Sunday, April 5, 2015
A Sermon based on Mk. 16:1-8, Mt. 27:62-28:15, Lk. 24:1-12, & Jn. 20:1-10
By The Reverend John Edward Harris, D. Min.
The Presbyterian Church of Cadiz
April 5, 2015
Resurrection of the Lord / Easter
Not long after beginning to serve as your Interim Pastor I started thinking about preaching a sermon inspired by our Tiffany window. A little research and reflection suggested that what our window presents is a compendium of resurrection morning accounts from the Synoptic Gospels as well as John.
The first three Gospels—Matthew, Mark, and Luke—are called the Synoptic Gospels; synoptic means “seen together” because of their close similarities which enable the texts to be set out in parallel for comparison. It is generally agreed that there is a literary relationship among the Synoptic Gospels but that relationship is far from definitive. The Gospel According to John compared to the Synoptic Gospels, is so sharply distinguished—in style, wording, structure, and especially theological emphasis, seeming to see Jesus and his ministry from such a different perspective compared to the first three Gospels—that it stands alone showing very little literary relationship to the Matthew, Mark or Luke (The Oxford Companion to the Bible, p. 724.).
While the Gospels were written centuries ago, Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848-1933) didn’t establish Tiffany Glass Company until 1885, intending to make ecclesiastical and secular windows and, shortly thereafter, lamps. (Tiffany & Co., his father’s firm, was independent.) In 1892 Tiffany renamed his firm Tiffany Glass & Decorating Company and established a glass manufacturing plant on Long Island directed by glassmaker Arthur Nash where our window was probably created.
Our Tiffany Window bares an 1884 Copyright from Tiffany Glass Decorating Company and was originally designed and built for the Calvary Methodist Church in Pittsburgh. After Calvary ordered the 10 x 20 window the church found that it was too small for its plans so they ordered a larger one. Presbyterians in Cadiz were therefore able to obtain it at the bargain basement price of $2,000, which, adjusting for inflation, would be close to $50,000 today. Referred to as the Dewey Memorial Window, thanks to bequest from the estate of Nancy Prichard Dewey which made the purchase possible, the window was dedicated in April 1900. It was removed in 2000, restored, and in 2001 reinstalled and rededicated at a cost of $60,000.
The window’s design, entitled “Resurrection Morn”, is executed in three panels. The left panel features three women. The Gospel according to Mark is the only Gospel that tells us specifically three women, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome, brought spices so that they might go and anoint the body of Jesus.
The right panel features two men. The Gospel According to John is the only Gospel that tells us that two men, Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, ran together to the tomb.
The lower center panel features three soldiers. The Gospel according to Matthew is the only Gospel that reports Jewish guards, without telling us how many, being stationed at the tomb. While our Resurrection Morn features three guards, the Resurrection Morn window now in the Calvary Methodist Church in Pittsburgh, being larger, features four guards.
The main center panel features Christ flanked by two white robed figures. The Gospel According to Luke is the only Gospel that reports two beings in dazzling clothes appearing at the empty tomb.
The top panel features what appear to be cherubs, “supernatural creatures associated with the presence of God, and in postbiblical tradition identified as one of the choirs of angels.” While cherubs are mentioned nearly a hundred times in the bible (The Oxford Companion to the Bible, p. 107), they are not mentioned in any of the resurrection accounts. They probably appear at the top of our window simply for balance and decorative affect.
What our Tiffany window presents to us, then, is not a single Gospel account of “Resurrection Morn” but a compendium. Rather than depicting “Resurrection Morn” through the lens of any one particular Gospel, it offers us an element from each of the four Gospels.
As I have ruminated on how our window might shed light on the morning of the resurrection, it dawned on me that the four groups of characters—the three women, the guard, the two men approaching the tomb, and the two beings in dazzling clothes— offer vignettes of at least four possible reactions and responses to the news of the empty tomb.
The first vignette I want to focus on is that of the three women from Mark because most scholars agree that Mark is the oldest of the Gospels and was used as a source for both Matthew and Luke. As we already heard, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, the type used to embalm a corpse, intending to anoint the lifeless body of Jesus. These three women serve as an example of people who set out to do a good and right thing without thinking it through, for they had no idea who would roll the stone away from the tomb, and without the stone being rolled away, there was no way for them to anoint the body. Yet they had the faith or determination to try anyway. Maybe sometimes we need to set out to do what is right and good, not knowing how we will surmount all the obstacles, but having the determination and faith to do it anyway.
Unexpectedly finding the stone rolled away, the three women enter to tomb. Seeing who or what is obviously an angelic being rather than the corpse of Jesus, they tremble in their footsteps. The heavenly messenger instructs them to go and tell Jesus’ disciples to meet Jesus in Galilee. Mark then tells us that the women fled and, filled with bewilderment and fear, said nothing! But, if they said nothing how can we be reading about what they experienced? They must have eventually overcome their fear and bewilderment and told someone.
First and foremost, let it be known that in Mark, the oldest Gospel, it is women who first arrive at the empty tomb, women who first learn that Jesus has been raised, and women who are instructed to go and tell the men. Seized by terror and amazement, they may not have told anyone right away, but eventually they must have told someone. If nothing else, the women should warn us not to assume that men or people with the power and authority are always the first ones to know and experience God’s revelation.
The Jewish guard in Matthew is perhaps the antithesis of the trio of women in Mark. Sent to secure the tomb so that Jesus’ disciples could not go and steal the body and then claim that he was raised from the dead, when there was a great earthquake and an angel of the Lord appeared and rolled away the stone, the guards shook from fear and, sent to guard the body of a dead man, became themselves like dead men. Apparently the guard did not hear anything the angel said to the women. Afterward, some of the guard reported to the temple authorities what they had experienced. The religious authorities paid off or bribed the guards to lie and say they actually saw Jesus’ disciples come by night and take away the body of Jesus while they were asleep.
I think the account of the guards warns us not to sell our souls and value financial gain over spiritual insight and illumination. I think they also warn us that sometimes we in the church can go to great lengths, and even great expenses, to guard against change when change is what God has been about all along. They warn us not to cast aspersions against those whose religious understanding and spiritual experiences are not like our own, for as we seek to guard the church we may in fact be working against new things God might be doing in the world.
In Luke, not one but “two men in dazzling clothes” stand beside the women in the empty tomb. Obviously heavenly messengers, they tell the women not to look for the living among the dead and remind them of what Jesus had taught them. I think these two spiritual beings remind us that sometimes we need an out of this world, unexplainable experience, something or someone to give us a spiritual slap against the face to wake us from our spiritual slumber in order to recall and better understand the religious lessons we have already been taught but have forgotten. While we might normally expect our religious and spiritual faculties to be awakened by the Word of God in Scripture, Sermon, and Sacrament, we should never rule out the unexpected and inexplicable.
While I am generally a rational and logical kind of guy, I am also enough of a mystic to believe the world is still filled with mystery and that God can surprise us when we least expect it.
John, the most unique of the four Gospels, tells us that Simon Peter, and the other disciple whom Jesus loved, which tradition identifies as John, the author of the Gospel, ran to the tomb after hearing from Mary Magdalene that the tomb was empty. The other disciple went into the tomb, saw, and believed. But what did he believe? “As yet he and Peter did not understand the scripture”, that Jesus must rise from the dead. He obviously did not believe that Jesus had been raised. Maybe at first having doubted her, he finally believed what Mary had told him, that the tomb was indeed empty, now that he had seen the empty tomb for himself. And then in what seems the most anticlimactic statement possible, the Gospel tells us that these two disciples return not to the other disciples but to their homes.
Perhaps these two disciples warn us not to at first doubt what others tell us about their spiritual and religious experiences but to go look for ourselves. They might also warn us not to base our faith on first impressions, for our first impressions might not be the whole story, and we have not fully processed and understood what we have seen, heard, and experienced.
Finally, focus on the window. Note that two of the guard, sitting motionless on the ground, have their faces covered, hiding their gaze from both Jesus and from us, but one, also sitting on the ground, is looking toward us, as if wondering what we think, if we know the truth or will believe his lie. The three women and the two disciples appear to be neither looking toward nor walking toward Jesus. They are looking at and walking toward us, as if they expect to encounter us and tell us their story. The two motionless angelic beings frame a radiant, resurrected Christ who appears to be descending some steps and walking straight toward us, as if he himself intends to encounter us.
It is as if the women and the disciples and Jesus are attempting to break the dimensions of time and space by extending a two dimensional interpretation of the past into a three dimension experience in the present that includes us.