Sunday, April 26, 2015

Sermon: This I Believe: I Believe in the Holy Spirit

Rev. Mandy Sloan Flemming
Sunday, April 26, 2015

Audio Available here.

This I Believe: I Believe in the Holy Spirit

John 15:26-27, 16:4b-15

‘When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf. 27You also are to testify because you have been with me from the beginning. 4But I have said these things to you so that when their hour comes you may remember that I told you about them.

‘I did not say these things to you from the beginning, because I was with you. 5But now I am going to him who sent me; yet none of you asks me, “Where are you going?” 6But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your hearts. 7Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. 8And when he comes, he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: 9about sin, because they do not believe in me; 10about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; 11about judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned.

12 ‘I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. 13When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. 14He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. 15All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.

            This is our third sermon in the series on “This I Believe,” which we are studying alongside our Confirmation Class as they engage the basic theological tenets of our faith. We have taken time the last two weeks to study God and Jesus Christ, as the first two members of the Trinitarian way in which we understand God. Again, allow me to reiterate that I realize that this is a little nutty. But, if we believe that God has been revealed to us in such a way, then it is our faithful task to seek to understand it.
          That means that this week, we are focusing on the most perplexing person of the Trinity: The Holy Spirit. Many years ago, I supervised a Confirmation Class at Lawrenceville Presbyterian Church in Lawrenceville, NJ, and there, the youth had to write out exactly what they believed about the basics of our faith. They wrote beautifully about God: I believe that God is bigger than me, created everything, loves me, wants what is best for me. They wrote directly about Jesus: I believe that Jesus is the son of God, born of Mary, and lived on earth so that I may know the fullness of God’s love and how to live on earth. And then, they had to write about the Holy Spirit: I believe the Holy Spirit is present now, and always, to remind me that God loves me and is always with me.
          I watched these youth struggle with fear and trembling over their statements. They had a lot to say about God, some fine “straight-from-the-Creed” language about Jesus, and a few vague remarks about the Holy Spirit. No one could quite pin that person of the Trinity down, which I suppose is the point. The Spirit is amorphous, androgynous, and atypical. I joke each week with my preacher friends about our sermon prep, and we have varying ways in which we describe the Holy Spirit’s presence or absence in our writing. My dear friend, Sam, once wrote that the Holy Spirit neglected to show up for inspiration until Sunday morning, at which point she dragged in wearing last night’s clothes with an unlit cigarette hanging from her lips. These images are so resonant for us, because the text is so inconclusive about how we should understand the Holy Spirit’s presence in our lives.
            Our text today comes to us from Jesus’ great farewell narrative to the Disciples, after the Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem, but before his betrayal, arrest and crucifixion. At this point in the Gospel of John, Jesus’ ministry has covered everything from healing to feeding to exorcism to prophecy; he has even raised Lazarus from the dead. In order for the message of Jesus’ ministry to sound like anything other than the ramblings of certifiably insane people, there must be a force on earth that can testify to the truth of it. Jesus tells his Disciples, “The Advocate is coming, whom I will send to you from the Father. The Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, and the Spirit will testify on my behalf.” The author of John uses the Greek word “Paraclete,” which is typically translated to mean “one who has been summoned or called to the side of another--literally, an ‘advocate,’ or, by extension, a helper or legal representative in a trial or other arena of judgment.”[1]
            God, in Christ, knows that the way in which God’s presence on earth has been revealed is not going to be received with assurance. So, God has elected to send this Spirit to us, that we might have help in times of judgment. This is the first way in which God ensures that we will not experience life on earth alone – outside of God’s comfort – but with the help of the One who is always with and for us.
            The language of Advocate is deeply resonant to me, because it requires courage to say, in truth and love, things that are difficult to hear. Like the Disciples, we are called to testify – to tell – to proclaim what God has done in our lives, that others may come to share in it. But this is messy, and often falls on the ears of those who cannot hear or perceive it. Think how much more bold we can be when we have support and help. Jimmy Carter, in speaking out about the treatment of women world-wide, said that, “It is time we had the courage to challenge these views.”[2] The courage to challenge. This is what the Advocate does for and with us.
            The Holy Spirit, then, is about more than just the completion of a three-fold way to understand God’s abiding presence in the world. The Holy Spirit is about the gift of Hope.  David Lose writes that it is “The cross by which God dignifies and sanctifies all human suffering by promising to be there with us and for us. If God’s greatest revelation was made manifest in and through the struggle and suffering of a man hung on a tree, then what suffering of ours can ever truly be God-forsaken. Hence, God promises to be with us amid suffering, and even work through that to build character and endurance and increase our capacity for hope.”[3]
            We are still watching as the death toll from the earthquake in Nepal rises, this morning up to 2,200. There are countless ways in which we can identify the need for God’s spirit to be more mightily present in the world than it seems to be. The world’s capacity for suffering is too great, and the need for an Advocate to be in this world with us, arguing with the forces of evil, persuading the darkness to recede, and condemning the rulers of this world is paramount. How, then, do we see this happening? We need the Holy Spirit to be the answer to the looming, perpetual question of, "HOW?!" "How could you let this happen?" "How can I go forward?" "How do I tell them?" "How do I know if this is right?" 
            As I wrote and edited last night, the wind was blowing mightily outside my home. The leaves were battered endlessly as the wind whistled through the narrow passageway between the houses in Arch Beach Heights. It made us all sit still and pay attention, as the normally placid weather has become shrill and attention-seeking.
            When we speak of the Spirit, we often do so with the idea that it is sent to comfort us. This is how the word in John’s Gospel, Paraclete, is often translated: comforter, or helper. But the Spirit of God is not just a serene blanket, wrapping us in a soft, downy nest. She is also a mighty force, pushing us urgently through the darkest of nights and asking us to be more brave and courageous than we thought we could be. There are times in which the vision of Jesus as Shepherd, tender of his flock, isn’t comforting. It’s too benign. Too pastoral.
            There are times when we need the relentless and unforgiving Wind to blow across the face of the deep, so that something moves in us. We cannot be still. We cannot be herded. We can only be pushed to be, do, or become more than we ever thought possible.
            This is the gift of the Spirit, my friends. Jesus says to his disciples, “I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you.” It is almost impossible to understand how the absence of such a beloved person could be to the Disciples’ advantage. But, Jesus reminds them that if he doesn’t go away, the Advocate won’t come. It is the most painful thing in life to consider that absence may make space for something new to grow.
            The Holy Spirit is the abiding “I AM,” The substance of heaven that fills all of earth. If God has promised since the dawn of human history to be present in our life and story, then the Holy Spirit is the means in which God does this. I AM that I AM, God declares. This ontological statement of being is more than just a philosophical argument. It is the Divine Promise to be present, always, that we may never be alone.
            Jesus goes on to confess something remarkable to his Disciples: “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.” But, maybe if we listen carefully, we can hear what Jesus conveys. This text is so challenging, because the Spirit is too obtuse to pin down precisely. And, my experience of the Holy Spirit’s presence in my life may look very different from yours.
            So, let’s pay attention to what is here. If you do a quick survey of any Bible passage, you’ll find that the verbs dominate. “It’s what we do and don’t do that preoccupies human beings. And it’s the verbs we cannot imagine for ourselves (live, liberate, forgive, resurrect) that the church offers, and that we reach for, week after week.”[4] So, as a preacher, it is my job to preach the verbs. And, as hearers of any text, it is our job to enact them.
            The Spirit comes to speak what the Spirit hears and declare the things that are to come. Speak! Declare! Glorify! This is what the Spirit – as our Advocate - empowers us to do. And, we can do them because the things we have understood about sin and righteousness and judgment are wrong. And, it is not up to us to correct them. It is up to God – the Spirit of God – the mighty force that abides with us, which is powerful enough to move mountains and gentle enough to provide comfort to those in peril.
            So, let us be willing to let the Spirit work in our lives. Let us be open to perceiving the still, small ways in which the Spirit is present. And let us speak, declare and glorify the God who is courageous enough to abide in this world with us, now and always.
            In the name of the “God who is with us, for us, and refuses to be God without us.”[5]

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Sermon - This I Believe: I Believe in Jesus Christ

Rev. Mandy Sloan Flemming
Laguna Beach United Methodist Church
Sunday, April 19, 2015

This I Believe: I Believe in Jesus Christ

Luke 24:36b-48, NRSV

While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.”

They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost.

He said to them, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.”

And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?”

They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence.

Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”

            This is the third Sunday of our Eastertide season, and the second Sunday of our sermon series, “This I Believe.” In order to partner with our confirmation class and support the work that our youth are doing to seek and understand the theological foundation of what it means to be a Christian, we, as a congregation, are going to walk alongside them and lift up the most important parts of our faith as we know and practice it. Last week, Meg preached a beautiful sermon on what we believe about God, as Christians. This week, we turn our attention to Jesus Christ, to further explore what we believe about this person of the Trinity.
            If I’m being perfectly honest, our religion is pretty weird. We are the only religion that understands God in this particular way: as one God, expressed in three forms: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And, when we talk about Jesus, we speak of him as having two natures – being fully human and fully divine.

Guys. This is nuts.

 I realize full well that this requires an awful lot of trust in God’s ability to make these things evident to us. And, for many of us, our faith doesn’t hinge on a perfect understanding of the natures of God, or Christ. Rather, our faith is formed throughout a lifetime of openness to God and the beautiful ways in which God reveals that that God is, in fact, present in our lives. For most of us, the theological understanding of who Christ is has very little to do with our personal faith. Except, that we proclaim some bizarre things as Christians that bear some attention.
What on earth does it mean for us that we believe in a God who would become Incarnate (one-with-us), live, suffer and die, only to be resurrected on the third day?
What does it mean that God became one-with-us in the form a man – fully human and fully divine?
What are the implications for our faith when we look to the cross and see God Incarnate (one-with-us) breathe his last?
What are the possibilities for us when we see this same God, fully human and fully divine, alive and well?
            Here, two weeks after Easter Sunday, we are experiencing the same questions of Christ’s conquering of death that the Disciples are. At this point in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus has appeared twice to them, once on the Road to Emmaus and now in the midst of their conversation about him. After it has been discovered that Christ’s tomb is empty, there is a lot of debate and question amongst his followers as to what has happened. Some, like Mary Magdalene and Peter, see … and believe. But many who hear of the story cannot comprehend the complexity of it. So, it seems understandable that Jesus would appear to them and introduce himself with the words, “Peace be with you.” 
            But, these words bring the opposite of comfort to his friends. Filled with fear, they look to him, terrified and afraid, certain they were seeing a ghost. For all of the things the disciples have witnessed in Jesus’ presence, including the raising of Lazarus from the dead, they have never seen a ghost. I find it such a strange and wonderful story that the illogical assumption they make is more reasonable in their minds than the truth.
            But, you know that the old saying is true. When you have lost something, you always find it in the last place you look. The Disciples weren’t looking for Jesus anywhere but the tomb. They were looking for a body to anoint, not a mouth to feed. So, when Jesus appears to them in the flesh, I can sympathize with their inability to believe that their friend has actually reappeared to them. “If the resurrection really is true, well then, there goes life as we knew it. In the words of Anna Carter Florence, “if dead people don’t even stay dead, what is there to count on?”[1]
            This is because the Resurrection is the great “yes” in the face of an all-encompassing “no.” It is the hope that not even death is final. It is the curiosity that the certainty of the end may not be certain at all. “This is what Karl Barth described as the ‘impossible possibility,’ a reality that transcends the everyday real, a Truth deeper than all else we have been told is true.”[2] So, like the disciples, we are asked to make a choice about what we believe about Jesus. For many, it requires a very clear experience – a mountain top moment – a life, changing, crystallizing, burning bush sign from God that what we have been told is true. That there IS a God, and that God is with us.
            But, the beauty of our text today is that the disciples actually do get such a sign. They stare in amazement at the many before them, who is clearly the exact likeness of their recently deceased friend, and with joy and amazement, and they cling to their doubt. How could this be? How could this man, who they understood to be the Son of God, be standing before them? Each week, I’ve been asking for feedback on Facebook about what people believe about our topic. My friend, Colleen, wrote me and offered something beautiful. She said, “I used to think that I was a poor Christian because I doubted the divinity of Christ. I think at this point I have come to think that there are some things that we just won't KNOW for sure and maybe it might be enough for me if I can relate to the person that Jesus might have been.”
            There is much of our faith that is chalked up to mystery. Sometimes, I’m grateful for this language as the only sufficient answer I can offer for difficult questions. But, mostly, I find it completely insufficient as a reason for faith. If God remains mysterious, then how are we to grow and deepen our faith? Just exactly how did Jesus become the only son of God, born of the Virgin Mary? “It’s a mystery!” is woefully incompetent as a response. A Jesuit scholar writes that, “Mystery can more accurately be described as the reality we cannot understand with our human faculties. Doubt is not the problem. Doubt is often a very good starting place for inquiry.”[3]
            If there is one thing the Disciples in our passage have in spades, it’s doubt. The difficult thing for us is to understand what to make of our doubt. We have been conditioned to believe that doubt is bad for our lives of faith. It’s an indication that we aren’t trusting God enough. I disagree. I think we open ourselves up to deepening our faith when we realize that, “The opposite of faith isn’t doubt, the opposite of faith is certainty.” I love this because it opens us up to the ability to question God and God’s presence in our lives. It allows us to engage Jesus, crucified and risen, with a skeptical raised eyebrow, to see what answers will come. And, certainty is the thing that closes us off to learning more about the nature of God. Once we decide something is true, it’s very hard to be convinced otherwise.
“doubt is not the opposite of faith. Doubt, in fact, is probably a necessary ingredient to faith. Faith is not knowledge. Faith is more tension-filled. It is acting as if something is true even when you have no proof that it is.”
[4] The tension in our passage is that the people who knew Jesus best cannot recognize him in his resurrection.
             But, the secret of this passage is unlocked for me when it tells us that, “While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?”
            It is in the midst of their very seeing that the Disciples’ disbelief holds fast. The beauty of this moment is that Jesus doesn’t take the time to rebuke or lecture them. He doesn’t roll his eyes or quote Isaiah. Rather, he does the one thing that could confirm their hope: the risen Christ asks if there is something to eat. This is the beauty of our incarnate God: that he sees the only way to persuade us that he is alive in this world, truly alive, is to hunger with us, to eat with us. He engages their concern that he might be a ghost, and he addresses it directly by doing the simplest and most basic of human things.
            It directs us to two things: The bizarre and blessed gift that is the Incarnation of God in Christ, as well as God’s choice to be revealed to us as such. Incarnation. Revelation. God-with-us. God abiding with us, and allowing us to see it and notice. There is no other religion that understands God in such a way, so very real and visceral and present in the world. We have a unique understanding of God. The God of all gods is not lofty and distant, but fragile and available. This is not a God who abides in the highest heaven. This is a God who eats broiled fish with the commoners.  
            And, we are the witnesses of these things. This is how the Good News is told. Jesus, upon revealing himself to the disciples, reminds them that he has fulfilled what the scriptures foretold. He reminds them, “You are witnesses of these things!” 
          Go, and tell. 
          Speak confidently about what you know to be true. 
          Open yourselves to the questions that remain. 
          Witness to the fact that Jesus is somehow real to you. 
          Try to put words to it, images around it, the smallest kernel of faith in it. 
It is in the courageous naming of these things that we find ourselves as witnesses to a God who refuses to be God without us. A God who insists on living in the world with us. A God who won't even allow death to separate us. 

In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Sermon: The Promise of Resurrection

Rev. Mandy Sloan Flemming
Laguna Beach United Methodist Church
Easter Sunday
April 5, 2015

The Promise of Resurrection: “For whom are you looking?”

John 20:1-18, NRSV

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb.

So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.”

Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned to their homes.

But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus.

Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” 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.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

            Sisters and Brothers: It is Easter Sunday! It is the great day of celebration for Christians as we rise, early in the morning on the first day of the week, and gather in the cold to make a radical and ridiculous claim: Christ is Risen! Christ is Risen, indeed!
            There is nothing new under the sun to add to this simple, mysterious message. It is the core of who we are as worshipping Christians, as people who believe in a God so powerful that even Death could be defeated. And yet, we gather every Spring, in the midst of the world’s own proclamation of new life to shout our hope and faith.
            Why is it that we gather, at the strangest times, to share in the story that’s been told for us for thousands of years? Why do we believe it’s important to tell this story, preach this story, hear this story?
            It’s because this is a story unlike any other. Yes, we tell it and hear it as if it is a favorite family anecdote. But this is not just a story. The gift of the Resurrection is that it is our opportunity to encounter, not just the story, but the Word. 
            The author of John’s Gospel tells our story this morning with great care. If you remember, we approach each Christmas with an ear to the opening lines of John’s Gospel: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” John’s Gospel, the Good News of how deeply God loves us, is centered around the idea of God’s intention to be in the world with us. At Christmas, when we gather in the lateness of the day to celebrate the birth of Jesus, we repeat the words, “Emmanuel! God with us!” This is the promise of the Incarnation – that God so loved the world that God became one, with us, in this very world, in this very body. At Christmas, we look to the fragile, precious infant in the manger and whisper, “Emmanuel! God is with us,” and we absorb the beauty and mystery of birth. We inhale the sweet scent of the season, as pure as the head of a tiny baby, and give thanks for God’s willingness to be in the world with us.
            But, on this morning, we look back on the story we’ve been hearing since that Silent Night. We have heard of a child, chased into Egypt for refuge, a boy who teaches the rabbis in the temple, the man who is baptized by his prophetic and strange cousin. We have listened to the stories of Jesus calling his Disciples, traveling through the passages between Jerusalem and Nazareth, healing, restoring, exorcising. We have watched as his authority grew, as the crowds gathered, as loaves and fishes fed thousands. We have listened as the Pharisees have questioned him, we have paused while he rebuked them, we have applauded when he overturned their tables. We have followed this story until this point, when the child that was born in a humble manger finally succumbs to the gruesome death that has chased him from the very beginning.
            As we gather on this morning, there is nothing new to add to the story. We know how it ends. We know how it began. But, we gather to hear how to live this story. How do we even begin to live out the hope that we are supposed to have when we hear that the tomb is empty, and that the Gardener isn’t the gardener after all.
            If you’re anything like me, you bring with you to this service more than just a hope for the Easter promise of resurrection. You bring a healthy skepticism as to how this could be possible. You bring your doubt, your worry, your uncertainty. You bring your best intentions and your sights set to the future. You want to hear, in the re-telling of this ancient story, how to live, because death is certain. You want to know how to cast aside your grief, your pain, your disappointment, your guilt and live as though the promise of the resurrection is real.
            And, what the author of John’s Gospel gives us is nothing more than a simple story. There’s no theological insight in this telling. There’s no grand mystery of the universe revealed. There is only the empty tomb and a very confused Mary Magdalene. There is only Simon Peter, the rock upon which the church is built, entering the tomb to discover both an unkempt pile of linen wrappings and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, neatly rolled into a place by itself. They saw. And believed. No fanfare. No fireworks. No reunion. Just a peace that passes understanding and the urge to return to their homes.
            It is Mary Magdalene who waits by the tomb, weeping. Her grief of Friday returns, manifest in the loss of her beloved once more, this time with no way to tend to his body, no way to enact the rituals of grieving.
            But it is Mary who looks in the tomb, and sees – not the linen wrappings – but two angels. Messengers. Harbingers. One at the head, near the neatly wrapped cloth. The other at the foot of where Jesus had laid. They ask her the most absurd question, “Woman, why are you weeping?” As if there could be a reason other than the one that brought them to the inside of this tomb. 
            She answers them in earnest, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.”
            This is the sum total of our grief, isn’t it? I have lost something, and I don’t know where to find it. Something precious to me is gone, and I fear I will never see it again. Whatever you bring to this service today – your worry, your sorrow, your disappointment, your hope – Mary speaks to the very thing that makes our hearts squeeze tightly in our chests. We have loved, and lost. And we fear we will never be happy again.
            But, something stirs behind her. A rustling, the softest of sounds, and she turns… her tears blurring her vision. Her grief clouding her thoughts. Mary cannot see because the darkness has become too pervasive. But, do you remember how John’s Gospel begins? “What came into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” (John 1:4-5) A voice repeats the question of the angels, asking more intently, “Woman, why are you weeping?”
            Her silence is her only response.
            So, the voice presses on, “For whom are you looking?” 
            If Mary’s answer to the angels is the sum total of our grief, then this question is one that resonates throughout all of time. “For whom are you looking?” You. Today. Now. Are you looking for one who was lost to you? Are you looking for something that was never yours?  Are you looking for something that used to be? Are you looking to hold on to what you have so tightly that nothing may ever change?
            “For whom are you looking,” he asks Mary. He asks this because there is nothing to be found. Her hope has been dashed, and there is only the stark emptiness of the tomb that mocks her grief. Now, she can no longer anoint the body or attend to the ritual. Even that privilege has been stripped of her. The emptiness of the tomb is the last thing her broken heart can bear.
            The voice asks this question, not for the first time. The voice has asked this question only three days prior – to the soldiers that Judas had led to the garden where he was praying with his disciples. They replied that they are seeking Jesus of Nazareth, and his answer to them was, simply, “I AM.” Jesus offers the soldiers, the disciples, the hearers of this reply the great Divine Revelation: I AM. Alpha and Omega. The First and the Last. The Beginning and End. And now, the man whom Mary supposes to be the gardener asks the question of the ages. But it is not in the asking that she recognizes him. It is in the quiet uttering of her name: Mary. 
            She responds, "Rabbouni," which means teacher. This is the quiet drama of resurrection. It is in the sharp intake of breath at the recognition of his face. It is in the flooding away of grief and the heart-swelling joy of restoration. These things are internal. They cannot be described. The author of John's Gospel isn't privy to the emotions that accompany Mary's moment of awareness. Her grief is gone. Her sorrow is healed. Her heart is mended. Her joy is complete. Everything she has ever hoped for has been given to her. 
            The true mystery of Easter is in the resurrection, the real, physical act of life conquering death. What this tells us is that God has the power, not only of life over death, but also to sanctify the emptiness. “The symbol of Easter is the empty tomb, and you can't depict or domesticate emptiness.”[1] You can only look to it and see, not what is absent, but what shall be restored. 
            To be empty implies that we are left with nothing, that there is no hope, no joy, no life. But, in being restored to life, Christ redeems not just life, but the absence of it! Christ lives, that we might live, because now… even emptiness has meaning. Even emptiness is redeemed. Even emptiness is holy and sacred. If Christ can redeem emptiness, then think what the hope of the resurrection means for us - today, now. 
            This story, told time and again, tells us all we need to know about God. This story is not just about God’s marvelous acts in Jesus Christ. This story is not just about our God’s willingness to become Incarnate – one with us – alive and real, fully human and fully divine. This story is about how we can approach that God with nothing and still be filled. God works to redeem the emptiness. God works to restore the lost. God loves to heal the brokenhearted. God lives, that we might live also.
            Where is thy victory, boasting grave?
            The tomb is empty, and yet it has been filled with hope and promise and new life.
Christ is risen!                           Χριστός ἀνέστη!
He is risen indeed!                    Ἀληθῶς ἀνέστη!