"The Great Mystery"
The First United Presbyterian Church of Loveland
“The Great Mystery”
Rev. Amy Morgan
April 4, 2021
Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb.
2 So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, "They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him."
3 Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb.
4 The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first.
5 He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in.
6 Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there,
7 and the cloth that had been on Jesus' head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself.
8 Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed;
9 for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead.
10 Then the disciples returned to their homes.
11 But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb;
12 and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet.
13 They said to her, "Woman, why are you weeping?" She said to them, "They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him."
14 When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus.
15 Jesus said to her, "Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?" Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, "Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away."
16 Jesus said to her, "Mary!" She turned and said to him in Hebrew, "Rabbouni!" (which means Teacher).
17 Jesus said to her, "Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, 'I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.'"
18 Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, "I have seen the Lord"; and she told them that he had said these things to her.
“It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.” This sage advice from the famous, fictional detective, Sherlock Holmes, is important for us to consider today. Because today we are facing a great mystery.
Now, when we talk about the mystery of Easter, the mystery of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, the deductive method of mystery-novel detectives is likely not the first image to jump to mind. We think of the resurrection as a spiritual mystery. We connect it to the Greek concept of mysterion - secret, hidden knowledge or practices that can only be revealed to the initiated or divulged by divine ordinance. The resurrection is not the sort of mystery that can be solved. There’s no evidence to be sorted or data to be collected or grand discovery to reveal. The resurrection is just a mystery, something to be accepted but not understood, celebrated but not grasped.
Christ Has Died, Christ is Risen, Christ will Come Again, as our liturgy says.
But the gospel of John, for all it’s symbolism and mystic obscurity, portrays the resurrection of Jesus very much like the unfolding of a Sherlock Holmes mystery.
First, it begins in the dark, as all good mysteries do. Well, truly, I suppose it begins with a murder. But in the darkness that follows that heinous crime, insult is added to injury when Mary discovers the tomb of the murdered man has been disturbed and the body disappeared.
Contrary to the advice of Sherlock Holmes, Mary jumps to theorizing before she has all the data. The only theory she can conceive of for the missing body is that someone has broken in and stolen it. And so she turns to consulting detective, Peter, and his trusty side-kick, “the other disciple,” and she shares her theory, not even laying out the little evidence she has collected.
The consulting detectives take the case, racing to the scene of the crime. They discover additional evidence. A vacant tomb, along with the discarded grave clothes. Oddly, the wrappings weren’t torn from the body and hastily left in a heap, or taken along with the body, as one would expect of grave robbers. Instead, they were neatly sorted and folded.
When the “other disciple” absorbs this new evidence, we are told he “saw and believed,” but he did not understand. He begins to put the pieces together, but can’t quite understand it all yet. The consulting detectives then return home, scratching their heads, trying to make a coherent theory out of the data they’ve gathered.
But Mary isn’t giving up on the search for Jesus. She remains at the scene, processing what has happened. And she is suddenly overwhelmed with her emotions concerning the case. The grief of a person she loved being unjustly executed. The anger at the desecration of his grave and his body. The helplessness she feels and the senselessness of it all.
She begins to weep, allowing her emotions free reign, setting aside the purely logical, rational mode for a moment, and then looks inside the tomb, perhaps hoping to find she was mistaken and the body really is there after all. And then Mary sees something the consulting detectives missed. She doesn’t recognize the men as angels, but perhaps they are witnesses.
They compassionately ask why she is weeping. And she again shares her theory that the body of her Lord has been stolen.
Before the witnesses can offer assistance, a stranger in disguise arrives – another hallmark of all good mysteries. Mary is distracted by this stranger, who repeats verbatim the question of the angels. He asks who she is looking for, perhaps trying to give her a subtle clue about his identity.
Mary ignores his questions and continues her persistent pursuit of Jesus, going so far as to accuse the stranger of being the thief.
And then, the man in disguise speaks her name. It is not his voice that betrays his identity, as he’s already been speaking. It is her name on his lips.
You can almost see the flashback montage going through Mary’s mind.
"The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” The disciples had whispered about this, but couldn’t imagine what it meant and were too afraid to ask him.
"Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up." The religious leaders mocked him, knowing the temple had been under construction for decades.
“My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.”
Yes, she knew his voice, when he called her by name. All the pieces of the puzzle suddenly came together. Her flawed theory of a stolen body unraveled. The disguise no longer hid from her the unbelievable fact that standing before her was the one she had been searching for, the one who was dead, and he was now very much alive. Now she had all the facts, all the data. And the theory that suited those facts was the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Like any good detective novel, the one who solves the case must share how it was done, must reveal her discovery to others. This is just what Mary does, becoming the first evangelist.
Today, we are facing a great mystery. Theologians and scholars have debated this mystery for thousands of years, mining it for secret insights and symbolic meaning. Churches have required belief without evidence and people have twisted facts to suit theories rather than theories to suit facts.
But what if we approached this as a true mystery? What if we looked for the data?
Now, we would be hard-pressed to acquire from the first century the sort of data that would satisfy 21st century minds. Archeological evidence is scarce and certainly couldn’t tell us the whole story.
But that doesn’t mean we have no evidence to go on when exploring this mystery. We just need to approach it like a detective novel.
First, we begin in darkness. Well, truly, we begin with a murder. Unless Christ has died, there is no mystery about his resurrection. And this is important. Because his death mattered. To Mary, and Peter, and the other disciple. To all his followers and friends and family. To the throngs of joyful crowds who welcomed him to Jerusalem. When he died – how he died – destroyed relationships, destroyed communities, destroyed lives, destroyed hope. The Jesus movement died on the cross with Jesus. Crucifixion was not a glorious or exceptional death. It was a very effective means of quelling any movement that disrupted the Pax Romana, the status quo of empire.
But in the darkness of this heinous crime, something happened. Yes, the gospel accounts vary, and they were written years after the fact. Much of the evidence we would like to see – the stone rolled away and the grave clothes and the angels –has been lost in the darkness of history. But something happened in the dark. And so that’s where our investigation begins. In the darkness of incomplete stories, fragments of history, and layered interpretations, we come seeking Jesus, we take on the case of the missing body.
The evidence may lead us to new discoveries and conflicting conclusions. But we learn from Mary to keep seeking, keep asking questions, to relentlessly pursue Jesus. There will be times when the experience brings us to tears. When the depth of our loss and the magnitude of our need overwhelm our rational, reasonable minds. And when that happens, weeping is good. Our emotions can reveal just as much as our thoughts.
Through our investigations, we are likely to meet others who can share what they’ve seen and experienced. Angels or witnesses, people we might not even recognize as such. People who compassionately wipe our tears even as we continue hurling our desperate questions and need at them.
And it’s possible that Jesus will show up in our searching – disguised, of course. As the gardener. The grocery store clerk. The hair stylist. The teacher. The barista. We may not recognize him at first. Not when they ask how we’re doing today or how we take our coffee.
But then, we will hear him call our name. Perhaps not literally or audibly. But somehow, we will recognize how intimately we are known and deeply we are cherished. And all the pieces of the puzzle will click into place.
I don’t know if that’s happened for you. I can’t promise that someday it will. Because I’m still in pursuit of this mystery myself. I’m not content to twist facts to suit theories, to worship the unknowable mysterion, to hope for divine revelation. And so, I keep seeking Jesus, asking questions, and collecting evidence.
And I’ve gathered quite a few clues through my investigation. I’ve studied the history and I’ve read the gospels – even some of the ones that didn’t make the cut of canonical scripture. I’ve asked people what they believe and why they believe it and heard stories of strange coincidences, visions and dreams, and gradual transformation. I’ve had my personal encounters and experiences with something that can only be described as a transcendent beneficence.
But the greatest piece of evidence for the resurrection is the fact that we’ve heard about it at all. The Jesus movement was not supposed to continue after he died. It could not have continued. Jesus had no successor, no one who could excite and mobilize people the way he did. If he died, and stayed dead, if Mary had found the body she was expecting to find, we would not have heard of Jesus today. Because his followers would have dispersed. Some would have gone home and lived out their days, wondering how they could have been so foolish to follow that charlatan. Others would have taken up following another zealot hell-bent on expelling the Romans and cleansing the temple of corruption. But in 10 years, 20 at best, no one would have remembered Jesus. No one would have lived differently because of him. No one would have told stories about him. Certainly no one would have given up their life for him. No one would have continued the movement he began. No one would have written music and liturgy praising him. No one would have prayed to him. No one would have bothered trying to figure out who he really was, where he really came from, why and how he lived and why it mattered. No one would have looked for evidence of his life and death and resurrection.
But here we are today. Still searching. Investigating. Gathering evidence. Asking questions. Still today, people all over the world sing praises and tell his stories. Still today, lives are transformed, and prayers are lifted.
And so, the mystery itself, the fact that it exists today, is part of the body of evidence.
Sherlock Holmes also said, “Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.” It would have been impossible for the Jesus movement to survive 100 years, much less 2000. So what remains – an empty tomb, a story of resurrection, 2 and a half billion followers – however improbable, well, seems at least possible, if not likely.
So let us keep going into the darkness and investigating the mystery. Let us weep when we are confronted with loss and confusion. And when, if, we hear a stranger in disguise call our name; when, if, we recognize the voice of our shepherd; when, if, the pieces of the puzzle suddenly come together – even for a moment; let us reveal our discovery to others.
The case may never be closed on this great mystery of our faith, but the game is afoot, friends. Amen.