John 20: 1 – 18 What We See at Easter April 17, 2022  

What We See at Easter

John 20: 1 – 18

(preached April 17, 2022)


In the garden that first Easter morning, just as the sun is coming up, Mary Magdalene sees Jesus.  But at first she doesn’t recognize him.  Instead, John tells us, she “supposes him to be the gardener.”  She doesn’t see Jesus; instead she supposes that this man has come to trim and rake and pull up weeds.  You know, and I know, that this man is not the gardener.  We’ve heard the story many times.  We know that this man is Jesus, risen from the tomb.


But imagine for a moment how you might react if you had never heard the Easter story.   Imagine that you are deep in grief, as Mary is.  Imagine that your mind is full of details of what needs to be done to take care of the body of your best friend, who has died.  Like her, you – and I – might also see only what we would expect to see in a garden: a gardener.  As you and I might do, Mary took what her eyes first told her to be reality.  She saw what she expected to find, and she accepted what she saw.  She didn’t look any further.


Mary was convinced that what she saw was all there was to see.  A lot of us are like that today.  We rush from place to place, never pausing to really look, seeing only what we expect to find.  And we live in a world where it’s widely believed that what we can see is all there is.  As one historian put it, “the modern world [has] convinced itself that nothing is real except what we can see, taste, and touch.”


You can hear that attitude in the words of a salesclerk who waited on a woman in a local supermarket.  The woman was in the produce department, examining the cantaloupes, trying to find a good one.  She asked the clerk, “Do you have any more cantaloupes?”  The clerk replied, “Well, what you see is all there is.  Either take it or leave it.”


What you see is all there is.  In our world today, growing up seems to mean adopting the attitude that nothing is real except what we can see and taste and touch.  Becoming a mature adult means becoming the sort of person who says, “Well, that’s the way it is.  What we see here is all there is.  We can take it or leave it.”


Most of us, as we grow up, learn to take it rather than leave it.  We learn to accept things as they are.  We work on developing the ability to take the world as it is, not as we wish it would be.  What we see is all there is, we say.  This is reality.  Live with it.


But it seems to me that this attitude doesn’t do justice to the act of seeing.  This attitude misses a lot about how it is that we see.  You don’t have to live very long before you realize that what you see might not necessarily be all there is.  The very act of seeing is limited, conditioned by your previous experience: the way you have learned to see.  Scientists tell us that our brains filter out many of the visual impressions our eyes receive.  Otherwise, with so much visual information coming at us, we would be overwhelmed.  So our brains learn to fit what our eyes tell us into an image based on what we’ve seen before.


And I have to wonder, is what we see always based on those images embedded in our brains?  Is what we see limited to what we expect to see, based on what we’ve already seen?  If that’s the case, what do our brains do with images they receive, that are way different from what we’ve seen before?  What do our brains do with images that don’t fit any images from prior experience?


That first Easter morning, Mary Magdalene comes to the tomb of Jesus.  When she sees that the huge stone has been rolled away:  when she sees that the tomb is empty, she looks to her previous experience.  Based on that experience, she can see what has happened.  Obviously, someone has stolen the body of Jesus. “They’ve taken the Lord out of the tomb,” she cries, “and we don’t know where they have laid him.”


Even when the angel appears – an astonishing sight, for sure – Mary remains convinced. “They’ve taken away my Lord, and I don’t know where they have laid him.”  Seeing an empty tomb, she thinks that’s what must have happened.  She’s in a burial place, a place of death and loss.  She’s unable to see anything but death and loss.


Even when Jesus appears, Mary doesn’t change her mind.  She insists that someone has stolen the body of Jesus and this man must be the gardener.   That is her reality.  But then Jesus calls her by name.  She hears his voice, his dear familiar voice.  She recognizes the voice of her beloved rabbi.  She knows it’s the voice of Jesus, risen from the tomb.  He calls her by name. He speaks to her tenderly.  He guides her to a new way of seeing, different from what she expects, different from what she’s accustomed to.  He reveals to her a new reality: the wondrous new reality of resurrection.


Maybe that’s why Christianity is considered a revealed religion.  You don’t see it until it is revealed, opened to you.  You don’t see it until you have experienced the sight of the risen Christ.  Then your eyes are opened to a new reality.  Most of the time, we see “through a mirror dimly,” as the apostle Paul put it.  But once in a while, our eyes are opened and we see a new reality: we see: not dimly, but face to face.


That’s what happens at Easter.  It isn’t just that Jesus was raised from death, although that would be enough of a miracle.  But Easter also happens when Jesus appears to us, in our lives here and now.  He comes looking for his friends, he encounters them, calls them by name. He reveals himself to them.  He intrudes on what they expect with a new reality.


A new reality can intrude in many ways.  A friend tells of a man she knew.  In his early adult years, he lived what you could call a dissolute life.  She always thought he was an intelligent person, with a lot of talents.  But he seemed to have difficulty using that intelligence and developing those talents.  In his college years, he was quite the party animal.  His friends thought when he got married it would make a difference, but it didn’t.  He and his wife spent far too many evenings carousing.  He had a good job, but he seemed uninterested in the job.  He couldn’t seem to get his life moving in a productive direction.


As he got into his thirties, his friends were already saying, “He’s wasted his life.”  But then a new reality intruded on him.  His wife gave birth to a baby girl.  His friends had never thought of him as the fatherly type.  But he loved that baby.  The change was dramatic.  He totally settled down, settled in, focused.  If you met him on the street, you would hardly know you were talking to the same person.  He says now that his main pleasure in life is providing for his child’s future, being a great father, and living a good family life.


What happened?  A new reality intruded on him.  Maybe when he saw his new little daughter, he was intruded upon, and his life got redirected.  It was as if in an instant, in the blink of an eye, everything came into focus and he saw.  He got a vision of who he was meant to be, who he could be.  His world changed.  I think you could say it was something like Easter.


My friends, this morning, as you head out of church, get ready to see in a new way.  Open your eyes to what might be different from what you expect to find.  Look at something that may be very familiar to you, something you’ve seen many times before.  Look at the green shoots pushing up from the ground and try seeing them in a new way.  Look at the face of your husband, the face of your wife, the face of your father or mother, the face of your child.  Then look again.  Open your eyes to a new reality.  You just might see the face of the risen Christ.








Rev. Elva Merry Pawle

Easter Sunday