Finding Jesus’s Body


Sermon for Easter Sunday 2022


Mary Magdalene is looking for the body of Jesus. 

She assumes that it must be buried in the tomb. That is where she left it on Friday. Broken, bloody, and completely lifeless, she had helped his mother Mary, and his dearest friend John and a couple good men named Joseph and Nicodemus, she helped them wrap his body in linen cloths, and they had left him there on the cold stone. She saw it. Now she had come back to that spot. 

She had some fragrant spices and flowers that she wanted to leave there. Of course, the truth is, she also wasn’t ready to let go just yet. Love never lets us off the hook so easily. She still wanted to be with Jesus for a while, even though she knew he was dead. Even though the light that had filled his eyes had now gone out, still she wanted to be with him. Even if just for a few more minutes. 

So she went to where she assumed he must be. Everybody assumed that Jesus was in the tomb. Who could think otherwise? He was dead, wasn’t he?

But she didn’t find him. What she found instead was an open grave. She ran to tell Peter and John. Jesus isn’t in the tomb; someone has stolen his body. His body is missing. They run to the tomb and verify that his body isn’t there. Just the linen shrouds lying on the ground. Mary was telling the truth, but what did it mean? Where is Jesus’s body if it isn’t here? Peter and John go back home confused. Jesus isn’t where they thought he was. But Mary lingers. 

And after wiping some bewildered tears from her eyes, she looks into the tomb again, and this time she sees two men, or at first she thought they were men; Two figures sitting nearby in garments of white that just seemed to sparkle and shine. Didn’t make sense how their clothes could be so white. If these men had been moving the gravestone or touching Jesus’s body they would have gotten dirty or bloody. But these clothes were white. Really white. If they hadn’t moved Jesus, somebody else must have.

Why are you weeping? They ask. 

Who are you looking for? 

I am looking for my Lord, but he is not here. Someone must have taken him away. I don’t know where he is. I need to find him. Can you help me find him?

And then behind her comes a voice from just outside the door. She assumes it’s the gardener. Why are you weeping? The man says. Who are you looking for? 

I am looking for Jesus she says. Please tell me where I can find him. 

“Mary,” the man says. And her world turned upside down. Here he was, standing right in front of her. She found the body of her Lord, only it wasn’t in the tomb it was outside it; and Jesus wasn’t dead, he was alive. She had been looking for Jesus in the tomb. But that isn’t where he said he would be. Do you remember Mary? Do you remember where he said he would be? Do you remember where he said you would find his body? 

She was stunned at first. Terrified. But Jesus’s words started coming back to her like a flood. She started to remember the words that Jesus had said. Jesus had told her and all the disciples where his body would be found, but they were all looking in the wrong place.

They were looking in the wrong place. Mary and Peter and John can’t find Jesus because they are looking in the wrong place. At least they ARE looking, some of the disciples aren’t even doing that. But they were looking for Jesus where the world assumed he would be. They were looking where all the disciples assumed he was. They were looking for Jesus where Pilate put him. But they weren’t looking for Jesus where HE said he would be. 

He said he would rise again. He said he would rise again. He even said he would meet his disciples in Galilee. As a matter of fact, Jesus told his disciples a number of places where his body would be found, and could be found, and not one of them was the grave. And now Mary had found his body, but it wasn’t in the grave. It was outside it. Don’t hold on to me here, Jesus tells Mary. My work isn’t done here. You can’t keep my body in one place. Go and tell my disciples what you have seen. And she does. For forty days people see Jesus. They see his body, just like Mary did. They touch him. They eat with him. Mary and the other disciples, they find Jesus’s body alright, but it wasn’t in the tomb. It was in the places where he said it would be. 

So maybe, and this is just a suggestion, maybe if you are looking for Jesus, if you are looking for the power of God in your life, if you are looking for peace and forgiveness, and grace and eternal life and hope, if you are looking for Jesus, you might save yourself some time by starting your search in the places where Jesus promised that he would be. Seriously, where did Jesus promise that he would be? Where did he say that we would find his body? Where did Jesus promise us that we would meet him?

In Baptism. We actually become a part of Christ’s body when we are baptized.

In fellowship. Wherever two or three are gathered in my name there am I in the midst of them. Jesus is with us when we come together with other Christians in his name.

In service. Truly I tell you that whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sister of mine, you did for me. Jesus is present with us when we serve others. 

In Communion. Take Eat. This is my Body. We meet Jesus here in the blessed sacrament. 

Jesus’s body is in the bread. Jesus’s body is in the baptized. That’s where he told us his body would be. So look for his body here. Look to meet Jesus here. If you are struggling to find Jesus in your life, you might be looking for him in the wrong places. You might be looking for the living among the dead. You might be weeping and perplexed outside an empty tomb. But his body’s not in the grave. It doesn’t belong there. Not for long. And you see that is a part of our hope as Christians. Jesus said he was ascending to the Father, but he also said that he would come again so that we can be where he is. He said that he would lose nothing that belonged to him but would raise it up on the last day. We believe that Jesus is going to come some day to raise our bodies up just like his, because they are his body too. Our bodies are a part of Jesus’s body and Jesus isn’t going to let any part of his body rest in the tomb for very long. That’s not where it belongs. 

Yes, Jesus is God, and if he can climb down into the grave to find you, he can find you anywhere. He can find you weeping outside the tomb, just like he found Mary. The Lord and his angels can find you where you are. The Lord can show up out of the blue, and no locked door or tombstone is gonna keep him away. But if YOU are looking for him. If you are the one who is searching for God and trying to find the Lord in your life, if you are looking for peace and grace, and guidance and strength, and hope, if you are looking for Jesus then start looking for him where he promised he would be. Jesus never said he would be in the tomb, but he did say he would be in the church. 

A Sign of God’s Power


Sermon for Good Friday 2022


It would be easy to look at the cross, and to listen to the story that we tell today, and to think of it as just another example of man’s inhumanity to man. Humans, after all, have a long history of brutalizing other humans. In that sense, Jesus’s crucifixion wasn’t a unique event in history. Despite the fact that the cross is now universally recognized as a symbol of Jesus Christ and his followers, Jesus wasn’t the only person to be put to death by being nailed to a wooden beam on a post. He wasn’t even the only person to be tortured that way on Good Friday. There were others right beside him. People had been crucified before Jesus; People were crucified after him. It would be easy then to look at Jesus’s cross as a symbol of human cruelty. A reminder of how we often treat each other. A sign of our sinfulness.

Here is an innocent man that is put to death. And not just put to death; he is killed in this way, so that he will experience the maximum amount of pain and humiliation. A crucifixion isn’t just an execution of a criminal, you know. It isn’t just about maintaining peace and order. It is a warning. It is a demonstration of power. The Roman authorities can do what they want, when they want, and there is nothing you can do about it. That is what this is meant to say. That is power. Humans love to have power. Not just the Romans, all humans love to have power. There are two types of people in the world: those who have power and those who want power. You might think that sounds very cynical, but I’m not so sure. We aren’t half as enlightened and reasonable as we like to think we are. We all have untaught desires and emotions. And the thing we probably desire most is power. It might be our worst addiction. We want power more than sex, money, or food. Why waste your time chasing after those little pleasures, when you can have them all if you just pursue power? Think about how the devil tempted Jesus: all of those temptations in the desert were about power.  Oh and when we get it, if we get it, we want to make sure that other people know that we have it. What good is it to have power if nobody knows you have it? 

Do you not know, Pilate asks Jesus, do you not know that I have power to release you and power to crucify you?

This is about power. Humans do these things to each other to demonstrate and assert their power. It’s not always this extreme though. It’s not always about death and torture. Sometimes it can seem totally benign. We build huge skyscrapers, buy fancy cars, tell juicy bits of gossip, and we also invade other countries, wave around guns and shoot innocent people, flex our muscles, threaten, lie, shame, accuse. How much death, how much suffering, how much sin can we directly attribute to our thirst as human beings for power; to our addiction to having and demonstrating power?

So as I said, it would be easy to look at the cross and see it as a reminder of our propensity as humans to brutalize others all in the name of power. Part of me wonders if we really should need such a reminder: we have the news after all. And most of the world don’t even need the news to remind them of suffering, they just have this thing called life. Still, somehow we all keep forgetting that humans have a lust for power, so maybe we do need a reminder, but I’m not sure that that is all that is going on here on the cross.

I could stand up here all day and give you one example after another of man’s inhumanity to man, but that’s not exactly what is happening here. Or at least, its not all that is happening. That’s not the full story. Because the story that we retell today, the story of the cross, isn’t just about a Roman governor demonstrating his power over a Jewish preacher. That may be what it looks like on the surface, and maybe that is what some of the bystanders on that day thought was going on, but we know better. This story isn’t about a contest for power between two men. This is a story about humanity, all humans and God. We didn’t just try to put to death some itinerant Jewish preacher. We tried to kill God. The Lord of all creation was born and lived among us, and we put him on trial and sentenced him to death. Pilate didn’t know who was really standing before him, he thought he had power over him. 

Pilate thought he had power, because he couldn’t see God’s power.

Pilate had the power to put Jesus to death. Jesus had the power to overcome death. Pilate had the power to condemn; Jesus had the power to forgive. Pilate had the power to wound. Jesus had the power to heal. Pilate had the power of the greatest empire on earth; Jesus had the power of the kingdom of heaven. 

Pilate would like nothing more than for you to look at a cross and think of his power, and of what he did. It seems like even today, there is a tendency to want to tell this story in such a way that it is entirely focused on what we as humans do. We are so impressed and enamored with our own power, that even when it is sinful and brutal and cruel, that is what we want to focus on. We want to turn the spotlight back onto ourselves. But the cross isn’t just about what we do, or what we have done. That is not where this story ends. The cross is about what God does. The cross is about God’s power, and God’s faithfulness. It isn’t just a story about human sinfulness; it is about human sinfulness AND what God has done about it. It isn’t just about inhumanity and death; it is about God taking on humanity and conquering death. The cross is a sign of power, but it didn’t quite work out the way that Pilate planned. 

Pilate thought that the cross would be a symbol of his power. But it’s not. It’s a symbol of God’s. 

The Lord comes to meet us


Sermon for Palm Sunday 2022


The Liturgy of the Palms

The Liturgy of the Word

As Jesus rides his donkey down the Mount of Olives, riding out to meet his people, there is this moment recorded in Luke’s gospel where Jesus stops for a minute, he looks at the Holy City just across from him, and he cries. He weeps. It is a glorious moment. There is a crowd of people that is following him down the mountain and they are waving palm branches and even throwing their cloaks down on the road, and they are hailing him as a king. They call him Son of David. The successor to the great king. It is a triumphant moment, but before Jesus crosses over the valley and enters the Eastern gate of the Temple, he stops and he weeps. There is a little chapel on the side of the Mount of Olives today called the Dominus Flevit, the Lord Wept, and it is in the shape of a teardrop. It is meant to mark this moment.

And Jesus says to his beloved city in that moment: “If you had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But they are hidden from your eyes. You are going to be crushed by your enemies; your glorious stones will be cast to the ground, because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.” You did not recognize God’s presence in your midst. Not only were people unable to identify and appreciate the presence of God, but they could no longer recognize the ways of God. 

Now some people surely did. There were righteous and holy people in Jerusalem and Jesus even points some of them out, but as a society there was a problem. People had gotten so used to the Temple in all of its external glory and grandeur that they were beginning to lose sight of what it signified: God’s presence in their midst. What happens when we lose sight of God’s presence? What happens when God’s existence is no longer a reality to us? Well, in short order we stop recognizing the ways of God. Right and wrong. Moral and Immoral. If you think Christian cultures have a long history of doing bad things, take a good look at some of the horrors that atheistic cultures or pagan cultures have wrought on the world. We Christians, we may sin and do bad things, but our God calls us out on it. Our own tradition calls us to repentance. We still make mistakes, but at least we recognize that they are, in fact, mistakes. But what happens when we stop recognizing that? What happens when all things become relative or subjective and we lose the ability to recognize truth and goodness and God? 

Our enemies will crush us. That is Jesus’s harrowing prediction. Jerusalem will be destroyed because it has lost sight of what has always saved it: God’s presence. The Temple and Jerusalem are so precious to Jesus, because they are a symbol of God’s relationship to his people. The Temple was a reminder that although God is omnipotent and the creator of the universe, that nonetheless he desires to live in relationship with us humans. It is an amazing, wild assertion if you think about it; the idea that the vast, boundless cosmos, cares about any one individual human being, much less all of them. That is a wild, crazy assertion. But here is this building that says God wants to live with people. And when you really think about what a wild claim that is, then it makes sense that if people believed that, that they would be treating the temple with the utmost care and respect. It would be the focal point of their lives. A place where they have communion, relationship with God. But here is what happens when you hold something holy in your hands for too long: you are very liable to forget and lose sight of just how holy it is. When Jesus entered Jerusalem, he found in the holiest place on earth, a lot of people treating the temple more or less as a place of business. A market; a place of transactions. And not just everyday transactions, but even semi-divine transactions: I will do this thing for the God, if the God will do this thing for me. I will give this, sacrifice this, say this prayer, if this God will give me some material benefit that I desire. Things like growth, holiness, conversion, transformation, peace, communion, the simple presence of God in your midst…those things don’t matter when God becomes (when people believe in him at all) some kind of vending machine. 

This is what Jesus finds when he rides into Jerusalem. Not with everyone certainly, but with a lot of people. It wasn’t the first time this had happened. The prophet Jeremiah had witnessed the same thing and Jesus uses Jeremiah’s words: “my house shall be a house of prayer, but you have made it a den of robbers.” His words struck a nerve. Jesus has been saying challenging and difficult things throughout his ministry, but now as he comes to the end of it, both publicly and privately, Jesus says words that come to the heart of the matter: we do not recognize God’s presence when it is right in front of us. We fail to appreciate God’s saving power. God’s life, which is shared with his people, becomes something we turn to, not for daily strength and holiness, but something we turn to when everything else has failed. Like Samuel Johnson’s description of patriotism, it becomes the last refuge of a scoundrel. 

Our Lord, who promised paradise to the thief on the cross next to him, no doubt saves scoundrels too. But if we believe that the Jesus who offered such compassion and such hope to a man who was so unworthy of it, if we believe that that Jesus is encountered here in some way, whether it is in moments of silent prayer and reflection, in studying and hearing his words in the scriptures, in the grace that is given to us in the sacraments, most especially the sacrament of his body and blood, his real presence in the bread and the wine, if we believe that Jesus is present here, then shouldn’t that be reflected in our lives? In our priorities? 

Have we become so used to the idea of God dwelling among us, that we fail to see, fail to recognize, what a revolutionary belief that really is? I hope we don’t. We have come to the holiest week in the year for Christians. Every year we proclaim in spectacular ways a truth that changes everything. The God of all creation, the God of the universe, comes to meet you. Your salvation, your hope, your life is coming to meet you. You personally. This God is coming to meet you in sacred spaces like temples and churches, this God is coming to meet you in sacred texts and sacred rituals. This God is coming to meet you in bread and wine. This God is coming to meet you in the cross, not only in his cross and suffering, but in your cross and suffering to. This God is coming to meet you in moments of triumph and in moments of defeat; in moments of new life and in moments of death. Most of all this God is coming to meet you in a resurrected body that is going to turn everything you know or that you think you know about life and death upside down. The God of scripture, which is the God of Jesus Christ, this is a God which we encounter. This is a God who comes to meet us. Even though we ignore him. Ignore his house. Ignore his commandments. He still comes to meet us. We will misunderstand him. We will say that he said things he didn’t say. We will crucify him and kill him. And still he comes to meet us again. What a remarkable thing; we should never take it for granted. The Lord still comes to meet us, even when we aren’t looking for him or don’t recognize him. The Lord comes to meet us, even when he is hidden from our eyes.

Opposing Jesus


Sermon for April 3rd, 2022


The gallery of European Paintings from 1250 to 1800, and the Medieval Art gallery, are my two favorite galleries in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I love to wander through them, and I go back to them again and again, I think in part, because the subject matter of most of the artwork in those two galleries is the life of Christ. One moment in the life of Christ after another. One snapshot after another, and one artist’s impression of Jesus’s story after another. All hanging there on the wall in a series of images that we walk past and take in. Yes, there are the occasional nature scenes and portraits of fancy Lords and Ladies, but the majority of the paintings in those galleries depict various scenes from the life of Jesus or other famous stories from the Bible.

 Say what you will about life in the pre-modern world, many people may not have been able to read the words of the Bible, but Biblical literacy in terms of knowing the stories of the Bible, well that was probably better than it is now. The stories of the Bible surrounded people in the visual arts. There, in those galleries, is the proof.

So as I walk through those galleries, what I see are moments in the life of Jesus as each artist has depicted them. Impressions really. They are telling me a story through the use of images. The paintings point to and direct me to a fuller story of the life of Jesus Christ, but they each only tell a portion of the story. There are things that the artist wants me to see that are painted directly on the canvas, but then there are always many, many more details that the artist doesn’t paint. There is always more going on that just what is shown. The artist often assumes that I know some of the background to the story. Sometimes there are images or symbols painted within the scene that are there to direct me to another part of the story. And sometimes the artist relies upon me to fill in some details myself. Artists are crafty like that. 

The way I feel walking through a gallery of religious art at the Met, is very similar to how I feel when reading through the gospels: you get lots of snippets, scenes and vignettes, but you also realize that there is usually a lot more to the story than the artist has set before you. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, they give us images or depictions of moments and stories in Jesus’s life. And like at the Met, I can go back to these images or depictions again and again, and very often I will discover something new. A detail that I hadn’t noticed before. 

Look at the image that John has painted in the gospel passage you heard this morning: Jesus is the guest of honor at a dinner. Martha is there in the background, serving up dinner as usual, but her sister Mary is doing something rather strange. She is at Jesus’s feet with a bottle of perfume. She has poured the perfume all over his feet and she is wiping them with her hair. Such an odd thing to do, that is almost uncomfortably intimate. And we are told that there is this smell that just wafts up from the perfume and fills the air. And as we are thinking about this sweet smell of perfume we notice that the person sitting next to Jesus is Lazarus, Martha and Mary’s brother. 

Suddenly our minds are transported back to the last scene, because the last time we saw Lazarus in the last chapter, HE needed that perfume. He was four days dead and people could smell him outside the tomb. That is why that perfume of Mary’s was so strong, it was meant to cover up the smell of death. That is what that anointing oil was for. But Mary isn’t using the perfume on Lazarus, he is sitting at the table next to Jesus. Hopefully he’s had a bath since they took the burial cloths off him, but there he is alive and well. No, Mary is using the perfume on Jesus. This doesn’t make any sense, because if you remember from the last scene, the last picture John painted, Jesus proved that he had power over death. He raised Lazarus back to life, and there Lazarus sits reminding us that Jesus has power over death…and yet, Mary is on her knees anointing Jesus’s body like it is about to be buried. It just doesn’t make any sense.

And standing next to Jesus, leaning in to his ear is Judas. There he is pointing down to Mary disapprovingly, and pointing to Jesus too and saying, “don’t let her do this.” Stop this Jesus. This doesn’t make any sense. This is wasteful. Maybe Judas’s motives weren’t pure, but he did have a point: why should we waste burial perfume on a man that has proven he has power over death? Judas seems reasonable to me. But Jesus insists.

It seems a bit strange. What other pictures does John paint in his gospel? Well let’s walk on to the next one. We are in chapter 12 now, but as we enter chapter 13 we find ourselves in another dining room, only this time Jesus is the one on the floor on his knees and he is washing his disciples’ feet. And as Jesus comes up to Peter, Peter pushes back and says “No! Stop this Jesus. You will never wash my feet. You are our Lord and Master, what are you doing groveling on the floor like a servant? This doesn’t make any sense. And you know, Peter seems very reasonable to me. I wouldn’t want Jesus to see the ugly and dirty parts of me either. But Jesus insists. 

Strange. You know it occurs to me as I look at these two episodes or scenes in John’s gospel side by side, that very often throughout this gospel, John is careful to include somewhere in each scene he paints, someone that is opposing Jesus. In just about every scene, there is someone saying: “stop Jesus! Don’t do this. Don’t let this happen!” Stop Jesus! You can’t talk to me, I’m a Samaritan woman. Stop Jesus! You can’t heal on the sabbath. Stop Jesus! We don’t have enough food or money to feed these people. Stop Jesus! Stop saying you came down from heaven. Stop talking about your flesh as if it were bread. Stop Jesus! Don’t go to Bethany. Lazarus is dead. There’s nothing you can do there. It’s too dangerous. Jesus, stop this woman from washing your feet. Jesus, stop trying to wash my feet. Stop Jesus! Don’t go away. Don’t leave us. Don’t go to the cross. Stop Jesus! Don’t die! You don’t have to die do you? 

In all of these scenes there is someone that is trying to stop Jesus. There seems to be this theme of resistance to Jesus. One of the things about John’s gospel that can be a problem is that in many scenes John simply labels Jesus’s opposition or resistance as “the Jews.” It’s a problem because we are quick to forget that Jesus was a Jew, all of the disciples were Jews. Facts like that don’t matter when you are looking for a scapegoat. Throughout history, Christians have used John’s use of the generic term “the Jews” as an excuse for horrid persecutions. We have used it to paint Jewish people as enemies of Christ, because we always want someone else to be opposing Jesus. For two thousand years we have been looking for someone to blame for his death. But what I see, as I pass by all these images that John has painted of Jesus’s story, is that it’s not that simple. You know, just about everyone in this gospel, at some point or another, has a conflict with Jesus. Just about everyone at some point or another, says “stop Jesus! Don’t do this. Don’t let this happen. This doesn’t make sense.” And you know, sometimes they seem pretty reasonable.  Even his best friends. Peter, Judas, Martha, Jesus’s brothers, Thomas, all of the disciples resist Jesus. It would be so easy to just look at today’s scene from the gospel, and think, “ah, there’s Judas, he’s the bad guy.” But what I notice as I pass from one scene in John’s gospel to another, looking at the pictures he has painted, is that the people who are opposing Jesus, whether John calls them “the Jews,” or the Pharisees, or the disciples, or Peter, or Judas…I notice that in the right light, they look an awful lot like me.