Happy Easter! I hope the Easter Bunny found you early this morning and left you plenty of jelly beans and Cadbury chocolates. And I hope that whatever your Easter tradition usually is, that this is a day of joy and sweetness, rest and renewal for you.
I mentioned last week in the call to worship that we Quakers, when we follow in the tradition of early Friends, don’t tend to put a whole lot of emphasis on special days in the church calendar. This is because Early Friends didn’t lift one day above another because all days and times and seasons were considered sacred.
We Friends practice a faith that is alive with immediacy, possibility, and potential. God’s presence is available to us every moment we can quiet our hearts and open our minds. This means no one day is more special or holy than any other. Every day, every moment offers potential communion with God.
When I was in seminary, I was reading about the times George Fox was imprisoned when I happened across a paragraph that talked about a book of bible commentary George Fox was writing. He was encouraging his readers to “try on” each Bible character as they read through the stories. I remember thinking, “Oh, I would love to read that!” And then I read that the manuscript had been confiscated and destroyed when Fox was thrown in jail, and unfortunately, he never tried to rewrite it. In the 15 years since I read that, I’ve tried to find out more about that manuscript—what it was called, when it was written–I even wrote to my Quaker history professor—but no one seems to know anything about it. I wish I could remember where I read that!
George Fox’s approach—in his life and in his teaching—was to try on, in himself, everything he was learning about the working of the Light. He put himself in every story, exploring what new Truths the light would reveal in him, following in trust wherever he was led. To Fox—and to us—Christ is not some far-off figure that is to be emulated and admired, a remote savior on a cross that ultimately overcame death. Christ is a friend, a teacher, a companion on the way, a living presence, every day of our lives.
Not long after Fox’s initial experience of the person of Christ—when he heard, “there is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition”—he wrote in his journal about a struggle with despair:
“When I was in the deep, I could not believe that I should ever overcome; my troubles, my sorrows, and my temptations were so great, that I often thought I should have despaired, I was so tempted. But when Christ opened to me how He was tempted by the same devil and had overcome him, and had bruised his head; and that through Him and His power, light, grace, and Spirit, I should overcome also, I had confidence in Him. Christ, who had enlightened me, gave me His light to believe in, and gave me hope, which is Himself revealed in me, and gave me His Spirit and grace, which I found sufficient in the deeps and in weakness. Thus in the deepest miseries, in the greatest sorrows and temptations that beset me, the Lord in His mercy did keep me.”
That is quite a story, a personal testimony of the sustaining goodness of God’s continual grace. What Fox describes here is the model of our tradition, a lived out, tried on, experiential faith, where Christ teaches us himself and we seek, find, and do our best to live the Truth and Light in our community with one another. This lived approach to faith brings everything very close and makes everything—even bible stories that happened thousands of years ago–very real.
So in keeping with the intimacy and immediacy of our Quaker approach, I thought we’d try on the Easter story ourselves this morning and see where it takes us. There are several important characters here—Mary Magdalene, Peter, John, two angels, and Jesus—we can look out through any of those eyes and imagine ourselves in any of the interactions between them. There is also heartache and despair, mystery and confusion, divinity, humanity, love and joy and hope. All things that we, too, feel, in our long course of living.
So very early in the morning, while it is still dark, Mary Magdalene goes to the tomb and finds the stone rolled away. She was surprised. This is not what she expected to find.
How often in our lives are we surprised by something? Maybe fairly often. We might not like surprises much—typically it’s human nature to want things to turn out the way we expect them to. That keeps us from feeling too anxious. But when we are surprised, what happens inside us? We may feel confused as we struggle to make sense of what’s going on. That must have been true for Mary too. She probably felt a whole range of emotions in that moment—confusion, fear, anger, maybe even hope? Is it possible Jesus wasn’t really dead?
So she hurries to get Peter and John (the disciple Jesus loved) and tells them what happened. She enlists their help, hoping they will be able to do something.
That’s a normal human tendency. We turn to friends and loved ones when we’re confused and don’t know what to do. Others may have good ideas we haven’t thought of or at least offer a calming presence and some reassurance. We know, when we have friends to turn to, that we’re not facing heartache alone.
Peter and John listen to what Mary tells them and then they run to the tomb, with John running faster than Peter and reaching the tomb first.
That’s a funny detail to include, isn’t it? Why would John feel he needed to beat Peter there? Have you had an experience in your life when you just had to get there first, before anyone else? What were you feeling? Maybe concern. Or perhaps you were afraid you might miss something. (I’m thinking here of those Blue Light specials they used to have at K-Mart). The story doesn’t say exactly what was motivating John, but human nature does has a competitive streak. He wouldn’t have been immune to that.
When John got to the tomb, he saw the linen wrappings lying there—with the one that had shrouded Jesus’ face folded and placed in a different spot. He looked into the tomb, but didn’t go in alone. When Peter arrived, they went in together.
It’s interesting that after running all that way to get there first, John hesitated. I wonder why. Maybe he was a bit afraid or didn’t want to step into a holy space. Maybe the superstitions of the day got to him. What might we have done? We’re taught from the time we’re little that there’s strength in numbers. We might also be afraid to trespass in a holy, hallowed place, not quite knowing what we’d find.
The scripture said Peter and John saw and believed, although they didn’t yet understand that something miraculous had happened. Jesus’ words about rising from the dead were still a mystery to them. But they came and saw with their own eyes. And even though they had no explanation for what had happened—and no words of comfort or wisdom to offer Mary Magdalene—they went back to their own homes.
But this situation wasn’t over for Mary. She was despondent and grieving, standing there alone in the early morning light, weeping outside the tomb. Her heart was broken. She was in despair.
Chances are, we are no strangers to despair ourselves. By this time in our lives, most of us have experience deep sorrow. We may have wondered whether joy would ever come back. We mourned the loss of light and goodness.
Mary was grieving not only for her great friend and teacher, but she was also grieving a very personal loss. Jesus was perhaps the only one who had ever seen good in her, who saw her as a child of God, who called for grace and mercy when others were judging and rejecting her.
How important it is in this world to have people who see the goodness in us, who believe we will do the right thing and try our best, no matter what we may be facing. How much we need grace, and we need to see it reflected in the eyes of those who continue to look for “that of God” in us!
Crying, Mary bent down and looked into the tomb. And instead of simply the linens, as Peter and John had seen, Mary saw two angels where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the foot. One of the angels spoke to her, asking, “Why are you weeping?”
She told him, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.”
This is the same thing she said to Peter and John, and they had run to the tomb intending to help. But human intervention wasn’t what Mary really needed here.
I wonder how often we turn to other people for answers that we can really only get from God. People sometimes say they pray as a last resort, when nothing else seems to be working. But how might our circumstances change if we could remember to take our struggles to God first?
Scripture doesn’t tell us whether the angels answered Mary’s cry, but when she turned around, she saw a figure standing there, looking at her. She didn’t know that is was Jesus. “Woman, why are you weeping?” he asks her. It is the same question the angels asked. He adds, “Whom are you looking for?”
So many things can get in the way of God’s voice in our lives. When we’re busy worrying about our circumstance, we’re not listening. When we’re racking our brain trying to find answers, we’re not trusting God to work it out. When we pray with a certain outcome in mind, we might not be open to the answer that’s already present. How might God be speaking to us, right in the middle of a difficult, painful situation?
She tells Jesus—thinking he’s the gardener–the same thing she told the angels, but she adds a pleading request: “Tell me where you have laid him and I will take him away.”
And then, one familiar word—the sound of her very own name, said in a loving, gentle voice she knew—brings the Light of understanding, the Light of recognition—rushing right into the center of Mary’s heart. She knows the Light has come to teach her, love her, heal her, himself. The Light of God lives on.
Jesus story is about redemption, about bringing the Light of God’s love, the transforming and freeing power of God’s grace into the world, moment by moment. He shows us how to live in peace with one another and create a better world, the kingdom of God possible in the here-and-now. He teaches us that there is so much more here for us—more help, more options, more grace–than we realize. He is our constant, reliable, loving companion, offering wisdom, truth, and peace in any and every moment. Because of Jesus, we know that God’s very life pulses through us and that we are God’s beloved children. Death is not, has never been, will never be, the end. That is Jesus’ remarkable, redeeming, and ongoing story, and that is our story too, as we seek to live faithful lives, one step, one choice, one moment at a time.
So what stone will God’s grace move out of the way in your life today?
Where will hope be reborn, love rekindled, imagination stirred in you?
What new life is the Light of Christ awakening in your soul even now? It’s worth listening and watching for, as we eat our jelly beans and gather around an Easter table.
Our God is a God of possibilities. Immediate possibilities and ongoing possibilities. Each day God gives us a fresh opportunity, along with an inward teacher who helps us live with more love, share more light, offer more grace, and create more joy wherever we find ourselves. Let’s trust God enough to put ourselves right in the middle of that story and see where God takes us next.
- Isaiah 52: 7
- John 20: 1-18
- The Journal of George Fox: https://www.hallvworthington.com/wjournal/gfjournal1.html