[I proclaimed this message on Easter, April 1, 2018, at Parkminster Church, Rochester NY, from John 20:1-18.]
“Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance.” A small business was moving to a new location. One of the owner’s friends sent her flowers for the occasion. They arrived at the new business site and the owner read the card, “Rest in Peace; with deepest sympathy.” The owner was upset by this and called the florist to complain. After she told the florist of the obvious mistake and how offended she was, the florist replied, “Sir, I’m really sorry for the mistake, but rather than getting angry, imagine this. Somewhere there is a funeral taking place today, and the mourners have beautiful flowers with a note saying, ‘Congratulations on your new location!’”
“Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance.” If Mary had some flowers to place there, the card would have said, “Rest in peace,” not “Congratulations on your new location.” When she arrived she may have wanted the second card, but she didn’t know where the new location was, where his dead body had been placed. We have four accounts of Easter morning and there is not the slightest hint that even one of the disciples went to the tomb expecting to find Jesus alive. Some who do not believe in the Jesus story like to say that we Christians just believe it because we want it to be true. They think we have checked our brains at the door and stopped thinking. That our faith is just a pipe dream. A close look at those that were there indicates that they were skeptical of any miraculous “happily-ever-after” ending. Mary Magdalene goes to say a final goodbye to this one that meant so much to her. When she finds the tomb empty she thinks his dead body has been was stolen. “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!” That is hardly an Easter affirmation. We don’t shout out this day: “We don’t know where they have put him!” When Peter and John run there they find an empty tomb. They agree with Mary—the body is gone. End of story. It was a great run, but now it’s done. Back to life as it once was, whether fishing nets or collecting taxes. Or for some of the women, street walking.
“They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!” Jesus has a way of messing up funerals and our grieving rituals.
Raising the widow of Nain’s son.
Raising Jairus’s 12-year-old daughter.
Ask me what I miss most about being a pastor of a local church and I will readily answer: It isn’t meetings! It’s funerals. Being with people when a loved one is dying is a high privilege. Walking with people through their grief is a high honor. Serving at a funeral is the ultimate reality check. Pettiness, which every congregation has, disappears. In our loss, we are forced to face eternity. Mary went to the tomb to honor the work of grieving for a dear friend. And he messed with another funeral. His own.
“Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb.” Mary of Magdala and the other disciples brought their expectations to the tomb that morning and they were not expecting a risen Jesus. People bring their expectations to church on Easter. Some expect that it will be boring. Some expect that churches are filled with hypocrites. Some expect that the pastor will hit us with a guilt trip, especially if we only show up twice a year. Whatever you came expecting today, you may be disappointed. Like the people that went to the tomb that morning.
There is one key difference in how the three disciples mentioned in John 20 respond. They are together in believing that Jesus’ body is gone from the tomb. They are together in grief at what had happened to Jesus on Friday. Here is where they separate for just a time. The men run and hide; Mary stays and cries. Someone has said that there are only three options in life: run, watch, or participate. We can run from life and hide, or watch life passively, or participate in life. It’s like a middle school dance. We can hide, watch, or get on the floor. Have you been running, watching, or participating? The male disciples ran and hid. Mary Magdalene stayed and participated, even in her tears.
The men run and John puts the spotlight on Mary and Jesus. Mary is grieving, her heart is breaking, but she stays, while Peter and John run. There is a similar pattern on Good Friday. At the cross, the men run away, while the women stay. This woman, Mary Magdalene, stayed—at the cross and at the tomb. We don’t know how to color all the squares of her checkered past, but we know that Jesus delivered her of evil spirits and she was eternally grateful to this one who looked at her in a different way than other men and spoke to her with a tenderness which she did not expect from men. She may have been a #MeToo woman, not trusting men for reason, until she met Jesus.
“Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb.” By being there she experiences a total change, an extreme makeover. First she sees, even through her tears, what the men missed. There are two angels in that tomb and they ask why she is crying. Her answer is honest: “I don’t know where they have put him.” She is still stuck at the same place, but a conversation has begun.
Then she turns and sees Jesus, but doesn’t recognize him. He speaks to her: “Who is it you are looking for?” Here she is in the very presence of that person and she doesn’t know it at first. She thinks he is the gardener. Back then gardeners were low on the occupational totem pole. People didn’t look up to gardeners or think much of them. Even today, many of our nurseries are owned by well to do white people and the workers that get their hands dirty are not white, and may not even be legal citizens yet. Here we have two people: a woman of uncertain past and someone looking like a gardener. Just being a woman meant that she could not be a witness in a court of law and had virtually no legal standing. She is talking with a humble Palestinian man just back from the dead and looking like a gardener.
Until he speaks her name: “Mary.” That did it. Jesus knows us by name. And that led her to become the first witness to the Good News of the resurrection. What power there is in naming persons. She recognized him when she heard him speak her name. This Jesus knows our names too. If you haven’t heard him call you by name, maybe you haven’t been listening. In the World War 2 movie “Saving Pvt. Ryan,” Captain Miller and a band of soldiers are charged to find Pvt. Ryan and send him home. They find him and tell him that his three brothers have died in combat and they have orders to send him home. He doesn’t want to leave his fellow soldiers. An aid to Miller says: “Two of us have already died, getting you a ticket home.” Ryan is moved by that and asks, “What are their names?” “Wade and Caparzo.” Ryan slowly repeats the names. Knowing their names makes the difference. Ryan says, “What have I done to deserve this special treatment?” God knows our names. The risen Lord calls us by name. With Pvt. Ryan, we don’t deserve this special treatment. God gives it to us by grace. The Lord knows our names.
“Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance.” Jesus has a way of messing with funerals. Now he does it again at his own tomb. From the darkness of the tomb, Jesus is resurrected and brings his new life to us. The risen Christ appears to a grief-stricken weeping woman. And we know that Mary Magdalene becomes the first evangelist, the preacher to the apostles, the witness to the weak-faithed disciples, the first herald of the Good News. Her message was this brief and profound: ‘I have seen the Lord!’