John 20:1-18, Easter

Easter Sunday, March 23, 2008
John 20:1-18
Joanna Harader


Sometimes I listen to audio books, and lately I’ve been into a series of mysteries called “The Cat Who . . .”. These stories feature an amateur sleuth named Qwill and his two crime-solving Siamese cats. A couple of weeks ago I stuck a book on tape (yes, tape) into my car tape player as I headed to Newton.

The book opened with alarming news of Qwill’s death and then flashed back a little bit and moved the story slowly toward his fateful demise with ominous lines like–”He said he would call his friend that night. But that was a phone call he would never make.”

Of course, I wasn’t surprised when the burned up body in his car turned out to be someone else. I knew all along that he wasn’t going to die because I had read books that came later in the series.

Maybe that’s the position we are all in this morning. We’ve already read the books. My mom was complaining to me on Friday that the community choir had sung “Because He Lives” at the Good Friday service. We aren’t supposed to sing about resurrection on Good Friday. The focus is on Jesus’ death. But we know. Even if we skip the Hallelujahs and keep the black cloth over the table, we know that resurrection is coming.

And so we come this morning with, I hope, a sense of joy; a sense of enjoyment at re-hearing and celebrating this wonderful story. But we are a long way from being surprised. We are a long way from the shock that Mary experienced on that first Easter morning.

We all came this morning to hear about the empty tomb. But we simply came—we didn’t run like Peter and the other disciple. We didn’t race up to the building and then pull up short just outside the door, peering in to see what exactly was going on. To see if it was safe. To find, to our surprise, the grave clothes there but the one whom they covered gone.

The angels, the gardener-turned-Christ, the Holy One speaking our name. We are fascinated. But we are beyond being surprised by the story.

I’m afraid that we are so familiar with this story that we forget the shock of the empty tomb. All of the people involved are surprised—they are astounded. This is the only time in the gospel of John that we see people running. They are running around like crazy people, finding surprise after surprise.

The empty tomb; folded grave cloths; angels; Jesus—every piece of the story comes as an utter surprise to those experiencing it.

There was a family whose father had been declared dead during World War II; then they got a postcard saying he was in a displaced persons camp.

There was a young girl with a very lethal brain tumor; when the surgeon opened her up to remove it, it was already gone.

The surprise of new life only comes once. What a glorious surprise it is! But we cannot will ourselves into ignorance. We’ve already read the story, so we will never be really, truly, surprised by the empty tomb.

We already know what the power of God accomplished at the tomb near Golgotha nearly 2000 years ago. But let me remind you on this Easter morning, that we do not yet know what the power of God will accomplish in this church, in our families, in our individual lives.

We have an idea of what that power might do, because we’ve seen it at work in the past:

A woman is entrusted to bring the news of the resurrection to the greater body of disciples. Surprise!

Surprise that a brash, headstrong, unstable character like Peter could become the foundation upon which Christ builds his church.

Surprise that a Christian-killing Pharisee could become the first great Christian missionary.

Surprise that a modest effort to help Russian Mennonites during a time of famine could turn into the organization known as Mennonite Central Committee that provides aid in seventy different countries.

Surprise that Muslims and Christians could work together for peace in the Middle East.

Surprise that a little church with a troubled past could grow vibrant and strong, looking for new ways to share the love of God with the world.

Surprise that God could heal relationships we thought were broken forever.

Surprise at the new life that is among us, the new life that is coming.

As you look forward to whatever is on the horizon in your life, I wonder what surprises God has in store.

As we look forward to the work of the Holy Spirit within our congregation, I wonder how many ways we will be surprised.

I don’t know what God will do, but I know it will be great, and it will most likely be surprising.

So maybe we should all run more often. Run to our devotional times. Run to our jobs. Run to spend time with our families. Run to plays and concerts. Run to work in our gardens. Run to serve at LINK. Run to committee meetings. Run to worship.

And once we reach our destinations, maybe we too should stoop over and peer in, looking for signs of God’s power at work. Maybe we will see evidence of that power in the folded linens. Maybe we will turn from our destination disappointed, only to realize later that Jesus was indeed living and present and we thought he was just the gardener.

So this morning I hope you are not disappointed if you do not experience the shock and elation that Mary felt when Jesus called her name. Because what we are celebrating is not the end of the story. As Mary Magdalene goes to tell the disciples about her encounter with Jesus, the story is just beginning. And it is a story full of surprises for us all.

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