Easter: Are We There Yet? – John 20:1-18

Preached at Herschel/Fiske Mennonite Church, Saskatchewan
by Carol Penner
April 4, 2021
Text:  John 20:1-18

Every Easter we listen to the story of Jesus raised from the dead.  This year, I chose to read from the gospel of John.  It of course contains the wonderful news that Jesus was raised from the dead, but the way John tells the story is a bit odd.

The thing that I find strangest about this story is how confused the followers of Jesus are.  The resurrection is something they have a hard time wrapping their mind around.   Peter and the other disciple (probably John) see the empty tomb, but they can’t figure out what that means.   They see with their own eyes that Jesus’ body is not here.. but the penny does not drop. There is no proclamation from Peter and the other disciple, “I think he is raised from the dead!” In fact the gospel writer tells us, “they did not yet understand the scriptures.”  They wander away not knowing where Jesus’ body is.  They are looking for a body, not a person.

The same is true for Mary.  She is weeping, and she looks into the tomb and sees two angels dressed in white.  They ask her, “Why are you weeping?”  And she says that she doesn’t know where Jesus’s body is.  She is literally seeing angels, but she is not putting two and two together.  Then she turns around and seeing someone who she thinks is the gardener, she asks him the same question, “Where have they put Jesus’s body?” Which is a funny thing to say to Jesus in the flesh, standing right in front of her! She doesn’t recognize the resurrected Jesus!   It’s only when he says her name that she finally realizes who she has been talking to all along. 

Why is it so confusing for Mary?  Maybe it’s because what happened was against all her expectations. She went to the tomb to grieve.  She didn’t go there to hope.  And even when signs of hope were right in front of her, she was still in grieving mode, and she didn’t know how to recognize it

The rest of the gospel of John tells us more about how the disciples had a hard time figuring out what resurrection meant.   And even when they finally comprehended the fact that Jesus was not dead, even as they touched his resurrected body,  there was still more to understand, still more to unpack.   The  Acts of the Apostles, and many of the letters in the New Testament show that they are growing into an understanding of what resurrection means.

As they preach the gospel, go to prison, take journeys, heal the sick, get shipwrecked, convert people, and  even quarrel with one another, they grapple with a Saviour who can conquer death.  There is a growing realization of what resurrection means.

Why did John tell this resurrection story the way he did?  Scholars think that the gospel of John was one of the last gospels to be written, and by that time, the Christian church had been well established and was facing severe persecution. The Romans had decided that Christians were public enemy number one, and so Christians were facing torture and death for their faith.  So for the first people who ever read or heard this gospel, death was on their mind.  What does it mean to believe in resurrection, when the church is facing death and doesn’t even know if it will survive this persecution?  John wrote a gospel they could relate to…resurrection is not simple and easy to understand.  In the face of resurrection we can still be confused and bewildered.

I think that this gospel is particularly suited for us in 2021.  We have spent the last year facing a huge human health crisis. Around 3 million people around the world have died from this pandemic this year. Maybe some of you know people who have died of coronavirus.  And many of us live with fear of the virus, if not for ourselves, fear that it could attack those we know with underlying health conditions or who are in a vulnerable age group.  We have all had our lives curtailed, and there have been devastating financial and social consequences as we’ve shut down and restricted life as normal in an attempt to slow down the virus.

One of the hardest things of this pandemic year has been coping with death.  Not just death from coronavirus, but the deaths that kept happening from all the other reasons, old age, sickness, accidents.  We have not been able to cope with death the way we normally cope. Instead of being able to gather with all our friends and family and hold each other, we sit in our homes, looking at screens. 

Just last week a friend’s mother died, and I would have been there, but instead I watched a streamed funeral, that 20 people were allowed to attend.  And I saw the 20 people greet each other, and they couldn’t even hug, they just bowed their head to the family and put their hand on their hearts.

This has been ripping out our hearts because it happens again and again this past year, and death seems very big and very certain.  Do we believe in resurrection in the face of a pandemic that has brought home how fragile life is?

The good news of resurrection is hard to grasp. As we stand at the graveside, as we look at the empty place around the table, we can feel confused, and bewildered.  Like the disciples.  But shouldn’t we have an easier time of it?  We have been hearing about resurrection our whole lives, we read these resurrection gospel stories every year!

The disciples also knew about resurrection.  They saw Jesus raise a young girl from the dead.  Jesus called Lazarus out of the tomb, graveclothes hanging from him.  And Jesus told them, “on the third day I will rise again.”   Yet when confronted with death in their lives, in front of their eyes, death in all its brutality, Jesus at Golgotha, they were overwhelmed.  They were defeated.  They knew that death had the last word.  That’s the story they knew by heart…death always has the last word. 

So when they see the tomb empty, all they can think is “That’s odd.”  Mary sees the man outside the tomb and thinks, “He must be the gardener. “ When finally they realize that Jesus is alive, they fall down and worship.  They start to understand that death has been defeated.  That Jesus will triumph, that his kingdom is not stoppable.  But they learned this bit by bit, in the everyday details of their life.  

You are an uneducated fisherman?  No matter, you will win people to Christ with your powerful speech.  You are forbidden to speak and thrown into prison?  No matter, you’ll walk out of that prison. 

You will be killed?  No matter, to live is Christ but to die is gain. 

There is life after death.  The kingdom could not be stopped by the murder of Jesus,

 it cannot be stopped by any murder.  The kingdom is unstoppable, a juggernaut of life.

So back to us.  We bring the death in our lives to God.  Resurrection is not just about Jesus’s body being raised from the dead.   It wasn’t just one person dying and coming back to life.  This was part of a big picture story.   Jesus announced the coming of the kingdom.  His resurrection showed the power of the kingdom.  That it cannot be defeated.  The story of the resurrection means that Jesus Christ can take the darkest most messed up part of our lives, the most dead parts, and bring life there.   God can bring good out of the worst disaster, the vilest actions done to you, the cruellest places you have been.   

My husband Eugene and I raised our two kids in Ontario, but Eugene’s parents lived in Manitoba, so every year we would make the long road trip to Manitoba.  And they would ask, always, “Are we in Manitoba yet?”  And sometimes they would sleep for a long stretch, and then they’d wake up and look out and say, “Are we in Manitoba yet?”  And we’d say, “We’ve been in Manitoba for hours…look out the window and you can see Manitoba” and the wide prairie would stretch out from the car as far as the eye could see.

Resurrection is like that.  We face death, we face death, we face death, and we ask God, “When do we see resurrection?”  And God turns around from the front seat and say, “This is resurrection, we are already in resurrection, look out the window, it is here all around you?”  We can see resurrection, with our eyes peeled, with the help of the Holy Spirit.

Resurrection is happening.  But can we see it?  The resurrected Jesus may not talk or even look like the resurrected Jesus we want him to be.  But resurrection is happening.  New life is coming, new life is already here. 

In 2009 I went on a Mennonite heritage cruise to the Ukraine.  I went with my sisters, because we wanted to visit the homeland of my grandmother, who left there when she was in her 20s, in the 1920s.  On that trip, we had a lot of opportunities to see the power of death…but I saw two ways that resurrection is happening.

One of the things that happened in the Ukraine in the 1930s was that the country’s leader Joseph Stalin set out to destroy the power of the church. He did that in a lot of ways, by restricting and eventually outlawing services, by arresting pastors and priests, and by closing seminaries.  He also shut down many churches.   We visited one beautiful church, and the tour guide told us.  “In the 1930s Stalin ordered that the army should drive a truck full of explosives into this church, and blow it up.  He totally blew up this building.  But now Stalin is dead, and we rebuilt this church, exactly the way it was before.  Stalin is dead, but this church is alive.  He went on to tell us that even though religious services were severely restricted during communist rule, when churches opened again in the 1980s, after 50 years of persecution, there were more people attending than before the persecution.  A sign of resurrection.

On that same trip, we were in Zaporizhzhya, which is the city where the Mennonite colony of Chortitza was.  We were there for the dedication of a monument which was erected to the 30,000 Mennonites who were disappeared and murdered under the Stalinist regime.  The 1930s was a time of death. Death reigning in the knock of the police on your door, death reigning in men shoved on trains and sent to prison camps, or shot in police station yards.  Death reigning in disappearance, and families torn apart with no knowledge of what happened to their loved ones.  All that death and destruction.  It seemed like the last word.  It seemed like the last word for a long time. My oma’s brother, my great uncle Willie, gone, taken away by the police, disappeared, never seen again. Death was reigning supreme, or so it seemed.

If evil had triumphed, Mennonites would be going back today to get revenge, to pay back those people for what they did to our ancestors.  There would be more violence, more bloodshed.  There would be hell to pay.

Instead, Mennonites co-operated with the city of Zaporizhzhya to erect a statue.  It’s by the artist  Paul Epp…it is of stone silhouettes of a man, a woman and two children.  At the base of the monument, in Russian, German, Ukrainian and English is the scripture verse from Matthew 4:5, “Blessed are those who mourn.”

 Our tour group was there when the monument was dedicated, and I was asked to write a prayer, and this is what we all prayed:  

God of grace,
in the shelter of your wings of caring
we gather together.
It is you who has brought us here
across political boundaries,
across oceans,
across culture and language,
across all that has and would divide us.
We stand here as one in solemn witness.
We thank you for memories which,
though sown in turmoil and watered with tears,
were preserved and tended across the decades.
These seeds of memory here, today, before us,
blossom in a rich harvest of peace.
This is your doing.
The victims of violence, bloodshed and hatred
find, at last, their perfect consolation.
Under this peaceful sky, across great divides,
against all odds, we meet as brothers and sisters,
remembering and shedding tears together.
Together we say, “Never again.”
May the memories we share today be planted in our hearts
to bear good fruit for generations yet unborn.
This monument will forever remind us of our great sorrow.
let it also remind us of your monumental healing power,
the power of the Prince of Peace,
in whose name we pray, Amen.

It was a miracle of resurrection that Ukrainians and Mennonites came together to do this.  Mennonites, the former enemies of the state, have now established social service agencies in the places where they used to live.  On the very soil where fear seemed to rule forever, it’s not evil that has triumphed.  Instead you have co-operation, and people working together to feed the hungry, care for the sick.  Christ is risen, he is risen indeed in the Ukraine, out of the graves of the disappeared.

It is our task as Christians to be witnesses to resurrection.   In order to do that we have to let go of the long held belief that death is permanent.  The long held belief that there is nothing God can do about the big messes in our lives.  That violence or evil has the last word.  And so Christians go every day, in humble ways, looking for resurrection. 

And so we drive through the big messes of our lives.  The relationships that are broken, where people aren’t speaking to each other.  The environmental problems, the disaster of climate change. The extinction of species. The prejudice that oppresses people because of the colour of their skin, or their sexual orientation. The wars that plague the earth. We face all this death and destruction and we think that this is only a place of grieving.    And on this Easter morning we call out to God, “Are we there yet?  When are we getting to resurrection?”  And God, in the driver’s seat, turns around and tells us, “We are in resurrection, we’ve been here all along. Look and see, this is resurrection.”

And with the eyes of faith we see the horizon of God’s love, we can see God bringing life.  People treating the earth with respect.  You see people loving their enemies, caring even for people who hurt them.  Jesus opening the tombs of death, in a thousand thousand places.   Jesus can and is and will bring goodness and truth.  Nothing can stop Jesus. 

I hope that this week, God can open your eyes.  When you look at the worst places in your life, the worst places in the world, you may think that death reigns supreme, and the only thing we can do is grieve. But that is precisely the place where God has brought hope. Jesus’ resurrection is bringing life precisely there.  My friends, Christ is risen.  He is risen indeed!

About Carol Penner

I am a Mennonite pastor currently teaching theology at Conrad Grebel University College in Waterloo, Ontario. I’ve served congregations in Ontario and most recently, Alberta.

I love to write and to lead worship! If you are finding my writing helpful, I would love to hear from you! Feel free to use or adapt the material here, it is all written by me. If printing material, please credit “Copyright Carol Penner www.leadinginworship.com” (and say whether you modified it). If publishing, please contact me for permission. Contact me at carol@leadinginworship.com

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