Preached on Easter Sunday, April 8, 2012 (No audio)
“The first day of the week cometh Mary Magdalene early, when it was yet dark, unto the sepulcher… ” —John 20:1
Why do people visit graves?
For as long as I can remember while growing up in Northern California, every Thanksgiving my father drove me and my older brother to visit his father’s grave in the sleepy, coastal town of Pacific Grove. My grandfather died in 1962, before my brother or I were born; we never knew him. At the gravesite, which seemed to be perpetually blanketed in fog that drifted from the nearby Pacific Ocean, we followed a ritual: we cleared away the grass that had grown over his marker, and my father would tell stories about his father—mostly funny stories, but some sad ones, too. My father loved his father, but my grandfather had a drinking problem; as is always the case, his drinking bruised our family history for several generations. The last conversation my father had with his father was a bitter fight about his drinking, and about his failures as a father. Shortly thereafter, my grandfather died unexpectedly in his sleep. I suppose my father brought his sons to his father’s grave for two reasons: forgiveness and kinship. Wracked with abiding guilt about his last angry argument, he simultaneously sought forgiveness for his harsh words and sought to offer forgiveness to his father for being imperfect. Meanwhile, he sought to give his sons a sense of kinship with the grandfather we never knew. As a six or seven-year old boy, I am sure I did not understand these deep emotional motives: I was too young to appreciate the value of forgiveness and kinship. What excited me the most about these visits was that afterwards, while still in the graveyard, my father would let my brother and then me get behind the wheel of our blue Chevrolet and practice driving through the fog on the road that ribboned among the graves, each stone marking its own tale of forgiveness and kinship. Then we would go to my grandmother’s house for our Thanksgiving Feast.
What brought Mary Magdalene to Jesus’ tomb on Easter morning? The Gospels of Mark and Luke say that she came with spices and ointments to complete the Hebrew burial ritual. Jesus died and was buried just as the sun was setting on Friday, which was the beginning of the Sabbath. Jews were forbidden to do any work on the Sabbath, which meant that at sunset Jesus’ friends had to stop the work of preparing His body for the tomb. Mary Magdalene arose early on Sunday morning, while it was still dark, to finish her interrupted work. Interestingly, the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of John, from which today’s reading comes, omit any references to burial customs. They simply say that she came to see the sepulcher. If we put these various accounts together, I believe that Mary Magdalene went to the tomb of Jesus not only to finish His incomplete burial ritual, but also to resume her incomplete personal grief. Jesus meant the world to Mary Magdalene: He had completely changed her life because He had given her the two things she needed most: forgiveness and kinship. Mark and Luke describe how, earlier in His ministry, Jesus cleansed Mary of seven evil spirits, forgiving her of her sins. From that moment, Jesus’ followers embraced Mary Magdalene as a member of His spiritual family. In the company with Jesus’ other disciples, she travelled with Him, she watched Him heal others, and she heard Him preach about the Kingdom of God. Mary Magdalene showed her unique devotion to Jesus when, at the Cross, where all of Jesus’ apostles (except for John) abandoned Him, she stood beside Jesus’ mother and watched Him die. Her unique devotion meant that her loss was unique. When Mary Magdalene saw Jesus die on the Cross, Mary lost her life’s purpose. The One in Whom she put her trust, the One Whom she loved, the One Who gave her forgiveness and kinship, was broken and lost. Mary Magdalene came to Jesus’ tomb to grieve His death and, in a way, to grieve her own. She came to see His sepulcher that Easter morning because the forgiveness and kinship she found in Jesus lay buried with Him, gone apparently forever.
What brought us to this church this Easter morning? To be sure, part of what brings us here is a pattern of behavior—a custom or a ritual—that we were taught, perhaps as children. At a deep and perhaps unconscious level, we come to church on Easter because we have been raised to expect ourselves to be here. However, like Mary, who came to Jesus’ tomb not only to fulfill a cultural ritual, but also to respond to a deep personal need, we come to church on Easter because we carry within ourselves a deep personal need to be here in the house of God. Like Mary Magdalene, if we live long enough, we experience a loss of something we hold dear. Some of us have lost loved ones, and we need to reach out to God to mend the tear in our emotional fabric. Some of us have seen marriages weaken or fail, which we never imagined happening. Some of us have seen reversals in health, either in loved ones or in ourselves, and we come to find strength to carry on. For these reasons, and for others, some of us have felt our sense of our life’s purpose get lost, fade away, or even die. Like mourners who visit graves, we come to church on Easter morning because we hope to find forgiveness and kinship which make life meaningful, and in doing that to regain a vision of our life’s purpose. We are here to observe the custom that requires our presence at church on Easter, and we are here to address our deep needs that only God can resolve.
After twenty years in the ministry, I am starting to believe that our two greatest needs are for God’s forgiveness and for human kinship. These two things are linked, and they were the first things Jesus reestablished after His Resurrection from the dead. Later in the Gospel of John, after the section we read today, the Resurrected Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene. At first, she does not recognize Him; she thinks He is the gardener at the graveyard. Then Jesus speaks her name, and she perceives that her beloved Jesus, Whom she saw dead and buried, is risen from the grave. She reaches out to cling to Him, but Jesus stops her and gives her an important mission. He tells her to go to His disciples, whom for the first time He calls His brothers, and to tell them that she has seen Him. In doing this, Jesus redirects her to His community of faithful followers. He restores the lost and lonely Mary Magdalene to a spiritual family whose kinship will bring her far greater joy than she had known before. Then, that evening, Jesus appears to the disciples. He breathes on them, gives them the Holy Ghost, and shares with them His power to forgive sins. God’s gift of forgiveness, His forgiveness of us and our forgiveness of others, is inextricably linked to our spiritual kinship as brothers and sisters of Christ. St. Paul wrote to the Ephesians, “Be ye kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you (Ephesians 4:32).” The word “kindness” has at its heart the word “kin,” which means having the same family. St. Paul taught that when a person is baptized, he or she is adopted by God the Father into His heavenly family: at baptism, we become “kin” to God. This means, among other things, that everyone who is baptized has become kin to God, and that God makes everyone who is baptized kin to each other. In a spiritual and mysterious way, God has made every baptized person brothers and sisters to each other. He wants everyone whom He has made kin in His family to treat each other with the kindness He shows to us. Since God loves us and forgives us, we are to love and to forgive each other. We offer kindness and forgiveness to each other the way God constantly offers kindness and forgiveness to us.
Forgiveness means letting go of the desire to get payback. If someone harms me, and if I offer to forgive him for the harm he did, I let go of my desire to get back at him. There are three benefits to forgiveness. First, when I forgive someone I offer kindness to him by freeing him from the guilt he feels for harming me. Second, when I forgive someone, I let go of the resentment inside of me for having been wronged, which frees me to become a happier person. Finally, when I forgive someone, I show that our family relationship—our kinship—is more important to me than my desire for revenge, because that is what is most important to God, our Father.
In 1963, Ernest Gordon published a book entitled The Miracle on the River Kwai about his experiences as a Scottish Captain in World War II. This novel was made into a movie in 2001 starring Kiefer Sutherland called To End All Wars. Gordon and his men were captured in the Pacific by the Axis and were sent to a prison camp. For three and a half years, they labored to build a railroad through Burma, now called Myanmar. Over time, the horrible conditions they endured led the Scottish soldiers to degenerate into barbarians. One day, however, something happened. The work had fallen far behind schedule, and the captors were under intense pressure to finish the railroad. At an equipment checkpoint, they discovered that a shovel was missing. The officer in charge became enraged. He demanded that the missing shovel be produced, or else. When nobody in the squadron budged, the officer took out his pistol and threatened to kill them all on the spot. It was obvious that he meant what he said. Finally, one man stepped forward and claimed responsibility for the missing shovel. The officer put away his gun, picked up another shovel, and beat the man to death. When it was over, the survivors picked up their comrade’s broken body and carried it to the next equipment checkpoint. There they discovered that there had been a miscount at the first checkpoint: no shovels had ever been missing. The word spread like wildfire through the camp that an innocent man had been willing to die to save the others. The incident had a profound effect on the prison camp. The men began to treat each other like brothers, like kin. When, at the end of the war, the victorious Allies swept in, the survivors, who looked like human skeletons, lined up in front of their former captors who now feared for their lives. Instead of taking vengeance, instead of wanting payback for all they had suffered, they said, “No more hatred. No more killing. Now what we need is forgiveness.” After the war, Ernest Gordon entered the ministry and eventually became the Dean of the Chapel at Princeton University for 26 years. In 2000, he returned to the Kwai Valley and was reunited and reconciled with one of the former prison guards, who himself had entered the priesthood. Their kinship, rooted in forgiveness, was recorded and included at the end of the film. Two years later, Gordon died, at peace.
Forgiveness and kinship are our greatest needs. We need to be forgiven for the selfish things we do and we need to forgive others when they wrong us. We experience and express this forgiveness in the kinship that God established among us through the death, Resurrection, and baptismal bond of Jesus Christ. In Him, God came among us as an innocent man to save us, to forgive us, to make us kin with God and, through Him, to make us kin with each other. If our greatest need had been for information, God would have sent us an educator; if our greatest need had been for technology, God would have sent us a scientist; if our greatest need had been for money, God would have sent us an economist; if our greatest need had been for pleasure, God would have sent us an entertainer. But our greatest need was for forgiveness and kinship, so God sent us a Savior and a Reconciler: Jesus Christ, our Risen Lord.