AN ASTOUNDING APPEARANCE
John 20: 1-18
A woman whose husband had recently passed away asked me to stop by her home to talk. In times of grief sometimes people really want to talk, and at other times it’s hard to find anything to say. As we sat down, she said, “I want to tell you something, but I hope you won’t think I’m crazy.” “Go ahead,” I said. “Tell me.” So she said, “This week I saw Gary (not his real name. She was talking about her recently deceased husband.) She continued: “He was in our bedroom at the foot of the bed. Then he came around the bed and sat on his side of the bed. I could see an indentation on the bed covers. Do you think I’m crazy?” “ I do not think you’re crazy,” I told her so. I had heard such stories before, and since then I have heard them from others: they’ve seen a face, or heard a voice, or felt the presence of a loved one who passed from this world. These are astounding appearances, but I don’t think most, if any, of them are made up. If God is a God of amazing grace, (which I believe,) one who offers steadfast love, and mercy, maybe we get permission in our next life to, if the time is right, reassure our loved one that all will be well. I don’t think everyone is able to experience such events, but some can. Just like Paul said in First Corinthians 12 and 13, some can speak in tongues, and some never will speak in tongues, but that is not an indication of inferior or undeveloped spiritual gifts. Likewise some may see these loved ones, and some may not. But if you have been equipped to see or feel the presence of someone who has gone before you, share it! I think such witnessing invites others to claim, or at least consider, the mysteries of God.
Today, for any of you who have lost a loved one (and who hasn’t, from a pet to a parent to a friend?), I want you to think back to the time when you knew that your loved one had died. What did you feel? Disbelief? How did you feel? Numb? What did you do? Endlessly call family, or sit in one place on stun or in tears? Such events are life-jarring. No matter how much we prepare, we are not really prepared for them. Our daughter Jenny is an ordained Presbyterian minister and one of the chaplains at Tampa General Hospital. One of the chaplain’s jobs is to meet with the family when there has been a death. They are a Trauma 1 center so often the deaths are truly traumatic. Their job is to call in next of kin, to listen to them, and to console them. What a job, but she feels called to do it. Still it can take a toll.
Keep that thought as we move back in time 2000 years. Not only had a friend died; not only had a son died, but it was a brutal death. Many of the women, including the man’s own mother, watched him be tortured. And then they saw him breathe his last. They saw his limp, dead, body be taken down from the cross. They likely overheard, perhaps with some comfort, that a man named Joseph of Arimethea gave his family tomb away to this man. The man who had just died? Jesus. In those days, a tomb was a cave—man-made or natural—and a family had exclusive ownership of it in which they would place the dead bodies of loved ones, anoint them ritually with spices, roll the stone over the tomb, and wait several weeks or months for the body to decompose. Then the bones were collected and placed in an above-ground container called an ossuary. If they were Jews they would ask to be buried as close to the Mount of Olives as possible, where they believed the Messiah would return. On this particular day, outside of the Jerusalem walls, the women and men were at the cross. They likely went away dejected, because the one in whom they had hope for salvation had died; they had seen it with their own eyes. They were like those family members in an emergency room; or those gathered at a funeral home, ones perhaps making plans to embalm or not embalm a body and thinking about a funeral. So the men in John’s gospel were milling around the room set apart for them by Jesus, and the women—also special disciples and friends of Jesus—were there too. In those days women customarily did the not too pleasant job of preparing the dead body to be left in the tomb. They usually used oils and spices—sometimes even frankincense and myrrh—which wise men foreshadowed. So those women who had hope that Jesus would be different now had all their spirits dashed. He was dead; they would do their duty; they would mourn for a period of time, then they’d pick up their lives. They would not have the luxury of going into a deep depression for months- they had families for whom they were responsible. Those women going to the tomb were like those in a hospital trauma room; or those in a funeral parlor. They were mourning and just doing what needed to be done.
To their great surprise—and I can’t emphasize that enough—they found the stone rolled away!! That was shocking for at least two reasons. No Romans would come and touch, or try to move, the body of a Jew! Romans cared only about taxes in Judea. By contrast, no faithful Jews would come to the tomb before morning because the God sanctioned Sabbath was just ending as the women arrived! No one did work on the Sabbath! Besides, the stone was exceedingly large and would have been very heavy to move. Nevertheless, the stone was rolled away! In John’s passage we read that the women were so stunned they ran back to get help. They asked Simon Peter to come and see it. He and another disciple (likely it was John) ran back to see the unbelievable event. Was it grave robbery? I doubt anyone was thinking “miracle” at that time. This time they went in and found the grave clothes lying on the ground, (like they are at our tomb in this sanctuary) and they were no longer wrapped around a body! Finally, like the apparitions that others have described to me, a person appeared to Mary. Being in such a state of shock, she did not even entertain the notion that it might have been a ghost of Jesus; she was still going on the assumption that the body had been taken. But after hearing the voice of the one she loved so much, her eyes and ears were opened and her heart filled with hope that she dared not consider earlier. Could it be? She went to embrace him, only to be warned that she could not do that, because he was in some state between earth and heaven. He said, “Do not hold me because I have not yet ascended to the Father.” What a confusing day! The unbelievable had not only become possible, but actual! Jesus had risen from the dead!
Now we know: the grave was not the end for Jesus; a rolling stone could not hold his body in; and a cross was not the final chapter! God is with us now, watching us and writing the last chapters of our lives! How will they end? That is largely up to you and me and the situations we face each day. What we do know is that God hopes that all people in the world find their final home in heaven! You can plan on it if you follow Jesus, not only in this life, but into the next life too! Choose Jesus: the risen Son of God! And join him today in the joyful feast of the people of God! Today’s story did not end at a grave; it continued with new life. It continues now at a table. Jesus invited disciples to join him in a meal in John 21: the next chapter. Now he invites you; won’t you join him and share this meal with Jesus?
Jeffrey A. Sumner April 1, 2018