By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: John 20:1-18
I’m holding a box this Easter morning. We live in a shipping culture. We do even more online ordering in these days of social distancing. If you’re curious, here’s what Americans are seeking the most during this pandemic: online grocery orders have skyrocketed. In 2nd place are survival supplies – masks, disinfectants, water and air purifiers, etc. In 3rd place is what they categorize as “backyard betterment.” I found that one interesting. Apparently, we’re investing a lot more in our backyards since that’s likely going to be our vacation destination this spring.
Suppose a box were to magically appear at your front door right now and all the tracking information would tell you is that it contained what you’ve been seeking most. What would be in that box? Would it be a big wad of money? World peace? A forever love? A cure for COVID-19?
What are you seeking most?
It’s interesting to note that, in the gospel of John, the very first words Jesus speaks are (in Greek) tis zeteo? It can translate three different ways in English – What are you seeking? Who are you seeking? Why are you seeking? Early in John’s gospel, disciples of John the Baptist start to follow Jesus. Jesus turns around and sees them following him, tagging along, and says, “Tis zeteo?” What are you looking for? Who are you seeking? And why?
In this morning’s gospel story, on resurrection morning, we hear those same words, that same question, once again. So Jesus’ first spoken words of the gospel are also his first words after resurrection. Asking Mary why she is crying, Jesus digs deeper: “tis zeteo?” Who are you looking for? Who are you seeking?
It’s a question at the heart of John’s gospel. It’s a question with which we all must grapple. What are we living for? What gets us out of bed in the morning? What or who are we seeking in life and why? If you were to open this Amazon box stamped “what you’ve been seeking most,” what would you find inside?
Even more specifically, John’s gospel is designed to draw us into the drama as we are provoked to ask, “Who is Jesus? Who is Jesus to me? And why would I seek him?” Some people seek Jesus from a place of fear, desperately hoping that Jesus will be like a four-leaf clover or some talisman that gives them luck and protects them from harm. But Jesus isn’t simply some “get out of trouble” or “get out of hell” insurance card.
Who is Jesus to you and is Jesus what you are seeking?
The opening words of John's gospel are words about Jesus' identity. He is the Word made flesh and – not only is he with God… he is God. Not only does he exist now, but he has always existed. He wasn't a "product" of God's creation. He was God's partner in creation. And… those who enter into a relationship with him have a special and very intimate connection to God. They become members of God’s family, children of God.
Throughout the gospel of John, we are encouraged to wrestle with Jesus’ identity for ourselves, through this narrative device of drawing us into the story in such a way that we journey with gospel characters grappling with this question of Jesus' identity. They make contact with Jesus; engage with him in some way. And, what makes these interactions so interesting is that – as they are attempting to determine who Jesus is and whether he is the one they are seeking, Jesus is – all the while – making clear that he knows who they are in very deep and intimate ways.
The Samaritan woman at the well is astounded because Jesus knows everything she has ever done. It is on that basis that she invites her fellow-villagers to "come and see" this Jesus guy. "Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! Could he be the Messiah" she wonders aloud.
And through their encounters, not only does Jesus reveal how intimately he knows them, he also reveals himself to them. In the story of the Samaritan woman, she expresses her desire for the Messiah and Jesus replies, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”
In the 9th chapter of John’s gospel, Jesus heals a man born blind. Not only through his initial encounter with Jesus, but as he processes that experience out loud he comes to a deeper understanding of who Jesus might be: more than a healer, more than a prophet. He is one who has come directly from God. The story concludes with Jesus seeking the man out yet again and asking him if he believes in the Son of Man. The formerly blind man confirms that he is seeking the Son of Man and asks “who is he? Tell me…” Jesus replies, “You have seen him and the one speaking with you is he.”
So, it’s a two-way street. In our mutual seeking of one another, there is also mutual disclosure and revelation. Jesus engages with us in order to reveal to us who he is. And as the characters within the gospel are seeking, Jesus reveals himself as the answer to their seeking and reveals that he already knows them; knows their character, knows what they have done, knows who they are.
Interestingly, in this morning's resurrection story, Mary does not recognize Jesus until he speaks her name.
Certain people have a way of addressing us that just makes us feel special, right? I know I’ve mentioned before that, back at my church in Castleton, there was a man there who always addressed me as “Rev.” He didn’t address the other clergy that way and I felt it was a term of endearment. I liked to hear him say it. That name he gave me, “Rev,” gave me a sense that my vocation as a pastor was meaningful to him.
I sometimes wonder if there was a particular way that Jesus said Mary’s name that caused her to feel special. After all, she was one of his closest followers. In John’s gospel, she makes a late appearance. But there is more said of her in the other gospels. Some of us who grew up in the church may have heard Mary referred to as a prostitute. But if you read through the gospels you’ll discover that there is actually not a shred of biblical evidence to merit that. Luke and Mark note that Jesus exorcised demons from Mary. And she is named as among the women who accompanied Jesus in his ministry. But perhaps most importantly, she is the only character whom all four of our biblical gospels identify as being first at the tomb on Easter morning. Clearly Mary had a deep love for Jesus. He was the one she was seeking.
So on Easter morning, she stands at that empty tomb crying because not only has her dear friend died, but someone has apparently poured salt in the open wound of her grief by stealing his corpse. But then this man she assumed to be a stranger, perhaps the gardener, addresses her by name. And in that speaking of her name, she suddenly recognizes that this is Jesus, her friend, her teacher, her Lord. This is who she has been looking for. And it is he that has appeared before her. She's been seeking him, but he is the one who has appeared to her.
This resurrection story brings to fulfillment Jesus' words in the 10th chapter of John. There, Jesus compares himself to a shepherd: a good shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep; a shepherd who calls his sheep by name. The sheep will follow him because they know his voice and, therefore, trust him. And on Easter morning, that is what happens. Jesus has, in fact, laid down his life for the sake of those who love and trust him – people like Mary; people like you and me. And now, Mary recognizes who he is because he has called her by name.
Do you know what you are seeking? Who you are seeking? And why? It’s a question we all need to wrestle with at some point in our lives. And you know, I’m wondering if COVID has caused some of us to reassess what it is we are seeking. Maybe this crisis has revealed that some of the things we were deeply invested in weren’t as reliable or valuable as we thought; while some of the things we took for granted (simple things like the breath in our lungs) are priceless. Maybe working from home, becoming the caregiver for a vulnerable elderly parent, struggling to help our kids navigate online classes, dropping off groceries to a neighbor who is immune-suppressed, passing the 4-block long line for Food Finders, going for a walk in the park with our dog because it’s the only safe place to go… Maybe all of those things have caused us to return to that important question of what we are seeking? Who and why? Maybe that imaginary box on your front porch is holding something different than it would have a month ago.
Friends, perhaps the best news of Easter is that, even if you are not quite sure what or who you are seeking, perhaps if you have come to realize that your goals and desires need some reassessing; well, that doesn’t stand in the way of Jesus seeking you, calling your name, revealing himself to you, offering you new life. Jesus knows you better than you know yourself and he is inviting you to hear his voice and enter into the security of the Good Shepherd’s flock.
You know at Trinity during Lent, we had a study of the book “Transforming Your Painful Emotions.” And in that book it discusses the difference between safety and security. Safety means our physical environment holds no risk. We all recognize, right now our environment holds a lot of risk and trusting Jesus doesn’t simply make that risk go away. But security is something different. Security means our resources are stronger than any threat we face. When we enter into relationship with Jesus, when the Spirit of the risen Christ is within us, that is a resource stronger than any threat we face. That is our source of security.
Friends: Jesus is calling you by name and wants to welcome you into the family of God; wants to welcome you into his flock.
Janet Wolf, a United Methodist minister from Nashville, tells the story of her son, Josh and her father, a fine storyteller. One day when Josh is only 3 years old she hears them through the open window and Josh is begging for grandpa to tell him a story. Grandpa begins a comical tale. He begins to describe a grandson he is seeking and can't find. The grandson wears overalls just like Josh and sneakers with a hole in them right where Josh has a hole in his. This grandson hates peas and loves chocolate. Josh becomes excited recognizing that this is a story about him. On and on grandpa goes, continuing to describe Josh in intimate detail. Josh becomes more and more excited until grandpa asks where he is and Josh jumps his feet and declares "I'm Josh!" Janet says her father and son dance around the yard in tremendous celebration. Afterwards, they come into the kitchen to get a glass of juice and Josh implores grandpa:
"Granddaddy, granddaddy, tell me that story again. You know. The one where I'm lost and you come to find me. The one where you know who I am and you're glad."
Friends, whatever it is you’ve been seeking rest assured, even if you feel lost or overwhelmed in this moment, even if you’re reassessing your own desires, be assured that Jesus has always been seeking you and always revealing himself to you. He’s been calling your name. Jesus knows who you are and he’s glad.
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