He is Not Here

Empty tomb

Easter Day, 27 March 2016. Isaiah 65:17-25, Psalm 118, I Corinthians 15:19-26, John 10:1-18.

Sometimes after a show in New York, and other places as well, I’m sure, the actors will speak with audience members outside the stage doors and sign autographs. My son and I tried it once on a recent trip. We waited after The Color Purple for just a glimpse of Jennifer Hudson and the real star of the show Cynthia Erivo who owned the role of Celie. But the crowd was large and the actors were inside a long time, so we gave up and left.

But on our last night in New York, as we boarded the blue line at 42nd Street, Tyler Lea got in the same subway car with us.

Tyler is the star of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, which won the Tony last year for Best Play. He is 27, but he plays a 15 year old on the autism spectrum who is trying to figure out who killed his neighbor’s dog along with lots of other things that have happened to him. It is a physically demanding role. He performs it only once a day. We got very lucky and had 3rd row seats when Tyler was on stage. I’m not a theater expert but I am a big fan. Tyler’s performance was the most brilliant, convincing, beautiful thing I’ve ever seen on any stage anywhere.

And with no warning or expectation Tyler Lea was in our subway car.

I did not recognize him at first. He was with some friends, a young man and a young woman. He looked like everyone else on the train. My son saw him and pointed him out but I still did not know for sure. I wasn’t convinced until someone else came up to him and asked for a picture.

We decided not to bother him on the train. We wanted to be a little cooler than that and let him have fun with his friends. But then he exited at our stop. I could not help myself. I walked up to him, shook his hand, babbled that his show was the best thing I saw all week and it was a privilege to watch him perform. He said thanks. His friends looked bemused. He went his way and we went ours and I was amazed our paths crossed at all.

Granted, I was not quite as surprised as Mary at the empty tomb. And I do not intend to equate the resurrection of Jesus with a celebrity sighting. But I never expected to see the star of my favorite show off stage right in front of me. And Mary and the disciples never expected to see Jesus alive again right in front of them.

We can forgive Mary for not recognizing Jesus. She was traumatized by his execution. She came to pay her respects and prepare his body for burial. When she saw the empty tomb she assumed foul play. Someone must have stolen the body. She ran to get the others. They confirmed the body was still gone.

So she began to weep. Two angels asked why she was crying. She still could not come up with any other explanation. “They have taken away my Lord and I do not know where they have laid him” Then she turned and saw Jesus but he did not look like she expected. He looked like a gardener, of all things.

But when he spoke her name – Mary – she finally recognized him.  She became the first Christian preacher, telling the others, “I have seen the Lord.”

On one level, these verses are John’s version of what happened on Easter morning, sometime around year 29 or 30, his account of an amazing day.

But in John’s gospel, there is always more to the story. John’s gospel more than all the others was written as an extended metaphor of what it means to live the Christian life. And it all leads here, to the Easter encounter, to Mary discovering that Jesus did not stay where she had left him, to Mary hearing Jesus say “Do not hold on to me.”

Jesus’ words to Mary in this first Easter encounter foreshadowed what happened next. Mary and the others could not hold on to him if they tried. In the rest of the Easter stories in John’s gospel, Jesus stayed on the move. He passed through locked doors to speak to the disciples and to Thomas. He showed up unannounced by the sea. After Easter, Jesus was never where the disciples expected him to be.

In a way, things might have been easier for Mary and for all the disciples if Jesus had just stayed in the tomb where they left him. They and we could have remembered him as a wise teacher, martyred by the authorities for preaching the truth. They and we would not have had to grapple with the puzzle of resurrection. They and we could still have followed in his way. His teaching about love for enemies and giving freely from God’s abundance and doing unto others as we would have them do unto us would still be good advice. Even if Jesus had not risen from the dead, the way he taught us to live would still be worth following.

But we proclaim Christ is Risen. He is alive. He is never where we left him. He is always headed somewhere and we cannot hold him back. Those who follow Jesus follow a Lord who is always on the move.

Yet we often try to keep Jesus in the tomb. We remember what we were taught about him in the past and don’t allow that understanding to grow. We cling to a particular view of him or the gospel message and reject all others. We accept what others tell us rather than wrestle with his message ourselves. We make our relationship and understanding of Jesus a private thing and keep him buried inside. We resent some of the actions and attitudes of people who claim to follow him and don’t bother to find out what he was really like. We often try to keep Jesus in the tomb.

But the Risen Jesus resists all our attempts to limit his life and love. He rose again. He was not where Mary or the disciples expected him to be. He surprised everyone and surprises us still.

And what did he look like? A gardener, the one who brings life and makes us grow.

I was so surprised when I saw Tyler Lea in the subway car. I was awed by him on stage – he’s an amazing actor. But here with his friends he looked like an ordinary young adult, like one of my kids, laughing and having a good time. There is obviously more to him than what you see on stage.

And there is so much more to Jesus and to the gospel he proclaimed than any of us knew when we first decided to follow him. There is so much more to Jesus and to the gospel than any of us understand today. Someday we will know fully, even as we are fully known, but in this life he will keep rising again, taking us to unexpected places, helping us grow.

And if we follow him, he will always surprise us. He will call us to love in ways we never imagined. He will show up in the people we least expect. He will help us forgive or heal when we think we can’t. He will challenge us when we are holding on to resentment or selfishness. He will help us see and stand against what is wrong in our world. He will prune and shape us, and through following his surprises this world will be made new.

So like Mary, love him. Rejoice in his resurrection. But do not hold on to him. Let the Gardener surprise you and help you grow. And if you are not already part of a church community, I invite you to join this one as we seek to follow Jesus on the move together. Happy Easter!

© 2016 The Rev’d Grace Burton-Edwards

Photo of the empty Garden Tomb in Jerusalem. Photo #1357 of 1514 I took on a pilgrimage to Israel, Palestine, and Jordan in 2013.