Rev. Harmon Smith, Ph. D.

Rev. Harmon Smith, Ph. D.

Emeritus Professor of Ethics, Duke University

Harmon Smith is an Episcopal Priest, Emeritus Professor of Ethics, and an avid golfer.

John 20:1-18
Alleluia! Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed! Now say a prayer for me as I venture to speak in the name of God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
The Resurrection of our Lord Jesus is the central tenet of our faith. Without the truth of this extraordinary event the entire edifice of Christianity crumbles into dust. And that’s why we are taught it early and repeat it often. Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed! So we celebrate that wonder today as the most joyous, the happiest – and for those of us who call ourselves Chris-tian – the most important event in the history of the world. The forty days of Lent, with their dis-ciplines and fasts, are finished – the dark and somber liturgies of Holy Week – the reminders that we continue to deny Jesus and contribute to the unutterable pain of his passion and death – all this is in our rear-view mirror today. What’s before us is the unique miracle that gives us such great joy and distinguishes our faith from every other world religion. The eternal God became one of us – lived among us – taught and preached and performed miracles – and after fabricated charges was murdered by a bloodthirsty mob – miraculously overcame a horribly ugly death – and now lives forever in glorious majesty as the Holy Trinity – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Marriage and job promotions and having babies and grand-children are wonderful events that bring us great delight – but Easter celebration is neither time nor space bound as other cele-brations are. Easter is the whole-ball-of-wax – it’s the beginning-middle-and end – it embraces yesterday, today, and tomorrow. So it ought to be effortless today for us to greet each other with the peace of Christ and a huge smile because our liberation from sin and death is more than a promise for us. Our reality is that new life is available to us now – immediately – and all that’s required of us is to receive it – accept it. Alleluia! Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed!
In today’s account of Jesus’ resurrection, Mary of Magdala – sometimes called The Mag-dalene – is a central figure. She had traveled with Jesus as one of his followers. She was present at our Lord’s crucifixion. And within the four Gospels she is named at least 12 times – more than most of the apostles. During the Middle Ages she was given the reputation in Western Christian-ity of being a repentant prostitute – but that is a defaming label nowhere supported in the canoni-cal gospels. Today, after Jesus, she is the most prominent person in John’s resurrection narrative.
As some of you know, my mother’s maiden name was Mary Magdalene O’Donnell- but everyone called her Maggie. I’ve had a longtime suspicion that most of her friends – and maybe some in her family – didn’t know that she carried the name of the woman who is reported by the gospel writers to have been Jesus’ close friend who was with him throughout his passion and death. And in John’s account, she is also the first one to come to Jesus’ tomb – arriving there while it was still dark on the first day of the week. After seeing the cave’s stone removed and the empty tomb, she is the one who ran to tell Peter and the other disciples that somebody had re-moved Jesus’ body – but she did not know where. At this point, the disciples did not yet under-stand that Jesus must rise from the dead – so when they had seen the empty tomb they just went back home. But Mary, crying, remained at the tomb until she was confronted by an angel who told her not to be afraid – that Jesus was no longer in the tomb – that he was risen – and that she should go and tell his disciples that he would meet them in Galilee. Then, as she ran from the tomb to convey this news to the other disciples, John reports that Jesus himself suddenly appear-ed right in front of her and confirmed what the angel had told her. “Don’t be frightened, Mary,” he said, “I’ll see you in Galilee.”
I didn’t know the story of Mary Magdalene as a small boy – so I was confused and not a little disappointed when I discovered for the first time that my mother was named for a woman whom some reputed to be a prostitute. But later I was immensely pleased to learn that whoever else Mary Magdalene had been, she was also one of Jesus’ closest companions – and that she ap-pears in all four of the gospel accounts as the primary witness to the resurrection. And to be per-fectly candid, I have sometimes wondered – reflecting on that close association – whether, in the intimacy of their friendship, Jesus might have called her an Aramaic word for ‘Maggie’. Later I learned about gender bias, misogyny, and male chauvinism in the Bible – and then it struck me that the gospel writers had placed a woman at the center of all the early traditions and narratives of Jesus’ resurrection. That move means Mary Magdalene’s prominence in the gospel accounts is not accidental but very countercultural. Think about that!
Among all the evangelists Matthew is the only one who includes two sets of witnesses to the empty tomb – one human, Mary Magdalene – and the other heavenly, the guards who were at the tomb. And remember that Matthew’s gospel is deliberately addressed to a Jewish audience for whom Mary’s testimony would not be credible in a court of law – so it’s really quite astonish-ing that a woman is the primary witness in his account of our Lord’s resurrection. It’s also clear that it was important to him that when the stone had been rolled away and Jesus’ tomb opened, there was a real human being present to witness it – even if she was a woman! I think he empha-sizes that human witnesses were present in order to establish the bullet-proof claim that the tomb was really empty – that Jesus had risen from the dead – that no one had stolen the body. All the same, when our Lord’s closest associates arrive at the empty tomb, none of them get it. The dis-ciples don’t get it – and neither do the other women. They’ve been with Jesus day after day – up close and personal – but the crucifixion has shaken all of them to their core.
Now it’s the third day – before dawn and in the dark – and Mary Magdalene, apart from seeing that Jesus is not in the tomb, gets just about everything else wrong. She does not know where they have laid Jesus – she assumes that the grave has been robbed – and she thinks that Jesus is the gardener. So she begins the day in fear and confusion and tears. Then she finds new life standing right before her – speaking to her and giving her instruction. Whatever she expect-ed, this is not it. And when she calls him by his old name – Rabbuni/Teacher – and reaches out to touch him in the old way, he says “do not cling to me for I have not yet ascended to the Father”. And that’s when Jesus, surely knowing that the testimony of a woman would not carry the weight of a man’s, nevertheless instructs her to ‘go testify – tell this good news to the others’. The Greek says simply ‘go tell my brothers what I have said to you’ – but I transliterate that as ‘get started living your new life and vocation now’. Not long after this, Jesus will go to his disciples who are still hiding from their old enemies. Interestingly, he doesn’t tell them that his resurrection has completed his mission on earth. Instead, he tells them that his kingdom has only begun and that they need to start living the new life he has won for them now – today – this very instant! “Start living your new life now – just as God sent me, I now send you”.
The empty tomb changes everything. If there is no hero dead and buried in a tomb, there is no memorial place to go to keep the old life going. In both Jesus’ world and ours a monument memorializes something or someone. It serves to bring that thing or that person to our remem-brance, to honor them, and maybe even inspire us. But a monument is more than just a memory – it is also an enduring reminder that stands to convey to us what the person or thing it honors stood for. Think about Mt. Rushmore – or the memorials on courthouse squares. But if the grave is empty and the one who had been killed has come back living, there is no monument and those who want to honor that person have no place to go to perpetuate his/her old life. The empty tomb shows that the old life is dead. What Jesus offers is transformation – new life.
Luke and Matthew tell about how Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to Jesus’ tomb while it was still dark to anoint a dead body – but the tomb was open and the body was gone. Expecting death, they were surprised by life. John relates that Mary Magdalene wept uncontroll-ably at the mouth of the empty grave until she heard a voice speaking her name. Expecting death, she was surprised by life. Two disciples were traveling to Emmaus when a stranger joined them. They unburdened hearts full of sorrow and loss to him. And when they ate supper with him, they recognized the risen Jesus and then rushed back breathlessly to Jerusalem to tell the other disci-ples how, with eyes blinded by death, they had been surprised by life. That’s a beautiful story that shows how old expectations get transformed by a new awareness – a new consciousness.
But Easter is about new life for Jesus’ 21st c. disciples as well. If Easter is the promise that this happened in 1st c. Palestine – it can also happen in 21st c. Durham. If Mary Magdalene and the other Mary could be surprised by life at an empty tomb, it could also happen to you and me. If two disciples on the road to Emmaus could encounter their risen Lord and be surprised by life, it could happen here at St. Stephen’s. If disciples in Jerusalem could hear this good news and be surprised by life, it could happen here at St. Stephen’s. If a doubting Thomas could encounter the palpable presence of Jesus and be surprised by life and believe again, it could happen right here at St. Stephen’s.
Some of you have heard my favorite Easter-as-a-natural-miracle story, but I want to tell it again. About 200 miles northeast of Los Angeles near the Nevada border there is a trough about 130 miles long and from 6 to14 miles wide that lays claim to the lowest elevation in the Western Hemisphere – 282 feet below sea level. I’m told that during glacial times, when the climate was wetter, this trough was occupied by a large lake. But that water has long since dried up. Nowa-days rainfall averages about 2 inches a year there. The highest temperature ever recorded in the US – 134 degrees Fahrenheit – was recorded there on 10 July 1913 – but summertime temperatures of 125 degrees Fahrenheit are not uncommon. To make this desolate scene even more severe and barren, rivers flow into the valley and disappear into underground acquifers. Some years ago – in east-central California, in this place called Death Valley, something truly amazing happened. For almost 3 weeks, day and night, rain fell into this arid and sterile wasteland and suddenly all kinds of seeds which had been dormant for years burst into bloom. Wild grasses and flowering plants were everywhere to be seen – greenery replaced sandy gray – and in a valley of death, people were surprised by life.
Easter is the reminder that God has wonderful surprises in store for us. When we least ex-pect it, we can be liberated from despair. When we stand with the broken pieces of our dreams all about us, new life can emerge from what seems to us terminal sorrow and loss. Do you believe that? If you do, it could happen to you and it could happen here at St. Stephen’s.
Like Mary Magdalene, God’s appearance frequently startles us as we wander disconsolate through our own interior deserts. Like her and Jesus’ earliest disciples, doubt and fear cloud our sight, and we don’t recognize the Lord. But then God speaks our name – and fear disappears in the presence of God’s perfect love as we know that through Jesus. So on this Easter day I encour-age you to embrace Mary Magdalene – acknowledge with her the risen Jesus – our teacher, our partner, our lover, our friend, our savior – and on this Easter day share her surprise, her delight, her vision – and say with her, “I have seen the Lord”. Alleluia! The Lord is risen! The Lord is risen indeed! Amen.