Texts: John 20:1-18; Psalm 118:1-2; 14-24
Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed!
“Easter is late this year.” I’ve heard this said many times over the last number of months, and have said it a few times myself. A late Easter affects worship planners and pushes back spring breaks for some schools. It would normally mean that the early signs of spring would already be starting to look like the full greenery of summer. But it just so happens that spring is also late this year, so it actually feels like we’re about on track.
The date for determining Easter is complicated enough that it can’t be stated succinctly in a few sentences, especially since it has changed a few times throughout church history. In Western Christianity it involves a combination of factors including the spring equinox, the full moon, and the date of Passover. Sun, earth, moon, all hurling through cosmic space; and the commemoration of ancient Hebrew slaves liberated from the captivity of empire. When everything aligns, Easter has arrived. For us Easter can be as early as March 22 and as late as April 25, so today, April 20th is pushing the back end of possibile dates.
Despite the difficulty in knowing quite why Easter is when it is, the fact that there is a formula, and that it does come every year, even if it’s late, is marvel enough. Having a formula for an annual celebration of resurrection feels, in some ways, like a marvelous contradiction. The resurrection of Jesus, almost by definition, is a shattering of expectation, a break with our tired, worn out way of living, a most un-formulaic burst of life which alters our perception of how the world really works. Maybe we’ve been ready since March. Maybe we’ll never be ready. Ready or not, Easter is here. Christ is Risen.
Of all the mornings of the year when the earth turns toward the sun and brings us another day, this is the one where we ponder that one morning, when women made their way to the tomb; or, as John tells it, one woman, Mary Magdalene, about whom he has told us almost nothing previously; only that she was present, standing near the cross with Jesus’ mother and some other women as Jesus died.
Lutheran pastor Nadia Boltz Weber has referred to Mary Magdelene as the patron saint of showing up. Matron saint in this case. In John, she’s one of a few who show up by Jesus’ side at the cross, and the only one who shows up to be with Jesus’ body after his burial. Nobody else is there, and the male disciples, it turns out, are on lock down red alert, hiding behind locked doors for fear that they’ll meet the same fate as their master.
But Mary is there.
Much to her dismay, she can’t find Jesus where she expects him to be, but Jesus finds her. Resurrection is all about a new way of seeing, and at first she doesn’t recognize him, thinks she’s talking with the local gardener, but he calls her name, Mary, and she is found. Because she showed up, she is the first witness of the resurrection, and she becomes the apostle to the apostles.
When the early believers were looking for a way to make sense of their experience of resurrection what they had was their Hebrew Bible, and they found these different phrases and snippets in their Scriptures, which are part of our scriptures, that all of a sudden had a deeper, richer meaning than they had before. One of these phrases came out of Psalm 118, and it was just one verse, one odd phrase, like a mini-parable: “The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.” And sometimes when they were quoting it they extended it to the next verse also, “The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes.” This was part of the text of the call to worship this morning.
Psalm 118 is one of those Psalms that Jews would have sung as they made pilgrimage to the temple. It’s a Psalm we heard last week on Palm Sunday, something they would have recited as they neared Jerusalem and which they recited as they walked with Jesus on his way into the city in his non-triumphalist entry. “Open to me the gates of righteousness, (these are actual temple gates that we’re talking about) that I may enter through them and give thanks to the Lord….Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord. We bless you from the house of God.”
And it was this other piece of that Psalm about the rejected stone and the builders that caught their imagination as it clicked into place with their experience of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection.
So we can imagine a group of ancient builders quarrying and selecting just the kind of stone they want in their structure. Dressing the stones, chiseling them to just the right size and shape. They have the technique down to a science and an art. They’re skilled, expert builders. They could do this in their sleep. Some nights they do it in their sleep. You keep the walls plumb and the corners square and you’ve got yourself one more solid structure alongside all the other things that have been built. Well the builders do this time after time and then one is working with a stone and sees that it just isn’t right. It won’t conform to the desired shape. It’s the wrong shape, wrong kind, wrong everything, so it can’t be used. It would mess up the whole wall and might even be dangerous for the integrity of the structure. The building inspector might see it and make you tear it out. So, no big deal, get rid of it, heave it over on the pile of rejects. Rocks are cheap. There’s plenty more where that came from.
What this line in Psalm 118 is saying and what those early believers discovered their experience of Christ was like, was that that stone that the builders rejected, which had no place in the standard pattern of things is actually the beginning, orienting stone of a structure of a whole different shape. It was the cornerstone. He had taught: blessed are the merciful, forgive not seven times, but seven times 70, turn the other cheek, love your enemies. He was a Samaritan befriending, female affirming, leper loving, truth-telling force to be reckoned with. The experts who kept civilization moving forward didn’t have any place for it. Better get rid of him.
But now that is the starting point for a whole new order of humanity. It’s a cornerstone. The cornerstone gets laid down first, and all other stones that get laid after it are laid in reference to that stone. It determines the position of the entire structure.
My closest experience to this is laying ceramic tile. The most important tile you lay is the first one because once it’s in place you’ve set the course for the whole project. Every other tile finds its place in accordance with the first tile.
“The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.”
Jesus quotes this in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Then in Acts Peter quotes this in a speech he gives before the elders of the people (4:11). And then later in 1 Peter, in his letter to a group of believers, Peter quotes this again (2:7).
The rejected stone as the cornerstone is kind of like that thing about interior designing that you may have heard or maybe experienced, about the person who gets a new couch and ends up remodeling her whole house as a result. She gets a beautiful new couch, and sets in place in her living room. It’s so beautiful that it makes the coffee table next to it look really shabby, so she goes and finds another coffee table to go with the couch. Well now she needs a new end table to match that, and then the desk doesn’t quite work. And the color on the walls doesn’t quite work with the fabric on the couch, so she repaints the walls, and then the paint in the other rooms doesn’t quite go with that so that has to be redone. You can complete the picture that this eventually works its way through the entire house. The beauty from the new couch radiates out through the entire home and over time the pattern of design gets reset.
This analogy works pretty well, except with resurrection you don’t go out and buy the couch, it just shows up in your house one day. You’re going about your routine, walking into the living room ready to slump down on your old lumpy couch, and there it is. You might not even believe your eyes, but there it is.
This may sound strange for a pastor to say, but I’m actually not all the concerned what you believe about Jesus’ resurrection: Whether you believe that resurrection had to happen to the dead, physical body of Jesus which rose up and walked and talked, or if you believe that is was more something that happened in the consciousness of the disciples, a shift in perception about the aliveness of Christ despite the crucifixion. Or if you just don’t know what to believe. Genuine, committed Christians believe all sorts of things about the resurrection.
What I’m more interested in, and what I hope for us, is that we are open to experiencing resurrection in our lives. For Jesus’ followers, it was experience that came first, and then belief worked itself out over time. They didn’t have to believe in resurrection to experience it. When Mary Magdalene went to the tomb that Sunday morning she wasn’t looking for resurrection as far as we know. This isn’t to say that she didn’t have faith, but it wasn’t what brought her there. She was showing up in a situation that everyone else had abandoned. She was there to anoint and honor a dead body of a man she deeply loved. It was radically disorienting for the body not to have been present in the place and the way she expected. This at first was not good news. This was awful news. This was the absolute ending of a story. With Jesus gone, there’s nothing else to build on. And it was at that very point of wild unknowing, that resurrection breaks in to her life.
John is unique in setting the resurrection story in a garden. Jesus’ tomb is in a garden and this is where the first resurrection appearance, with Mary, happens as well. John began his gospel by harkening back to the creation account of Genesis when he says “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Now at the end we’re back in the garden, like another Genesis creation story. This is the place where the new creation begins.
With resurrection nothing changes, but everything changes. There’s a vitality and an aliveness that presents itself to us and calls us by name. That reveals itself to us when we just keep showing up for life. Thank you Mary Magdalene, the matron saint of showing up. And even if we don’t show up, it might break in anyway, through our locked doors, which is what happens to the male disciples later that same day.
Resurrection is not just one more piece of religious furniture to add to our spiritual house. It is the thing that changes the way we perceive and order every other thing. It is this beautiful radiance that makes its presence known among us, and then it dons on us that everything looks different now.
So all of us are walking around with these partially-remodeled lives. And there’s no condemnation in this whatsoever. The radiance that reminds us how incomplete we are is just there, being radiant. That’s what it does, it just keeps radiating beauty. Some of the things we thought we had just right look really shabby now. And some of the things we thought were completely ugly end up looking stunning in the new light. So it’s there. And all of our other stuff is there. And that’s fine that we don’t have our things in perfect order. We never will completely, so we might as well accept that up front. The beauty of the eternal Christ just starts to work its way through our house, and in our own time we yield to its love. OK, let’s repaint this wall. Please, help me repair this floor. That broken glass I’ve been trying to sweep out the door for years actually takes on a whole new quality in this light. I need to live with it there a while longer and see it in this new way. Nope, not ready for that room yet. Need to keep that door closed for a while. That’s alright, we can come back later and maybe that will be a better time.
Whether we like it not, that rejected stone drops in on us with a thud, and sets the course for the new creation, and with fits and starts and fights and finally surrender, our lives take shape around its presence. This is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes.