This service began on Thursday evening, Maundy Thursday, when a small group of us gathered here to read scripture and poetry and to hear and sing music that took us through the story of Jesus’ final week from the Last Supper to the crucifixion. As Jesus washed the disciples’ feet in a ritual of preparing them for what was to come, we washed hands and heard the words, “God loves you. God forgives you. God calls you.” There was no benediction or postlude to that service; rather, people were invited to return today for the conclusion.
We know how this story turns out. We’ve been through this Easter thing plenty of times before. But the disciples didn’t know what was going to happen next. As the text says in Matthew, when Jesus is arrested and taken to the high priest’s house, Peter follows at a distance and joins the guards sitting in the courtyard “in order to see how this would end” (Matthew 26:58). Earlier that evening, Peter has said to Jesus, “Though all become deserters because of you, I will never desert you” (Matthew 26:33). So he’s trying to follow Jesus, even into this courtyard.
But then people start asking questions. Three times, they ask whether he was with Jesus. And three times, just as Jesus predicted, he swore he didn’t even know Jesus. And then, horrified and heartbroken at what he had done, he fled.
Clearly, he was terrified. His world was falling apart, and now he had just made things worse by denying the leader who had given his life meaning. How do you continue Jesus’ ministry without Jesus and also after you have denied even knowing him?
The women who follow Jesus do not have this dilemma. They kept following Jesus. Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joseph (two of the disciples), and many other women had been following Jesus since he was in Galilee, and they had supported his ministry. Maybe, because they were women, no one saw them as a threat or thought to question why they were following this man to his crucifixion. Maybe they blended in with the crowd. Maybe they were far enough back that people didn’t notice them. Maybe if they had been asked, they would have said, yes, they were part of Jesus’ group of followers. For whatever reason, they don’t seem to have been questioned, and they stick with him, following at a distance. Brave women.
After Jesus dies, Joseph of Arimathea gets permission from Pilate to take the body down from the cross. Joseph wraps Jesus’ body in linen and puts it in his own new tomb, hewn in rock, and rolls a great stone over the entrance to the tomb. Mary Magdalene and the other Mary are there, sitting opposite the tomb (27:58-61). They are watching, noting where the body is and what has been done. The chief priests dispatch guards to seal the stone over the tomb and to keep the body from being stolen by Jesus’ followers.
So that’s where things were at the start of today’s reading. Mary Magdalene and the other Mary come to the tomb early on Easter morning. I’m not sure what they’re hoping to see or do. Perhaps they just take comfort in the thought of keeping vigil, mourning together outside his tomb. The scripture just says they “went to see the tomb” (Matthew 28:1).
Around about now you may be recognizing some of the differences between the four gospel tellings of this resurrection story. In Mark, it’s the two Marys plus a woman named Salome, and they’re coming to the tomb with spices for the body. In John, Nicodemus helps Joseph of Arimathea bury the body and wraps it in 100 pounds of spices. Also in that gospel, Mary Magdalene goes to the tomb alone. Here in Matthew, we have the two Marys, no spices, no Nicodemus. And we have an earthquake, guards so struck with fear that they pass out. And the angel says, as angels tend to do at the start of angel-human interactions, “Do not be afraid.” Ha! Easy to say! And the angel goes on to say that Jesus has been raised from the dead and will meet the disciples back up in Galilee, where this whole story began.
Then, as the women are rushing back to the others with this strange and wonderful news, they encounter Jesus right there. They grab his feet. He repeats the instructions to tell everyone to rendezvous in Galilee.
This whole scene is a huge transition point. The women come to the tomb to grieve the Jesus that was, the Jesus that they must now refer to in the past tense. They think this is the end of the story of Jesus, and that is indeed a time of desolation and intense grief. Jesus has turned their world upside down with his ministry of healing, preaching, and teaching to any and all who came, especially including the poor, the uneducated, the sick, the women—all who had been pushed to the margins and were suffering under oppression. Jesus has brought them good news of God’s love, God’s healing power, God’s acceptance, and there is no going back.
Everyone thought that Jesus was now in the past. But the two Marys encounter him in the present. There he is, and the gospel says that he says, “Greetings!” That sounds somehow so casual, as if he’s saying, “Hey Marys, how’s it going?” But of course, this is momentous. The Jesus that had been consigned to the past is here in the present. And then he promises to meet all of them back in Galilee in the future. Which is a way of saying that his ministry and his presence will continue through time, and now they are all a part of it in a new way.
Last Sunday we reenacted the Last Supper through communion, where Jesus says, “Every time you share the bread and wine, remember me, and know that you are a part of me and I am a part of you.” On Maundy Thursday, we washed hands, as Jesus washed the disciples feet: a cleansing ritual initiating them into being a part of him and his work.
Two thousand years after the crucifixion, we continue to gather to remember what Jesus did in his lifetime: preaching, teaching, healing, speaking truth to power. We continue to gather to worship at Jesus’ feet, like the two Marys. And we continue to look for where Jesus will meet us, not just in Galilee but any place where people are oppressed, where people are suffering, where people are excluded.
Where is resurrection happening in the world today? Where is Jesus meeting his followers and creating new life out of what had been dead? Here are a few examples.
Back around the 6th century, a fellow named Columba left (or was kicked out of) Ireland and sailed to the Isle of Iona in what is now Scotland. He and his followers built a church there and established a religious community. From that base they spread Christianity throughout Scotland. Over the centuries, their community fell into disrepair. Around 1200, the Benedictines came to Iona and built a new stone abbey and monastery on the site of the original church. A convent was established nearby. Over the centuries, these, too, fell into ruins. In the Depression of the 1930s, a Glasgow minister named George MacLeod gathered a group of seminarians and a group of stone masons, and they came to Iona together. The seminarians apparently had a bit of an attitude about the less-than-academic stone masons. And the stone masons had a bit of an attitude about seminarians—“How will they be of any use at all doing this restoration work?” But over a period of years, working together in the summers, they restored the Abbey and the monastery. And they developed mutual respect and friendships. Today, the Iona community has ministries that extend all over the world, doing the work of justice for LGBTQ people, in the Israel-Palestine conflict, and more.
Here’s another resurrection story. We know that salmon runs are endangered all up and down the West Coast. Some years ago, two dams got taken down on the Elwha River on the Olympic Peninsula. All the silt that had been blocked behind the dams for about a century went roaring out to the Strait of Juan de Fuca. And the salmon, which had not been able to swim up to the headwaters for decades, started coming back. And when they came back, then the animals that hunt them—bears, eagles—started to thrive as well. And when those animals ate the fish, the scraps that were left over provided nutrients to the trees. The whole ecosystem is healing and springing back to life.
In some churches you may see a cross with Jesus on it. We show an empty cross, because Jesus didn’t stay there. This cross is a symbol, not of death, but of life that conquers death, of Divine presence, Emmanuel / God-with-us, that cannot be stopped by death.
A few weeks ago we talked about God’s name being “I am what I am,” and how that name is all about the verb, which doesn’t actually have a tense. Therefore it can mean “I was what I was,” “I am now what I am now,” and also “I will be what I will be.” That is the same presence we see in Christ in this Easter story: the Jesus that was, the Jesus that the two Marys encounter, and the Jesus who will meet us all in Galilee.
The story doesn’t end, my friends. It continues in us. The Good News of this Easter resurrection is that God never abandons us, even in death. The cross is empty. Christ is risen—in us. And Christ calls us to be messengers of peace in times of war and strife, to be healers in times of illness, to be preachers and teachers of Good News when others spread lies, to be liberators in the face of oppression.
And so we take this cross, this weapon of torture and death, and turn it into a symbol of God’s life and love. We look for all that is dying in our own lives and how that creates space for resurrection, for something new to grow.
And as a symbol of life emerging out of death, we are now all invited to take a flower or piece of greenery and bring this cross to life.
[People pick up greens and flowers and decorate the cross.]
Let us pray.
Creator, Redeemer, Spirit,
May we be open to the new life to which you invite us.
May we be preachers of your Good News to all.