If you’re not currently looking for Jesus Christ, then you should know that he is looking for you … Easter Sunday is not a day to memorialize Jesus or even to simply proclaim the fact of his resurrection.
“Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb.” This is how the Easter story starts in the Gospel of John. Remember, the Jewish day starts at sunset and the text implies that Mary likely arrived at the tomb before sunrise because “it was still dark.” She “saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb.” And later, after running to the disciples, she said, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.”
Let’s stop here for a minute. It’s darkest before the dawn. Mary goes to a place of the dead, a tomb, where the most important person in her life has been buried after being brutally tortured and crucified as a common criminal, with other common criminals. This is about as dark as it gets in human experience. She sees the stone has been removed, and her first reaction is to run away. Her impulse to run is probably rooted in the primary emotion of fear. People have stolen the body of Jesus, she thinks, and maybe those scary people are still nearby. She tells Peter and the other disciple, presumably John, that someone has stolen the body of Jesus.
Peter and John run to the tomb. And then the story takes an interesting twist. Their focus is not on the empty tomb or fear of bodysnatchers. Their focus is on the linen wrappings lying there. “[T]he cloth that had been on Jesus’s head [is] not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself.” In John’s gospel the disciples’ first encounter with signs of their risen Lord is not with an earthquake and an angel with lightning-like appearance, as in Matthew’s gospel, but simply with the removed stone and linen wrappings.
Peter goes into the tomb and sees the wrappings. John goes in after him, sees the same scene, and he “believes … yet they [do] not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead.” They do not understand, yet John believes, implying that Peter, the one who denied Jesus three times, does not yet believe. How can John “believe” yet not “understand?”
The story returns to Mary who stands weeping outside the tomb. Jesus’s first words to Mary he poses as questions, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Jesus first asks Mary about her emotions and the personal subject of her emotions.
Please close your eyes for a few moments until I tell you to open them. Think about the last week. Think about all the things you had to do or needed to do but didn’t get done. Think about how you’re feeling emotionally. I’m going to name eight primary emotions. Still with your eyes closed, pick one emotion most prevalent for you this past week: sadness … joy; surprise … anticipation; fear … anger; trust … disgust.
Still with your eyes closed, hone in on this one emotion and name silently to yourself the one person you most associate with your emotion.
“Whom are you looking for?”
Open your eyes. Mary did not recognize Jesus, and then Jesus called her by name, “Mary!” And then she recognized Jesus. What did Jesus say next? He gave his first command after his resurrection:
“Do not hold on to me …”
At the tail end of my freshman year in high school, after I had just turned 15, my beloved and saintly Grandma June died in Southern California. It was 32 years ago, but I still have fond memories of her. At the time I did not understand why she died, yet I believed God was working his ways through her life and death, ways that still impact me to this day.
I possess precious few items from my Grandma June. One item was a blue swivel-rocker. Amazingly, the cloth exterior held up extremely well over the decades, but after a few years of decline with the swivel-rocker mechanism, I donated the chair to Goodwill last year. Rather than see the chair decline more and more, I decided to not hold on to it.
This etched bronze tray is one item I have from my grandma. I don’t even know what it is. I asked my dad where she got it. He’s not sure, but he thinks she bought it in India in the mid-1970s. After my grandfather was killed in 1960 in a freak cruiseliner accident near the port of New Orleans, my grandma traveled the world. She went everywhere. She visited many European countries. She went to Russia in 1964! She visited several countries in Asia, including India, Thailand, Japan, and China, well before Nixon went in 1972!
She had a penchant for Asian artwork and decor. This bronze tray, etched with leaves and flowers, is one of two durable and tangible items I possess from my grandma’s travels. When I hold this item and gently rub it with my fingers it makes a distinct sound. When I tap my wedding ring to it it clanks with a distinct clank. Everything about this item reminds me of my Grandma June.
What tangible items do you possess that help you remember the past of your life or the life of a departed loved one or maybe the life of an ancestor whom you never even met?
Within the first few centuries of Christian devotion, Christians sought intercession from dead saints and Mary, the mother of Jesus, when they prayed. Christians used icons of the saints, and of Christ, to draw them spiritually closer to the departed from whom they sought intercession. By the 8th century there was growing distrust of icon usage as it was seen to be a violation of the commandment not to make graven images. Exodus 20: “You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them.” And so for a period of time in the Eastern church, icons were banned for nearly six decades in the 8th century, then they were restored, then banned again for nearly three decades in the 9th century, and then restored again in 843. To this day the Eastern Orthodox churches celebrate the restoration of icons on the first Sunday in Lent, which is called the “Feast [or Triumph] of Orthodoxy.”
For thousands of years people have memorialized their dead loved ones. In the 19th century with the “new” technology of photography people took pictures of their dead family members to memorialize them.
Technology is progressing rapidly. Consider this sales pitch from a website that launched last year:
We all pass away, sooner or later. We only leave behind a few photos, maybe some home videos, or in rare situations, a diary or autobiography.
But eventually, we are all forgotten.
What if … You could live on forever as a digital avatar? And people in the future could actually interact with your memories, stories and ideas, almost as if they were talking to you?
Become virtually immortal. Eternime collects your thoughts, stories and memories, curates them and creates an intelligent avatar that looks like you. This avatar will live forever and allow other people in the future to access your memories.
We want to preserve for eternity the memories, ideas, creations and stories of billions of people. Think of it like a library that has people instead of books … an invaluable treasure for humanity. 28,397 people have already signed up.
Do you find this service appealing? Or disturbing? Isn’t Eternime doing the same thing as people did in the 19th century by taking photographs of the dead? Isn’t Eternime just preserving memories to a higher degree of technological specification?
Do your tangible touchstones to your past and your departed loved ones become more important to you now that intangible digital photos and videos increasingly take over external storage of our memories?
When I behold this tray it evokes so many memories and emotions related to my beloved grandmother, but I do not hold on to the tray as an object of devotion. I hold on to my grandma, or more precisely, my memories and emotions related to her hold on to me.
When you closed your eyes, who did you name to yourself? Your spouse? Your child? A parent? A sibling? A friend? A coworker? Yourself?
Please close your eyes again. [move picture of Jesus in front of altar]
Was Jesus the person you named to yourself? Can Jesus be that person that is holding on to you? Is Jesus in the midst of your relationship to the person you named to yourself? Is Jesus Christ more than your spiritual avatar? Is the Risen Christ getting a hold your life?
Christ as Savior can dramatically get a hold of people, for sure, by forgiving the prison inmate from his sins or by rescuing the drug addict from his addiction. But this morning let us celebrate how Christ can humbly get a hold of our lives, as in the simple folded linen wrappings in an otherwise empty tomb and in the simple question:
“Whom are you looking for?”
I think in life we too often take for granted the people in our lives and we propel ourselves forward by looking for the next thing–the next job, the next job promotion, the next vacation, the next graduation, the next wedding, or the penultimate accomplishment of retirement. Or maybe we’re looking for some grand meaning to life or why there is evil and suffering in the world.
It’s OK to look forward to those things and to struggle with the deep questions of life, but are we continually looking for new life in Jesus Christ? If we are, how are we preparing ourselves so the Savior can get a hold of us?
Is Jesus Christ more than your spiritual avatar?
Into the midst of our scheduled lives and memory-making, into the midst of our understanding and lack of understanding, into the midst of our unbelieving and believing, comes Jesus, the Risen Savior, the Anointed One of God, the firstborn of all creation, the firstborn from the dead, in whom all things hold together, in whom the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, the head of the church, the One who through the cross reconciles all things to God.
This Jesus Christ comes to each and every one of us this morning through the simple reading of scripture, through music, through prayer, through reciting the creeds together, through the lighting of candles, through the aromatic lilies, through the presence of children, through Christian fellowship, and most especially through Holy Communion.
Easter Sunday is not a day to memorialize Jesus or even to simply proclaim the fact of his resurrection. Rather, we presently encounter the Risen Christ through the folded linens, through the deep, personal questions, through the items and celebratory nature of worship, through our Christian relationships as the church.
If you’re not currently looking for Jesus Christ, then you should know that he is looking for you. Whatever or whomever you are looking for, Jesus Christ the Savior is there. When you truly meet him, you may find yourself not in front of the gritty first century teacher of this portrait but in an encounter with the Risen Savior, ready and willing to transform your life, if you let him.
When we experience the first moment of salvation grace, the Risen Christ unexpectedly confounds us …
“Do not hold on to me …”
How did Mary react to his command? She went to the disciples again and told them, “I have seen the Lord.” This is the interesting (and perhaps frustrating) thing about encountering the Risen Christ. Just when we encounter him, he tells us not to hold on to him. Why? Because he wants us to go out and proclaim the Good News, summarized well by the Apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians 5:16-21 (NLT):
So we have stopped evaluating others from a human point of view. At one time we thought of Christ merely from a human point of view. How differently we know him now! This means that anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun! And all of this is a gift from God, who brought us back to himself through Christ. And God has given us this task of reconciling people to him. For God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, no longer counting people’s sins against them. And he gave us this wonderful message of reconciliation. So we are Christ’s ambassadors; God is making his appeal through us. We speak for Christ when we plead, “Come back to God!” For God made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin, so that we could be made right with God through Christ.