Five Easter Encounters

Sermon for Sunday, April 17, 2022 || Easter Sunday C || John 20:1-18

Good morning, and welcome to St. Mark’s on this glorious Easter Sunday. Today is our first Easter on-site here on Pearl Street since 2019, and I am overjoyed to see your faces. If there’s anyone here today who doesn’t know me, I’m Pastor Adam Thomas. Today is my ninth Easter as the rector of this wonderful church, and I can’t think of anywhere else I’d rather be than celebrating with you on this special feast of the Resurrection.

Mary Magdalene also knew exactly where she wanted to on that fateful day, the Sunday after Jesus’ gruesome death on the cross. Mary wanted to be with Jesus – his body, she thought, but she ended up getting much more than she bargained for. After Peter and the other disciple go home, Mary remains at the tomb, the better to be close to Jesus’ last known whereabouts. Jesus’ body is gone, and she doesn’t know why. She doesn’t know who took it. She doesn’t know where it could possibly be now, or why, if someone stole the body, did they fold burial garments nice and neat and stick them in the corner. She doesn’t know much on that strange and mysterious morning, but she knows one thing. She came to find Jesus and she won’t stop until she does.

Thankfully, the Risen Christ hasn’t gone far. He comes upon her in the garden, but she doesn’t recognize him at first. “Whom are you looking for?” he asks. What a question! At first glance the answer is simple. “I’m looking for Jesus.” But embedded in this simple answer are a host of complications that keep us from recognizing the Risen Christ in our midst. Throughout the last two chapters of the Gospel according to John, the risen Jesus appears to his friends five times. In each encounter, a barrier could have kept the disciples from recognizing him, barriers like sorrow, fear, doubt, frustration, and shame. But in each encounter, Jesus’ presence dispels those barriers.

The same barriers often stand in our way and keep us from embracing the Risen Christ in our lives. These barriers trick us with their immediacy or their  heaviness. They fill up our field of vision so there’s nowhere else to look. But today, on this feast of the Resurrection, Jesus gives us the opportunity to answer his question anew and bust through those barriers once again. And that question is: Whom are you looking for?

The second half of our Gospel reading this morning begins with tears. “But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb.” Her sorrow could be a barrier keeping her from seeing the Risen Christ. Indeed, when she sees him, she thinks he’s the gardener. She even accuses him of stealing her Lord’s body. She’s hurting, and not even a vision of angels staunches her pain. In moments of sorrow, the Risen Christ asks us: “Whom are you looking for?” Responding with his name won’t necessarily make the sorrow go away. But it will help us notice Christ’s presence in our midst, suffering with us, and offering us strong arms to carry our burdens when they become too heavy to bear alone.

Later that evening, “The disciples were behind closed doors because they were afraid of the Jewish authorities” (John 20:19, CEB). The disciples have hidden themselves away because they’re afraid they will be next for the cross. The fear is so palpable that it hangs in the room like fog, silencing all attempts at conversation and isolating each disciple with their own dark thoughts. But a locked door and the fog of fear cannot stop the Risen Christ from appearing in their midst. He dispels their terror with a word of peace. In moments of fear, the Risen Christ asks us: “Whom are you looking for?” As we breathe out his name, we breathe in this same peace, the peace that passes all understanding.

The next week, Thomas is with them. He wasn’t in the house the last time, so he still hasn’t seen the Risen Christ. “I need to see him and touch to know you are telling the truth,” he says to his friends. His doubt is understandable. How could he possibly believe a story so incredible without some shred of proof? And yet when the Risen Christ stands before him, he falls to his knees and utters the most resounding declaration of faith in the whole Gospel: “My Lord and my God!” And all without ever touching Jesus. In moments of doubt, the Risen Christ asks us: “Whom are you looking for?” And in those moments, even the smallest, most doubtful voice we can muster is enough to say, “You, Lord.”

Some time later, seven of Jesus’ friends are out on the Sea of Tiberias fishing. Or should I say trying to fish. They’re out all night and they catch nothing. You can imagine their frustration mounting as the morning sun gilds the clouds. But then someone on the beach beckons to them and tells them to cast the net one more time. And the bulging net is so full they can’t haul it in. In moments of frustration, the Risen Christ asks us: “Whom are you looking for?” Saying his name helps us reorient ourselves to what matters and let go of our frustration long enough to try again, this time with Jesus’ posture of abundance replacing our frustrating and shriveled posture of scarcity.

Once on the beach, with the fish grilling away on a charcoal fire, the Risen Christ takes Simon Peter aside. He knows Peter feels ashamed for the way he acted on that terrifying night when Jesus was arrested. Three times Peter denied knowing Jesus. So three times Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?” With each affirmation – “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you” – Jesus replaces Peter’s shame with a new sense of worth. And with this new sense of worth comes a mission: “Feed my sheep.” In moments of shame, the Risen Christ asks us: “Whom are you looking for?” Shame has a way of making us feel unworthy to say his name. And so he asks again and again until we know that his concern for us makes us worthy to respond: “I’m looking for you, Lord.” And for him to say, “Well, you found me, and no amount of shame will ever make you unworthy of my love.”

Sorrow. Fear. Doubt. Frustration. Shame. These are just a few of the barriers that can keep us from being aware of the Risen Christ in our midst. But in each case, Jesus does not let those barriers keep him from coming near, embracing us, and never letting us go. Never letting anyone go. This is the power of the Resurrection: the barrier is temporary, but the embrace is eternal. The One we are looking for at the center of our faith outlasts and outshines all the obstacles we clutter our lives with. So when you leave this church today, go out into the world with Jesus’ question to Mary on your lips: “Whom are you looking for?” Today, tomorrow, every day, and on into eternity, make this your answer: “You, Lord. I’m looking for you.” And hear the Risen Christ speak in your soul, “You found me. And you have been found.”

Art: Mary Magdalene by Albrecht Durer

One thought on “Five Easter Encounters

  1. I have long thought that Thomas should be the patron saint of scientists. “Show me the process, show me the results.”

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