Missing Persons

Easter   April 5, 2015   John 20: 1-18

Rev. Catherine Purves


     It was a beautiful spring morning, a Sunday.  The sun was just up; it was early.  But you would have expected some people to be out and about.  It was almost too peaceful.  Where was everybody?  The garden was empty.  Where were his friends and his followers?  Where were the Roman guards?  Where was his family?  Where were those who had wanted him dead?  Where were those who mourned his loss?  They were all missing persons.  And it was so quiet, as if all of creation was holding its breath.

     A woman came walking, silently making her way through the dewy grass, past ancient tombs.  She was alone in her sorrow.  Everyone else was missing.  There was no one to mourn, no one to pray, no one to scoff, and no one to abuse him anymore.  Already, it seemed, he was yesterday’s news.  The hush and the emptiness of the garden graveyard seemed to announce that.  When she got to the place where his body had been hastily laid in a new tomb late on Friday afternoon, she stopped and stared.  The stone that had sealed the tomb was no longer there.   What was this final indignity?  Had someone stolen his body?  On this day of all days, Jesus himself was a missing person.

     Where could he be?  What should she do?  Alone in a graveyard, what could she do?  Where was everyone?  They had all abandoned him, and now he was missing, gone, lost.  Mary ran to find Peter and the other disciple whom Jesus loved.  She ran through the empty cemetery; she ran from the empty tomb; she ran through empty streets until she came to the house where they were hiding.  Two missing persons were found.  Later that night the others would also be found.  Breathlessly, Mary announced, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.”    

     Two men, then, were running through the empty streets, desperately, despairingly, defiantly.  How could this have happened?  How could his poor battered body be missing?  Who would do such a thing?  And what on earth could they do about it?  Still they ran, past the silent tombs until first one and then the other arrived at the place where Jesus had been buried.  But it was just as Mary had said.  Jesus was missing.  Nothing was there in the tomb but the grave clothes.  Peter was perplexed.  In the younger man a spark of hope flared.  But Jesus was clearly not there, and they didn’t know what to do.  Jesus was a missing person.  And so the disciples returned to their homes.

     We know that is not the end of the Easter story.  According to the Bible, Jesus did not remain a missing person.  But let’s pause for a minute and ask ourselves if our faith is stuck there at the tomb.  Do you believe in a missing person?  That is, when you get right down to it, is the Jesus you believe in still missing?  Do you allow things to get a little fuzzy after that incident at the empty tomb?  Instead of seeking the living Christ, do you look back on aspects of his life that you can understand and appreciate, like his wise sayings and his clever stories?  Perhaps you remember the man who pointedly exposed some of the faults and failures of his religious community.  Maybe you are attracted by his sincerity, his selfless sacrifice, his ethics, or his way of life.  The Son of God lived and died a righteous man who deserves to be honored and followed.  Yes!  But the question remains, is he, for you, still missing?  Where is Jesus for you now? 

       The disciples returned to their homes perplexed and confused.  Something had happened, but what?  Jesus was missing!  Mary alone remained at the tomb.  She was overwhelmed with grief and loss and she wept uncontrollably.  John tells us that she bent down and looked into the tomb and she saw two angels there who asked her, “Woman, why are you weeping?”  She had lost Jesus.  That’s why she was weeping.  Someone had taken away his body.  She didn’t know why.  But he was missing.  His life was over, and now all she had were memories, snippets of stories, vivid images of his death that she wished she could forget, and an empty tomb.  She believed in Jesus.  She loved him.  But he was missing. 

     Now this is the point in the story when we need to pay special attention.  This was the instant when everything changed.  What happened next was just as real as the empty tomb, and there was nothing fuzzy about it.  There was a bit of confusion at first as Mary thought the man standing behind her must be the gardener.  She had, you see, truly convinced herself that Jesus was gone.  She had, with great grief, consigned him to history, as so many people continue to do, even those who think of themselves as Christians.  This man who was speaking to her couldn’t be Jesus.  She was so desperate to retrieve his missing corpse that she didn’t recognize the voice and the presence of the living Jesus.

     But then, he said her name.  Mary.  And then she knew that the empty tomb was only the beginning of the Easter story.  She heard him call her name and she knew that Jesus was still going to be part of her life.  He was not missing.  He was right there, and he was very much alive.  She reached out and grasped hold of him.  He was not a spirit or a ghost.  He was certainly not just going to be a chapter in a history book or a system of ethics.  She held his body which was no longer missing.  He was the same Jesus that she knew and loved, and he was alive!  Then he sent her to find his missing brothers, the disciples who were in hiding, and to deliver a message.  “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.”

     What did that cryptic message mean?  “I am ascending.”  Was he going to be a missing person again?  No.  The very opposite.  He was alive.  He was resurrected.  And he was literally and physically present.  Mary could see that.  His humanity was intact.  His bond with us was unbroken by death.  Now that unbreakable bond would also be our connection to his Father and his God.  He was ascending, returning as the victorious, only begotten Son of the Father, so that our relationship with him and with the Father would be real, and unbreakable, and eternal.  He cannot be missing if he lives to serve as our perpetual mediator with the Father, lifting up our prayers, forgiving our sins, and sending the Spirit to strengthen and uphold us in this life.  Then and now, he was not, he is notmissing.  He is powerfully, and blessedly, and truly present.

     And he is calling each one of our names today, just as he called Mary.  When you hear him say your name you’ll know that there is more to the Easter story than just an empty tomb marking the mysterious end of the life of a great man of God.  There is more to hope for here.  There is more to know and to experience.  He is alive.  His ministry is ongoing.  He is present now by the Holy Spirit even as he continues his ascended intercessions for us before the Father’s throne.  He is calling your name.  Can you, like Mary, hear and recognize his voice?

     There is one more group of missing persons that we need to remember on this Easter Sunday.  I look out at the congregation today and I see some new faces.  I see some old friends.  But I also see some people who are missing.  Can you see them too?  They were once so much a part of us:  parents, friends, perhaps a spouse, or even a child.  Missing persons who have died.  And we do miss them!  Our grief is like Mary’s as she stared into the empty tomb of Jesus.  But Jesus was not missing, and neither are our loved ones who are gone.  That is the promise of Easter.  Not one of those who have died will go missing, because of the ongoing ministry of the risen Jesus.  He has called each one of them by name and he has made his Father their Father and his God our God.  They are not missing persons.

     When Mary Magdalene found the disciples who were in hiding, she proclaimed with joy and certainty, “I have seen the Lord.”  Jesus was not missing.  Soon, the other disciples would not be missing either.  And ever since that Easter morning no one who has heard Jesus call their name would ever be missing again.  Just as he was fully present to Mary in his resurrected glory, so too Jesus will be fully present to us today, if we can see beyond the empty tomb, if we can see and know the living Lord!  Jesus is not a missing person.  That is the promise of Easter.