We are Witnesses
John 20: 1, 11-16, 18,
Sermon by Pastor Tim Woodard, April 20th 2014
A lot has happened since last Easter. Each one of us, here gathered, can attest to all that we personally experienced and all that we observed in person during the recent past. Yet, there were many other events and stories of occurrences that we can only know by the testimonies, the accounts of others; as we were not present to witness those things personally. Throughout the ages this has been a common practice. That is, many have relied upon others to relay to them what has been going on in other places and at other times. Thus it has been and thus it still is. The only really meaningful change in society, in this regard, is the proliferation of high levels of technology that helps to capture and record such events.
Back in the time of Jesus there were many who witnessed his actions… and heard his words… yet, there were no electronic devices to record any of it at all. That’s right; there were no cell phones with cameras, no video recorders, and cameras or voice recorders of any kind! Hard to imagine life without the Internet and Facebook or Twitter isn’t it!? If the truth be told, most folks back then couldn’t read or write. Only a select few, such as Teachers, Religious Leaders and Scribes were prolific in writing skills. Therefore, for those not present at an event, they had to rely on the accounting from verbal sources. For that reason, early accounts of these events are crucial to our understanding. Over a span of time the details were passed from one person to another verbally, and likewise from one group to another, until ultimately it was written down many years later. This morning we rely heavily upon the witnesses that came before us and the details that were carried forward into written documents that eventually were translated into the current English versions of the Bible that we read today.
What we need to focus on, as we reflect on the gospel accounts of Easter morning, is how they all proclaim a single message. With this said we can assume, with great confidence that these details are passed on to us by reliable witnesses. As we consider this, I want to assure you that there are a ‘few points’ of history that are just not that important.
It is of little importance as to who found the most Easter eggs last year at the annual Easter egg hunt. Nor is it critical to know how many Easter Lilies where placed in the sanctuary. Is it important to remember if it was sunny or cloudy that day? Did the pastor wear a light colored suit and a bright yellow tie, or was it dark brown with a red tie? Was it a spiral ham or a turkey you had for Easter dinner? Or perhaps you had grilled steak? Or was it grilled hot dogs and hamburgers? Hopefully there was an Easter Egg Hunt and the pastor wore a suit and a tie, there were some Easter lilies in the sanctuary, and there was food on the table at your home last Easter! It’s not written down anywhere in our church records, so there are only verbal stories as to if any of these facts or events occurred at all; Tell me truly – is it even worthy of debate?
Likewise… it is of little consequence or importance whether the stone was rolled away from the tomb before or after the women arrived that first Easter morning. In our gospel lesson this morning it was Mary Magdalene who came to the tomb alone and the stone had already been moved; where- as in the gospel of Matthew she came with the other Mary: “2 And behold, there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled back the stone, and sat upon it. 3 His appearance was like lightning, and his raiment white as snow.” /Matthew 28:2-3/ Yes, it is puzzling that there are multiple versions of the same story – yet… both accounts speak of the tomb being opened and the stone being moved.
Has anyone here ever seen an angel, other than the one in our dreams or visions? Imagine the shock of such an event! Imagine seeing an angel mystically cause a large stone to be removed from the front of a tomb you were preparing to visit. What a ‘shocking surprise’ to an unsuspecting and grieving mother accompanied by other women of the family. Each, in a different moment of despair, the uncertainty of the morning light, the suddenness of something unexpected all played a part. As they each told their stories did they recall different aspects of the same event? Those that retold the stories did they drop out certain details in their excitement to tell others. We, of course do not know why their stories are recorded with differing details. There are, however, many aspects of the accountings that are identical in all the gospels.
It is of great significance that there is commonality on a number of points!
All accounts agree on these points: The body of the crucified Jesus was wrapped in linen and then placed within the tomb, and then the tomb was sealed by a large stone, as was the custom in that time period. After this occurred, the Romans placed a guard at the entrance to the tomb, as requested by the religious leaders of Israel, the enemies of Jesus. On Easter morning, just after first light, Mary and the other women went to the tomb with the intention of placing burial ointments on the body of Jesus. They were not even sure how they were going to get someone to remove the stone from the face of the tomb, for it was quite large. What they found is what has stirred the hearts of humankind ever since.
The stone was moved from the tomb, either just before the women arrived or as they approached the tomb and it was not the guards or the Gardner that moved it! Some accounts suggest that an angle or two greeted them! What they ultimately saw was that the body of Jesus was gone from the tomb. That’s right… the tomb was empty, except for the linen cloth that had wrapped his body. (The linen cloth was wrapped up, or folded if you prefer and was neatly sitting where Jesus had been laid.) It is also recorded that Mary stayed behind and encountered the risen Christ. Many other witnesses reported that they also had encountered the risen Christ. These testimonies are astounding and revolutionary in their meaning!
The Easter story is far more dramatic, far more reaching and far more 3D, three dimensional, than any movie you might go to see! It is truly mystical, illuminating, directly affects the lives of all living creatures and dramatically calls into question the staying power of death itself. It literally changes the concept of mortality and moves us to embrace or at least consider the possibility of life… even after our human deaths. Yes indeed, this Easter event has the power to fully change the world order of things! It is no wonder that millions have embraced it and millions have denied it!
The ultimate core of the Easter event hinges on our willingness to believe and accept the witnesses who have passed on their accounts of these events… for us to consider. What we do with these testimonials is up to us. Take as an example: the events within the life of this church over the last six months. You see, we are all witnesses to what has occurred here. Each of us is free to report on these events in any way we choose. Presumably, we will all strive to be accurate about what we have seen and heard. Now, how we have experienced these events may vary. I would speculate that all our accounts of these past six months will include the facts of events that actually occurred. We sang together, we prayed together, we listened and we read and discussed scripture together: We shared in the Christmas Lizard Cantata; and The Pet Blessing ceremony; and a Palm Sunday Cantata! Just to name a few. We shall disagree on how these events touched our hearts. This of course will greatly alter how others hear and what others remember about these events.
When we hear the Easter stories we need to remember how humankind has struggled with the message, struggled with the details and struggled with its meaning, because of the ever changing dynamic of human emotions and human feelings. This is how it has been, this is how it is, and this is how it shall ultimately be; as long as we think and feel only in human terms! Yet, if we allow ourselves to enter into the realm of the spirit and allow our faith to move our hearts… then we shall be witnesses to the ‘New Life’ being offered here this very day!
We shall be able to embrace life with new hope… because of what Mary and others testified to seeing at the tomb on that first Easter morning. Thanks to these witnesses that passed on their encounters with ‘angels’ and ‘Jesus himself’ at the tomb that morning we have the ‘opportunity’ to consider for ourselves the full implication of Easter. Because Jesus lives, after death, so can we! Because Jesus died for our sins we are free of their burden! Because of this we can face life with a new sense of freedom and boldness!
My greatest desire is to give Easter to each one of you, yes I would like to give you Easter so that you might fully experience it and take it home with you, but I cannot. You see Easter is not mine to give. Easter is a God thing, offered to us by God directly. Jesus, the Christ, the man from Nazareth, died on a cross, was placed into the tomb at the end of his human life. Then he arose from that tomb, was attended to by angels and appeared to Mary and to others.
No, I can’t give Easter to you personally. Yet, I can tell you how it has touched my own heart; how it has changed my life. Easter is the core of my faith. For me Easter is the turning point. It is when I fully understand the transforming power of God. It is the hope & the inspiration that sets my heart ablaze.
I pray that each one of us, here gathered, experiences the fullness of Easter today. And it is written this way in the Acts of the Apostles:
/Acts 10: 39-43/ “We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead.
He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead.
All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”
John 20: 1, 11- 18
1 Now on the first day of the week Mary Mag’dalene came to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb.
11 But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb, and as she wept she stooped to look into the tomb; 12 and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had lain, one at the head and one at the feet. 13 They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “Because they have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” 14 Saying this, she turned round and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15 Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom do you seek?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” 16 Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rab-bo’ni!” (which means Teacher). 17 Jesus said to her, “Do not hold me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brethren and say to them, I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” 18 Mary Mag’dalene went and said to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.