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  • Writer's pictureRev. Joel L. Tolbert

Is it True?

Easter Sunday, preached Apr 9, 2023 at the 9:30am Worship service

On this Easter morning, let’s pray and listen for the word of the Lord from…

Prayer for Illumination

Scripture John 20:6-18

20 Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb, and (she) 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 (now) we won’t 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 Peter went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, 7 AND (Peter saw) the cloth that had been on Jesus’s head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself.

8 Then the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw, and believed. 9 Still, at this point, they did not understand the scriptural connections, that Jesus would rise from the dead. 10 Then, the disciples returned to their homes.

11 Meanwhile, Mary stood by, weeping, (just) outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to peek 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 (Aramaic), “Rabbouni?” (which means Teacher). 17 Jesus said to her, “Do not hold onto 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.

This too is the word of the Lord. (Thanks be to God.)

Sermon Is it True?

Theologian and preacher Karl Barth once pondered why so many come to worship on Easter. He said, we come with a question… “Is it true?” For those who have heard about Jesus, his birth, life, death, and most importantly his resurrection, that question is in us, “Is it true?”

There are plenty of people who push that question away as silly or irrelevant. Some answer it, NAH, and hurry back to chores or errands, Facebook or Netflix, shopping or golf courses. But I’ve sat with people in the end, and they still have that question in them. “Is it true?”

Maybe this question lingers large in you. Maybe you feel you’ve already answered it. Or, maybe you’ve tried to ignore it. But I wonder if Barth is right, that for those who come to worship on Easter, there’s something in us, something curious, maybe something desperate, that lingers over this question, and we show up on Easter because surely, on Easter, we can expect an answer.

I’d like to promise an answer, but I know from the scriptures Easter doesn’t answer the question, “Is it true?” Easter invented the question.

There was a time when this question didn’t exist yet. In John’s telling, on that first Easter morning, there were three who knew Jesus very well, Mary, Peter, and the “other disciple”. They had spent lots of time with Jesus. They heard his teachings. They saw him interact with women and children, Greeks and Jews, slaves and free, wealthy and poor. They had shared meals and seen miracles. They were near when he confronted leaders. They watched from afar as leaders conspired with the people to kill him. They saw him crucified, dead and buried.

They had lots of questions. How could this happen? Why didn’t we do more to protect him? Why did he have to push so hard? What are we supposed to do now? But they didn’t know our question, Is it true, not yet, not until later.

Earlier, Mary goes to the cemetery and sees the gravestone rolled away. Her question? “What happened?” Her answer, “Oh no. They’ve taken his body.” She runs to Peter and the other disciple and reports what she saw, and what she believes. “The stone is rolled away. They’ve taken his body. Now we’ll never know where to visit him.”

Peter and the other disciple have questions, and don’t understand or believe Mary. They need to see for themselves, so they run. The other disciple gets there first and sees just the body wrappings. Peter arrives and goes in. He sees the body wrappings AND he sees the face cloth, handled carefully, put to the side. I imagine Peter telling the other disciple just outside what he sees from inside. The other disciple has questions, and doesn’t understand or believe Peter, so he goes in to see for himself.

It says inside the tomb, the other disciple sees and believes, but believes what? NOT that Jesus rose from the dead. The very next verse makes that clear. They, Peter AND the other disciple, who have now both seen the same things, do NOT understand Jesus would rise from the dead. How could they? They’ve never seen that. The other disciple and Peter see the gravestone rolled away, see the empty tomb, see the body wrappings and face cloth, and believe Mary, that someone took his body.

Their question was, “What happened?” and they have an answer. He’s been stolen. That’s why they came, and with that question answered, these two disciples go home and lock the doors.

Mary doesn’t yet know our question yet. Her first question was “What happened?” Her answer was, “They’ve taken him.” Now her question is, “Where is he?,” and she is desperate to find that answer, desperate enough to weep.

She arrives back at the tomb. Peter and the other disciple, leaving, tell her what they saw inside, the body wrappings at one end, the face cloth at the other. She has questions, but she has to see for herself. She looks inside, and whatever Peter and the other disciple saw there, she sees something different, angels, messengers. She doesn’t just see body wrappings at one end and face cloth at the other. In what she sees, she is not given an answer, but a new question, “Why are you weeping?” “Because, they’ve stolen the Lord, and I don’t know where he is.” She turns away.

Mary has seen a few things and believed he was stolen. When she looks in and sees something new, she has to question what she believed before. Who steals a corpse and leaves body wrappings and face cloth behind? She’s seen something new that doesn’t match what she understands or believes.

We human beings do not like when we see something new and are challenged in what we already believe. We want answers, but seeing something new that doesn’t fit what we know or believe will only gives us questions, not answers. But it's so hard to let go of old answers for new questions.

A news channel reports a truth that doesn’t match what its audience already understands and believes. The audience changes channels, so the channel learns to only tell them what they already believe, whether or not it's true. Facebook, TikTok, Instagram, Twitter, SnapChat… they watch for what we understand and believe, and show us more of it, dragging us down into smaller tighter echo chambers where we can’t fathom how anyone could believe or think differently. We like old answers more than new questions, and if shown little angels of truth that challenge us with new questions, we will just change the channel, or do what Mary does, turn away.

Thankfully, immediately, she is shown something else new and challenging. She’s clinging to her understandings and beliefs, so whatever she sees, she tries to make it fit. It's Jesus standing there, but that wouldn’t fit, so it must be a gardener. A gardener wouldn’t be a grave robber, but it has to fit, so she accuses him. “If you’ve taken him, just give him to me.” He gives her no answers, only questions, Why are you weeping? Who are you looking for?

If she holds onto her answers, her understandings and beliefs, these questions make no sense. She might even feel anger and frustration toward the one asking them. She is weeping because they’ve stolen the body of her Lord. She is looking for his body. But precious little truths, empty tomb, grave clothes, face cloth, a man standing beside her, they will challenge her former answers, her understandings and beliefs, but they are messengers of God, because they give her new questions.

Then he says her name, Mary. She looking right at him. She heard it. But she can’t believe it. It doesn’t fit. This truth doesn’t match what she saw, or understood or believed about what she saw. Dead people don’t come back, don’t talk. But here he is, calling her by name. She loses all her answers and only has one question.

Now, Mary knows the Easter question. Is it true? I don’t hear Mary responding to Jesus with an exclamation point, Rabbouni!, but with a question mark, Rabbouni? It's hard to believe, so she has to see for herself. She reaches out, grabs him, and will never let him go. But Jesus says, “You cannot hold me. I am near to you always but you cannot keep me. I will keep you. I am the connection between my God and your God, between our God and all God’s children.”

What old answer do you still carry? Imagine Easter as the day Jesus calls you by name and asks you a question that invites you to let it go. Easter is when a staunch bible believing Christian couple, who had stood firm against “the gay lifestyle” for decades, has their son come out to them. Easter is when Christian grandparents, who didn’t believe racism exists, see how their own community and country treat their biracial granddaughter. Easter is all about the new question, when everything we assumed we knew and believed is questioned by a person who knows us and calls us by name. Don’t come to easter looking to hold onto dead answers. Come to easter ready to ask living questions.

To God be all glory and honor, now and forever, amen? Amen.



Now blessing, laughter, and loving be yours, and may the love of a great God, who names you and holds you as the earth turns and the flowers grow, be with you, this day, this night, this moment and forever more.

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