Harrowing Of Hell
March 31, 2024

I have Seen Jesus

The Rev. Doyt L. Conn, Jr.

To watch the sermon click here.

Good morning. Happy Easter. I’m glad to see you. It feels like we are returning to a pattern of normal community in the wake of the very significant trauma inflicted by the pandemic. And sometimes, at least for me, it’s easy to forget how significant that was. A million Americans died. That is big. That is some heartache, with a trailing wake of trauma, anxiety, and indeed, fear.

Fear is a force that causes us to hunker down, to build walls, to push back, to seek safety through separation, which can make sense; but, it also can unintentionally segregate and divide. While the trend toward division in this country preceded the pandemic, the pandemic accelerated it. And that is on my mind, and maybe yours, as we head towards the November Presidential election.It could be controversial.

With that in mind I’m here to remind us this morning that the Christian story claims that love is greater than fear. This is what we celebrate today. The resurrection of Jesus is a statement of love. This celebration is a proclamation that love wins, that love is stronger than fear, that love is stronger than death. This is a love which binds all things together; love as substance that moves in the space in-between all things.

Susan Pitchford, couple of weeks ago, preached a fabulous sermon where she mentioned pointillism (I had to look it up). Pointillism is when you make a picture with a lot of little dots. And if you look really closely at pointillist art, you will see the space in-between each dot. We have a parishioner here, Billy Rosewarne, who’s an excellent pointillism artist, incidentally. You’ll see his portrait of Jesus on the front of the bulletin Sunday April 14th, so come on back.

But my point in bringing up pointillism is that there’s space in-between everything and in that space there’s a substance and that substance is love. Love is the metaphysical glue God uses to hold all things together. And my proclamation today is that love is present, love unites, love wins! Resurrection punctuates this point.

So, this morning imagine with me that we push our fingers in-between the points of this material world and pull them aside to reveal the love that exists in-between all things.

Mary Magdalene will be our guide in opening this portal into the world as it really is. She’s the perfect hero in the Gospel of John who stands as the first witness to the resurrected Jesus. She is the apostle to the apostles. She is the one who came to proclamation: “I have seen Jesus!” She doesn’t seek to make an argument. She doesn’t try to defend her point. She simply proclaims: “I have seen Jesus!” And that is enough. That is enough to pull the points apart so we can experience the love in-between.

Overtime, probably because of the inherent misogyny active in every culture from which Christianity developed, Mary Magdalene has been wrongly represented. She clearly was a follower of Jesus. Many scholars believe she was one of the entrepreneurs that financed his entire ministry. That’s probably true.

And Jesus did perform a miracle that transformed her (Luke 8:2). Something was going on with her that Jesus guided her through. But to think of her as a person of ill-repute in any way is to completely believe myths made by men.

Here’s what really happened in the garden that morning. Here’s what caused Mary Magdalene to proclaim: “I have seen Jesus!” Mary is sitting in the garden, mourning the death of her friend. Suddenly, a man appears. She assumes it’s a gardener. *This is a point not to be overlooked because her identification of Jesus as the gardener acts as a prybar to open the portal which allows us to step back to the garden of Eden.

Let me explain. The word “gardener” used in the Gospel today is a Hepax Legomenon, which is the word for a word used only one time in the Bible. Anytime you come across a Hepax Legomenon you know that something very special is happening (and it is my job to know when we come across a Hepax Legomenon, so don’t worry).  

The first gardener in all of Holy Scripture is God. God makes the garden of Eden, and moves into it. The gardener we meet with Mary Magdalene leads us back to Eden as time travelers, if you will, returning to the scene of the crime to see what really happened. When we arrive, we meet Adam and Eve, and find they are like us.

Temptation has wormed its way into their hearts. A snake, the myth tells us, offers them forbidden fruit, and they bite. The first thing they notice is that they are naked. It is a “look at me” impulse, that theologians call the “fall.”  Adam and Eve’s perspective changes from partners with God in the garden, to owners who wonder: “What can this garden can do for me?”

Eve gets the brunt of the blame, as male theologians have explained over the years. The church was an early adapter, after all, of mansplaining.

Enter Mary Magdalene with the proclamation: “I have seen Jesus!” It is a proclamation of love; not as argument, not as explanation, but as proclamation, a statement shouted from the hillside that God is with us, here, in the garden, where we find ourselves, each one of us right here, right now.

Mary Magdalene’s proclamation can be likened to my daughter Margaret, as a kid, coming home from a soccer game proclaiming: “We won!” or like my niece, Leah proclaiming: ”We’re getting married,” or my cousin, Adjua proclaiming: “We’re having a baby!”

The gardener has returned to guide us back to Eden, so we can witness how love has been there all along. It turns out, the fall of Adam and Eve wasn’t an imposed exile, but a gift of choice, freedom, and agency; a sign of trust, a rite of passage, initiated when they ate the apple and God went opaque (poof).       

While that might seem bad, it was really good, and indeed essential for grafting within humanity choice, freedom, and agency. For if we were to see God in the fullness of God’s nature, If we were to retain full knowledge of God, we would be so overwhelmed, we would fall on our faces in adoration despite ourselves.

Freedom would evaporate in the presence of God. It would be snuffed out by the awesomeness of God. And since God loves us more than that, God melted into the space in-between the dots, the space in between all things.

For if there is no love if there is no freedom, freedom is mission critical. So, we can choose whether or not to be multipliers of God’s love; we can choose whether or not to be love spreading difference makers. Or we can choose to build walls, choose to hunker down, choose to propagate fear.                                                             

Love only finds its power in the presence of choice. As for me I choose love. How about you? To be helpful toward this end, God came into the world in a human sized package – named Jesus to make the invitation of love in a way we could relate to without overwhelming us, without robbing us of choice.

And a few folks in power at the time chose to decline the invitation by hanging Jesus on the cross. Out of love, God allowed that to happen because the love of God cannot be known if there is not real freedom to reject it.

But then, God did something surprising. God overruled the finality of death through the resurrection of Jesus. God repurposed the cross as a crowbar to pry apart the dots of death revealing the more true reality of eternal life.

Resurrection is God rejecting human rejection without denying human freedom… out of love. For there is no love if there is no freedom. Mary Magdalene makes the point with the proclamation: “I have seen Jesus!”                                   

And so, on this Easter Sunday I want to invite you join Mary Magdalene in this proclamation. It is an expression of faith in the power of love to cast out fear, where we can pull apart the points colored with heartache and anxiety and step into the garden of Eden without ever leaving the place where we live.

That is what we’re all about here at Epiphany. This is where we come to train to be love spreading difference makers. Epiphany is a spiritual gym, where we practice how to be our most human selves, by living in the garden of Edenwhere God is, with us, right here, right now.

And so, in a world that can get pretty spun up over the placement, and color, and pattern of the dots, Epiphany is where we come to pick up the cross to pry apart the dots seeking the love in-between, the glue that holds all things together.

Thank you, Mary Magdalene, for being out guide, and for your proclamation: “I have seen Jesus!” May we make it our own.

Happy Easter, and may God bless you.