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The First Day of the Week

John 20:1-18

John 20:1 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. 2 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.” 3 Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. 4 The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5 He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. 6 Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, 7 and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. 8 Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; 9 for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. 10 Then the disciples returned to their homes.

11 But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; 12 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. 13 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.” 14 When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15 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.” 16 Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). 17 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.’” 18 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.

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When we first started talking about the idea of replanting, of letting today be our last regular worship service as Ephesus and then starting over, I heard all kinds of reactions: there was some sadness as people recognized that yes, Ephesus as it has been is reaching and in some ways has already come to an end; there’s been excitement and enthusiasm over the chance to ask where God might be taking us next; some people who don’t live here anymore were worried about the cemetery (to which I said, It’s OK, no one back there is going anywhere); but the most interesting response I got was a question: “Why Easter? Doesn’t closing on Easter cut against the symbolism of the day?” Isn’t Easter a time of life, springtime, bunnies, and chicks and pastel colors? Even in our Scripture this morning, Easter is the “first day of the week,” so why would we make it the last day of Ephesus?

The short answer is that yes, I think it makes sense for today to mark an ending that is also a beginning. Easter is the first day of the week but not in a way that it offers continuity with all the weeks that have come before (so that it’s another of the same kind of thing). The Resurrection is the first day of new creation. So it’s also a break, an interruption of the times we know. The world as it is will not give us resurrection incrementally so that if we just hold on a little longer we’ll get where we want to go without having to change course. You’ve heard the phrase, “time heals all wounds.” That’s just not true at all. Healing heals wounds. Wounds left to time don’t heal, they fester. If you cut your hand off and go to the hospital, you don’t want a doctor who says, “I feel like its gonna work out, but I need you to not be so negative. Just give it time and you’ll be OK.” No, you want someone who’s going to intervene. Resurrection is an intervention and it calls for the same. That’s what it means to say that Easter is the first day of the week and that’s why Ephesus looks for a new day today.

But when that day comes, it’s not obvious. Even when Mary sees Jesus, she doesn’t recognize him and before that Easter doesn’t feel like a new day. It was the first day of the week, but it was still dark. Easter begins in darkness. When the disciples wake up that morning it probably felt more like the end of the world than a new day. For years, they followed Jesus. They saw him bringing a world where everyone has what they need, where debts are forgiven, illnesses met with care, where the powers of negation and accusation that oppose people at every step are cast out. He showed grace to the people who never get grace, and he beat up the finance bros in the Temple. He came to Jerusalem and it seemed like he was really going to make a new world.

And as everything is building in this crescendo of expectation, the rulers of this world crucified him. Just like that it was finished. And then they wake up a couple days later to find that his body’s been taken to heap even more shame on his memory; they get one more reminder what this world does when you start talking about doing things a different way. There is only one timeline and it ends only one way. Anything else is myth, fantasy, naïveté. At first, Easter didn’t feel like the first day of the week. It felt like the end of a world.

The writer Mark Fisher talks about how popular dystopian stories imagine the end of the world as the continuation of this world. He says it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism because capitalism is so fundamental it seems like there’s no other option; even when we try to imagine something else it always ends up looking kind of like what we already have. Things don’t change; they just accelerate. Think about our dystopian myths, like zombies: a shell of something vaguely human swarming until your brain gets eaten. That’s just email. The latest Mad Max movie came out the last time I was looking for a job—in that world there’s limited resources like water so these gangs fight on motorcycles in the desert to get or keep the bare minimum to survive—and I thought, “This is just the job market.” The most recent trope is a parent who has to get their children to behave in very particular ways (like not talking) or monsters will get them, which is just standardized testing. And in all of these examples, there’s really no way out, you just interminably work the trap you’re in. Even thinking the end of the world reinforces the reality of this one. When other possibilities arise, this world nails them to a cross to fix us in place.

Maybe you know that feeling. Maybe you’re having a really rough time at your job—it doesn’t pay you enough, but when you start thinking about looking around you remember your family needs the health insurance and its not like there’s anything that much better out there. Maybe you’re in school and you enjoy your studies but graduation is just looming and people keep asking you “What are you going to do next” and you’re like “What is there to do next?” Maybe you’ve been learning new things about yourself, an identity you’ve always been aware of but never named, but now you’ve let yourself have that name or maybe different pronouns than you’ve used before; but your family or your friends say “I’m not going to call you that, it’s confusing.” Don’t change, just stay in place. Maybe you were a part of a church, and you read these stories of the amazing things that the Holy Spirit can do through ordinary people and you were like “Why not us? Why can’t we be wild in the ways that we care for each other?” and the people in charge were just like “Eh, that’s not how we do things. You’ll understand when you’re not so young and idealistic.” Don’t bother trying to make a break, just stay the course. And pretty quickly you’re burnt out, and tomorrow feels like the end of the world because it’s more of the same.

Easter begins in that shadow, the shadow of history grinding forward in the same boring, bloodthirsty repetitions. You’d think the story would move on pretty quickly to the happy stuff. It is Easter after all: we’d like to run on to the sunny part. But while the characters in this story do a lot of running, we’re kept waiting for some good news. When Mary Magdalene tells the disciples that Jesus is gone, they all start running to the tomb. The one disciple runs to the tomb and looks at the linens and then Peter gets there and goes all the way in. But they see that Jesus isn’t there and they just go back home to their normal routines.

But Mary does something interesting, something that I think we can learn from: Mary stays. Mary stands weeping outside the tomb. And she looks into the darkness. After the others couldn’t take it anymore, Mary stays and waits on the edge of despair and that’s when she sees angels sitting where the Body of Jesus had been. The story doesn’t say “the angels appeared.” It says “She saw them” which makes me wonder if they weren’t there all along but Mary was the only one to see them because she took the time to look into the darkness and let her eyes adjust. I think what Mary shows us here is that when the days keep rolling on, each the same as the last, to make a break, to look into the dark and keep looking without flinching, to refuse flying to the end of the world but to look clearly at this one, is an act of hope.

Mary looked into the break, she looked into the shadow of death and waited there. In a world where all our days are the same, we’re taught to do exactly the opposite. We are told not to worry, to stay positive, that maybe if we eat enough turmeric or do enough yoga or mindfulness exercises, we’ll be OK. Don’t get too worked up about politics, don’t complain about your job, don’t be negative; be optimistic and stay the course. This is often what the church has allowed itself to preach too: hurry onto a spiritualized resurrection, don’t get too bogged down in the day to day problems people face, just point them to heaven. And if that’s what church is then we shouldn’t make drastic changes: just add a program here and there, become vaguely more progressive or nominally less oppressive and you can stumble backwards into a future that mostly just looks like the past.

I don’t know about you, but I find that kind of optimism exhausting, the evasion and the sugarcoating, the constant effort to put on a happy face while everything is falling apart around you. One of the most encouraging things in the world is when someone else sees something that’s not right and says “Hey, yeah that’s really messed up, maybe we could do something different.” That kind of recognition reminds me I’m not alone. But there are no moments of solidarity like that if we’re not willing to sit and wait and look into the darkness of our world together. That’s what Mary gives us the room to do. She waits in this difficult moment so that the hope that comes won’t be the false hope of optimism, of numbing ourselves to the passage of time, that Jesus is very much dead but really its OK; no when Mary finds hope its a hope that goes to the deep causes of despair, that tells the truth about them, and lays the axe to the root of that tree do that something different can grow.

If our imaginations are so shaped by the status quo that we can’t help but repeat it even as we try to escape it, then we can’t just keep going about business as usual. We can only find hope by making a break and going down into the darkness that is beyond our imagination. And we can go there because we know that God can go to work in the void. In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, there was nothing but a formless abyss, a swirling chaos of darkness, but the Spirit hovered over the face of the Deep and in that darkness God said “Let there be light” and there was morning and there was evening on the first day. And so on the next first day of the week, Mary too looked long into the darkness, and there she saw beings made of light and she turned around to see someone whom she thought was a gardener saying her name. On the first day, God says let there be light and on the first day Jesus rises when it’s still dark outside. If we want to live in the new day of the resurrection, we have to go down into the dark with each other to find it, but in Jesus’ name there is new life to be found there, and it’s not just more of the same. It’s life that is really life, that breaks with our dystopia and urges us toward utopian desires. If Christ is risen, there is no darkness we cannot face; if Christ is risen, there is no darkness we cannot overcome.

And In that moment, where Mary learns it truly is a new day, Jesus sends her on the move. He sends her back to the other disciples in the darkness of their despair. The world had nailed Jesus to a cross so that he’d stay put, but when he rises he sets things in motion. As one of my teachers put it, a body in the spirit is a body that cannot be controlled. Mary goes to grab onto him, but Jesus says “Don’t. Don’t cling. Resurrection doesn’t mean you get to hold me in place, it means you’ve got room to move. So go, go tell the others what you’ve seen.” Jesus sends Mary to start organizing a community that will testify to the reality of a new day, a community that doesn’t carry on with business as usual, that breaks with the status quo by living as though new life is possible even in the deepest darkness.

So my friends, yes, I think its fitting that today we say farewell to Ephesus and look forward to the time of Jubilee. There is so much darkness in our world, so many of us and our neighbors live in precarious times that leave us lonely and exhausted and anxious. And in the face of such very real needs many churches look away and pine for their glory days when people filled their sanctuary and gave out of their abundance. That’s not our time. This church served that time well, but that’s not our time. That’s a little bit scary but it’s also thrilling. It’s an opportunity to look into the unknown, to look into the darkness of our lives and our neighbors lives and say “There’s no manual for what to do about all this so we need God to move us in ways beyond whatever we might ask for or imagine, to rearrange what is possible and practical, to show us how to be the church in our time.” On Easter, we testify that this is what God does. When the world around us is so very dark, it might just be that God’s Spirit hovers over us, ready to bring a new day unlike any we’ve known before. So we can look into that dark until our eye adjust, and we might just find that there we are not alone. Amen.

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