This Sunday’s Sermon

Easter Sunday, April 4, 2021 – Pastor Donna Doutt – The Passion

Christ has risen! Alleluia!

Today we remember “the Passion”, the story of the suffering and death of Christ. I approach this scripture today with “passion,” the adjective to describe how I feel. I never come to this story without grief, and heartache.  I know…I know…We rejoice, we raise our voices in alleluias; however, those alleluias were preceded by suffering.

Passion…where does this come from? [1]The simple answer is that the English word passion referred to Jesus’ suffering long before it evolved other, more provocative meanings. Today, the word still refers to Jesus’ torments, as well as to retellings of the crucifixion in the Gospels and elsewhere, even in pieces of music. (Before Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, for instance, there were Bach’s Passions.)

The English word has its roots in the Latin passio, which means, simply, “suffering.” Its first recorded use is in early Latin translations of the Bible that appeared in the 2nd century A.D. and that describe the death of Jesus. The Latin word was borrowed prolifically in Old English religious texts, where its meaning remained exclusively related to religion.

This scriptural version of the Passion provided by Gospel of John is rare among the readings of the Revised Common Lectionary because every year, this particular passage from the Gospel of John is the selected reading. Why? Because of each descriptions of the same event in each of the gospel, this version is so rich in drama and narrative detail…so rich in “passion.” The sense of spectacle and the emotion surrounding the story itself is palpable.

Our scripture today brings us three people, all who are introduced as “passionate” disciples.

First, we have Mary of Magdala. She seems to have been the most prominent among a group of women who were followers of Jesus and served him from the beginning of his ministry to his death and even beyond. Her love and devotion to Jesus and his ministry has caused speculation over the years, but her importance among the other disciples is obvious. She’s even more special in this narrative because she’s received a divine commission to tell the male disciples about the miraculous resurrection. In the other Gospel versions of the resurrection scripture, Matthew, Mark and Luke, their version has Mary with other women. But in this dramatic version from John, she’s a solitary figure.

Then we have two of his disciples, Peter and the “one whom Jesus loved,” and we know that this other disciple is John. [2]Lucrative writer and pastor, John Stendahl, comments that these two behaved almost childishly when Mary brought word of the disappearance of Christ. When they hear the news from Mary, they take off in a footrace to the grave site.

I like the way he writes this: “When they get word of the missing body, they run to the tomb, but their racing is not presented just a run to arrive; it is reported as a race, with care taken to tell that the “other disciple,” (meaning John)…outran Peter and got there first. He won the race, even though Peter, typically brash, was the one who forged into the tomb.”

So this footrace ends with John arriving first, but when he looks in, he is shaken to the core and doesn’t enter. Peter does. Understandably, they’re both in shock. Remember, John writes in verse 9, “as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead.”

But it is Mary whom I prefer to focus on this morning. From the musical Jesus Christ Superstar to the bestselling The Da Vinci Code, Mary was important among the women who stayed near Jesus.

Women in that time were usually given second place, if any place at all. Jewish courts didn’t even accept their testimony. However, at the miracle of Jesus’ resurrection, Mary Magdalene had the honor of being the first witness on the scene…to be the first one commissioned  to go and tell.

Because while Jesus loved many, his love of Mary and particularly her reciprocated love of him that perpetuates the “passion” I see in this story.

None of the other male disciples linger at the tomb. They all go their separate way to deal with their grief and/or guilt as the case may be. But she has returned to the tomb. She is yearning to at least be in his presence, even in death. She needs to touch him lovingly. She has come to say her personal good-by to someone who has changed her life.  While the other disciples thought that everything was over, Mary still yearned to be near him.

Remember, our scripture tells us that upon the news of the missing Jesus, the others “raced” to the tomb. But not so Mary. When I close my eyes, I can picture her returning to the tomb in the early morning light with a mist surrounding her, just as the sun breaks. I can almost feel the damp dewiness of the morning air. She will be walking slowly, picking her way carefully along the path because her eyes will be filled with tears so that her vision is clouded. Her heartbreak is apparent by her demeanor. She would be head bent downward. Her folded arms clenching her cloak around her and juggling the jars of spices and oils for his body.    

She’s not expecting anything to happen; she has come to mourn the loss of life, of a body to touch, and to say her own farewells. Her grief is so deep, she doesn’t recognize the two angels. She sees Jesus and mistakes him for the gardener. It’s clear that he’s had some kind of transformation because she doesn’t recognize him. Then he gently speaks her name, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She’s frightened and frustrated…where has her beloved Jesus been taken she wants to know? And Jesus gently calls her by name, “Mary,” and with the sound of his voice, she now knows who this is. She cries out “Rabboni, my teacher,” and reaches to embrace him.

But Jesus says to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and tell them…”

Despite her impulse to cling to him, she leaves as he has instructed.  She does as Jesus commands. She carries back the news, “I have seen the Lord!”

And you know what happens next, Peter and John race to the tomb. When they don’t find the Lord, they turn away and sadly return home. They didn’t, even up to this very moment, understand that Jesus must rise from the dead. They didn’t do what Mary Magdalen could do and did do, because as verse 18 says, “she went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord!”

My hope and prayer for each and every one of you is that each Easter morning, as we repeat this miraculous story, from now until your days are through, is that you will feel the “passion” of this event.

I hope and pray that you will walk the path to the tomb with Mary Magdalene and you will also “see the Lord.” You will remember how passionately He loves us…you….and me, and how passionately we need to return that love to him. Like Mary, we are commissioned to go and tell that Jesus Christ gave his life for us.

Christ has died, Christ has risen. Alleluia. Amen.

[1] Sam Schechner.

[2] John K. Stendahl.. Feasting on the Word, Year C. vol. 2. P. 374