remember now? Do you believe? If you do go and tell the others. Because this life that is true, this new creation is not a work that you can do alone. It takes a congregation to live into it, to practice the truth-telling, and the forgiving, and the recommitting, and the serving through which God makes all things new. It takes a movement of self-giving people who vote and march and pray and refuse to back down for the astonishment of Mary in that garden, for the shudder of my tough-old-bird of a friend whose deep sobs testify to a life given back to him as a gift to share—if it is to spread to a broken and cynical world.
And if you don’t yet remember, then stick around. Wait for the message to come to you. Look for it in others. Place yourself where you can be found, where the message and its salvation can be spoken: “I have seen the Lord.” Because this Spirit that is unleashed in this story, this Spirit is wild; it is not ours to control, but only to give ourselves to. It cannot be held onto because it is on the move. It is already at work in the world, and much of our work is simply to catch up to it, to catch its fire.
It must be shared. As one writer has described it, “It has to re-enter the world of others with its newly won freedom.” It has to be lived out in compassion. It has to take on the shape of justice.
Beloved of God, death is not the final word, for like him, you have died and your life is hidden with God in Christ. Live from that impossibly deep place within you where you know that love is born and life begins anew.
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