I preached this sermon at 6:45am this Easter morning, standing on the Clark Street Beach of Evanston, with the sun rising over Lake Michigan. We then shared in the sacrament of communion as we celebrated Jesus’ rising. Jesus Christ is Risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!
The lectionary text was John 20:1-18.
I spent the week before Palm Sunday in Turkey with a group of Northwestern students, visiting prominent historical and religious sites and engaging in interfaith dialogue. As we entered into the mosques and holy sites of Islam, I was captivated by the way the Muslim worshipers prayed in these spaces.
The men performed their ritual ablution outside under awnings of stone and wood. They sat on stools with their pant legs and shirtsleeves rolled up, water pouring out of the spigots and into their hands. The women’s area was enclosed, with talking and splashing water echoing around the room. Headscarves came off and towels came out. In both places, the worshipers brought soap—this was no ceremonial splashing but real washing, up to their knees and elbows, behind their necks and ears. In the prayers themselves, the worshipers raised their hands, bowed to the ground, and came up again in a dance of devotion. The chanted call to prayer was loud and throaty and passionate. Theirs was not a religion that stayed only in their heads or existed primarily in some detached spiritual realm. Prayer was a place where their bodies and spirits were one, where the God they worshiped was intimately invested in their embodiment.
Sometimes we forget or gloss over the physical fleshiness of our own beings, let alone the physical fleshiness of Jesus. We forget that the God we worship had dirty feet that needed to be washed, cried tears that ran down his chin, got hungry and tired. Our God had a body that bruised, and bled, and died, a body that needed spices and aloes to keep the smell of death away.
When we forget that our God had a body, we run the risk of turning the resurrection of Jesus into a nice, clean metaphor about the cycle of new life rather than a tangible experience of God’s power for real life over real death. The Gospel of John confronts this kind of thinking. The passage we read begins the resurrection account with Peter and the beloved disciple discovering the empty tomb and folded grave clothes. But it doesn’t end there. God doesn’t leave us to go home wondering about the lack of a body. Easter is not just about an empty tomb but a risen Christ, about a God who is present in the real earthiness of our existence.
After Peter and other disciple head back home, Mary remains outside the tomb, not just crying but weeping with streams of tears. She, like the disciples, is confused, so confused and distraught that when Jesus himself stands in front of her, she doesn’t recognize him. For millennia Christians have speculated why Jesus was unrecognizable in this moment, but I think that the answer is very simple. Mary wasn’t looking for him. She and the disciples had encountered an empty tomb and were stuck in that emptiness.
We have been there, in that space. We have all stared into the face of death—into loss, into pain, into uncertainty, into utter abandonment—and felt the great gravity of emptiness pull us into hopelessness. I stood in that space a few months ago when I found out that a young friend and member of my home church had attempted suicide and was in a coma on breathing tubes, hanging between life and death. The day they were deciding whether or not to turn of the machines connecting her to life-giving breath, I stood in the shower and wept. The emotions would hit me in waves: one moment I’d be putting shampoo in my hair and the next I would be about to collapse, pleading with God. I couldn’t keep the prayers inside of me—they burst out audibly. At one point, I did fall to my knees, and kneeling in a shower feels somehow a little like drowning. Drowning in the awful reality of unstoppable death.
This is why we need a God with a body. When I knelt in that shower and cried and performed my own ritual ablution, I needed God to be present with me in that messy, terrifying moment of emptiness. A God of some non-material, non-embodied reality would not be able to enter into my experience of despair and sit with me under the pounding water and fearful tears.
This is the good news: God in Jesus Christ saves our whole selves through his embodied death and resurrection. Jesus is present with us not as an ephemeral spirit but as a God who chose to take on flesh, to take on material molecules and a thirsty throat and hands that could touch and hold. At the beginning of Lent, we smeared ashes on our foreheads and declared, “From dust you came and to dust you will return.” Our God became this dust that makes us up. There is something so good, so necessary, about our bodies that Jesus lived and died as a body so that, when he rose in the unexplainable power of God’s life over death, our bodies would be a part of that victory. Our emptiness would be transformed into abundant life.
When Mary, blinded by her tears and her grief, confronted who she believed was the gardener, he asked her a simple question: “Whom are you looking for?” Whom are you looking for? What kind of savior are you looking for? Are we looking for a God who floats above our material reality and rescues us from our bodies? Or do we bring our whole bodies to the worship of God and expect God to be present in our embodied reality?
Even when we are blind to the abundant life God offers, Jesus, as he did that first Easter morning, calls our names. Jesus speaks, and his voice echoes in our eardrums and pumps through our blood and calls us to the recognition of his presence in the very stuff of this here and now life. We turn around and see Jesus standing right in front of us, where we least expect it, in the mundane, every day, physical reality of our lives. In the sand between our toes, in the laughter of a loved one, in bread and wine and water, in grace that floods every moment. We touch and hear and see and taste that the Lord is good.
My friend from church who attempted suicide did not die that day. She miraculously not only lived but suffered just minor brain damage and memory loss. But I know that someday, like every one of us on this planet, she will die. She will be lowered into the ground and covered with the dirt from which she came and to which she will return. Just like each of us standing here on this beach. But because of the risen Jesus, we know that this is not the end of the story. Through the risen and transformed body of Jesus Christ, God holds our bodies and lives—hers and mine and yours—and, though we don’t yet know how, God will bring us all into completion and fullness. The resurrection of our embodied God will extend to us all.
So as we enter this season of Easter, we are called to pay attention to where the risen Christ shows up in our embodied reality, often where we least expect it. When we turn to Jesus and listen to his voice, we are invited into the miracle of God’s uncontainable, close-as-breathing presence, and we will be able to say, with Mary, I have seen the Lord.