“I Have Seen the Lord!”
A Sermon on John 20:1-18 for Easter Day, Year A; preached April 16, 2017, by the Rev. Matthew Emery, Senior Minister
The link between Easter and new birth runs long and deep in our culture’s collective consciousness. For weeks, if not months, now, the stores have been decked out in many of the same pastel colors that adorn all the wares at Babies-R-Us. Little baby chicks, freshly hatched from their eggs, chirp at us from one side of our imagination, while mother rabbit passes a carrot to baby bunny on the other. Surrounding it all, daffodils and tulips bring their springtime cheer, further signs of rebirth and renewal. And if all of that were not enough, this year many of us who were on our computers or devices yesterday morning were treated to a live view of the miracle of birth, as we watched April, the giraffe at the Animal Adventure Park out in Harpursville, New York, finally give birth to her new baby—a calf that had been expected to come nearly three months ago.
I doubt anything we do here this morning will be quite as adorable as watching that baby giraffe try to stand up for the first time yesterday.
And yet, nevertheless, you are here. We are here. We have all of the niceties of springtime renewal all around us. We even got to watch a new birth, quite literally, as if the timing could have been any more perfect. Still, though, we are here at church today, a sign perhaps that all of the rest of that isn’t quite enough. We are here, I imagine, because when it comes down to it, we know we need something more, something deeper, something more profound than flowers and bright colors. Perhaps even something more profound than a new birth and a bouncing baby—as mysterious and rich as those can be.
The reality is that each of us lives in a world whose shadows make all the secular trappings of the so-called “Easter season” seem a bit trite. Sure, this week treated us to an adorable and long-awaited gangly little giraffe baby, but it has also brought the atrocities of a school shooting and a mother-of-all-bombs dropping. Closer to home, some of us have made our way through this week amidst news of loss, and pain of disease, and tribulations at work or among family. Bright yellow daffodils do seem cheery in the midst of it… and yet so impotent. So weak and inconsequential.
Perhaps ironically, what we end up actually needing in order to somehow make way through the mists and muck, the despair and the dread, the peril and the pain… what we actually need is a tomb. No, I don’t mean that we should just curl up and die, even if we feel like it some days. Rather, we need the tomb to run to, the tomb to look into, the tomb to enter. The shadow places of our world will only be defeated when we actually go there to the tombs, not when we pretend—for a moment or for a lifetime—that they don’t exist. “You need to look into the tomb for yourself,” says Sara Miles, writer who authored the popular memoir Take this Bread. “You need to go right up to the scariest, ugliest, saddest place in the world before the sun has risen, and look without flinching into every dark corner.” You will look and find the broken-hearted and those who live with violence; you may look and find yourself gazing into your own soul that falls asleep, or denies the truth out of fear, or runs away out of cowardice. But “[e]ven when it makes you weep, go right up to the tomb, and look in.”
When we do so, like Mary Magdalene, like Peter and the other disciple, we will find out two things. Glimpsing the linen wrappings that once contained his body, we see that Jesus has been there. There is no tomb to visit where Jesus hasn’t already been. There is no place of despair within us, and no place of death around us, that hasn’t already been met and embraced by the very presence of Christ. When you look into the tombs, then you know that Christ has been there. And if you can’t see the wrappings, then you may not have let yourself venture far enough in.
And the other thing you’ll see, the other thing you’ll experience, the other thing you’ll know—praise God—when you look is that Jesus may have been to the place of death, but he is not dead. The tomb is empty! The tomb is the place Jesus goes, but it is not where he stays… and it is not where we shall stay, either—praise God.
This story, this journey of running to the tomb, the empty tomb, it is where centuries upon centuries of Christians have begun the journey of faith and true life. Now, I know it seems like an odd place—after all, it’s perhaps biting off the hardest to chew piece first. I’m struck, though, by the observation Martin Copenhaver, a well-known preacher in our own denomination, makes. “As modern people, who like to think of ourselves as sophisticated,” he writes, “we sometimes forget that the idea that God could raise someone from the dead would be as difficult for these ancient people to believe as it is for us. These ancient people were not stupid. They had seen many people die and never once had they seen anyone come to life again.”
And yet, on an early morning long ago, Mary and Peter and the other disciple did run to the tomb, and each of them in their turn looked in to see the double truth that Jesus had been there and that he was not there anymore. The tomb was empty. Christ was raised and is alive—praise God!
Now, sure… they didn’t immediately realize the fullness of this second truth—after all, just like when we are expecting a newborn baby, all of the abdominal sensations and ultrasound pictures in the world still reveal so little about what the new life emerging will be like. A complete surprise—utterly familiar and utterly unknown, all at once.
And yet, at least in Mary’s case, this surprising potential and promise soon enough called out a name, and an empty tomb became the window through which she and all of them could look and realize “I have seen the Lord!”
Friends, I ask you this Easter Day: where are the tombs in this world and in your own lives that need to be run toward, and looked into, and recognized for not having the power to contain and constrain the Word of the Living God, Jesus Christ? Let’s go there, together. Let’s make this story not simply a relic from nearly 2,000 years ago, but a present and living reality. Let us be the ones who, even in the midst of our own tears, can declare “I have seen the Lord.” After all, as Bishop Munib Younan, head of the Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land, wrote in his Easter message this very weekend, “The message of Easter is not idealism. Christ’s victory over sin, death, and despair is the only hope that has kept Christians steadfast in this land for two thousand year. … And it is the only hope that today will carry us through these confusing times in the Middle East and throughout the world. The Good News of the resurrection gives Christians clarity and purpose, no matter where they are, and no matter what the future brings. Jesus, the Morning Star, goes before us to lead the way.”
Mary Magdalene went, the scripture says, and announced “I have seen the Lord.” So, let us go! Let us go and tell of the hope that is within us—not that the tombs are no more, but that ultimately they are empty: empty of meaning, empty of finality, empty of power. Let us go, friends, and be the witnesses, the heralds, the sources of real truth and actual reality amidst of the world’s alternative facts of domination and hatred, corruption and lies, racism and homophobia, terrorism and xenophobia, violence and pain, sickness and despair. Let us go!—and pronounce it far and wide: I have seen the Lord!
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
 Sara Miles, “How to Be an Evangelist,” Journey With Jesus: A Weekly Webzine for the Global Church, Since 2004, 9 April 2017; http://www.journeywithjesus.net/essays/1344-how-to-be-an-evangelist
 Martin Copenhaver, pastoral commentary on John 20:1-18 for Easter Day, in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, ed. David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, Year A, vol. 2 (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 372.
 Munib Younan, “Resurrection Joy in a Fearful World,” LutheranWorld.org (website of the Lutheran World Federation), 13 April 2017; https://www.lutheranworld.org/blog/resurrection-joy-fearful-world