Walking in Newness of Life—Vigil of Easter, Apr. 20, 2019

Romans 6: 3-11
John 20: 1-18

Sermon delivered at St. Andrew’s Lutheran Church, Perkasie, PA

“So we too might walk in newness of life.”

Paul writes to the church in Rome: we have been buried with [Jesus] by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.

Our tradition has dutifully taught us that Resurrection means we will wake again on the last day, in heaven, and that all persons will be reunited at the great big supper table on the front porch of eternity. Yes, Amen, may God grant us this mercy.

But John’s Gospel tells us that Mary Magdalene experienced the Resurrection sooner than this last day. She walks in newness of life.

Paul explains, in baptism, we are already walking in newness of life. That is what Easter is about, to remind you that in Christ you are made new. Resurrection doesn’t just mean: “not dead,” Jesus is completely transformed. Mary cannot even recognize him, the one she has spent years following and learning with.

Jesus speaks her name and she, herself, begins to transform. Because God is transformation and we do walk in this newness of life.

Mary expected to find a tomb full of Jesus’ battered body. She expected to deal with the agony of the absence of her beloved teacher. But at the tomb there was the absence of absence. The tomb was empty. Stuck in her grief she wants to know where Jesus’ flesh is—where his old body—as she knew it—is.

In deep pain and confusion the transformation began in Mary’s life. Once she was a disciple, once she was a student to Jesus’ “Rabbouni,” But who is Mary now?

Mary has become an Apostle, the first apostle. And that means literally in Greek she is sent. Mary goes. Mary walked in newness of life to the other disciples, transformed, John writes, she “announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord.’”

This reminds me of my friend Katie. Katie’s Dad was an alcoholic.

As a girl she just figured that’s what Daddy’s smelled like, the metallic skunkiness of beer and diesel—the sweetness of alcohol always on his breath like perfume.

Sometimes her Dad was happy, bouncing in his truck his hand in her red hair messing up her ponytail. Down at the river with their fishing poles propped on the muddy rocks, she told me, he would toss his empty beer bottles into the water. Then she’d pelted them with rocks until they sank. She loved the gurgle and clink as the rocks collided with the green Rolling Rock bottles in the brown water.

Pretty often, though, her Dad was sad and mean.

Her mother cried a lot. Katie could hear the muffled shouts, and agonized screams through the drywall. She kept it together, but her younger sister would sob under the covers. That’s when the darkness first slipped its arm over Katie’s shoulder, she told me.

Katie was still pretty young when her parents split up. After the divorce her Dad went out west with some new woman. It wasn’t long before he stopped calling on her birthday.

Those precious few times he had hugged her and told her she was pretty, stopped being good memories. At a certain point good feelings only startled her. Katie told me she felt haunted by happiness, as soon as it came through the door of her life just as fast it would vanish with a slam.

Feeling good only reminded her how unpredictable her Dad was, of how gone he was.

Pretty soon Katie was in high school, Pretty soon Katie was in college.

Once, on a summer afternoon, home from school, she was sitting at the base of a streetlight in a commuter train parking lot, texting with her mom. The asphalt fumes of July were rising up off the black top and prickling her nose.

The train pulled away with a jerk, taking away another boyfriend she had just broken up with. She was texting her Mom about it, and her Mom wrote, “Again, honey! You two seemed happy together.”

“Whatever.” Katie replied.

Sitting there listening to the lawn mowers in the distance with the hiss and clack of the train fading away, she recited to herself: As soon as she felt happy, as soon as she felt joyful, she would start to feel exposed, feel so painfully aware that this good feeling was going to vanish.

“What was the point of feeling happy?” She texted her mom. “It always just goes away.”

Her mom’s little typing bubble just rippled for a few seconds on the screen of her phone, and then it disappeared. Katie knew she had stumped her Mom, as usual. She felt terribly alone all of a sudden.

Getting up, she glanced at her car in the parking lot, but walked in the opposite direction, out of the lot, out onto the sidewalk and down the busy road.

After an hour or so of walking she found herself passing the old rundown houses that were built across the railroad tracks, down by the river. Grubby little kids were riding their bikes in the mud puddles down there.

She focused intently on the squelching and squealing glee of the boy and girl as they chased each other in figure-eights. She was lead on, she told me later, by a mysterious beckoning. She saw an old red truck parked by the corner of the lot and two white-haired men were drinking beer behind fishing rods.

The memories of her Dad rose into her mind. His laugh, how his beard felt when he would kiss her goodnight. His gentle, watery eyes when he was drunk.

Katie figured this was the worst she had ever felt. And that was fine, because what was the point? “Just stay down,” she said, “Just stay down—it’s easier that way.”

Just then, she had an incredibly strong urge to walk over to the guys and ask for a beer. But, instead, she shuffled over to the oil drum garbage can and—swatting away the yellow jackets—she pulled out a green Rolling Rock bottle that was laying there.

Her feet were killing her, she looked down at the thick wedges she was wearing. She kicked them off into a tuft of grass by the pathway and picked her way down the tree roots to the river bank. The slime of the rocks made Katie shiver.

One of the men over there hollered distantly, fighting with his rod to pull in what seemed like a keeper. She tossed the green bottle into the soft waves of the current with a plunk.

The men murmured behind her, then a loud swearing when out into the afternoon air, the line went slack and the man staggered. The green Rolling Rock bottle bobbed away in the current.

She stooped and picked up a cool rock, the size of her palm. She wanted so badly to know what her Dad was doing at that moment. If he was alive, if he was happy: anything.

She was so angry at him—she wanted to curse him like the drunk who had just lost his fish. Instead, she remembered the smell of his truck, and the wiped Bon Jovi tape that was permanently in the tape-deck.

She took aim at the sinking bottle, and her rock slushed into the water. There was the incredibly satisfying smash and the underwater tinkle as the glass imploded and disappeared. She smiled.

She wanted to turn away sharply and fight off the electric joy of her memories. But suddenly, out of the crumbling steeple of a nearby church—she never knew even existed down this close to the water—suddenly, the tolling of a bell, clear and deep, reached her heart.

Katie told me she wanted to turn away, to turn away as fast as she could, but the joy cornered her. Even the simple idea that she had a father filled her with light. And as the hot sunshine hit her red hair, and the algae-smell of the river stones opened her nose, and every memory she had of him was exalted in that unwelcome, but unmistakably beautiful tolling of the bell—which for some reason just wouldn’t stop—and reduced her to tears she didn’t bother holding back.

She was so bitterly happy, almost against her will, and in this moment she had a faint awakening: that these little joys weren’t of her own making, that they were sent to her. Not for her to either greedily hold on to, nor for her to reject as gateways to pain.

She looked back at the river where the Rolling Rock bottle had been and there was only the shimmering water.

And taking up her wedge sandals from the grass, she walked back to her car barefoot, Katie said, in what felt like the newness of life.

Alleluia! Christ is Risen.