If For This Life Only

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Easter Sunday, April 21, 2019
Sunrise Service: 7:00 a.m.
Contemporary Service: 8:45 a.m.
Traditional Service: 11:00 a.m.
Scripture: 1 Corinthians 15:19-26 & John 20:1-18
Rev. Troy Hauser Brydon

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia. Amen! Happy Easter to you all.

But, Easter doesn’t just emerge out of nowhere. It’s not like humanity was still occupying the Garden of Eden, living in harmony with each other and with their Creator, when out of the blue Jesus showed up and said, “I know life is already perfect, but just wait until you get a load of what I’ve been up to!” No! Things had gone askew. Things had broken down. Life had its highs, but it had its lows for sure. Easter happens because there is brokenness. Easter happens because things have fallen apart. Easter happens because this is how God determined to bring life where death was. So, while you all look lovely in your Easter best, while the music is extra special this morning, and while things just feel right in this moment, I want you to know that the promise for Easter goes far beyond this one special morning and that it especially speaks into those places where you experience the most brokenness in your life.

Easter happens in the ER after a grisly car accident.

Easter happens at the end of a valued relationship.

Easter happens when life throws its worst at us, and we’re not sure we can go on.

Easter happens in the funeral home and at the graveside. “Easter happens where death is, because that is the only place it is needed.”[1]

It has to be that way, otherwise where would our hope be? Let me share a story with you. One of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do in ministry happened before I was ordained. I was a chaplain intern in a hospital outside of Chicago. As part of the program, I got to be on call a couple of days each week, and it seemed like my time always came up around 3:00 a.m. I am not a functional person in the middle of the night, so I’m glad God didn’t call me to be an ER doctor, but on this night, I got a page from the hospital that I needed to get to the birthing center. A young couple had come in and were delivering twins far too early for them to be viable. By the time I arrived, these babies were already delivered, and they were dead. Yet the couple asked me to baptize them, so I did – through my tears and theirs. Easter only happens where there is death. I don’t know how people can go through life without this hope of eternity in their hearts, but I am so grateful I was able to be in this room, in the grief, and acting on my firm conviction that God’s eternal promises of resurrection were true even for these two tiny babies that could fit into the palm of my hand.

I think the world is in the process of experiencing this very phenomenon in a different way right now. As you know, the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris caught fire this past Monday, and it seemed like the whole world was about to lose something universally significant. This beautiful church has occupied that patch of earth for over 850 years. Its initial construction took 182 years! Just imagine that!  First Presbyterian has been a church in Grand Haven for 185 years, so basically from the time the Rev. William Ferry founded our church until the day I was called to be your pastor is the equivalent amount of time it took to build Notre Dame. Through the centuries it has gone through various renovations. It survived the French Revolution – although it was temporarily repurposed as the Cult of the Supreme Being. It survived two world wars. So sturdy was this edifice that it seemed eternal. But in a matter of a few hours, one spark came very close to reducing the whole magnificent structure to a pile of smoldering rubble. This was a kind of death, but we see in the aftermath the desire for resurrection, don’t we? Immediately, people from around the world pledged resources to bring Notre Dame back to life. Life from the ashes. Beauty from the pain.

As beautiful as Notre Dame is – and I’m glad there is such an interest in restoring beauty to this earth – I believe that each human life is much more precious and beautiful than that building. I think that’s how Jesus sees us, and that’s how he encountered others. I believe that preciousness is what Jesus saw in Mary Magdalene, and because he saw it in her, she gave her life to follow Jesus. This morning I want to spend a bit more time thinking about Mary Magdalene because in her I see so clearly what salvation is.

Who was she? Why does she show up throughout the gospels? Why is she the only named person present to witness the empty tomb? I think some of the answer lies in brokenness. Easter happens where death is, because that is the only place where it is needed. So, what do we know about Mary? Well, first of all “Magdalene” is not a last name like “Smith” or “Miller.” Rather, it describes where she is from, the town of Magdala, a small village on the northwest side of the Sea of Galilee, about three miles north of the major city of Tiberias, and a few miles south of Capernaum, where so much of Jesus’ ministry occurred. So she lived not far from Jesus. Luke 8 reports that Mary was one of several women whom Jesus healed of evil spirits and illnesses. According to Luke, Jesus exorcised seven demons from Mary, so we know that she comes to Jesus from a place of brokenness. According to one source, “Demons were widely believed to be the cause of various illnesses, both physical and mental; such exorcism is thus another way to speak of healing, perhaps of illness with a mental component.”[2] From that time on Mary accompanied Jesus and his band of disciples in their ministry. She bore firsthand witness to much of what Jesus taught and did. She, along with other women, used their resources to support Jesus’ ministry. Basically she was a patron of Jesus, giving him the economic and material support necessary to perform his itinerant ministry. Because she is referred to by her town name – Magdala – and not by a reference to a husband or a son, we know that she was likely single and childless, which was a precarious position for a woman in that era. Yet, it also gave her control over her resources, which is what allowed her to support Jesus and travel with him. Between the need for healing and her own precarious social status, it is easy to see that Mary had experienced brokenness. I wonder if her illness kept her from marriage. I wonder if she was married, but it didn’t last because of the illness or because her husband died prematurely. In order for there to be a resurrection, there must be some sort of death – real or metaphorical. Jesus gave Mary’s life a renewed sense of purpose, and she devotes her life to following him because of that. She once was lost but now is found.

This devotion leads her all the way to the cross. Over the past couple of days, we’ve told the stories of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. As we read those stories, we watch the disciples scatter in their confusion and fear. We witness Judas become a betrayer. We are there as Peter becomes a denier. Jesus seems all alone, but I wonder if Mary and some of the other women following Jesus lingered around the periphery, with the chauvinistic Roman culture ignoring the woman as inconsequential to this Jesus story. We do know that the gospels place Mary and other women as witnesses to the crucifixion itself. Her devotion to Jesus is so great that she is among the few there to watch him die. She had heard him teach and predict what was going to happen, but as it unfolded before her, in her grief, she must have felt the confusion of loss. “How could this happen? How could the one who healed so many, who performed so many miracles, and who gave me my life back be rendered powerless so quickly?” she may have wondered.

So she came to the tomb early that Sunday morning. In John’s telling, Mary comes alone, the last of Jesus’ followers still standing. As day breaks, she sees that something is amiss, that the stone has moved away. In her grief and confusion, she runs to tell the other disciples about it, and so John and Peter run back to the tomb to see for themselves. Unlike Mary, they take a look inside. John doesn’t enter, but sees it is empty. Peter pushes his way in, sees the linen wrappings but no body, and John joins him inside. They leave, unsure of what this means, but Mary remains. She weeps outside the tomb. In her grief and loss, she is not sure what is next. What felt like new life was slipping through her fingers. Where could she go? No one in Magdala cared about her – only this small group of Jesus followers understood the light she carried inside.

For Mary only, two angels appear in the tomb and ask, “Mary, why are you weeping?” Her fear that someone has run off with Jesus’ body overwhelms her, so much so that she cannot understand anything that is happening around her. Suddenly, Jesus appears next to her. He repeats the question, “Woman, why are you weeping?” Then we get this lovely line about Mary assuming this man was the gardener, which is a beautiful connection all the way back to God’s benevolent care at the Garden of Eden and about how God’s kingdom enacted in this resurrection is the beginning of the restoration for the way things should be. But Mary blurts out, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away!”

But then Jesus speaks her name. “Mary!” Earlier in their time together, Jesus called himself the Good Shepherd, and he said, “He calls his own sheep by name” (John 10:3). The sheep know his voice. Mary knows his voice. What was death and resurrection, quite literally, for Jesus, had become a resurrection for Mary in that moment. She was the first witness to the risen Jesus. Unlike Peter and John, she ran back and told the others. Mary, a woman healed from her brokenness by Jesus, became the first evangelist – the first one bringing good news into the world. And it took time for others to believe. John picked things up pretty quickly. The other disciples encounter Christ and get it. Thomas isn’t there, so it takes him another week and sticking his fingers into Jesus’ wounds to believe. Peter takes even longer, but over breakfast on the Sea of Galilee, Jesus restores even Peter. But Mary? Mary gets it right away.

If for this life only, Paul writes. If for this life only Mary had hoped for what her eyes could see, then those hopes died on Calvary as Jesus breathed his last. If for this life only Mary had hoped that these three years of following Jesus would keep going, then those hopes were dashed when death came. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.

But that’s the good news of Easter for us and for the whole world. Easter is about this life and it is about eternal life. Like Mary, our lives get flipped on their head when we truly encounter who Jesus is and his call to follow him. We die to ourselves, and we live for Christ. It’s an initial death and resurrection. We know some day our bodies will break down and decay. We know that we will experience death, for as Paul writes, “The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Cor 15:26). While it’s ultimate defeat is certain, we have not yet seen its end. Yet, like Mary, we have encountered the risen Jesus. Unfolding before our very eyes is God’s rescue plan for the whole world – is God’s solution to the brokenness, grief, and violence of the world.

Easter happens where death is, because that is the only place it is needed.

Friends, we all know the brokenness of life. We all experience it to varying degrees. Many of us are privileged enough to insulate ourselves from much of it, but even our best efforts cannot totally keep us from brokenness and grief. Life brings its ER visits. Life brings its funerals. Life brings its losses. What God in Christ did for the whole world in the resurrection speaks directly into each of our lives, and I find that it speaks most pointedly when things are at their worst. Easter happens in the ER. Easter happens at hospice. Easter happens in untimely ends and goodbyes.

May the good news of the resurrection be something you carry with you not just on this special day but on all days. We never know what life will bring, but we trust the God who loves us and knows us by name, speaking into our deepest pain and grief, and restoring us to eternal life.

[1] https://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/easter-day-c-2/?type=the_lectionary_gospel

[2] Women in Scripture, 322.