Scriptures: John 20:1-18
(Based on Journey of Stones: A Sermon Series for Lent and Easter by Steven Molin)
Once again, he is risen! [Congregation joins in response, “He is risen indeed!”] What a day! What a glorious, wonderful day! It's almost as if God planned it this way. The sun is shining, the birds are singing, there are a thousand different colors beginning to come out. It is Easter, friends, and the One who was dead is now very much alive.
I am reminded of the custodian who was cleaning the sanctuary after worship one Sunday, and he noticed the pastor's sermon manuscript lying on the pulpit. Upon closer examination, he noticed that the pastor had written in large red letters in the left-hand margin: Weak point! Raise voice and pound the pulpit! I hope that's not what I have to do this morning.
The disappointment of Good Friday, the pain of loss, has been replaced by unspeakable joy. My prayer is that the truth of that single sentence, “He is risen,” will change your life – today, tomorrow, and forever.
The story of our Lord's resurrection is told a bit differently in each of the four Gospels. In Matthew, two Marys went to the tomb early on Sunday morning to finish the painful task of embalming the body of the One they loved. In the Gospel of Mark, the Marys brought a woman named Salome with them.
In Luke, the women are not identified at all by name, but still it was women – and not men – who first learned the good news of Easter. I find that fact, in itself, quite fascinating, as we remember how Jesus reached out to the outcast and the poor and those who were not recognized and did not have power in society.
But in John's Gospel, which we read today, Mary went to the grave all alone. Perhaps she went there to care lovingly for the body of Jesus, but more than likely, I think she went there to grieve. Most of the time, we need to be surrounded by family and friends when we are faced with the death of a loved one. Is that not true? There is both comfort and strength in numbers.
But sometimes, we don't want company. Sometimes, we just want to be alone, and I think this was probably the case with Mary on that first Easter morning. She needed some space. She must wanted time to mourn, and to wonder what might have been.
After all, when you think about it, when she went there by herself, there was no way that she would have been able to move that rock. Even the group of ladies together could not have moved it, but especially one woman by herself could not. She couldn't possibly have been expecting to be able to simply walk into the tomb.
Curiously, however, when she arrived at the place where they had laid Jesus on Friday night, the large stone which sealed the entrance to the tomb was gone. Immediately, she jumped to a radical conclusion: grave robbers! That was, by the way, something that happened with enough regularity that it would not have been unusual to think that, even if it wasn't also for the fact of Jesus' infamy, if you will, among the people. She assumed that someone had stolen the body of Jesus, and she sprinted back to tell the others of her discovery.
But Peter and John were not content to simply hear about the news. When Mary told what she had discovered, they had to go and see it for themselves. They ran to the tomb. Out of fear, or curiosity, or anticipation, we don't know, though I suspect it was more fear or curiosity, since they didn't remember Jesus telling about the resurrection. But Scripture tells us that they ran.
John got there first, which is not surprising. He was, I believe, according to the legends, the youngest of the disciples. So if Peter was a ripe, middle-aged man of thirty-two or so, John was seventeen or eighteen years old. They both had spent a lot of time walking, so they were both in good shape, but it's not surprising that John would outrun Peter.
However, John stopped at the doorway to the grave. He saw the graveclothes, but he wouldn't go inside. Scripture says he believed, when he saw. But you still have to wonder why he wasn't comfortable going into the grave. Since he was there at the cross, he may very well have been one of the people that helped put Jesus into the grave on Friday. But apparently he just stood there and waited for Peter.
And Peter, the impetuous one, the impulsive one, didn't even break stride. He bolted into the grave, and immediately looked around, and it tells us the details, of the cloth that had covered Jesus' head separated from the cloth that had covered the rest of his body.
Peter saw the grave was empty, and very possibly he knew that Jesus had risen from the dead, though how it is depicted in the song that I sang, “He's Alive,” is more likely. He might have hoped for Jesus' resurrection, but even then didn't believe it was for him. I think we see proof of that later, when Jesus has to take him aside separately, to encourage him to lead the people of God.
Whether he believed or not, I'm sure he did not understand it. And frankly, maybe they never did. Just like maybe we never do. But they believed that Jesus was alive. Somehow, they knew that Jesus alive. It almost seems to suggest that we don't need to understand the mechanism of Easter to believe in the resurrection.
I don't think it was just a coincidence that the first clue to the resurrection of Jesus was that the stone had been removed. The theological implications are enormous. Each of the stones you have this morning, on one side, has a cross. That was given out for Good Friday. That was when Jesus accomplished the forgiveness of our sins, there on the cross, and he said, “It is finished.”
And when he died, we're told in other passages like Matthew and Mark, that the veil of the temple was torn in two, that veil that separated the mercy seat of God from everyone else. So now there was open access to the Father, by those that had faith in Him. But we still need more. Even if we're forgiven, how do we live as the people of God?
On the flip side of these stones is painted the word “ALIVE.” This, by the way, is called a “worry stone.” Hopefully most of them are shaped so you can hold it in your hand. You can rub it with your thumb. You can take it out of your pocket and look at it and take comfort from it.
Because, you see, the stone that was in the way as of Friday, that huge, round, one- to two-ton stone, in a groove that made it even harder to move, was gone, out of the way. Mary went to the grave, expecting to not be able to see him, because the stone was in the way. She wouldn't be able to touch him, because the stone would prevent her. It was like a barrier that she was incapable of moving herself. Somebody had to do that for her. And Somebody did.
Throughout the season of Lent, we have been on what we called a “Journey of Stones.” Each Sunday, we would carry a small stone into worship with us, and that stone would become symbolic of our sins that are a barrier between us and God. At the end of the message each Sunday, we would lay our stones of sin at the foot of the cross. One stone stood for someone's pride, while another stone stood for someone's dishonesty. One stone symbolized our broken relationships, while other stones stood for the sins of gossip, or prejudice, or adultery, or hatred.
By the end of Lent, the base of the cross was filled with stones. Our stones. Our sins. We can't remove them by ourselves. Someone has to do it for us. And Someone has. Maybe you can't see the base of that cross this morning, but I've looked, and I tell you that it's empty. All the stones that were there for sins are gone. All the sins are removed. This is the message of Easter: that what we could not do by ourselves, God did for us, no questions asked.
But I still want to touch on the stone, the stone that was removed. Because if our sins were forgiven on Good Friday, then what was the point? If we're given, through the tearing of the veil of the temple, access to God and prayer and worship, then why did Jesus need to be raised again? Why did the stone have to be rolled away? What's the point of Jesus being alive, physically resurrected?
Let me suggest to you that the stone being removed has humongous theological implications of its own. Through the removal of the stone, through the disciples' ability to go in and see the empty grave, they recognized that Jesus, the Master, was raised from the dead.
The promise that Jesus had made to them throughout his ministry was that one day, they would be able to do as he did. They had a sort of precursor of it, when they went out on their missionary journey and they were doing things in Jesus' name. In the Gospel of John, during that Last Supper, he said that when he went away the Spirit would come, and “you will do even greater things than me.”
Now think about that. Jesus promised that we would do even greater things than he did, and he just got raised from the dead. We have been raised as well. That barrier of death – first it was sins on Friday, now it is death itself that has been overcome. “O death, where is thy victory? O Grave, where is thy sting?” It's not there. Why? Because the stone has been rolled away, and Jesus' body isn't there. And because he promised that he would be with us, we can count on and believe that he is. We have eternal life. We have become a new creation and a re-creation, through the regeneration of the Holy Spirit.
Today we experience some of the evidence of Easter. You don't have flowers in here, and that's because of me, because I'm so allergic to them, but there are flowers outside that are beginning to bloom. We sing hymns like “Jesus Christ Is Risen Today,” that is so uplifting and majestic. We hear the confident voices of our friends who have boldly proclaimed, “He is risen! He is risen indeed!” I suspect it's easy to believe in the resurrection today.
But what about tomorrow? What about Tuesday, or next Saturday, or later in May? What about when people let us down, or when loved ones die, or when the sins of our lives overwhelm us once again? We are simultaneously saints and sinners, making a journey, fighting a battle against the flesh. Will Easter then be just a distant memory? How will we believe then?
In 1988, when the Berlin Wall came tumbling down, a young woman named Anna in East Germany was already asleep when her friend pounded on the door. “Anna, the Wall is down, and we have freedom!” she said. “You must come and see!”
They ran down to the gate that had divided east and west for thirty years, and it was true. The Berlin Wall had been toppled. For three hours they partied on the border. They ran back and forth between east and west, they drank beer and danced with soldiers. Then they want back to their homes.
The next morning, Anna awoke and thought she had dreamed that experience. It all seemed too good to be true. Quickly, she got dressed and ran back down to the border and remembered that it was all true. But this time, before she went back home, she picked up a piece of the shattered Berlin Wall and took it home with her, as a tangible reminder that she was free.
As you leave today, I ask you to take your stone with you as a reminder, this stone with the word “Alive” on it. May it be for your a reminder that you are free. May it be a reminder that you are released from the shame of your sins. Free from the punishment of God. Free to be alive! And may it be a reminder that you are now one of the adopted children of God, with eternal life as the gift of God. And remember, if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed.
Happy Easter, for He is risen. He is risen indeed.