Sunday, April 4, 2010
We See Jesus—Glorified!
(A sermon based on John 20:1-18 for Easter Sunday 2010)
One day a few years ago I visited the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. I didn’t have much time so I picked up a visitor’s guide that identified some “must see” pieces in that massive collection. I walked from painting to painting and from sculpture to sculpture, briefly looking at each one and dutifully reading the brief description posted with each one.
As I stood looking at one of the paintings, I felt, much to my astonishment, tears welling up in my eyes.
I wish I could tell you that the tears came from my finally seeing a work of art that I had long desired to see but the truth is that I cannot tell you now and could not have told you five minutes after I walked away from it what painting it was that provoked that response in me. I wish I could tell you that the tears came from some deep and carefully cultivated appreciation for art but the truth is that I pretty much slept through the only art history course I ever took and that had been way back in 1978.
The best explanation that I have for what was happening within me on that June afternoon in front of that painting was that, while I couldn’t really describe what I was seeing and while had I tried to explain it I would have gotten it wrong, I knew that I was seeing something special, that I was seeing something that spoke from its depth to my depth, and that I was being confronted with something beautiful.
When confronted with the resurrected Jesus on this Easter morning, we might struggle with what we are seeing—and not seeing—as much as did those who came to the tomb early on that first Easter.
Jesus had said to them that he was the light of the world, but it was in the dark that Mary Magdalene went to the tomb; it seemed that the darkness had in fact overcome the light. But that was not the case after all—it was not the case because when Mary Magdalene arrived at the tomb she saw something most unexpected—she saw that the stone had been rolled away.
Does the unexpectedness of it get in the way of our seeing?
The stone that had been removed had allowed Jesus to come out of the tomb, but seeing it only let in a little light for Mary. She couldn’t know what it meant. But she knew that others had to know what had happened and she knew that she needed help in grasping what was happening. So, she went to tell Peter and John that the body of Jesus had been taken from the tomb. They in turn ran to the tomb.
Now we see the shining of partial light on the apostles and the experience of partial sight by them; they are struggling to see.
Are we struggling to see?
John gets there first, looks in, sees the burial cloths, but does not enter. Peter gets there, goes in, and sees the cloths. Then John goes in. There is no indication that Peter is at all getting what is going on. He is seeing but not believing.
John, though, sees and believes.
Perhaps the evidence of the burial cloths helped John along even it didn’t help Peter quite as much. The description of the burial cloths, which only John’s Gospel gives us, can be taken in two ways. First, it could underscore that the body of Jesus was not stolen because no grave robber would unwrap the body before taking it away. Second, the fact that the head wrapping was “rolled up” (NRSV) or “wrapped up” by itself, which is the meaning of the verb used, could mean to indicate that the body of Jesus had simply passed through it, leaving the head wrapping lying there as if it was still wrapped around his head. [Cf. Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of John: A Commentary, Vol. Two (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2003), p. 1182.]
Based on what evidence was available and what insight he had been given, John apparently drew a conclusion about the resurrection without having actually seen the resurrected Jesus. He saw the glorified and resurrected Jesus without seeing him, so to speak.
Can you see him without seeing him?
That is good faith! That is necessary faith! It is faith that is based on the best light available; it’s the kind of faith that takes a leap and lands on the right spot. Still, it’s not as fully informed as it could be. “As yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead.”
John had come to a point where he could believe that something had happened.
Peter was not there yet.
Are you seeing just a little bit of what it going on?
Where are you in the struggle to believe?
Should we make something of the fact that Peter and John went home while Mary Magdalene stayed around the tomb? Is it possible that we should wonder how, given what they had experienced and seen and what one of them believed, Peter and John could just go back home?
Does Mary Magdalene have greater expectations of seeing even more? But on the other hand, Mary is still locked into her grief. She is still weeping and when she sees the angels, she is still saying the same things: “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.”
Maybe the truth is that no matter where we are, no matter at what point in life we find ourselves, no matter where we are on the scale of unbelief and belief, the light of Jesus’ resurrection can break through to us so long as we are in a position to receive it.
Then Mary saw Jesus.
She didn’t recognize him; she thought he was the gardener. She didn’t know it was him even when he spoke to her. Maybe her sight was blurred by her tears and her hearing by her grief; maybe we are being given hints about the nature of a resurrection body. Regardless, it was when Jesus spoke her name that Mary knew it was him; it was in the affirmation of the personal relationship that Mary recognized Jesus.
And it is in the playing out of that personal relationship between Jesus and Mary that we learn something very important about the resurrected Jesus.
Apparently Mary made a move to grab hold of Jesus. It is a natural reaction, of course, to want to hold a person whom you thought was gone forever but who is now back. Jesus, though, stopped her. “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father,” he said.
I think that Jesus was telling Mary that the nature of the relationship between them had changed. At that moment he was physically present with her, although in his resurrected state; that, however, was not going to be the permanent situation. The permanent situation was going to be that he was going to ascend to his Father and his presence with his followers would then be, while still literal, spiritual.
And so it would always be for all of his followers—his presence with us, while literal, is spiritual.
The eyes with which we will see him, then are spiritual eyes.
But he is here and that is good news! The resurrection and ascension of Jesus created a situation in which Jesus could be fully present with all of us at the same time. In that new situation, which still exists, Jesus is with all of his followers all of the time.
In that situation a wonderful new family is created. So Jesus said to Mary, “Go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” He was already the Father and God of all of them, but now something wonderful and powerful would take place. It still takes place. We are all bound together in one family under the Fatherhood of God and through the presence of Jesus with us.
Jesus the resurrected is Jesus in our midst. Jesus the resurrected is Jesus in our hearts. Jesus the resurrected is Jesus as the unifying force of our family of faith. Jesus the resurrected is our assurance of the grace and hope and love of God. Jesus the resurrected makes us who we are.
Do you see him? Do you see the glorified Jesus? Do you see the resurrected Jesus? Can you open up the eyes of your spirit just a little bit more so that you can see him?
I’m back in front of that painting that I knew far too little about and that spoke to me from places far beyond me. I have tears in my eyes. Perhaps those tears cloud my view of the painting but perhaps it is exactly those tears that reveal that I have in fact seen it.
Is something stirring deep inside you on this Easter morning? Do you have a sense of deep speaking to deep? Look closely; peer through the tears. You just might be seeing the resurrected Jesus.