Sermon for Easter: Joanna's Witness

Joanna's Witness

The Resurrection of the Lord; April 16, 2017

Luke 24:1-12

Most of you have probably heard of Peter, James, and John. You are likely to have heard of Paul, who wrote so much of the New Testament. And you may have in your mind a visual picture of Jesus and the folks he traveled with, those who heard his teaching and learned his lessons and watched him heal lepers and were at the Last Supper: all men, right?

You have probably also heard of Mary Magdalene, but you probably also believe some things about her that have no basis in the Bible. The number of places around the country called "Mary Magdalene House" and the character in the opera Jesus Christ, Superstar have shaped the picture most of us have of Mary Magdalene. Not biblical.

Had you heard of Joanna? Of Mary of James?[1] And of course Luke mentions – no names – "the other women with them." These are the first witnesses to the Resurrection, the ones who brave the scrutiny of soldiers and risk the wrath of religious officials to go to Jesus' tomb early on Sunday morning. A couple of things about them grab my attention today.

First, they don't know what they're looking for. When Jesus was buried on Friday, he was buried hastily, without proper preparation of the remains. So they have the spices normally used for preparing a body; they plan to unwrap his body and lovingly and carefully prepare it for its long rest. Hopes are shattered, the dream they had that he was their Messiah is dead, but they plan to do what they can. It may not be much, this matter of preparing his body properly, but it is something. It's more than anyone else is doing for him – except Joseph of Arimathea, who gave up his own tomb for Jesus. All those men in the pictures in your Sunday School books have not done as much.

They come to the tomb, looking for the body of their Lord. Instead they find two men dressed in lightning splendor,[2] who ask, "Why do you look for the living among the dead?" Well, they don't know they're looking for the living! First their hopes were shattered, now their world is turned upside-down. We may think that it's simply good news – "Hey, you thought he was dead; surprise!" – but try to imagine their feelings. They have had a couple of days to adjust to a new reality. Jesus is dead; their hopes are dashed. The Kingdom of God that they were anticipating is not going to happen. The time of love conquering hate and mercy overcoming judgment is not coming. He is not going to be King.

And then… They have adjusted to reality and with a simple, naïve question – "Why do you look for the living among the dead?" – reality has been overturned again. Hope is reborn. Possibilities reassert themselves. They found what they were looking for, but had not known it was what they were looking for.

The other thing to point out: the two men go on to say, "Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee…" Wait a minute. I thought that when Jesus said all those things about his suffering and death and resurrection that he was just talking to the Twelve Disciples; you mean these women were there too? That Mary Magdalene and Joanna and Mary of James and "the other women" were there? Yes, they were there. We tend to ignore them, to focus on the men, but these women have been with Jesus from the beginning. Luke tells us that some of them were women of means, and paid a lot of the expenses for Jesus' travel (8:3).

Including Joanna. Joanna's husband worked for Herod Antipas, the Herod you heard about in the reading on Friday, the one who quizzed Jesus and tried to get him to do a sign:

So you are the Christ, you're the great Jesus Christ!

Prove to me that you're divine: change my water into wine.

That's all you need do and I'll know it's all true.

C'mon, King of the Jews![3]

What became of Chuza, Joanna's husband, we do not know; but Joanna heard Jesus teach, saw Jesus heal the sick, stood by as Jesus was crucified and kept company as he died. She was among the women who helped Joseph of Arimathea wrap Jesus' body and saw him laid in the tomb. And she was there on Sunday morning, ready to do a simple act of kindness, and instead became witness to the news that was destined to change the world: Christ is risen; he is risen indeed.

Perhaps we need to go through all that Joanna went through for that message to have any impact. Bunnies and eggs and chocolate – chocolate! – are nice, and I'll never scorn a great Easter dinner, but the message that Christ is risen will change your life only if you hear his teaching and watch him care for the sick and stand by him as he dies. And then: how that message can change your life. You think you're looking for the dead, and discover the living. You think hope has died, and learn it is reborn. Oh, I want to say so much to you about how the message that Christ is raised from the dead continues to reshape my life, but I need to wrap up the sermon so we can get on with the business of praise.

And I want to let a woman who reminds me of Joanna have the last word. Her words have helped me put Easter in the right context and have given me a vision for the future of the Church. Rachel Held Evans is a young woman from Tennessee and has been featured in many publications, both in print and online. This is from a piece she wrote for the Washington Post two years ago:[4]

You can get a cup of coffee with your friends anywhere, but church is the only place you can get ashes smudged on your forehead as a reminder of your mortality. You can be dazzled by a light show at a concert on any given weekend, but church is the only place that fills a sanctuary with candlelight and hymns on Christmas Eve. You can snag all sorts of free swag for brand loyalty online, but church is the only place where you are named a beloved child of God with a cold plunge into the water. You can share food with the hungry at any homeless shelter, but only the church teaches that a shared meal brings us into the very presence of God.

What finally brought me back, after years of running away, wasn't lattes or skinny jeans; it was the sacraments. Baptism, confession, Communion, preaching the Word, anointing the sick – you know, those strange rituals and traditions Christians have been practicing for the past 2,000 years. The sacraments are what make the church relevant, no matter the culture or era. They don't need to be repackaged or rebranded; they just need to be practiced, offered and explained in the context of a loving, authentic and inclusive community.

My search has led me to the Episcopal Church, where every week I find myself, at age 33, kneeling next to a gray-haired lady to my left and a gay couple to my right as I confess my sins and recite the Lord's Prayer. No one's trying to sell me anything. No one's desperately trying to make the Gospel hip or relevant or cool. They're just joining me in proclaiming the great mystery of the faith – that Christ has died, Christ has risen, and Christ will come again – which, in spite of my persistent doubts and knee- jerk cynicism, I still believe most days.

Robert A. Keefer

Presbyterian Church of the Master

Omaha, Nebraska

[1] Translations often say, "Mary mother of James" but Luke wrote simply "Mary of James," which can mean "mother of James" or "wife of James" or "daughter of James." [2] Luke writes that their clothes were "astraptouse," from "astrape:" lightning. [3] As if you don't know where that's from: "Herod's Song" by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber, Jesus Christ, Superstar. [4] Rachel Held Evans, "Want millennials back in the pews? Stop trying to make church 'cool.'" The Washington Post, April 30, 2015.
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