Sunday, April 12, 2009

The First Evangelist

John 20:1-18

She runs and her footsteps roll down the dark roads of Jerusalem like distant thunder. Her leather sandals, smacking dusty ground, shout retorts off the walls of white-washed sepulchres along the slope of the Mount of Olives, telegraphing her hasty retreat to sleeping citizens who stir momentarily, but roll over in their beds unaware of the momentous discovery she has made. For a heartbeat she nearly loses her balance while taking a corner too recklessly. She grabs the wall to right herself and keep on course.

Her race is born of shock and confusion. She runs to outpace the raging torrent of her emotions, which if they catch her will bear her haplessly down a merciless channel to dash her soul apart. Every breath she takes is a desperate gasp against the stabbing pain in her lungs, but it is hard to notice new wounds when you are nursing a freshly broken heart.

Only an hour before, she had set out, alone, in the quiet black before dawn, to carry her grief to her master’s tomb. She took with her a small satchel of fragrant herbs to spread over the body of the man who, until Friday afternoon, had been to her the shocking proof of God’s love. He was like a sudden bolt of lightning across a cloudless night sky. Impossible. Unpredictable. He was like the waves of a roaring sea against an earthen dam. He tore holes in your defenses until nothing could stop the spring of hope from flowing into your heart. She had dared to imagine, because of him, a world void of cruelty.

It was especially cruel, therefore, that the latest act of this rebellious world had been to tear his life to shreds on a Roman cross.

And so, as she climbed the hill near Golgotha, to the tomb where Joseph of Arimathea had laid His corpse, she was too desolate even to weep. She had trudged that lonely path till at last she came to the garden before the entrance and was suddenly jolted out of her misery. The stone was rolled aside. The tomb had been disturbed.

The satchel of fragrant herbs tumbled to the ground unheeded she was already running back the way she had come.

Running, as the sun rose over the city of David. Running over the threshold and up the stairs to an upper room. Shouting in a hoarse and breathless voice…

“Gone! … Peter!”

Collapsing onto a divan in a coughing fit, she struggles to master her throat and share her tale. Her dearest friends gather around her. Peter, John, Martha, Thomas… she has come to think of them as family. Brothers and sisters. They share her grief. In these past days especially, they have found the only solace possible in one another’s company. Lazarus, Matthew, James… It will devastate them to hear of this latest insult. They hurry to her sides and help her sit up. Someone gives her a bowl of new wine, which she drinks to quench the burning in her chest.

They look at her expectantly, and at once she begins to weep.

“They have taken the Lord out of the tomb,” she tells them. “They have taken him… the stone was moved… they…”

She can hardly bear it. Martha is slowly backing away and starting to wail – a high pitched ululation, the song of mourning. John’s face is turning red. Peter, however, leans closer and sets his ear near her mouth.

“Are you sure,” he asks.

She nods, “They have taken him, and we don’t know where they have put him.”

Peter shares a meaningful look with another man there, one of the master’s most beloved disciples, and kissing her on the cheek, the two of them depart immediately. James and Thomas press her for more information, others are prostrate on the floor of the room praying “Adonai, Adonai, Adonai” (lord, lord, lord) and the piercing sound of Martha’s wailing drifts out the windows and over the streets.

Repeated, the story of her horrible discovery seems paltry. So much is unknown. Some speculate that the thieves were Centurions. Others suggest that it was servants of the Sanhedrin who violated the tomb, but as the initial agony fades she grows impatient with speculation. She longs to see for herself, to know for certain that her teacher is gone, and perhaps to beg anyone, everyone, for information. Someone must know where they dragged his body. Someone must know what they have done with him.

While the others are still debating who may be guilty of this offense, she quietly slips out of the room and down the stairs. She pulls her headscarf tight over her hair and steps into the street once more.

The journey back up the mountain is different this time. A hook of uncertainty has caught in the tapestry of her emotions. Her cheeks still wet with tears she feels herself pulled up the slope by her unraveling worries. Could it be that she was somehow mistaken?

In the distance she hears the shofar blowing. It is the first day of the week and men are going to the temple for morning prayers. The sun has risen over the Jordan as she walks into the garden at the top of the hill. Rays of light through the branches of an olive tree make it seem on fire.

Beside the tree she sees the opening of the tomb, unsealed, and within she hears people moving. Her breath catches as two men come walking out, but it is only her brothers. Both have the look of shattered glass on their faces – Peter is especially perplexed. He shakes his head at her unspoken question. They all stand in total silence as the minutes pass, lacking the courage to say their fears aloud, before the men turn away and walk down the road.

Mary looks at the unguarded opening. A gust of wind ripples over the rooftops of the city, carrying the smells of dust, and clay, and baking bread past her nose. The shofar blows again.

And then she decides. She could turn away, fly this place, and shriek her righteous anger at the heavens until the fissure in her soul dries up and closes over, but she chooses instead to plunge into the darkness of the grave, to know for herself.

The light is gone and her nostrils are full of the scent of death. She rushes to the back of the enclosed space where she knows already, he is not. On the bier the cloths lay, folded. The shroud is separate and all of it caked with blood. She is alone, but she is not. Two men, with voices like crashing cymbals, are next to her, or on the bier, or all around, or not there at all. She turns away from them and they are there facing her. They smile and it is like clouds parting.

“Why are you crying?” they ask in unison.

It is too terrible, or too wonderful, or simply too much for her too look at them. She mumbles something about finding her Lord and stumbles for the entrance. She is stopped abruptly, running headlong into a tall man who was not there before. She crumbles to her knees, overcome. Her chest heaving, she tries to croak out an apology between sobs.

He takes pity on her.

“Who is it you are looking for?” he asks brushing a tear from her cheek. His hands are coarse from callouses and they smell of earth.

“Please,” she begs him and she bestows her very self with the word, “Please, if you have carried my teacher away, tell me where you have put him. Please.”

And she knows as she says this that it was not just her teacher they buried in this grave, but her life also, and if he has been taken from here, then her life has also been stolen away. She knows this like a stone knows the quarry it was cut from, and forever bears the marks of that memory on its skin. She knows that she must find him to find herself and thus she cannot think of giving up her search. She says this to the stranger with her pleading. He must hear her and have mercy on her.

As the shofar blows a third time he places his hand on her head, and says one word, “Mary.”

That one word, spoken from his mouth, is for her more than all the words on all the scrolls of all the prophets. For it contains a love so amazing, so divine, that if every continent were made of parchment, and every sea a well full of ink, and every person dedicated every minute of every day to writing the story of that love we could never finish the tale.

“Rabboni!” she cries, which means ‘teacher’, but in this case also ‘I love you’.

As her tears of sorrow are transformed into rivers of joy, he lifts her to her feet, and they embrace, and it is a moment that transcends time and space, but it is still only a moment, for he tells her that she must let go and return to the others, her brothers and sisters.

“Go,” he says to her, “and tell them.” He makes of her his first messenger, his first evangelist. “Tell them that I am returning to my God and your God, to my Father who is now also your Father.”

Though part of her wants to stay there with him, she goes without hesitation because she knows now that he cannot possibly be taken from her. She knows that not even the grave can hold him and thus all of her fear evaporates like the morning dew.

She runs, and her footsteps roll down the streets of Jerusalem like distant thunder. Her leather sandals, smacking dusty ground, shout reports off the walls of white-washed sepulchres along the slope of the Mount of Olives, telegraphing her joyous flight to the citizens at their morning prayers. Barely touching the ground she flies, for she brings good news of great joy for all people. For this day, in the city of David, a new world is born to us.

He is Risen! Jesus Christ is Risen! Alleluia!

And that is the news that the first evangelist had to share.

And that is the news that I have to share with you.

And that is the news that you have now, to share with others.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, all glory and honor be unto them, Amen.


Cecilia said...

Beautiful. Alleluia! Amen.

Eddie Louise said...

I was present on Easter morning to hear this sermon preached, and it was beautiful! It put you right there, right in the moment, and gave a real understanding of the emotions that must have been coursing through them!

I definitely felt the spirit move!

NancyP said...

very fine - thanks.