March 27, 2016, Easter Sunday
I was asked by a new friend recently if I had watched “The Passion.” The fact that we had only recently met meant that she didn’t know that I don’t watch television…and don’t really know much about pop culture in general. In my ignorance, I thought she was referring to Mel Gibson’s 2004 movie, The Passion of the Christ. She clarified that she was talking about this year’s remake for television of the Bible’s 2000 year-old story, The Passion: New Orleans”… a musical. In the event that there are some among us this morning as out-of-the-main-stream as I am…I’m not kidding.
The Passion: New Orleans was broadcast by Fox Network last Sunday, Palm Sunday, billed as a contemporary retelling of the passion of Jesus Christ set to popular music.
- The script was adapted (from the Bible) by Peter Barsocchini, who wrote Disney’s High School Musical series.
- The producer and music director was Adam Anders, who worked on Fox’s hit series, Glee, about a high school.
(Already some of us are thinking we’re in the wrong demographic for this show.)
The goal of The Passion, Anders said was to present well-known songs “in a completely new context,” so that it would be of interest to everyone, whether you resonated with its religious message or just wanted to hear Trisha Yearwood sing a Whitney Houston song.
What’s an old-fashioned preacher to do?
I told my friend that while I had not spent Palm Sunday evening watching Fox network’s musical version of Christ’s suffering and death, I had spent it listening to St. Matthew’s version, adapted by St. Matthew himself, and set to music in the early 16th century by an English composer no one’s ever heard of, but who was the Whitney Houston of his own day.
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
John himself, the author of this morning’s Gospel reading, would have had a hard time selling his script to Fox. It’s an oddly constructed narrative, consisting of three characters whose parts fall unevenly into two scenes, that seem unconnected to each other but which comprise this one story.
Unlike the other Gospel screenwriters, who include parts for 2 or 3 women, John focuses his attention on just one, Mary Magdalene. As Scene 1 opens, she makes her way to Jesus’ tomb while it is still dark. Perhaps she simply couldn’t wait until daylight. There is no indication that she brought ointment to anoint Jesus’ body, but she knew he wasn’t alive. She had been there when he died.
Mary is in the dark in other ways, too. She sees the stone rolled away from the entrance to the tomb, but it doesn’t occur to her to think of any other reason except theft. Running to Peter and another disciple, she cries, “They have taken the Lord from the tomb!”
There’s lots of running in John’s script. If they make a movie of it, the actors had better be in shape. Mary runs to tell Peter and the other disciple, “the one whom Jesus loved,” as John describes him. Then the two men run a foot race back to the tomb, the “other disciple” getting there first.
Only John’s gospel talks about this “other disciple,” the “one whom Jesus loved.” Some refer to him as the Beloved Disciple; some associate him with John, the disciple; some say he was Lazarus, Jesus’ close friend. Clearly he is a figurehead for the community that eventually produced the 4th Gospel, and so we are probably right to notice that in that Gospel he comes out looking pretty good.
The Beloved Disciple outruns Peter to the tomb. He peeps in and sees the linen cloths. He allows Peter to enter the tomb ahead of him. But when the Beloved Disciple enters the tomb, we are told, “He saw and believed.”
The Beloved Disciple sees nothing but the folded grave clothes and draws a conclusion of faith. Simon Peter see all the same details, but has no response. It will take another, more direct sign of resurrection before he signs up. Until then he’s left with doubts and questions.
And then both of the simply return home. There’s no indication that they ran to tell anybody. We, the movie-going audience, remain in the dark, with just a hint of what might be coming next.
R. S. Thomas’s poem “The Answer,” does the same thing. Thomas was an Anglican priest whose poems are often as bleak as the landscape of Wales, his homeland. In this excerpt, we hear a glimmer of resurrection breaking through:
… There have been times
when, after long on my knees
in a cold chancel, a stone has rolled
from my mind, and I have looked
in and seen the old questions lie
folded and in a place
by themselves, like the piled
graveclothes of love’s risen body.
As Scene Two begins, Mary has returned to the tomb and we see her crying, alone, outside it. There’s no explanation of how she got there or why she is alone. It’s likely that John was constructing his script using several different sources. Some of what we read in his gospel echoes the other three: the stone rolled away, the angels, Mary Magdalene’s presence. In fact, Mary Magdalene is the only person whose presence at the empty tomb all four gospels agree upon. But this second scene is unique to John.
Weeping, Mary bends to look into the tomb. Instead of grave cloths, she sees angels. But afflicted by equal measures of grief and confusion, she shows neither fear nor wonder. The angels don’t faze her a bit; she treats them like orderlies stripping a hospital bed where you were looking for someone you love. “Where is he? What have you done with him?”
Then, turning, she is confronted by none other than Jesus, but she is still too stuck in the trauma of recent events to recognize him. She asks the same question of this gardener that she does of the angels. “Where is he? What have you done with him?”
Was it a mistake to think he was the gardener? If there had been a camera recording everything would we have seen him fold the grave clothes and grab the gardener’s garments from off a clothesline? After all, he’d taught a gardening lesson: “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”
“Mary,” Jesus says, calling her by name, penetrating the shroud of her grief to grasp hold of her and draw her into a whole new world.
A 21st century movie director would have zoomed in on Mary at this point. But John turns the camera away, and leave it to us to imagine all the emotions that must have coursed through her in that moment. “Teacher!” she cries.
Then, after only a brief moment, Jesus makes Mary the first resurrection preacher. “Go to the others,” he tells her, “and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” Having been called by name, Mary is now sent to proclaim the wonder of what she has seen.
One story, two scenes, three disciples.
- One sees the grave clothes neatly folded and believes.
- One sees the same thing and there is no indication that he believes anything.
- One is surprised into believing by hearing the sound of her name.
For all and for each of these is this story offered.
Some of us find faith easy. Perhaps we grew up with faith. We recognize empty tombs – the return of spring after winter, health after illness, love after separation – and we know what they mean. We draw the obvious conclusion: Christ is risen! Like the Beloved Disciple we love Jesus deeply, and that love gives us a special kind of trust and understanding.
Others of us, even on festive days like this one, are more like Peter. We see the same things – spring, health, love – but faith doesn’t fall neatly into place. We still have questions and doubts about the meaning of what we are seeing. Maybe we are thinking of the people in Brussels and all the other places where evil and hatred have done so much damage. We are the skeptics, and often – when faced with empty tombs - we choose to remain quiet.
Some of us need to hear our name spoken aloud. Maybe we are grieving a loss, or trapped in a painful past, or fearful of our uncertain future. We need to know that faith is not a screenplay waiting to be turned into a blockbuster movie. We need know that God knows who we are, all of who we are, and loves us despite and because of that. Until then, we can only stand, like Mary, bewildered and confused, seeing nothing but the gardener.
In all and in each of these we find ourselves at one time or another.
Three disciples, two scenes, one story.
Really the important number is zero. There is no body. Zero. Had there been one, Jesus might have been a martyr, a hero, a famous teacher, mystic and healer. But there is no body – nothing to hang on to, to keep for ourselves, to freeze in time.
“Do not hold on to me,” Jesus says to Mary. We also try to hold onto Jesus with our creeds and confessions, our denominations and doctrines. But he is not ours to keep. He belongs to the world, to all time.
And his words to her are also to us: “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” Believers are granted the same relationship with God as Jesus has. At the beginning of this gospel, John wrote that all who receive the Word are given power to become children of God (John 1:12). Now we have come full circle.
John could have written a less complicated story. “Mary Magdalene, Peter and the other disciple went to the tomb. They saw the linen wrappings lying there and believed Jesus had risen from the dead.” Instead this gospel leaves room for each of us -- for one who sees and believes, another who sees and leaves uncertain, and another who needs to hear her own name. This story belongs to us all.
The resurrection scene from last week’s musical production The Passion, takes place on the roof of a Westin hotel in New Orleans. Jencarlos Canela, who plays Jesus, sings Katy Perry’s “Unconditionally,” his white garment glowing in the dark and whipping in the wind, many stories above the crowd. Jeff Jensen, a writer for Entertainment Weekly – of all publications – wrote this: "a more effective final image would have been to place Jesus on the ground and moving among in his people as he did after his resurrection and as the Holy Spirit did on Pentecost. Instead, by setting Jesus apart from the audience, The Passion created a metaphor for how so many people experience God—far away and hard to see.
Good for you Jeff Jensen! You must have read the book before you saw the movie. You know that Jesus stands right here with and among us, calling each one of us by name – believers and skeptics alike. You know that faith is not a show, it’s an invitation to live life infused by the reality of resurrection, secured by the promise that nothing - not even death itself – can separate us from the love of God.
The Passion. (n.d.) in Wikipedia. Retrieved March 26, 2015, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Passion_%28U.S.%29. (Including quote from Jeff Jensen, "The Passion: EW review." Entertainment Weekly. 20 March 2016.)
Barbara Lundblad. “Commentary on John 20:1-18.” March 27, 2016. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2807
Greg Carey. “Seeing and Believing at Easter Time (John 20:1-18).” 04/15/2014, updated Jun 15, 2014. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/greg-carey/seeing-and-believing-at-easter_b_5152728.html
D. Mark Davis. “Chance the gardener and Jesus the not-gardener.” April 2, 2012. http://leftbehindandlovingit.blogspot.com/2012/04/chance-gardener-and-jesus-not-gardener.html
N. Clayton Croy. “Commentary on John 20:1-18.” April 12, 2009. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=289
David Lose. “Easter 2016: Called By Name.” http://www.davidlose.net/2016/03/easter-2016-called-by-name/