Sunday, April 24, 2011

'Tis The Spring of Souls Today - A Sermon for Easter

Easter 2011

Happy Easter! It’s great to finally be able to say that! Easter is so late this year that it’s even warm and thoroughly spring. Spring is my favorite time of year. I hate the cold and I think leafless trees are ugly, so I’m happy that the temperature is rising and that the trees are re-growing their leaves. Flowers are blooming, pollen fills the air and covers our cars – ah, Spring. Even in the coldest part of winter, I know that spring will follow.

I wonder how far back you would have to go in time until you find people who did not know that winter would end in spring. Perhaps among those earliest people who lived before civilizations were established, they might not have known. There had to be, at some point, a group of people living in a tropical or sub-tropical climate and then they or their descendents moved to a temperate zone and experienced their first winter. They wouldn’t know how long or how severe the winter would be, and they might not take for granted the fact that spring would come.

On that first Easter morning, Mary Magdalene went to Jesus’ tomb.  Mark and Luke’s gospel tell us that she went with other women, bringing spices that they had prepared in order to anoint Jesus’ body. John’s gospel only tells us about Mary and not why she went to the tomb. We can be sure that Mary expected one thing, and found something very new and unexpected instead.

People have many reasons why they visit the graves of relatives and loved ones. People visit the graves to pay their respects, to show support for the family of the deceased, to express their thoughts, to make someone’s death more concrete in their minds, to find out information about their ancestors, and to feel more connected to those who have come before us.

Many years ago, after my grandmother’s funeral, my dad took me around to see the tombstones of other family members. I remember having a shock when we came to my great-grandmother’s grave. You see, I had been named after her and so it was my name that I saw on her tombstone. And the name of my brother was on the tombstone right next to her. To me it was a reminder of the inevitability of death, and the reason why you might not want to name your children after their grandparents and great-grandparents.

Mary might have had several reasons for going to the tomb that day, but we only know one reason for sure. She brought spices to anoint Jesus’ body. Jesus’ body had been minimally prepared for burial, because they were in a hurry on Friday to get him in the grave before the Sabbath began. Mary and the other women were ready to give Jesus’ body the proper and loving burial that they felt he deserved.

When Mary arrived at the tomb she saw that the stone which was the entrance to the tomb had been rolled away. She thought that someone had stolen Jesus’ body. What heartbreak she must have felt. All in the space of a weekend she saw her lord arrested, tortured, crucified, die, and now his body is missing. She could not give him her final gift, that of a respectful and loving burial.

I’ve always found it so interesting that when Jesus appeared to Mary she did not recognize him at first. Jesus’ resurrected body was different from his previous body; many people did not recognize him at first glance. Mary thought that he was a gardener. I think that part of the reason Mary did not recognize Jesus was not just because he looked different but also because she wasn’t expecting him. You don’t expect the dead to walk around and talk to you. That has not been her experience of dead people in the past, so no wonder she didn’t expect it.

Mary recognized Jesus only after Jesus called her name. Once she hears “Mary!” from the lips of Christ, she turns to him and exclaims “Rabbouni!” or “Teacher!” We often hear that “seeing is believing” but seeing wasn’t believing for Mary – hearing her name was believing. She was an example of what is meant in John 10:3-4, where the shepherd “calls his own sheep by name … and the sheep follow him because they know his voice.”

The spring is a very appropriate time to celebrate the resurrection. The springtime is when we witness the return of green things to a world that was gray and brown in winter. I’m reminded of the second verse of one of our hymns, Come, ye faithful, raise the strain (Hymnal 1982, #199), which goes:
‘Tis the spring of souls today: Christ hath burst his prison, and from three days’ sleep in death as a sun hath risen; all the winter of our sins, long and dark, is flying from his light, to whom we give laud and praise undying.
It is spring, the season of new life and growth. It is Easter, the season of new life as well. Just as the sun rises each day, bringing light and warmth necessary for life – Jesus rose from the dead, becoming the light that dispels the darkness of our sins.

Mary wasn’t expecting the spring to follow winter. She lived in a world where death was the final answer. Some Jews believed in an afterlife, but others did not. All they knew was what they had observed for generations – people ultimately die. Some people might live longer and die more peacefully than others – but all people die.

Mary went to the tomb, expecting one thing but finding something altogether very different. I wonder about all the times that we go about life, only seeing what we expect to see. Does Jesus appear in unexpected ways in our own lives? If we aren’t looking for him, we might not see him. If we aren’t listening, we might not hear him. We need to keep our hearts and minds open for Jesus’ call.

A large part of Christian discipleship is being open to how God calls us. We become open to God’s call by prayer, careful study of scriptures, and living in intentional community with other Christians. Christian communities can be found whenever and wherever two or three are gathered together in Christ’s name. This can be during Sunday worship in church, fellowship after church, Christian education classes, a small prayer group or a bible study group, just to name a few different types of Christian communities.

The death of our bodies is inevitable. Some day there really will be a tombstone with my name on it, hopefully a very long time from now. Yet, we know that spring follows winter. Due to the brave witness of people like Mary Magdalene, Peter, Paul and the other disciples we know that Christ rose from the dead. Due to our own witness, if we are brave enough to witness, other people will know the joyful news of Jesus' resurrection and our salvation from sin and death. The great Christian hope is the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15:20 that “Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died.” Jesus was the first, but we will follow him. Jesus will call us each by name, and we will recognize his voice and follow him into a new life. This is truly something worth celebrating together today! Happy Easter!