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Known by Name

Text: John 20:1-18

There is something special about being known by name. There is something in the way a lover can say your name that makes you feel as if you are the only person standing in a crowded room. There is something in the way a child can say your name that makes your soul dance with delight. 

  Six months after his mother’s death, Catholic priest Henri Nouwen wrote a letter of consolation to his father. He said, “During the last six months I have grown painfully aware of how accustomed I had become to her unceasing interest in all that I did, felt, thought, or wrote, and how much I had taken it for granted that, even if nobody else cared, she certainly did. The absence of that caring attention often gives me a deep feeling of loneliness.”

I wonder if it was that “deep feeling of loneliness” that led Mary to the tomb in the dark before daybreak. Maybe Mary’s grief was not so unlike our own. Sleep comes hard during grief. Even good sleep is short and often interrupted by random memories. Maybe one of those memories for Mary was the special way that Jesus said her name, with uncommon dignity and respect. We don’t know. John doesn’t tell us. We only know that while the land was still covered in darkness, Mary came to the empty tomb of Jesus.

For some, the empty tomb takes center stage in their faith or their lack of faith. They want to know: What really happened? Who rolled away the stone? Who neatly folded the burial shroud? Is the whole story just a Christian fantasy, a tall tale to dupe the gullible? For John, though, the empty tomb is not the focus of the Easter story, it is simply its setting. When Mary looks inside the empty tomb, she doesn’t strike up the Easter chorus, “Christ is risen. He is risen, indeed.” No, for Mary, the empty tomb offers no special solace or proof of new life. For her, the empty tomb means only one thing – grave robbers have stolen the dead body of Jesus.   

In John’s Easter story, the empty tomb is not empty for long. Angels appear to Mary inside the tomb and ask her: “Why are you weeping?” Lost in her grief, Mary still she does not recognize what has happened. While she is telling the angels her conspiracy theory, the risen Jesus comes and stands next to her and asks her the same question, “Woman, why are you weeping?” Still, Mary does not understand and mistakes the risen Jesus for a gardener or a grave robber. She wants to know where he has hidden the body. 

This Easter scene at the empty tomb would almost seem comic, if not for the fact of how blinding grief can be. For those living in grief, each footstep takes ten times its normal effort and there is no energy to plan for the future or even to think about tomorrow because every waking thought is caught up with the past. Deep in the night’s darkness, Mary goes to the tomb in much the same way that you and I visit the graves or resting places of our loved ones, to remember what once was and wish it could somehow all be the same again.

Easter does not happen for Mary when she arrives at the empty tomb or when a couple of angels address her or even when the risen Jesus first stands right next to her. Easter happens for Mary when the risen Jesus calls her by name, when he addresses her as: “Mary.” And when he calls her by name, Mary does what any of us would do. She tries to hug her beloved friend, to hold on to him for dear life, to weep for joy in his arms. But the risen Jesus stops her.

Easter means many things in John’s Gospel, but it never means living anchored to the past. Jesus has been crucified, has died, and now is risen. Jesus has changed and Mary must now change too. And, not only must Mary change, but she must go and testify to what she has finally come to recognize and know. 

On that first Easter morning, Mary had a whole world awaiting her testimony, fresh ears to hear this incredible story, but who is left for you and I to tell on this last day of March in 2024? “Christ is risen” is a wonderful refrain to announce after a long season of Lent, but it is not exactly new news. In fact, centuries after the fact, isn’t Easter itself a bit redundant? How often can you and I decorate eggs, adorn the cross with flowers, and sing the old resurrection hymns without feeling just a little foolish? Who is left for us to tell the Easter story? Everybody already knows it.

It may seem that way, particularly to those who frequently sit in these or other church pews. But, in reality, it is simply not true in 21st century American, even for those who sit in church pews week after week. How many of the sophisticated, educated, worked and overworked people that you know have even the slightest concept of Easter, that a risen Lord knows them by name, that they are God’s precious children, and that their lives have meaning not because of their level of education or place on the social pecking scale or hours clocked on the job or in the gym, but because God loves, forgives, claims, and names every last one of them and us?  

It is one thing for preachers to pontificate on Easter morning about the glorious resurrection and then for a brightly clad congregation to sing glad resurrection tunes. It is something else entirely for people to grasp in the deepest and often most hidden places of their being that God knows them by name and will not leave them alone in their grief and will lead them into a future far, far beyond their wildest imagining.

On this Easter morning, as I look around the sanctuary, I know most of you but I do not know all of you by name. God does. God knows the name not only of those who show up for Easter worship, but God knows the names of those living in Mary’s darkness before dawn, the darkness of prison or addiction, of gun violence, of domestic abuse, of untimely death and inexplicable grief. Listen and you will hear God calling the names of those for whom the dawn is breaking as they prepare to say their vows or to hear that first newborn cry. 

Beyond the glorious music and big crowd and festive atmosphere of Easter morning, in a few minutes when you leave this sanctuary, may your hearts leap and your tongues wag about a risen One who not only knows all the world by name, but who knows you by name, and who calls out your name again and again from your first breath to your last goodbye. 

Bob, Lib, Tommy, Rosetta, Diane, Les, Emily, Rob, Rebecca, Al, Polly, Greg, Vicky, Nate, Lorna, Sean, Jean, Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! And, he knows you by name!

Hold on to that truth for dear life and no matter how dark the night might be, you will never, never be at a loss for words.





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