One of the Spiritual Formation classes offered this year in this church was called “Yes, I attend church but I have a hard time believing….” Each week the class looked at a different aspect of some form of Christian practice or doctrine. People got to unpack why they had problems with that particular teaching. It was a popular class. It turns out that people love to talk about what they don’t believe. But I could have told you that a long time ago.
I have been having conversations with people about what they don’t believe ever since I became a pastor. All it takes is for someone to introduce me as a pastor at a party or in line at the grocery store or at a wedding and off goes the conversation on what this person I have never met before thinks is most crazy about Christianity. It usually starts something like this: “I grew up in a conservative Christian church but then I realized I couldn’t believe any of that silly stuff.” The monologue goes on while this person, I have never met before, gets to tell a preacher why he or she threw out the baby with the bathwater. It usually ends with the statement: “So, I’m spiritual, but I’m not religious.”
I completely understand why people have this conversation with me. It is because they have been bludgeoned by conservative Christians who have weaponized Christian doctrines and hurled these narrow understandings at them. I used to try to debate people back into seeing the beauty of the message and truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I used to try to convince them that I was a different kind of Christian than the ones who stole Jesus from them. But not only was that singularly unsuccessful, it isn’t what they needed from me. Now I listen and say, “I’m sorry the church failed you. I’m sorry that your faith journey was not honored.”
As you may know, twenty-three percent of Americans now say they have no-religious affiliation. We have started calling them the nones (n-o-n-e-s)…because when asked their religious affiliation on a survey they check the box that says none. For those of us who find the church to be central to our lives we look back with nostalgia to the good old days when our pews were full and youth groups were huge. But that was a different time and nostalgia does not serve us well. When we look back I think we need to take serious stock of how the church failed to share the life-giving, grace-filled, service-calling, joyous message of Christ. I bring all this up because I believe that the Easter story, according to the Gospel of John, points us towards something crucial we need to embrace on our journey forward as the church.
The Gospel of John tells a different Easter story than the other gospels both in style and presentation. In fact, John tells the story of Jesus through a whole different lens. When it comes to the Easter story, Matthew, Mark and Luke tell it completely through the eyes of women. In those three gospels there is an encounter with an angel or two who school the women on the resurrection. Then the women hurry off in either joy or terror and each of these gospel writers manage to tell this epic tale in just a few short verses.
But John takes his time telling this story, as all good storytellers do. It goes like this…Mary Magdalene heads off to the tomb that Sunday morning while it is still dark. She goes by herself. She isn’t carrying any spices. This isn’t Mary doing the work that good mourners do. This is Mary in deep grief, heading off to sit next to the last place she saw Jesus’ lifeless body. She is marking her pain. I do that every time I drive by the gym where my husband died. There is something masochistic and yet comforting in it.
But Mary is shocked when she arrives at the tomb because what she sees it not what she expected. The stone that sealed the entrance to the tomb has been rolled away. She doesn’t think, “Praise God, my savior is alive.” No. She knows that all the evil that conspired to kill him is till loose in the world and now they have taken his body from the family tomb of Joseph of Arimathea so that they can further humiliate him. “He is dead. Leave him alone,” she thinks. She is distraught and she runs to find the two disciples that she knows will care as much as she does. She finds Peter, the disciple who always seemed fearless….well, until he was a frightened denier…and John, Jesus’ beloved disciple. “Hey, you guys, come quickly. They’ve stolen Jesus’ body. I don’t know where they’ve taken him,” she wails.
Peter and John jump up and full out run to the tomb. John outruns Peter, because after all this is John’s gospel and in his story his disciple gets to arrive first. The beloved disciple bends down, looks in and sees that the tomb is definitely empty. The linen cloths that were wrapped around Jesus’ lifeless body have been left behind. By this time, Peter races up and pushes past the beloved disciple and goes right into the tomb. He not only sees the linen cloths but notices that the soudarion…the cloth that covered the face of a corpse…was rolled up and set in a different location than the linen cloths wrapped around the body. Peter is perplexed and while he is taking this all in, John who has finally caught his breath joins Peter inside the tomb. He sees what Peter sees and he needs no more. He sees and he believes.
Only John tells us that the linen wrappings and the soudarion were there in the tomb. John wants us to know that Jesus’ body wasn’t stolen. If someone had come in and stolen this body they wouldn’t unwrap the linen cloth from around the body. The wrapping would only come off if someone was alive and needed it off to see and to walk. John looks at that and knows and believes. Peter needs to process what he has seen. He needs time to think. Then both men just head home.
I want to scream at them, “Really? Mary is still there. Don’t leave Mary by herself.” But they do. They leave her crying and distraught outside the tomb and they just go home. It doesn’t say they told anyone. They just went back into their own individual cubby holes. I am fascinated by the fact that these three disciples of Jesus….these three who have been with Jesus for several years….these three who have been community to each other seem so distant from each other in this pivotal moment.
But there is truth in the fact that most faith journeys have an individualistic bent to them. We find it hard to talk about our faith and our doubts with others….and we are different from each other. Some of us are thinkers. Some of us are feelers. Some of us are working through the mire of bad theology thrust on us as children. Some of us feel shame that we don’t have the certainty others seem to have. Some of us are struggling with losses. Some of us feel like God has let us down. Some of us feel like we have let God down. Some of us approach these stories from an academic place and so find ourselves constantly asking, “What is really true in this story?” Some of us spend our time focused on the belief or unbelief of others because it is so much easier to focus on others than to do our own work. Some of us rest in blessed assurance. We are so very different from each other. We need each other desperately. Community matters on the journey of faith and yet this is a journey we make ourselves.
Mary is caught in the pain of her journey. She has one scenario in her mind. For her, what is happening here is horrible. She doesn’t need to go inside the tomb to know what has happened. Obviously someone has stolen Jesus’ body and she needs to find it. But after a time she stands up, walks over to the tomb, leans down and peers inside. She doesn’t see the linen wrappings or the soudarion. She sees two angels that weren’t there when Peter and John looked in. Even the sight of two angels is lost on Mary. She has blinders on. She knows what has happened her and nothing is going to change her mind. She schools the angels. She tells them that someone has stolen Jesus’ body.
Then she turns around and bumps right into Jesus. Even the sight of Jesus doesn’t deter her from her scenario. She thinks he is the gardener. “Sir! If you are the one who took him, tell me what you did with Jesus’ body!” she demands. She can’t see life…only death. Then Jesus simply speaks her name, “Mary.” She spins around and sees him for the first time. She needs to hear him. She needs to hear in order to believe.
The Gospel of John tells us this story through the perspective of three different disciples. One of them just needs to see the empty tomb and the folded cloth and he sees resurrection. One of them sees the same thing and we have no idea what he is thinking or believing at this point. One has to hear the shepherd’s voice to finally see resurrection. The Gospel according to John validates all these journeys, which is truly good news for all of us here. The journeys of faith in this sanctuary are wide and as individual as a fingerprint. We have each been John….and Peter….and Mary at different times in our lives. There is space for all of us in the journey of faith and faithfulness.
This is what I need you to hear today on this Easter Sunday: Even when the church fails you. Even when your journey is not valued or honored by those who try to make God narrow, God sees you. Christ is alive and rising anew into your life every day. He will meet you where you are. You will run into him where you least expect it….maybe even at the place of your deepest grief…maybe especially at the place of your deepest grief.
Take off your blinders. Look around. Allow yourself to be lured into new discoveries of the divine. Hold still long enough to hear your name spoken. Christ is alive and welcomes your journey of faith!