Sermon for Easter Day, April 12, 2020 – the Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas

ASEP Sermons

Acts 10:34-43+Psalm 118: 1-2, 14-24+Colossians 3:1-4+John 20:1-18

There is a window in the southwest corner of this building that is based on a verse from this morning’s gospel. In art – from Fra Angelico to Caravaggio and others – it is known as “noli me tangere,” don’t touch me. Don’t hold onto me. On this Easter Day in the midst of a coronavirus pandemic, these words seem fitting.

There is much debate about why Jesus said this to Mary Magdalene. Was he not fully tangible as a body? Later that day, as the disciples gathered in the Upper Room, Jesus somehow appeared among them. Did he walk through the locked door like some kind of ghost? The following week, he invited Thomas to touch him. So, why not Mary?

I like to think that Jesus was sending Mary out. “Now’s not the time, Mary. I’ll be around for a while. You have a job to do. Go. Tell the disciples what you have seen. Don’t cling to me, but go.”

This is now the fifth Sunday that we have not been able to gather in this place as a body, a community. Because of the threat of transmission of COVID-19, only a few of us have gathered here each week, keeping an appropriate distance from one another, in order for you to at least see the place where we normally come together. While many of you long to be here, to see your friends, to celebrate the sacraments, to sing and give thanks to God on this of all days, we cannot. Do not cling even to this place. It is here. It will be here. But your job is to go and tell.

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Before Mary has seen the risen Lord, before she has spoken with the angels in the tomb, she has seen the stone rolled away, and ran to tell the disciples that news, too. And when they arrive and look inside the tomb, one of them, the beloved discipled, saw and believed. But what did he believe? All they saw were the burial cloths, one of them interestingly enough described as having been folded up. I’m trying to imagine a resurrected Jesus taking the time to fold his laundry, and that it would be noted here seems important. Peter and John then leave, and only then does Mary Magdalene enter the tomb. What does she see? Not a pile of linen, but angels, dressed in white, just like those burial cloths.

This raises a host of unanswerable questions:

Why did she see angels where the others saw only a pile of fabric?

Who does Mary think has taken the body?

Why don’t the angels tell her that Jesus has been raised from the dead as happens in the other three gospel accounts?

All that we know is, according to John’s gospel, Mary Magdalene entered the tomb, saw angels where others saw laundry, and turned and saw a Jesus she did not recognize.

Did not recognize, that is, until he called her by name.

Mary.

Jesus names her and then tells her to go. Don’t stay here. Go and tell.

And she went and told.

“I have seen the Lord.”

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Every year, there are two Easter gospel readings according to our lectionary cycle. This reading from John is always one option. Since we are in Year A, the other possibility was Matthew’s version of the resurrection story. You’ll be glad to know that I’m not going to preach a double-header sermon on both texts, but I do want to point out two differences in the accounts. In Matthew, Mary Magdalene and the “other” Mary, maybe Jesus’s mother or maybe Mary of Bethany, approach the tomb. And the tomb is still sealed. That stone is in place until an earthquake causes it to roll away. But Jesus isn’t there, even with a stone covering his resting place. Resurrection happens whether there is a stone in the way or not.

Secondly, the women see and hear an angel but do not see Jesus until they are running “with fear and great joy” (Matthew 28:8) to tell the disciples what the angel had told them. Jesus is not here; he’ll meet you in Galilee. Jesus will meet you wherever it is you are: standing at the tomb, holed up in your house, keeping 6-feet away from someone on a sidewalk. Yes, there may be fear, but there is also great joy. Jesus meets us where we are.

Whether you go inside the tomb or not; whether you see angels or not; whether you recognize Jesus or not: resurrection happens.

Whether we are together in this church building or not: resurrection happens.

Whether we are grieving the loss of friends or family to this virus: resurrection happens.

Whether we worry about the loss of jobs and income and financial security: resurrection happens.

Whether we can leave our homes, walk down the street, go out to dinner, or play in the park: resurrection happens.

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The window of the risen Christ and Mary Magdalene in the back of our church was given in memory of the mother of the Rev. George C. Houghton, rector of Trinity Church from 1878 to 1897. Although this building was begun in 1855, it was under Houghton’s leadership that much of what we see today was constructed. That window has been in this place through two World Wars, the Spanish Flu epidemic that killed 10,000 New Jersey residents, a Great Depression, two presidential assassinations, Korea, Vietnam, September 11, and now the COVID-19 pandemic.

And still, resurrection happens.

You may not be able to hold onto the loved and the familiar, gathering on Easter Day to the sound of organ and trumpets and choir, but still, resurrection happens.

You have been called by name and told to go and tell.

Whether there is a stone in the way or not, resurrection happens.

Whether we are gathered in this place or all over the place, resurrection happens.

That’s the promise of this day. No matter how deep the sorrow, how broken by sin, how fearful of the unknown, how uncertain of the future, resurrection happens.

So, go and tell, with fear and great joy. We have seen the Lord.

Alleluia, Christ is Risen!

ASEPSermon for Easter Day, April 12, 2020 – the Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas