Isaiah 65:17-25 | Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24 | Acts 10:34-43 | John 20:1-18
We are witnesses. These were the words put into your mouths as we began our worship today. I suppose it is a bit presumptuous for those of us who control these words, who shape these services to make such bold claims. We are witnesses. You are witnesses.
I wouldn’t blame you if you flinched just a bit, hesitated, even pulled back while saying it.
But what if it is true?
We are witnesses that God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the power of the Holy Spirit. We are witneses that they put him to death, that God raised him to life.
We are witnesses.
We are witnesses that Christ has called us to share this good news with all the world so that life may grow and blossom into its fullness.
We are witnesses.
This is, of course, a highly problematic claim, isn’t it. We are not witnesses in a literal way. We were not bystanders grabbing coffee at Starbucks while the two disciples raced by. Of course we now know that even bystanders don’t get all the facts right. But clearly, we are not that kind of a witness.
Of course, neither, in all likelihood was the person or people who finally composed this fourth gospel. Our best scholarship suggests that the gospel of John was written somewhere in the last decade of the first century, somewhere between 90 and 100, some sixty years after the events that are portrayed in the reading. So you could say that the gospel was written to witnesses by witnesses not by bystanders.
Of course, the gospel goes even further. Even the bystanders are witnesses. Mary becomes the first witness sent out, literally the first apostle—which is an astonishing, revolutionary claim in a culture tilted even more toward men than ours is.
But before we get to her, let’s consider the men in this story.
First we have this unnamed disciple, this disciple whom Jesus loved. There’s a growing scholarly conversation of late that this unnamed disciple who keeps showing up in John’s gospel described in just this way, is not John, but, in fact, Lazarus, the one Jesus raised from the dead some nine chapters earlier.
I don’t know about you, but I love this idea. Who else would know so clearly of Jesus’ love than the one whose life has been given back to him. Who else could witness to this love as well as the one for whom Jesus wept. “See how he loved him,” the witnesses testify.
Upon hearing news from Mary of the empty tomb, this disciple—let’s call him Lazarus—runs to see. He sees the linen wrappings. He goes in and sees the body is missing, the tomb is empty, and that is all he needs. That is enough for him. He remembers walking out of his own grave. Even though he doesn’t fully understand, he believes.
We know people like this, don’t we? These are the people who need no proof that the power of life conquers death. These are the untroubled, steady people you find yourself drawn to when your hope is spent. They are not stymied by the tension and by the unknowing that is such a part of our lives. They wave their alleluias easily and often.
Who better than one who has known death to live more easily in life. Who better than one who has walked out of a tomb—literal or not—to expect to find another one empty.
How we need witnesses like these.
Yet there is something new here at this empty tomb. This is no mere resuscitation. Lazarus will die again, but this thing, this story… There is everlasting life to this thing. This is about the power of life that finds itself even in the deadest hopes when God is in the mix.
Consider some of the other differences between these two stories: Lazarus needed others to roll away the stone. Lazarus needed the community to unwrap him from the grave clothes that bound him hand and foot. Not so with Jesus. The stone is already rolled away. The grave clothes are just lying there.
Here is a life that death cannot hold. Here is a life the trees and the plants around us witness to as they burst forth in song, as the ashes of old buried alleluias bloom again and old dead trees burst into pillars of fire. This is about cosmic realities, about a power that is beyond our knowing, but not beyond our witness. We are right to give thanks for the Lazaruses who witness among us. How we need you and your alleluias!
And then there’s good old Peter. I suspect Peter would have flinched a bit had he been asked to say along with us this morning, “we are witnesses.” Especially after being all-in the night before—well, not just my feet, but my hands and head as well. Especially after denying Jesus after making such bold claims of allegiance in earshot of a rooster.
Perhaps this is why he runs. Maybe this is why he makes it into a race too. I imagine Lazarus and Peter as the two prodigal children, this time running toward the Father’s love they have finally come to know in their teacher. Perhaps Peter runs desperate—to prove once again that he can be true to his word. He wants to believe there is the possibility for a second chance.
Who among us hasn’t hoped for this kind of new life? Who among us doesn’t know the failure that precedes it?
And, indeed, he will find it in the coming chapters when he will once again make a race of it as he swims to shore to meet the savior. We are witnesses who know of the power of the second chance that this gospel proclaims. How we give thanks for those in our midst who can speak of this new life! We are witnesses!
Now, what about Mary? The gospel is bold to proclaim her the first of the apostles, the first of the witnesses sent out to proclaim good news. Yet, there is something that doesn’t make sense in the telling of this carefully crafted story.
Mary stands weeping outside the tomb. and as she weeps, she bends over to look into it. So which way is she facing? Toward the tomb.
And as she looks into the tomb, she sees it is no longer empty. She sees there two angels, John tells us, who make the hard slab no longer a place of absence, but a tableau of another ancient memory, the vision of the mercy seat and the ark of God’s presence that pulls us back to another story of salvation—of Exodus and the Passover of the Israelites and the story of the God who guides us from slavery and death to freedom and new life.
Yet even these angels and this supernatural scene cannot hold her attention for long. She still longs for the one she has lost who had helped her be found. So, John tells us, she “turned and saw Jesus standing there.”
Now which way is she facing? Away from the tomb and toward Jesus.
And suddenly she is looking at the one she has been searching for. But she doesn’t see it yet.
Mary mistakes Jesus for the gardner—perhaps she’s not wrong. This is the one who makes things grow. This is the one connected through time and space with the creator of all things. The gospel is intentional in its invitation to remember. It takes us to the garden of creation where all things are new. “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him.”
And in that beautiful and intimate encounter Jesus speaks her name in a way we all want to hear our own names spoken: Mary. And here’s the problem. John tells us that once again, she turns.
Now which way is she facing? Wait for answers.
What happened here? Either this most literary of gospels made a mistake or something else going on. I think John is telling us about a turning that you wouldn’t have been able to see had you been watching from the Starbucks up the road or even two feet away.
In hearing her name Mary suddenly remembers that the good shepherd calls his own sheep by name and they follow him because they hear his voice: “Mary.”
“Rabbouni—My teacher” comes her astonished reply, as the the stone is rolled away within her, and new life comes bursting forth.
Here before her was the pearl of great price, the one who had taught her about her true self, despite all the other lies she had heard over the years. Jesus had offered her a way that leads to life as she encountered the Spirit that he had seen in her. And so now she tries to hold onto her teacher. But the thing is not done yet. There is more to the story.
And we are witnesses. We are witnesses because we know this story and its good news in us. It is a gospel that has been told again in our own lives. We know it in our bones and sinews, in the flesh that has filled out our skeletal lives and enabled us to dance again. It is a story that has been told when our hopes have rhymed with history, even as we wait for yet another dawn to come. It is a story told in our extravagance toward one another that echoes the extravagance of Mary’s bottle of perfume and 100 pounds of spices to prepare Jesus’s body. It is told in the all-in response to the life we’ve been searching for that has found us.
You see, you are the good news of God’s salvation—not because you’ve got it all right, but because you’ve shown up, because you’ve given yourself to this thing. Our story of washing feet and healing wounds and birthing new life from death has been heaped onto all these other stories of a power that is within us, yet beyond us, a power we cannot contain any more than we can contain the sun, a cosmic resurrection proclaimed in one called Jesus that continues to bring forth life, whose body we become every time we gather and hear this good news and take his life into our own, and become his body broken for the world.
We are witnesses. You are witnesses. Claim the power you have been given and proclaim it to those who hunger, those who thirst, those who mourn. Christ is risen.
Thanks be to God.