John 20:1-18

A few weeks ago Linda and I watched the movie United 93 on DVD, about the flight of that hijacked airliner that crashed into a field in Pennsylvania on 9/11.  We weren’t sure we wanted to see the movie, but it had received good reviews, and so we watched it, even though we knew it did not have a happy ending.  The movie was well done, and very powerful, but what impressed us most was an added feature on the DVD about the making of the movie.  The added feature was about some of the actors portraying those courageous passengers who resisted the hijackers and died as heroes.  We were gratified to learn that the producers of the movie went to great lengths to cast the right actor for each person who died.  Not only did they enlist actors who looked like the actual passengers, they contacted surviving family members to obtain information about their loved ones.  Most remarkably, the movie producers set up meetings between the actors and the surviving family members.  The documentary feature on the DVD chronicles some of those real life meetings.  In some ways, we found the interactions between the actors and the families as compelling as the movie itself.

 Because the actors physically resembled the passengers who had died, it was very emotional for the families to meet them.  In some cases, it was almost like their loved one had come back to them for a day.  Almost always the actor would be met with embraces and tears.  During those encounters, the family members would do most of the talking, often sharing photographs and stories about their loved one.  Occasionally the actor would try to explain how he or she tried to portray their loved one.  It was almost a time of reunion, even though the actors and the families had never met before.  It felt like a reunion because they were connected by an unseen presence and a common bond.  The meetings were a gift, both to the actors and to the families.  If only for a day, it almost felt like the ones who had died on 9/11 had come back to life.     

It was something like that on Sunday morning after Mary Magdalene came to the tomb.  It was like she was given one more day with her loved one who had died.  Of course, it wasn’t an actor whom she met.  Jesus really was alive.  But Mary, who loved him as much as any of the other disciples, did not recognize him at first.  She thought he was the gardener, the caretaker of the cemetery where Jesus had been buried.  When Mary found the tomb empty, she naturally assumed that someone had come and removed the body.  Even the presence of two angels did not convince her that Jesus was alive.  But when Jesus spoke her name, she recognized who he was.  The expression on her face may have been like that of those family members when they saw the actor who had portrayed their loved one walk through the door.  There was a sudden burst of recognition, then a reaction of doubt, as though what they were seeing could not be true.  But for Mary, it was true.  Jesus really was alive.  Jesus really had been raised from the dead.  Her immediate reaction was to embrace him, but Jesus told her not to hold on to him.  Rather, she was to go and tell the other disciples.  Mary went and announced, “I have seen the Lord.”  Her mourning was turned to joy.

What would you do if you were given one more day with a loved one who had passed away?  That is the question posed by a recent novel by Mitch Albom, author of Tuesdays with Morrie, and The Five People You Meet in Heaven.  In his latest book, For One More Day, Mitch Albom tells the story of a man who experiences one more day with his late mother.  As the book opens, Charley ‘Chick’ Benetto is a broken man.  His life has been ruined by alcohol and regret.  A former minor league baseball player whose only claim to fame was the six weeks he spent as a backup catcher for the Pittsburg Pirates, Charley has decided to end his life.  He has lost his job and his family.  He hits rock bottom when he finds out that his only daughter was too ashamed of him to invite him to her wedding.  So, Charley makes a midnight ride to his hometown to do himself in.  Half drunk he crashes his car, but survives the accident.  Charley is such a failure that he can’t even succeed in killing himself.  After the crash Charley finds himself at the house where he grew up, and he makes an astonishing discovery.  His mother, who had died eight years earlier, is still living there.  She welcomes him home as if nothing had happened. 

 The rest of the book is the story of that “one more day” Charley spends with his mother.  During that “one more day” he learns things about himself and his family that he never knew before.  He begins to unravel the mess his life has become, and he finds a reason to keep on living.  It’s a day that gives him hope and a future.  It’s a day that gives him a new life to become the person he was meant to be.

What would you do if you were given one more day with a loved one who had passed away?  That’s what happened to Mary Magdalene that Sunday morning in the garden outside the tomb.  She was given one more day with Jesus.  It was a day that changed her life.  It was a day that gave her a new destiny.  It was a day that gave her hope and a future.  It was a day that gave her a new life and a new purpose in life.  It was a day that helped her to become the person God created her to be.

 There are a number of stories in the Gospels about the resurrection appearances of Jesus, and in every story there is a common theme.  Jesus appeared to the people he loved, and to those who loved him.  The resurrection appearances of Jesus were not designed to elicit faith, but rather to strengthen faith.  Jesus did not go back and appear to King Herod or Pontius Pilate to show them they were wrong.  He didn’t go back to the Chief Priest and the Elders and the members of the Sanhedrin who had arrested and tried him.  He didn’t appear before the soldiers who had mocked him and spat upon him and beat him and pressed a crown of thorns into his brow and crucified him.  He didn’t suddenly materialize before those bystanders who yelled insults at him as he was hanging on the cross.  He didn’t stand before the crowds who had shouted, “Let him be crucified!”  No, the people the resurrected Jesus appeared to were his disciples, the men and women who had followed him and believed in him and loved him.  To them Jesus appeared for one more day.  And it was a day that changed their lives.

 You and I never saw Jesus when he walked upon this earth.  So, we would not recognize him even if he did suddenly appear in our midst.  Oh, we have an image in our minds of what Jesus might have looked like.  Most of us have an artist’s conception of Jesus, with the long dark hair and the full beard and the white robe and the heavenly glow about him.  But those are only artists’ renditions.  We don’t really know what Jesus looked like. 

But those who did know Jesus when he walked this earth did see him after the resurrection.  Some of them did not recognize him at first, and some of them doubted at first, but eventually they did see him and recognize him and believe in him.  “I have seen the Lord!”  That’s what Mary said.  And that’s what all of them said as one by one Jesus appeared to those who loved him.  Those eyewitnesses are long gone, but their testimony remains.  Down through the centuries Christians have been reading the story in the Bible and passing it along to subsequent generations.  Yet, if that’s all we had to go on, the story would have long since been forgotten.  But there is more than what it written here in the pages of Scripture.  There is more than the experience of those first followers of Jesus.  We have our own experience with the risen Jesus.  That doesn’t mean we have seen him with our eyes.  But we have seen him with our hearts.  We have experienced the presence of our risen Lord in our lives.  In the deepest part of our being, we know that we are not alone.  Through the eyes of faith we know that the risen Christ is here.

 There are many traditions associated with Easter—Easter eggs, the Easter bunny, Easter lilies and other flowers here at church, new Easter outfits, Easter bonnets, Easter dinners and family get-togethers.  In our family we have the tradition of Easter pizza.  Many years ago when Amy and Marc were children, we had pizza for our Easter dinner, probably because we were too busy or too tired to prepare a big meal.  We have continued that tradition over the years, even after Amy and Marc were grown and out on their own.  Marc happens to be with us today, and yes, we’re going out for pizza after church.  But even when we haven’t all been together, that tradition of Easter pizza has kept us connected.  I suspect Amy found a pizza parlor in Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam where she is this Easter.  It’s not the pizza that’s important, so much as what the pizza represents.  For our family, the Easter pizza represents a connection we feel with one another that stretches beyond time and space.  Even when we can’t all be together in the same place, eating pizza on Easter Sunday connects us as a family.  We may not be physically present with one another, but we are spiritually present.  And yes, when we have our pizza this afternoon, Amy will be with us too. 

 Among Russian Orthodox Christians there are various special traditions associated with Easter Sunday.  One of them involves calling on family and friends with gifts of Easter candy and Easter cakes.  At each door the visitor proclaims, “Christ is Risen!”, to which the residents of the home respond, “He is risen indeed!”   A new Russian immigrant was making the rounds among his fellow immigrants and family members on Easter Sunday.  At each door he shouted, “Christ is risen!”  And each responded, “He is risen indeed!”  Except when he came to the apartment of an old uncle who had lived in this country a long time.  The uncle had forgotten about life in Russia, and the old traditions.  He had become somewhat worldly and cynical and jaded.  When his nephew came to the door and shouted with joy, “Christ is risen!”  The old uncle replied, “So what?”  It’s a legitimate question:  Christ is risen—so what?

I’ll tell you what—“Christ is risen” means that we are not alone.  It means that Jesus is alive, and with us still.  We can’t see him, (and how could we recognize him if he did appear?), but Jesus is here.  He’s here in spirit.  He’s here in our hearts.    

“I will never leave you or forsake you,” Jesus said.  “I am with you always,” Jesus said.  That’s the “so what” of the resurrection.

You and I, and all who believe, have one more day with our risen Lord, a day that will last forever!

Bruce Salmon, Pastor,
Baptist Church, Bowie, Maryland

April 8, 2007

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