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. – John 20:1-18
This past winter, I’m sure I wasn’t the only person here who occasionally looked at all the snow piled up on their roof and wondered just how strong the roof framing was. Sitting alone in the house in the evening and hearing an occasional pop or a creaking rafter, and wondering if this was it, that in the next moment the roof was going to collapse under the pressure, and they’d end up finding your body underneath it all during the Spring thaw, your frozen fingers still clutching that last slice of Wegman’s pizza.
I have to admit that over this winter, I’d started to feel something like my roof. My own mental rafters, my emotional rafters, were starting to creak under the stress of a winter that seemed like it would never end, just a great big cosmic piece of hate mail; but it was more than the weather, too. It was also the whole idea of picking up and moving away from 30 years’ worth of familiarity and support systems and connectedness – family, friends, church, everything. Don’t misunderstand, I love the excitement and challenge of new things, new experiences, and making new friends, and new connections. But even at that, some of these winter days were pretty lonely. Sometimes, I felt like I was going it all alone. It made for some pretty creaky rafters.
I guess I hadn’t quite realized just how much that had affected me until this past week. Some of you know that about a week ago, my pastoral mentor and friend, Phil Hazelton, passed away suddenly and unexpectedly; and that I quickly rearranged my Holy Week schedule to run back to Columbus for his memorial service. It was a gut-wrenchingly sad time for me. I spent most of the service trying hard not to cry, and sometimes even succeeding.
But then something incredible happened. At the full-to-capacity reception that followed the service, as we were coming together to mourn and honor this very inspiring man, I was caught off guard by the overwhelming number of people who made a point to gather around and greet me – old friends I’d known for decades, as well as people whose faces I barely recognized, all offering hugs and handshakes, and smiles, and love, saying how good it was to see me again, and wishing me well. I have to admit, I was kind of embarrassed at first; I mean, we were there to honor Phil, not me. But gradually, bit by bit, with every smile, every hug, every hand on the shoulder, the snow started melting off my rafters, and I realized I’d been mistaken. I recognized something that I guess I knew in my head but I’d forgotten in my heart, and these kinds of things you have to know in your heart. No matter how I’d felt in those moments over the winter, I’d never been alone at all. God’s love, the face of Christ, seen in the faces of all these wonderful old friends, and also all my wonderful new ones, had really been there all along. I was, and am, so blessed because of God’s presence. Over the years, God had used my friend Phil to teach me, or at least to remind me, of so many important things. And now, God had used Phil indirectly to do that again, one last time.
So what does all that have to do with Easter? Well, all through Lent I’ve been thinking about just what Jesus’ death and resurrection really means. I’m not talking about the official party line or the right answer according to the Heidelberg Catechism. And I’m not talking about any doctrines of substitutionary atonement or any other mind-numbing theological arguments, I mean: what does it really mean, to me? And after thinking about it a lot, I think it comes down to something very simple, something very basic, something very much like my experience this past week, and that’s this:
There will certainly be times when things will be difficult – very difficult. You’ll go through times of upheaval and uncertainty that will sometimes seem unbearable. Maybe it will come from not knowing what to do about a decision about work, or school. Maybe it will come when you get a frightening diagnosis from the doctor. Or maybe it will come in the wake of a broken or lost relationship, or the death of a loved one. It could be any of these things, or any of a hundred others. There will be times when you’ll go through hell. And whenever that happens, whatever it is that causes the weight, that causes your own emotional rafters to creak under the pressure, it can make you feel very afraid, and very alone.
But the resurrection means that whatever it is that you’re going through, you are never alone. God raised Jesus from the dead, and however you personally understand that to have occurred, it was real enough and powerful enough for hundreds of his closest friends and first followers to experience it, and for all of them, all devout monotheistic Jews who prayed every single day “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One”, to suddenly start worshiping Jesus as divine. Jesus went through hell, and was given new life, a life that he shares with us – invisibly, directly into our hearts, but also visibly, concretely, through the love and fellowship and support of all those around us who make up the whole community of faith – old friends, new friends, each one of them being the face of Christ to us in times of trouble and uncertainty and loneliness and fear.
In the very last sermon he ever preached, Phil Hazelton said that whatever it is that you’re going through, have no fear. Don’t be afraid. Trust in Christ; he’s got your back. Trust in Christ, keep moving forward; he’s got you covered. Whatever else Jesus’ resurrection means, whatever else the message of Easter is, it’s most definitely this: that through Christ, God is with you – you are not alone. In Christ, every end brings a new beginning, every death brings new living, every uncertainty brings new growing. And we can say that with all confidence and boldness and joy this morning, because on this day, Christ is risen – Thanks be to God!