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Easter Puzzle

John 20:1-18

April 5, 2015

Sermon preached by Rev. Donald Ng at the First Chinese Baptist Church in San Francisco.

Compared to all of the stories of Easter in the four gospels, John offers the most detail. John’s telling of the events at the start of that great day gives us the longest rendition, with the most dialogue and detail, with the most characters and activity. It’s like when putting all of the jigsaw puzzle pieces together, we finally get to see the whole picture.

John begins with three references to time on this new morning: 1. the first day of the week; 2. early in the morning; 3. while it was still dark. John is making the case that on this very day—Easter—a new time begins. Easter is the First Day of the First Year of the Risen Lord’s Reign! This one morning shifts the whole world from BC to AD.

We are all moving from that realm where death holds us captive into another realm where God really and truly reigns. We are moving from the sense that life can feel so separated from God—as Mary felt—to the certainty that nothing, not height, not depths, not even death, can separate us from God’s love.

But Mary is there alone that morning. How many of you came to church today by yourself? How many people were still in their beds at home and didn’t come with you on Easter? Being Christian today isn’t as popular as in yesteryears when entire family households would put on their new Easter dresses and suits to come to church and then to walk down the street in the Easter parade. Sometimes we feel like Mary alone on that morning at the tomb. Sometimes we feel that at least in our homes, Christianity is down to one person and unless we show up today, there may be no one left to carry on our faith.

Mary sees the empty tomb; she runs to tell others; Peter and another disciple race to the tomb and find that the linen wrappings lying there. If the body was stolen, why did they find the linen? Why were the linens all neatly rolled up?

The details are trying to make a point—trying to put together all of the puzzle pieces. The removed stone, the empty tomb, the linen wrappings, the folded and separate head cloth—it says in verse 8, they “saw and believed.”

Do You Believe?

What does it take for us to believe? Is it enough for us “to see” all of the puzzle pieces of the story and “believe” too? Can we move into this new realm where God reigns like how Mary and the disciples did? That is the question of Easter.

Over the years of my life and ministry, if I have learned anything, I have learned that faith is not just accumulating a set of facts or figuring everything out for some kind of spiritual meaning in the storms of life.

“Seeing and believing” on the first Easter morning when Peter and the other disciple running to the empty tomb, is never static, never certain. Faith is always unfolding, always full of mystery and doubt, always evolving and ever changing, especially as challenges and changes come to our lives.

What we are called to be is to be open—open to imagine what God might be doing, open enough to keep seeking, to strive to discern God’s presence and care in all things. How open and attentive are we to all that God is doing?

We may not ever figure it all out for certain—especially with the things going on in our lives and world: some diagnosis for ourselves or a loved one, a new crisis that keeps us tossing and turning in the night, another tragic disaster somewhere. We may never figure it all out—how does faith make sense out of life?

But we are invited to “see and believe”—to open our hearts to the mystery and possibilities of God that are always present and at work. We are invited to look and be changed on Easter in all that is going on.

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Puzzles

One of the family vacation activities that Joy and Lauren like to do is putting together a huge and complicated jigsaw puzzle. Instead of using the dining room table to eat on, the hundreds of puzzle pieces are laid out and separated according to colors and straight edges. Whenever there’re a few minutes, older members and little children would come by and try to find a piece to fit in.

As one who is legally diagnosed as color-blind, jigsaw puzzles are not something I enjoy doing. In fact, I often threatened to secretly take a piece and hide it until the end so that I would have the satisfaction of finishing the puzzle. You can imagine the reaction to that idea! I have even suggested that as a person with disabilities, I should have some kind of special benefits but they would not relent.

Easter is when God puts the entire puzzle together, and the beautiful picture of the new life emerges to astound us! It’s putting that last puzzle piece in!

At first Mary saw the separated and different puzzle pieces. Jesus has been killed, and now the tomb has been disturbed. She runs and tells Simon Peter and the other disciple whom we believe is John. They too run to the tomb and the one whom Jesus loved sees and believes but without understanding the word from the scripture that Jesus must rise from the dead. They go home. The pieces don’t fit together yet.

Although she sees bright angels in the tomb, Mary is too distraught to let them clarify the puzzle picture for her. A man comes up to her elbow. She turns around. The picture has not yet emerged, for she sees him as a gardener. It is Jesus. He calls her name: Mary! She knows her voice as a sheep knows the voice of the shepherd. She turns to him.

Then Jesus talks about his work and gives Mary hers: “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God…Tell my brothers!”

Mary hears from Jesus saying to her, “Mary, you are my sister. Mary, you are not alone any longer in your status as a child of God. Mary, welcome to the family of God. That is what my resurrection life means for you.” She tells the disciples, “I have seen the Lord!” and all that he said to her. Out of all the fragmented puzzle pieces, transformative meaning has emerged for Mary. She is the first apostle of the risen Christ.

Easter is when God puts the entire puzzle together and we see the new life emerges to astound us. Easter is God’s vote of confidence in Jesus Christ and simultaneously God’s vote or choice to adopt us as beloved sons and daughters alongside Jesus, people invited to join God’s mission to love and bless the world.

Easter is about God’s profound yes to Jesus: his life, his ministry, his vision, his outreach, his self-giving love, even to his death on the cross. All the pieces came together.

Easter is God’s profound yes to us, too, for Jesus’ sake. In Baptism our names have been called and written in God’s book. We have been ushered to the place at the table of the Lord. Here, we are surrounded by family, sisters, and brothers. We are strengthened and sent out to tell what we have seen of the Lord.

What we have seen is that the love of God in Christ comes through even death and tomb to find us.

Putting the Puzzle Together

You may have come to Easter Sunday out of habit. You may be the only person from your home to come this morning. You may have come with some questions and uncertainties about faith and thought what better time to fit together your puzzle pieces than to come on Easter Sunday. And you may have come because you do believe and want to praise God for his mercies and grace. For whatever reason that you came, you are invited to “see and believe” and be changed on Easter in all that is going on because God is never going to leave us.

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I know that I believe more firmly today than I did last Easter. I believe that the Living God in Jesus Christ continues to work through me as your pastor and most importantly as simply a child of God. I believe that today more of the jigsaw puzzle of my life and faith just had a few more pieces fitting together with the hope that in God’s time, I will be able to complete the entire puzzle picture even if that time is when I return to the Lord in heaven.

But a big part of finishing a jigsaw puzzle on the dining room table when you are on vacation is to keep working on it a little bit everyday. A big part of believing in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior is to keep working on your faith and discipleship everyday. We all know it’s more than coming to church on Easter Sunday.

Notice what Mary does that morning. When the others return home, it says Mary stays there weeping outside the tomb. This is a depiction of that wonderful verse from Proverbs 8:17: “Those who love me I love, and those who search for me will find me.”

The text says Mary “stood” there weeping. But the Greek word is more emphatic: she did not just stand there at the tomb, “she stayed right there,” which is not just where she stood—by the tomb—but conveys something of her heart and loyalty, her fidelity.

Faith is not just accumulating a sufficient amount of facts to believe certain things. Faith is about loyalty, openness, where we focus, how we cast our hearts. Mary is not sure what is happening or what will happen, but she is “staying right there”—near Jesus, near the empty tomb. Mary does not know what will happen next, but she is “staying right there.”

Will you be staying right there where you are next Sunday?

Mary’s fortitude, curiosity, even her fears, leads her to encounter with the angels. Then within a few seconds, she encounters Jesus, who calls her name, “Mary.” The scene shifts—from old to new, from weeping to amazement.

Love prevails. Life and light win over death and darkness. In Mary’s heart, all the things that Jesus said came together and she responded, “Rabbouni!”

Then just when we might be tempted to relax and enjoy that planned Easter dinner today and rejoice with our loved ones, Jesus gives a new mission: “go and tell my brothers.” Easter does not just change us. It changes what we do. God is always about calling, urging us to be about God’s good, healing, hopeful, life-affirming work in the world.

We invite Jesus to bring all of the pieces of our broken, complex, wonderful lives together in the peace of God which surpasses all understanding that will guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.

Easter means life. Easter also means mission. May the Easter news touch us and change us, and lead us to new lives of love and commitment.

Alleluia! Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!

Let us pray.

Lord Jesus, on this day you not only defeated death, rose victorious over the grave, and triumphed over evil and sin, you came back to us. You rose, not only to take your seat in heaven but also to be present with us at the table, beside the sea, and along the road. Thank you, Lord Jesus for putting together the pieces of our lives together for your kingdom sake. Amen.

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