Easter, April 20, 2014
John 20:1-18, 1 Corinthians 15:1-11
by Isaac Villegas
“Why are you weeping? Who are you looking for?” (John 20:15). That’s what Jesus asks Mary, as she panics because the tomb is empty, and she thinks someone stole the body of her rabbi, her friend. “Who are you looking for?”
Mary Magdalene goes to his tomb, because that’s all that can think of doing, to find a way to be a little closer to Jesus, her teacher, her friend, someone who meant the world to her. She knew he was dead, but she wanted to be close to whatever was left of him.
“Who are you looking for?” Mary thought she knew. She thought she was going to find Jesus, dead, a corpse in a tomb. That’s who she was looking for. That’s what she wanted to see. Instead, she finds an empty tomb, two angels, and a stranger who looks like the groundskeeper. And she can’t see that the person talking with her is the one she’s been looking for. That’s the drama of the story. She can’t see that the person who is looking at her is the one she’s been looking for.
Mary can’t see Jesus, because he doesn’t look like he’s supposed to look; his voice doesn’t have the same inflection, the same accent, the same tone. She’s looking for Jesus as he was, as he used to be, and that means she can’t recognize him here and now. She can’t recognize his resurrected life, until he calls her by name: “Mary.” Then she knows. When she hears her name, then she sees him. There’s something about hearing her name, spoken to her. There’s something about being known, by someone — that he recognizes her, that he sees her, that Jesus knows Mary.
It’s not just that he is alive that matters, that he’s resurrected, but that he is alive for her, that he comes back to her, that he speaks resurrected life into her, as he pronounces her name. “Mary.” She is named. She’s known. She’s remembered by the person she didn’t recognize.
Yes, the bodily resurrection of Jesus matters, the fleshiness of it all, but it’s just as important that he is resurrected for her, that he comes back to her, that he is present with her. This isn’t a story about resurrection in the abstract, resurrection as some kind of cosmic happening. No, instead, what matters is that the resurrection is so personal, so intimate. It’s about Mary Magdalene. It’s about the disciples. It’s about you and me.
Easter is about Jesus who comes back from the dead because he’s looking for us, to call you by name, because you are known. You are known by someone whose love is divine, whose love is unstoppable, even by death, because the love that flows through him is God. The resurrection of Jesus is what it looks like for God to love us, for God to want life with us: an encounter, a conversation, a shared life here and now, a shared life that is eternal life — unending fellowship, starting now and lasting forever; communion that reaches beyond death, a fellowship meal that is a picture, a snapshot, of life with God.
In Isaiah 25, the passage Stephanie read for us, when the prophet talks about life with God, he pictures a table with good and delicious food, an abundant feast. That’s what salvation looks like, a meal with God and all of God’s people: “The Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines,” the prophet Isaiah says (Isaiah 25:6). “It will be said on that day, Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us. This is the Lord for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation” (v. 9).
Salvation is a meal, a feast, where people from everywhere eat and drink together, as they form relationships and deepen friendships around a table. That’s what salvation looks like, Isaiah says. When God’s kingdom comes, there will be a table, chairs, and a lot of food.
When I was a kid, when I happened to stop by my grandmother’s house, it seemed like she always had a huge pot on the stove, cooking chicken for her arroz con pollo. I’d show up in the afternoon, with my sister, and my grandma would offer us arroz con pollo. I’d show up in the evening, with my cousins, and she would serve us arroz con pollo. Whenever someone would stop by, she would have them sit down for a bowl of arroz con pollo.
God is like my grandmother, who always has a pot on the stove, ready for another guest at the table, hoping for someone else to stop by for a visit. “The Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food,” Isaiah says.
Salvation looks like a meal, an unending meal, prepared by God for us, all of us.
When I teach classes at Central Prison in Raleigh, we always end the semester with a meal. They call it “the last supper.” Around the table in the cold cinder-block classroom, there is laughter and tears, there’s talking and eating. No one wants the meal to end, because we know we won’t see each other again, and we don’t want to lose the friendships we made.
Heaven feels like that meal, but without an end.
“The Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines,” Isaiah says. “It will be said on that day, Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us. This is the Lord for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.”
This is our God. God has saved us for this, for a meal, for eating, for fellowship, for the sharing of life together. God has saved us, for this communion meal, this Easter potluck, which is a culmination of all the delicious food from our communion potlucks throughout the year.
Maybe this is where we find the challenge of Easter — the invitation, the summons of resurrection, because when I imagine the kingdom of God, when I imagine salvation, when I picture the resurrected presence of Jesus, I think I imagine something a bit more glorious, more majestic, more cosmic, something otherworldly. Not that you all don’t look majestic right now, or that the food we’re about to eat isn’t going to be heavenly, but that all of this is also so ordinary.
We are ordinary — that’s not to say that you aren’t beautiful people, but that we all have our faults, our imperfections, those parts of us that we want to fix, whatever that means: parts of our body, parts of our personalities, parts of our lives.
But the challenge of Easter, the invitation of resurrection, is to see Jesus here, resurrected, and no matter how unholy and imperfect this world is, no matter what we’ve done to ourselves, Jesus is here, unrecognizable because his resurrected body is so ordinary, like a groundskeeper.
Resurrection turns us to hear and now, to the life we have, a life that we are invited to see as shot through with God’s life, shot through with God’s eternal life of love.
I take it that this is what the apostle Paul is talking about in our passage from 1 Corinthians 15. “By the grace of God I am what I am,” he writes, “the grace of God that is with me.” Paul is stunned that God is with him. How can Christ be here, with me? Why would God live with us? Doesn’t he see how we hurt the people we love? Can’t he hear what we say in our heads, about our friends, about our loved ones?
God is with me, Paul says, and he’s shocked as he says it. God is with us, with you. And that’s Easter. That’s resurrection. That’s communion with God.
Resurrection is an encounter, an encounter we experience again and again, here, in our shared life — this is where Jesus shows up, disguised in the everyday, in the ordinary.
Resurrection is the story of a friend coming back from the dead to be with another: to see her, to speak with her, to share a life together again, a life beyond death.
The church begins with Mary Magdalene — in her encounter with the risen Jesus, and with Jesus commissioning her to share the good news with the other disciples. She’s the first preacher and missionary. She offers us the good news of resurrection — the good news of Easter morning: that we are here with Jesus, who is back from the dead to eat with us, to make us food, to call us by name. Of course, we may not recognize him, we may not recognize his voice or his eyes or his cooking, but that’s because he looks like the person sitting next to you.
“Who are you looking for?” Jesus asks Mary, and us.
For an answer, Easter invites us to look again and again, here and now, to see Jesus, alive in us, alive in you and the person beside you, and alive in my grandmother who would love to have all of you stop by for arroz con pollo.
Jesus alive in the people I’ve met in prison who’d love a chance to be here at our meal.
I’ll close with words from Gregory of Nyssa, from the 4th century — Easter words for us, words for you. He said (paraphrased), In you is the beauty of Christ’s body… To look at you is to behold the risen Christ.