The Preaching of the Word

 First Presbyterian Church

116 South Loudon Street, Winchester, Virginia 22601
Charles Marshall Webster, Transitional Pastor

Resurrection of the Lord/Easter Sunday
March 27, 2016



Gospel Reading: John 20: 1-18

Text: “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” (Verse 2b)…”for as yet they did not know the scripture, that he must rise from the dead.” (Verse 9)  John 20

          One of my professors at Edinburgh used to tell his students that people come to church on Easter Sunday with one basic question in mind. They want to know “Is it true?” So the first thing to be said is simply this: Yes! It is true! Christ is risen!

Listen to the way an early Christian theologian named Origen put it more than eighteen centuries ago. He came to the line in Psalm 118 that goes, “This is the day the Lord has made. Let us be glad and rejoice in it!”[1] Origen thought of Easter and he wrote: “What then could be compared to this day, in which the reconciliation of God with people took place, and the long war was ended, and heaven was revealed to be earth, and people who were unworthy of earth turned out to be worthy of the kingdom, and the first fruits of our nature were raised far above the heavens, and paradise was opened, and we received back our ancient native land!”[2] You can say it in a lot of different ways, but I’m not sure you can say it with much more conviction. It is true. Christ is risen! “This is the day the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it!”[3]

Now, do you know what it was and is and is to be because Christ is risen? Mary Magdalene runs from the perplexing scene of the empty tomb confessing, “We do not know where they have laid him.”[4] Peter and the beloved disciple rush to see for themselves but “they did not know the scripture, that he must rise from the dead.”[5] Do you know?

The Greek word “know” comes from the verb “to see.” One who knows is one who sees. The beloved disciple “saw and believed.”[6] Contrary to the synoptic accounts, John reports Mary arriving at the tomb “while it was still dark.”[7] This is appropriate for the Gospel writer who began, “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it!”[8] John does not report an immediate encounter with angelic messengers, but just the stark reality of that puzzling empty tomb. The journey to seeing and knowing begins in the frightening darkness and silence of not seeing and knowing.

In recent years, a certain SEC football team came back from a 24-point deficit to win the 2010 Iron Bowl, and down 28-14 in the fourth quarter of the 2013 Iron Bowl won 34-28 in the last second of the game. A few years earlier while I was an interim pastor in Reno, Nevada, a friend was watching our team (the Nevada Wolfpack) on television lose all the fumbles, interceptions, and make blunders through the first three quarters of the game. He became so upset and despairing that he turned off the television, certain of our team’s defeat. Not seeing the game, live, I had heard that Nevada won the game with a 25-point comeback in the fourth quarter. I watched the video replay knowing the final score. I saw the same mistakes and blunders that my friend had, but my attitude and perspective toward the unfolding events was totally different. While I did not know what twists and turns might come next in the game, I had a sense of hope and confidence because I knew the final score.

Easter is the celebration of the final score! We have seen certain defeat transformed into victory. God raises Jesus and death is overcome by new life. Love casts out fear. “Light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it!”[9] Between the first and the twentieth chapters in John’s gospel, betrayals and unexpectedly strong opponents had taken their toll. Defeat seemed a certainty. Jesus was crucified. His body was placed in a tomb. All was darkness.

But in the darkness Mary Magdalene came. Something unexpected, maybe even unbelievable had happened. She did not know. Peter did not know. But the beloved disciple as he peered into that tomb in the dawning light saw, knew, and believed the final score. Christ is risen! Christ is alive!

To be sure there are times we find opposing forces around us and all seems lost. We wish we could turn the whole scene off.  But unlike Mary and Peter who did not know the scriptures at this point, we know the final score. Christ is risen – and that means we can face life with new confidence and joy. Knowing the final score can transform our attitude and perspective. We know that there will still be unknown twists and turns and blunders as life unfolds, and we know that many of our problems will not disappear. We know the “hallelujahs” of Easter morning may grow faint in our ears as Monday follows Sunday, and Tuesday follows Monday. Companies will continue to send lay-off notices. Police will still knock on the doors of unprepared parents to announce that their teenagers have been killed in auto accidents. Natural disasters will create chaos and destruction for innocent people. Taxes will be due in two weeks.

Those challenges we dare not deny. But through the Resurrection of Christ we are transformed.  We can face life and whatever it may bring. For by God’s great mercy we have been born anew and given a hope by which to live. As Mary

and Peter and the beloved disciple and growing community of faith discovered after they knew the final score of Easter, it means life beyond new birth as well as life beyond death.

I recall one of the Nevada players was interviewed following that 25-point fourth quarter comeback. “I heard the final score announced,” he said, “but I still can’t believe it.” I have a confession to make to you. At times, a little voice somewhere inside of me has said, “this resurrection story is hard to believe.” I know I am not alone. Resurrection does not square with anything else we know about human life. No one has ever seen it happen, which is why it helps me to remember that no one saw it happen on Easter morning. There were no witnesses whatsoever.

Well, I have a word for you and for me. Most of the early Christians had trouble believing it too. The early Christians had their experiences with the risen Jesus, but these experiences were not on Easter morning and the empty tomb was not the point. Jesus had outgrown his tomb, which was too small a focus for the resurrection. The risen Christ had people to see and things to do. The living Christ’s business was among the living, to whom he appeared not once but four more times in the gospel of John alone. Christ came to people in the midst of life, out fishing at night, out on the road to Emmaus, on the road to Damascus. And every time he came to people they became stronger, wiser, kinder, more daring. Every time he came to them, they became more like him.

And that is the way it is with us. Our experiences of the resurrection of Jesus (and I have had many experiences of the living Lord) occur in the midst of life, when we are walking along the road, reading a book, talking with a friend, or in a hospital room. What happened in the tomb was entirely between Jesus and God.

For us, Easter began the moment the gardener said, “Mary!” and she knew who he was. That is where the miracle of Easter happened and goes on happening – not in the tomb but in the encounter with the living Lord.

In the end, that is the only evidence we have to offer those who ask us how we can believe in the resurrection. Because we have seen Jesus in our lives and we know him in our hearts. And then we have found others who know the risen Lord, too. To our surprise, we never know where he will turn up next. Here is one thing that helps: never get so focused on the empty tomb that you forget to speak to the gardener.

          Christ is risen!  Alleluia!


[1] Psalm 118:24

[2] Origen, quoted by James Wharton

[3] Psalm 118:24

[4] John 20:2b

[5] John 20:9

[6] John 20:8b

[7] John 20:1a

[8] John 1:5

[9] Ibid.