Sermon – Tears of New Covenant Joy

Isaian 25:6-10a; John 20:1-18

Farmville Presbyterian Church

March 31, 2024

– Living at the crisis of faith in God’s living promise


One of the best scenes in the 1980’s cult classic movie, the Princess Bride, is when the hero is seemingly killed by the wicked Prince Humperdinck, but it is discovered that he is only mostly dead and that means (as Miracle Max states) that the hero is slightly alive.  So, Max works his miracle and restores the hero who goes on to save the princess and capture the powers of evil.  This fairytale spoof is a splendid gift of popular culture and an absolute favorite to many.

But that is not what we have here in John’s Gospel or any of the gospel accounts of Jesus’ death, for that matter.  Jesus was dead, very dead, completely dead.  No one had any questions about this.  In Matthew’s account, the religious leaders had Roman troops placed at the tomb to make sure no one ran off with the body to claim that Jesus had come back.  Here, we do not even need that proof.  Here, everyone is convinced Jesus is gone.  That is… except for Jesus.

Easter or Resurrection Sunday is not the easiest church holiday.  Christmas is easy in the sense that the story is not threatening.  The only person upset with the birth of a baby is King Herod.  Christmas is all about hope and anticipation and possibility.  Here, it is a bit trickier.  If you have ever seen Mel Gibson’s movie, The Passion of the Christ, you know why.  We do not know what to do with death, and the resurrection of Jesus cannot happen without a huge death.  As a culture, as a people, as a species, we don’t know what to do with death.  It can be ugly and traumatic and it hurts.  It also happens all the time and has been happening ever since anyone existed.  We have over the millennia created countless ways to deal with it physically, emotionally, physically, and culturally because it is so hard, but that does not mean it is any easier.  If one of my children came up to me and said, “Father, I am looking forward to your memorial service one day,” we would have a hard time understanding that in any positive way.  In fact, it would seem completely jarring and unacceptable as any kind of loving thing to say.  Even if they meant it in love, that is not something anyone cares to hear.  That sentiment screams with offense.  Death is tricky.

What we need is to honestly reckon with the human reality of death and its place in our spiritual life.  I arrived here in the pulpit on the Sunday after Easter four years ago, and in that time, we have lost 18 church members to death.  They were friends and family, many of them dear friends and family.  Many of them we did our best to honor right here as we entrusted them to the eternal love and grace of God, but the reason why we can even do that is because of Easter and Jesus.  Jesus has really done something to death if we can believe it.

I am not saying we cannot be sad or upset with the death of a loved one.  To suggest that is inhuman and inhumane.  We forge significant connections with one another over our lives, and a death feels like love lost which always hurts.  Tears are right and good in such significant loss, and we should share in genuine compassion through those times.  What I am pointing us toward, though, is how death, even in its sadness and grief, is a victory in faith.  Today’s gospel reading has three characters to help me get here.  First, Simon Peter.

Simon Peter is holed up with another disciple when Mary appears with terrible news: Jesus is completely gone.  Even his body has been taken from us, and we do not know who or where.  This adds insult to injury because not only has the power of the world killed Jesus unjustly, but this strips him of peace in death.  Simon Peter and the other unnamed disciple race to the tomb.  He bursts into the small space, sees the absence of Jesus, but the burial cloths are still there.  With that information, he defeatedly returns home…?  There is no mention of faith here.  He believes Jesus is still dead, apparently.  He also believes there is no reason for him to stay there at the tomb.  He most likely believes that they are all in some danger following Jesus’ execution.  He believes in those kinds of human worldly things just like any of us would.  You can imagine his shoulders hunched and head down as he plods home not knowing what to do.

Then, there is the other disciple (probably either fisherman John or James (Jesus’ brother).  He stops at the entrance rather than rushing in.  He takes in the scene and notices the wrappings, also.  But he realizes that if someone had stolen Jesus’ body, they would have taken the wrappings, also.  When Lazarus was resurrected, they had to unwrap him for him to go on.  Absolutely no rational human being would have bothered to unwrap Jesus and fold the cloths in the process of stealing him.  Something clicks for this disciple – something Jesus said before.  This disciple has a greater faith in something more than sight and sound.  This death situation is not what he thought it would be, and he also returns home but still without the whole picture.

Then, there is Mary who is the hero here.  She was the one who first came to the tomb out of love.  She was not living in fear but in commitment to Jesus.  She had a heart for this man who dared to love her and give her a life when any other man would have discarded or disregarded her.  She was damaged in the eyes of society then, but Jesus has made her whole in his healing presence.  He is the only one who truly valued her.  This is why Mary figures so prominently in ALL of the Easter stories.  She is the only one in all of the resurrection accounts, and she is the truly faithful one here.

That devotion kept her to the task: we must honor Jesus; we must find Jesus; we must return Jesus.  But she is also powerless at that moment.  She alerted the others but did not really do anything beyond.  She was back in the same boat as they, but she was not going to leave, either.  That’s when God appears to her – not the others.  She had an openness to what had happened that the others did not.  The angels and then Jesus himself come to comfort and explain.  They entrust her with the gospel message, the best news the world had ever received.  She is the very first evangelist.  The promise of God in Jesus is new.  The new covenant is alive.  Nothing in all creation, not even death, can separate us from God’s love for us in Christ.  Every fear, every worry, every weight that she carried is gone.  She has a fire of hope and joy and love that will never be extinguished.

But her face was still covered with tears, and I have a feeling she continued to cry but for joy rather than sorrow.  Her whole attitude toward death completely changed in that very moment.  The rules of the world were rewritten.  The power of death was undone.  The life of Jesus was greater than death and the evil of those who had crucified him.  The same man who loved her was alive to love her forever.  That is the same for us all.

But note the curious response of Jesus to her joy – “Don’t hold on to me because I have not yet ascended into heaven.”  Could Mary really have prevented Jesus from ascending?  Could she have somehow harmed herself clinging to a newly resurrected Jesus?  In that exact moment, Mary had to make a decision.  She could follow Jesus’ words and trust him, or she could act more for herself in her love for Jesus and hold onto him.  Thankfully but painfully, she trusted in the resurrection and let him go.  It no doubt hurt her to not embrace him, someone who meant so much to her, but she entrusted him to the life to come just we all do who say good-bye to our loved ones.  Unfortunately, we do not have any other stories directly about Mary.  This is our loss, but we can be certain that she was numbered among the faithful who received Jesus when he appeared to the disciples after this.  She saw her brother Jesus, again.  She spent the rest of her life in that confidence.

What about us?

The power of the gospel changed her life right there.  She found God’s promise and her life was opened to a greater love, a love that lives through death.  Anyone who has actually encountered the actual Spirit of the living Christ is a changed person.  Everyone is not equally changed, but there is a change.  Our eyes are opened; our hearts are opened; our world is opened; maybe our hands are opened; but we leave with a sense of the world and God that we did not have before.  Time itself means something different.  The future belongs to God, and the past is a record of God’s faithfulness, and the present is where God’s faithfulness and God’s promise meet.

Today is the day of God’s promise in Jesus Christ.  We are the witnesses to God’s promise, and we are called to walk in faith to a greater, deeper love.  The world is for our love, as well.  Even death is the moment of our victory in faith.  Nothing can stand in the way of love.  God’s promise, God’s covenant, God’s love wins in Christ, and we all win with him.  To God be the glory.  Amen.