Worship | Easter Sunday | Turn/Return | April 17


The video above includes the full service, except for the time for sharing.

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Sermon | Return from the depths, turning toward life

Texts: John 19:38-20:1,11-18; 1 Peter 3:18-22

Speaker: Joel Miller  

When I say “Christ is Risen” you say “Christ is Risen Indeed.”

Christ is Risen…

Christ is Risen…

Every story, we are told, has a beginning, middle, and end.  Our lives track this simple outline with our birth, our life, and our death.

It’s one of the great wonders and delights of Easter to break the mold of this story. 

On Easter morning, “early on the first day of the week,” as John and the other gospels tell us, Mary Magdalene, and other women, visit the tomb.   This is a story that starts with a tomb.  Good Friday, the day of Jesus’ death on a cross, is what begins the Easter story. 

The cross has come to be a primary symbol for Jesus followers.  You can put it up on a banner in church, you can wear it on a t-shirt, you can buy it in gold and hang it around your neck, but let’s be clear: the cross was absolutely a symbol of death.  And not just a symbol.  People died on crosses.  And Rome made sure these were very public events.  The power to inflict death was what kept the world spinning, kept life in submission, kept the order ordered.

The Easter story starts with death, which is to say an ending so final and disorienting one barely knows what to do next.    

To enter most fully into this story, is to bring our own experiences of endings.  Perhaps this is the actual death of a loved one without whom the world makes less sense.  Or the death of certainty about something, or the ebbing away of a physical ability or the letting go of a way you thought life was going to turn out.  Or maybe just two years of little losses that have piled too high to see over.

As we bring these with us, John’s gospel gives us a glimpse of how to confront death. 

We are told of two characters who care for the body of Jesus.  Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus.  Both seem to have been hanging out at the edges of the Jesus movement.  Sympathizers who, for their own reasons, didn’t go public with their support.  John calls Joseph a “secret disciple.” John reminds us that this is the same Nicodemus who had come to Jesus under the cover of night.  The one to whom Jesus had said, “you must be born all over again” and “the wind blows where it will, so too with those who are born of the Spirit.” 

Very soon after Jesus’ death the wind blows Joseph and Nicodemus together.  Now these fringe followers become essential workers, doing what must be done.  They get permission from Pilate to remove the body from the cross.  This took time.  This took care.  Tradition told them what to do next.  They had brought a mixture of spices to prepare the body for burial.  They wrap the body. This was not a task one could do alone.  They carry the body and place it in a new tomb in a garden. 

We hear no words or thoughts they might have had. They linger with the ending and honor the body that has died.  They tend to death. 

Now every story has a beginning, middle, and end, so if death is the new beginning and resurrection is the end, then what do we have for a middle?  We know about Good Friday and we know about Easter Sunday, but what happens in between?   

If you grew up reciting the Apostle’s Creed during church, you might remember these words: Jesus “suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried.  He descended to hell.  The third day he rose again from the dead.” 

For those of us who didn’t grow up reciting this creed, written about 300-400 years after Jesus, there’s one part of that that sounds a bit unfamiliar.  He suffered under Pilate, crucified, dead, buried.  OK. 

Rose from the dead on the third day.  Amazing, and yes, I remember that part.  But what was that in between?  He descended to hell?

According to church tradition, there was quite a bit going on in between Good Friday and Easter Sunday.  And not the kind of thing you can touch or smell, like bodies and spices.  Not the kind of thing that would show up on the Roman surveillance cameras around the tomb.  It was the kind of thing that happens on the mythic, soul level.  The kind of thing that has to happen if the story is to move from death to life.

What happened in the middle, tradition proposes, was that Jesus descended into the underworld.  Modern versions of the creed, like the one in the back of our hymnals, VT 923, say “He descended to the dead.”  This place is depicted in medieval art sometimes as a cave, sometimes as a fortress, and sometimes as an open mouth of a dragon-type creature.  This is where Jesus goes.  And from this cave, fortress, hellmouth – that’s what it’s called – there’s got to be some obscure 80s metal band with that name – out of this place Jesus meets humanity who has died before him.  This is often portrayed as Jesus extending his hand down to Adam and Eve who are surrounded by others, and pulling them up with him.  This event is known as the “Harrowing of Hell.” 

There’s not much about this in the Bible.  The closest reference would be 1 Peter 3:18-19 which says Christ “was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit in which he also went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison who in former times did not obey.” Getting people out of prison is good.

I mention this not to argue whether or not this is a “biblical teaching.”  Not to challenge or uphold traditional “orthodoxy” based on the creeds. 

What I find especially intriguing with this tradition, this example of theological imagination and spiritual intuition..what I find especially compelling about this version of the middle of the story is that it speaks to a profound truth.  What happens between death and life?  If death takes over, how do you get from there to life?  According to this story, you’ve got to go down, like way down, before you go up.

On a personal level, it means we encounter those parts of us that have died, or are trapped in prison, or caught in the teeth of the hellmouth.  Either because society refused to let them live, or because we neglected to feed them, or for whatever other reason.  This is shadow work.  This is calling up into the light what we have previously let sink into darkness. 

On a universal level, it is Christ who does this work for us.  And this has to do not just with us.  It extends as far back as those telling the story could imagine it going, back to Adam and Eve, and everyone following.   And let’s not stop with just people.  As the Apostle Paul suggests in his letter to the Romans, the whole of creation awaits redemption. 

When the stone has sealed the tomb and death seems to be having its way, Christ is making the descent.  He descended to the dead, and he extended his hand so that we might rise with him. 

Now if all that sounds a little far-fetched, just remember you did show up to church on a Sunday we’re talking about resurrection.  We are trying to wrap language around a mystery that is best expressed in images and metaphor, encountered at the soul level. 

This is how the middle of the story goes.  Christ descended to the dead.   

Good Friday has come and gone.  The sun has set on Holy Saturday.  It’s early Sunday morning, still dark.   Mary Magdalene is coming to the tomb in the garden where Joseph and Nicodemus have laid the body of Jesus.   In John she comes alone.  And in John, she has an encounter with the risen Christ, even though this person she encounters may not have looked much like Jesus since she thought she was talking to the gardener.      

Erin Vearncombe is a professor at the University of Toronto focusing on the histories of the different Jesus movements coming out of the first century and a co-author of the book After Jesus Before Christianity.  She tells the story of how this passage of Mary Magdalene and the risen Christ changed the direction of her life.  She was an undergraduate student taking an introduction to New Testament class.  During one session the professor asked the class to act out this scene in the garden at the end of John.  Erin volunteered to be Mary Magdalene.  The instructions were to do whatever the text said to do.  So Mary sees the empty tomb.  She sees two angels sitting where the body had been, and she talks with them.  Then Mary turns, so Erin turned, and saw Jesus/the gardener standing there.  So now she’s talking with this student who had volunteered to play that part.  And Erin/Mary says “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.”  And then Jesus says “Mary.”  And then the text says “She turned.” 

And Erin describes how very awkward this was because she was already facing this person she was talking with.  It didn’t make sense to turn away and continue the conversation.  It was silly to turn all the way around.  But the instructions were to literally do what the text said.  So Erin is stuck, which of course was the point of the exercise and it opened up a conversation about how this Greek verb for turn can mean to physically turn, or it can mean to turn inwardly.  It’s the same word used in Matthew when Jesus says “Truly I tell you, unless you turn and become like a child, you will never enter the kin-dom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3).  And this left such an impression on Erin she decided she had to get a Ph.D. and study Greek because What else haven’t I been told about what’s inside these stories? *

We’ve had a beginning, death.  We’ve had a middle, descent, and now we arrive at the ending.  And it just so happens to be a really fitting ending of our Turn/Return theme.  That’s the ending.  That’s the new beginning.  It’s the turn that happens within Mary.  And once you’ve made this turn, there’s no going back.

If you attended worship about a month ago you likely remember that our guest speaker, Doug Pagitt, talked about the Gospel of John as modeling itself after the Genesis creation story.  It starts in a similar way – in the beginning was the Word, and in place of the seven days of creation, John has Jesus perform seven signs – water into wine, healings, raising Lazarus from the dead – as if creating the world anew.  It was a great sermon, but I kept waiting for the punchline – which maybe he was saving for another sermon.  The climax of the creation story as reimagined through the gospel of John is that the story ends in the garden.  Which is the place of beginning. 

As if Adam and Eve have been pulled up from death and are placed back in the garden, for the story to begin anew.  Mary, as Eve, becomes the mother of the living.  The apostle to the apostle.  The proclaimer of resurrection.  Christ calls her by name.  And she turns.  And the garden and all creation can breathe again.  And the end becomes the beginning.      

Christ is Risen!

*Dr. Erin K. Vearncombe tells that story in THIS video interview, starting at the 12:45 mark.