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The Rev. Dr. John H. Pavelko


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Easter Sunday

John 20:1-18

While it was still dark

 EASTER MORNING 

 On the first day of the week, while it was still dark...

I woke up rather early that morning. I seldom sleep well in a strange bed. Knowing that people would soon be coming into my room prevented me from returning to a state of blissful slumber. It seemed like a normal morning, nothing special. Yet, I felt sad. The morning should have been special. That day above all other mornings should have been different. It was Easter Sunday, the day my Lord rose from the tomb, but the wonder of the moment was just not there.

I thought about past Easter mornings. When I was an Associate Pastor, each Easter we "resurrected" a dozen teenagers from their beds and orchestrated a massive breakfast of pancakes, scrambled eggs, sausage and bacons. During my first solo pastorate, Easter morning was a celebration of life. The congregation really worked together to present a joyful celebration. But this Easter was different. There would not be any pancakes. There would not be a new Easter suit. I was not sure whether I would have the opportunity to enjoy an Easter egg hunt with my children. Nor would I hear the triumphant cry "Christ is risen!!!" I would not be delivering or listening to a sermon proclaiming the hope of resurrection and our triumphant victory over the grave. There would simple be a stark hospital room, friendly and caring nurses and the steady drip of an IV. 

I had just completed my second phase of chemotherapy before my bone marrow transplant for recurrent lymphoma. The chemo had annihilated my white blood cells. My white blood count was 0. All the infection-fighting cells in my body had been destroyed. I was susceptible to the slightest cold. On Friday night, I had been admitted to the hospital with a temperature of 103. My life now depended on that IV drip. Ironically, everything was going according to the physician's plan. The drop in my white blood count had been anticipated, so had the fever. The physicians also expected that my body would recover. Then they would begin the treatment that would complete destroy my bone marrow and hopefully the cancer. One physician compared it to an atomic bomb going off inside a person.

Celebrating Easter alone in a hospital room was a sobering experience. Rather than delivering a sermon to inspire a congregation to live the victorious Christian life, I laid upon my bed and pondered the truth of the message that I had been preaching for 19 years. I searched within and asked myself, did I really believe what I had been preaching or, was I merely echoing back a hope that I had heard. The truths of theology and the questions of life take on new meaning when you actually stare into the face of death. The stark reality of the moment strips away the superficial and trivial. Within the soul is a longing for the assurance that the truth is more than myth; that virtue is more than fable; that knowledge is more than fiction. When you stand at the door of the unknown you want to know beyond a doubt, that there really was an empty grave. You want to know that while it is still dark, the Hope is really true.
 

 THE GRAND AVOIDANCE

We spend most of our energy avoiding a confrontation with death. It is not the subject of at social gatherings. Ernest Becker writes, "The idea of death, the fear of it, hunts the human animal like nothing else: it is a mainspring of human activity- activity designed largely to avoid the fatality of death, to overcome it by denying in some way that it is the final destiny of man and woman.1"

We go to great lengths to avoid our own mortality. We will make jokes about the inevitable. My best is by Woody Allen, who once said, 

I don't mind dying, I just don't want to be there when it happens.

We are people who do not like finality. Several years ago, the Baltimore Sun ran a story entitled "'The Dead End' Dead in Sensitive Colorado City. Apparently, the citizens of this town were uncomfortable with signs that read 'Dead End.' One resident supported substituting the sign with new ones that would read, 'No Outlet.' She explained, "We just moved into a condo right outside there's a dead-end sign.... Every time you come, you have to go by this sign and it just isn't pleasant."2

To placate our discomfort, Hollywood has done a splendid job of transforming death into a grandiose sentimental wonderland. The movie Titanic took three hours to die but ended with the reassuring picture of Jack and Rose reunited on the grand staircase living happily every after. I guess that makes Jack's drowning unfortunate but inconsequential.
 

 THE GRAND INEVITABLE

 On that first Easter morning, when Mary first walked to the tomb she discovered the stark pain of death. She could no longer avoid the subject. She could no long rely on sentimental dreams or storybook fantasies. She had to walk to a tomb that held the real life body of her dearest friend. She had to come to grips with the reality of his death. She had to feel the gut wrenching agony of her loss.

John tells us that she went to the tomb, "while it was still dark...." His words describe both the time of day and the anguish of her soul. She rose very early in the morning, even before the sun fully illuminated the sky. She also walked with a grieving heart. She was still in shock, even denial over the events of the last three days. Everything happened so quickly. Suddenly the friend she knew and loved had been taken from her and nailed to a cross. She had just been with him but now his died body lay in a cold stone grave.

Mary's walk to the grave reminds us of the pain of death. It hurts. There can be no denial. We are not peacefully swooned into a sentimental dreamworld. We are not blissfully transported into a Hollywood never-never land.

Jesus did not appear to die. He did not fall asleep. He heart did not stop beating for a brief moment on an operating table. "He died a death more cruel and painful than can be imagined." Joseph of Arimathea took down from the cross a lifeless cold body. He wrapped that body in linen cloth and placed it in sealed grave. That body laid in that grave for three days. It did show any sign of a "divine spark." It did not reveal any "immortal soul." For three days, the disciples grieved for the one whom they loved, in whom they had hoped.

Mary walked to the tomb in grief, despair, and doubt. Peter and John ran to the grave in shocked disbelief. They all had heard his teaching and his predictions. He told them about his approaching death. He told them about the suffering he would have to endure but when his death finally came, both Mary, Peter, John and all of the other disciples and followers were surprised. 

One of the early church fathers wrote:

And what in human life is more certain than death and more uncertain than the hour? Death is not merciful to poverty. It is no respector of riches. It spares no one for the sake of his noble birth, his behavior, his age, it waits at the door for the old and ambushes the young.3

The first thing that I had to come to grips with that Easter morning in a hospital room was the inevitable reality of my own death. I would not be able to avoid it. Death is death, the end. As Yogi once said, "When your dead, your dead." There could be no denial. But my journey like that of those first disciples did not end in despair.

 

 BELIEF BORN IN AN EMPTY TOMB

 John has an interesting way of telling how each of the followers of Jesus came to faith. When Mary approached the tomb, she saw that the stone had been rolled away. She did not enter the tomb but immediately ran to tell the disciples that his body had been taken. Peter and John ran out to the tomb to confirm her words. 

Why did they run? What did they think they were running towards?

Someone calls and says, "There has been a bad accident on the school ground." All the parents drop what they are doing and "race" to the school in the SUVs and soccer vans. What are they racing toward? They race toward both good news and bad. If it is not their child that is, hurt than it is someone else's but in either case they race to know.

These two disciples also raced to the tomb to learn if Mary's words were good news or bad news. They came sprinting to the tomb not knowing but were seeking to discover for themselves if her words were really true. 

John records that "the beloved disciple" got to the tomb first. He is actually talking about himself. He started last but got there first. Peter had a head start on him but he out ran the fisherman. John also mentions that he was the first to stare into the empty tomb and come to faith. 

Others came to an Easter faith in different ways. Mary did not believe until she stood face-to-face with the risen Lord and hears him call her name. Thomas did not believe until the risen Christ offered his nailed pierced hands. But the beloved disciple came to an Easter faith by staring into an empty tomb. He believed in what he does not see. He did not see a risen Christ. He did not hear his voice. There was no other evidence. All he saw was a dark, empty tomb and yet he still believed. 

There is no one in this sanctuary, I suspect, who has seen the risen Christ. We may sing about walking with him in the garden but we have never actually walked such a path with His resurrected body beside us. Nor have any of us heard his voice as did Mary but yet we believe on the basis of her testimony, "he is not here."

While I was alone in that hospital room four years ago, I reaffirmed my faith and trust. When John stared into the empty tomb, he did not think abandonment, defeat, death. He thought freedom, victory, life.4 He came to faith through trust. I also reaffirmed my faith through trust in what I did not see.
 

 THE ONLY PROOF

We cannot return to the empty tomb on that first morning to authenticate the events as they have been told to us. The miracle of the resurrection cannot be proven. We cannot recreate the events in a laboratory. The BBC once consulted with their advisor on Roman Catholic affairs for an upcoming broadcast of the Church's theology on heaven and hell. The producer asked the bishop how he could ascertain the official Roman Catholic view. The bishop replied:

Die!5

There is only one way to verify the promise of resurrection. There is only one way to verify the events of that first Easter morning. "The beloved disciple did not need proof as we call proof."6 Yet, he believed. While lying on that hospital bed I did not have to prove the bodily resurrection. I did not need a legal certificate of resurrection. I did not have to prove the immortality of the soul. I like John simply believed. My journey began while it was still dark but it ended in the glorious light of faith.

 

1 Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death, p. ix; Free Press, 1973 as quoted by  Charles L. Rassieur, Christian Renewal: Living Beyond Burnout, (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1984), p. 85.

2 William H. Willimon, Pulpit Resource, Vol.29 No.2, 18 quoting from Vigen Guroian, The New Religious Humanist, (New York: The Free Press, 1997, 289.

3 Bernard of Clairvaux Selected Works, translated and foreword by G.R. Evans, (New York: Paulist Press, 1987), p. 79.

4 William H. Willimon, Pulpit Resource, Vol.27 No.2, 9

5 Unknown source.

6 William H. Willimon, Pulpit Resource, Vol.27 No.2, 9

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