By the Rev. Darren Miner
The account of the Resurrection found in John’s Gospel holds a certain distinction. It is the only Gospel account that can be read at Easter in every year of our liturgical calendar. This Resurrection account is distinct in another way as well. It is by far the most vivid account of the events of that day, with details that distinguish it from the other three Gospels. Those details merit some attention. So, for the first part of this sermon, I would like to give a running commentary of the story that you just heard proclaimed, with a special focus on Mary Magdalene. Think of it as being like the director’s commentary you find on some DVDs.
Mary Magdalene goes to Jesus’ tomb before the sun has even risen and finds the stone rolled away from the mouth of the tomb. She jumps to the conclusion that grave robbers have stolen Jesus’ corpse. She panics. Without even looking in the tomb, she runs to Peter to report.
Peter and the Beloved Disciple (who was with him at the time) race to the tomb. Like two children, they race. The Beloved Disciple gets there first, but then balks, cautiously peeking into the tomb but not entering. Peter, never one to give much thought before acting, barges right in. They find the tomb empty, except for the linen cloths that had been wrapped around the body of Jesus. We are told that at that moment the Beloved Disciple believes but does not understand. Evidently, Peter doesn’t know what to think. They both go home, one believing and one just perplexed.
At some point, Mary returns to the tomb. Perhaps she followed behind the two disciples during their footrace, unable to keep up with the boys. We find her standing desolate, weeping. She waits till Peter and the Beloved Disciple leave the scene before she dares to peek into the tomb herself. Instead of seeing the grave linens, she sees two angels sitting on the shelf where Jesus’ body had been laid. Everywhere else in the Bible, the appearance of angels causes fear and trembling. But Mary is so numb that the divine messengers don’t seem to make any impression on her at all. Speaking in unison, they ask why she weeps. (Although surely, they knew the answer.) She shares her fear that the body of her beloved teacher has been stolen.
Then, perhaps she heard a noise or perhaps she merely sensed the presence of someone else. For she turns away from the two angels to find a man standing behind her. We are told that it was Jesus, but Mary doesn’t recognize him and supposes him to be the gardener. (As with the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, she cannot recognize the Risen Lord till he wishes it to be so. We have to assume that Jesus’ glorified body is sufficiently transformed that even his closest friends cannot immediately recognize him.) The Risen Lord repeats the same nagging question: “Why are you weeping?” Thinking that this gardener might be the grave robber, she asks for Jesus’ body. Again, she turns away. It’s as if she doesn’t know which way to turn.
As it turns out, Jesus does wish to make himself known, and he does so with one word: her name, Mary. Only then does this sheep of Jesus’ fold recognize the voice of the Good Shepherd. She turns around again and faces him. Her reply is not a theological confession, as we will hear from the doubting Thomas later in John’s Gospel. No, her reply is a more personal acknowledgement, “My teacher.” In a word, she attempts to recapture that familiar relationship of teacher and disciple.
Evidently, she then takes hold of Jesus. Matthew’s Gospel mentions that she fell to the ground and grasped his feet. Jesus’ reaction seems cold and distant. Depending upon the translation, he either says, “Don’t touch me” or “Stop clinging to me.” His only explanation for his aloofness is that he has not yet ascended to the Father. I prefer the second translation, “Stop clinging to me.” My guess is that Jesus senses that Mary is desperate to have him back with her as he used to be, as her daily companion and beloved teacher. But the days of Jesus’ sojourn on the earth as a man have come to an end. The only way that Jesus can now remain with Mary and the disciples is spiritually, through the mediation of the Holy Spirit. And the Spirit can be sent to them only after Jesus has ascended, for such is the divine plan.
Lastly, Jesus appoints Mary Magdalene to be the “apostle to the apostles.” She is sent to tell the others what she has seen and heard. And so she does. John’s Gospel continues with stories of Jesus’ appearing to his male disciples, who are cowering behind locked doors. But that is next Sunday’s story!
Fr. David told me once that the people he prepares for baptism find the Resurrection to be the chief stumbling block to belief. And to be honest, we have no proof of the Resurrection that would pass muster in a court of law or a scientist’s laboratory. But that is not to say that there is no evidence at all! Ironically, the most convincing evidence of the historicity of the story is the fact that the first person to see the Risen Lord was a woman. If the disciples, or the early church, had decided to make up a story from whole cloth about Jesus’ returning from the dead, you can be sure that the witnesses in that story would have been men—and only men! First-century Palestine was thoroughly patriarchal, and the testimony of a woman counted as nothing.
Moreover, if the Resurrection were a bald-faced lie, it is hard to imagine why the disheartened band of disciples would regroup as they did and go out into the world to spread Jesus’ message at the risk of their very lives. For who would risk their lives for what they knew to be a lie? So if there is any nagging doubt in your mind about the Resurrection, let it go! Believe in your heart that Christ was raised. Trust that God’s love is stronger than death. And trust that the Risen Lord is just as present with us here today as he was with Mary Magdalene outside the tomb.
Speaking of Mary Magdalene, it occurs to me that Incarnation and she have much in common. Like Mary, this congregation is faced with great loss. Some longtime members have died. Others have drifted away. And we face even more loss, for soon Fr. David will be leaving us to retire. Like Mary, we are tempted to go into mourning, to weep for our losses, to tarry at the tomb. Knowing that all shall be well, the Risen Lord might say to us, “Little church, why are you weeping?”
Like Mary, we may become so distracted, so inattentive, that we don’t know which way to turn and we fail to recognize the presence of the Lord in our very midst. Too often, we get busy or tired, and we lose our patience with one another. And perhaps just for a moment, we fail to see Christ in the other person. The Risen Lord might say to us, “Incarnation, look again! It is I!”
Like Mary Magdalene, we are confronted with the need to let go of old and habitual ways that no longer serve us as they once did. A small example: we used to have signs posted throughout the premises with directions to the Sunday school room. Those signs remained posted for years after the Sunday school had ceased to exist. Perhaps we felt that as long as those signs were there, the Sunday school was just on hiatus. The Risen Lord might say to us, “Stop clinging to what used to be!”
Last but not least, like Mary, we will inevitably be called to leave our comfort zone and do something new by way of mission. What that might be and what it might entail, I really cannot say. But I think the Risen Lord might say to us, “Go forth from this place, and share my message of hope.”
On this glorious Easter Day, I encourage you to heed Jesus’ words to Mary Magdalene. So, give up weeping! Pay attention! Be willing to let go! And most important of all, go, spread the Good News that Christ is risen!
© 2015 by Darren Miner. All rights reserved. Used by permission.