A Rolled-Up Ball of Linen: A Sermon For Easter, 2012

April 8, 2012

Peter and the beloved disciple ran to the tomb. They couldn’t believe the news? Who would take Jesus’ body? They ran. The beloved disciple got there first, but he waited, allowing Peter to enter. Only then did he go in and saw what Peter saw. An empty tomb. Mary Magdalene was right. But there was more. There were the linens. On one side, a pile, and off in a corner, by itself, neatly wrapped the piece of cloth that had covered Jesus’ face. The beloved disciple, it is said, saw and believed.

What did he believe? That Jesus was risen from the dead? But, no that can’t be it, because the very next sentence says they didn’t know the scriptures that he would be raised from the dead? So what did he see and believe? That Jesus’ body was gone? Certainly. That it had been taken by someone? Perhaps.

Throughout John’s gospel, there is something of a progression of faith. Come and see, Jesus said. He performs miracles, called signs, and many believe in his name. But it’s not clear they understand who he is or have true faith in him. They know he can work miracles, but is he the Son of God?

Here in the tomb is a wrapped up ball of linen. It signifies something, but what? Earlier, Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead. When he came out of the tomb, he was still bound in the burial garments, and Jesus told the bystanders to loose him. What does it all mean?

Peter and the Beloved Disciple had heard the news from Mary Magdalene who had come to the tomb by herself when it was still night. They were excited enough to run with her to the tomb to see if she was right. But there the investigations ended. An empty tomb, a rolled up ball of linen, and they went back home, their curiosity satisfied.

But not Mary Magdalene. When the other two went back, she stayed behind. She lingered in the garden, and someone she thought to be the gardener asked her, “Who are you looking for?” It is a question that comes up repeatedly in John’s gospel, beginning in the first chapter. When he sees two men following him, Philip and Andrew, he asks them, “What are you looking for.” When they answer that they want to know where he was staying, he says, “Come and see.”

Nicodemus came to Jesus. (Don’t worry, I’m not going to go chapter by chapter through the Gospel of John, however much I would like to). Like Mary Magdalene, he came in the darkness. He came to ask questions, and left, his questions unanswered. The Samaritan woman comes to the well to fetch water. How many times had she come before? Every day, for years? She had come for water to do her daily chores of washing and cleaning. Instead of water, she encountered Christ, She left the well to tell everyone about who she had met, and she left her empty water jar behind. The Greeks come to Philip and tell him, “we want to see Jesus;” but we don’t know if they actually did. The Gospel doesn’t tell us.

Like those others in the gospel before her, Mary Magdalene has come. She has come to the tomb, in search of what? Solace, hope? And when Peter and the Beloved Disciple, came, saw, and went back home, she stayed behind, not satisfied, still waiting. For what? Did she know? Could she say? She stayed in the garden and she met someone who she thought was the gardener. Perhaps he could answer her questions. Perhaps he could tell her who had taken Jesus’ body, and where they had taken it.

But she was asking the wrong questions, looking for the wrong thing, seeing something she couldn’t understand. The angels told her she was looking in the wrong place, looking for the wrong thing, but their words didn’t make sense. She looked around saw a gardener, and asked him.

And then, the unimaginable, the unthinkable happened. He knew her. He called her by name, and her world, her sight, her understanding were transformed.

“Mary,” he said; and she replied, “Teacher.”

After that joyous encounter, she returned to the other disciples and told them the really good news, “I have seen the Lord!”

What are you looking for? What, who, do you hope to see? There is so much that clouds our visions—our worries for the future and for ourselves; concerns about jobs, the economy, our health, our families. But many of those are things over which we have little control. What about our hopes and fears—and all that we do to hide our deep needs from ourselves: our addictions, and not just to unhealthy habits, but our participation in a consumer lifestyle that deludes us into thinking if we only had a nicer house, or car, or an ipad 3, then things would be great, we would be satisfied. We would be happy.

What are we looking for? What, who do we hope to see? We come to church in something of the same mindset, hoping that the right word, the right experience will set everything right, make it all OK, satisfy the spiritual longings we have, longings that we often can’t articulate and express, longings for meaning and connection that we try to quench in all sorts of ways, except the way that will finally satisfy.

What are we looking for, whom do we seek? We have come to hear again the good and joyous news of resurrection, to celebrate the new life in Christ. We have come, some of us, to get a spiritual high, and some of us, in hope that what we get here today will suffice for another year.

We come, and see a rolled up ball of linen, or someone we think is a gardener, and we wonder and hope. We see what’s in front of our faces, and don’t understand the meaning, or misinterpret it. A rolled up ball of linen. What could it signify? A gardener—might he tell me what I want to know?

“Mary,” Jesus said and in that instant, her world changed. He knew her, and in that instant, she knew him. We come to this place, we come to God, with all sorts of expectations, requests, demands. We come wanting answers and help and solace. We come on our own terms. We want to encounter God on our terms, not God’s.

Mary was like us. We are Mary. She came to the tomb. She encountered a gardener. When Jesus called her by name, she replied, “Teacher.” But Jesus was much more than a teacher, and in the brief exchange that follows, Mary comes to realize what it all means, what everything means. She comes to know and believe what Jesus has been telling her, his other disciples, and us, throughout the gospel. She comes to know and understand who he is, what the crucifixion and this experience, resurrection mean. When she returns to the other disciples to tell them what happened, she makes it all clear, “I have seen the Lord.”

Here we are, all of us. We have come with our hopes and desires, with our cynicism and doubts, with our faith and with our uncertainty. We have come to this place to hear again the good news of Jesus Christ’s resurrection. We have come to experience the joy of that good news. We want it tied up in a neat package, like a rolled up ball of linen. We want it on our terms, in our categories, we want it to fill our needs.

But Jesus Christ comes to us in unexpected ways. Jesus Christ comes to us in ways we can’t imagine, in encounters we can’t control. The risen Christ comes to us in bread and wine, in the community of the faithful, and in ways we can’t express. The risen Christ comes to us, to shatter our expectations, break down the barriers that prevent us from seeing and experiencing him. The risen Christ comes to us, to remake us, to fashion us in his image and likeness. The risen Christ comes to us. Dare we say, with Mary, “We have seen the Lord?”


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