John 20:1-18 CEB
Early in the morning of the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb. She ran to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said, “They have taken the Lord from the tomb, and we don’t know where they’ve put him.” Peter and the other disciple left to go to the tomb. They were running together, but the other disciple ran faster than Peter and was the first to arrive at the tomb. Bending down to take a look, he saw the linen cloths lying there, but he didn’t go in. Following him, Simon Peter entered the tomb and saw the linen cloths lying there. He also saw the face cloth that had been on Jesus’ head. It wasn’t with the other clothes but was folded up in its own place. Then the other disciple, the one who arrived at the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed. They didn’t yet understand the scripture that Jesus must rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned to the place where they were staying.
Jesus appears to Mary
Mary stood outside near the tomb, crying. As she cried, she bent down to look into the tomb. She saw two angels dressed in white, seated where the body of Jesus had been, one at the head and one at the foot. The angels asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?”
She replied, “They have taken away my Lord, and I don’t know where they’ve put him.” As soon as she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she didn’t know it was Jesus.
Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who are you looking for?”
Thinking he was the gardener, she replied, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him and I will get him.”
Jesus said to her, “Mary.”
She turned and said to him in Aramaic, “Rabbouni” (which means Teacher).
Jesus said to her, “Don’t hold on to me, for I haven’t yet gone up to my Father. Go to my brothers and sisters and tell them, ‘I’m going up to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”
Mary Magdalene left and announced to the disciples, “I’ve seen the Lord.” Then she told them what he said to her.
Earlier in the Gospel of John, Jesus tells us, “‘I am the good shepherd,’” and that the “‘good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.’” On that early morning, when all is still overshadowed by gloom, Mary approaches the tomb expecting to find her shepherd in death’s repose in the dark earth. Instead, she finds the unexpected, the tomb is empty! At first, it seems as though Jesus’ body has been stolen, and a distraught Mary asks both angels and a gardener where his body has been taken. It is not until she hears her teacher’s voice call her name that she knows that all he said is true. If Christ is the shepherd and Mary the lamb, his own words have been fulfilled when he says, “‘[the shepherd] calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.’” He has called Mary by name, and she alone receives the message to go and tell the disciples that she has seen more than an empty tomb for she's seen the risen Lord. A stone rolled away, an empty tomb, and angels were not enough for Mary, as it is not until Christ calls her by name that she experiences the resurrection. Now, it could have ended there, and that would have made this story a good one but not a gospel. It is not until Mary has experienced the risen Christ and has received the call from him to go and spread the news that the gospel becomes gospel, and the resurrection becomes the good news for us all.
There are so many details from John’s account that could capture our attention this morning. We have Mary alone, rather than with a crowd of women, coming to the tomb early in the morning. We have the fact that in this gospel, she goes back to the disciples and has Peter and “the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved” come back with her to the tomb. We could even focus on the foot race that happens between the two disciples! A strange thing on this early morning, even stranger to record in John for all time that the beloved disciple (who by the way is John) is the one who wins! Today though, let us look at Mary who stays after the two others leave after seeing an empty tomb. In staying, Mary sees Jesus, not just alive but resurrected.
Just before that life-altering encounter, the story seems unfinished, and we, like Mary, are left to wonder, how will it end? Mary stands weeping by the tomb. She looks down into the tomb one last time, and now, it is not empty. Two angels sit there, and they ask why she is crying. Now, for many of us, angels showing up would be enough to reassure us that something amazing had happened! We could say to ourselves that these supernatural beings prove to us that Christ has been resurrected, but not for Mary. She responds to them, “‘They have taken away my Lord, and I don’t know where they’ve put him.’” She is distraught! She is still sure that someone has taken his body. She then even turns away from these angels, for they are not enough to hold her attention, so focused is she on finding Jesus. Instead, there is another man behind her, and again she is asked, “‘Woman, why are you crying? Who are you looking for?’” Again, she explains to this man, who she assumes is a gardener, that her teacher’s body has been taken, and she simply needs to know where he has been placed. She will go and get him and end this tragic story.
Instead, this gardener calls her name. In the intimate moment that follows, when she hears “Mary,” she sees Jesus for the first time. He is there in front of her in a way that she could not have known or expected on this day of mourning. She calls out to him, “‘Rabbouni,’” which the gospel tells us translates to “teacher,” but that is like saying that “Abba” translates to “Father” while overlooking the familiarity of the tone! I think all of us have had a teacher or mentor that we have gotten close to, perhaps some here have had the experience of being that kind of person for another! It is not so strange to mark this closeness with a nickname or an intimate tone, and I believe Mary did the same here. She is overjoyed to see the teacher that she loved alive again before her! She then does something - we’re not told what - maybe reaching for him, but Jesus stops her. I believe at that moment, she thought, here is a good ending in reach! We can go back and be the family and community we were before the awful arrest and trial and death of our teacher. Jesus knows though there is no going back, so he will not let Mary go back either.
My friends, before we go any farther, let us step back for just a moment. My friends, I am caught by the intimate quality of this story this morning. If you were building a case for the resurrection, surely most of us would have been satisfied before seeing Christ! Throughout his ministry, Jesus told his disciples what would happen, and now things are happening just like he said! He was dead but no is no longer among the dead. The heavy stone in front of the tomb is gone, so this was no casual grave robbery. The tomb is now empty, and the grave clothes are folded and left behind! Then, angels actually show up in a tomb that just a moment before had been completely empty, verified by a thorough inspection by Peter. Why did the exchange between Jesus and Mary need to take place at all with this much evidence? I believe it is because knowledge and proof of resurrection are not enough. It is not until we experience the risen Christ that the resurrection has meaning for us. John Wesley’s own words about this stand out to me this morning when he says, “Even demons believe in the Resurrection but they have not experienced it.”
Let me explain this another way. I am assuming we have all heard of President Abraham Lincoln. Like Jesus, he is a man who lived and walked and acted on this earth. We can study his life. We can study his words. We can look at the ways he led this country through a Civil War, and how his moments on this earth shaped the course of events long after his death. We can become intimately familiar with Lincoln and with Christ, but unlike Abraham Lincoln who is dead, we can still experience the living Christ today. Christ is not among the dead but among the living, so we can still find him around us today. We can encounter him in person or through people in whom he lives. It is not enough to know, for our God must be experienced, for our God is relational and all interactions with the divine will be intimate. Do we believe that Christ has resurrected, or do we believe into and live into that resurrection?
This question confronts Mary this morning, for she wishes to pull Jesus with her and go and show him to the disciples! They will have a reunion and a good end, but Jesus did not come for a reunion but for the salvation and resurrection of all God’s people. To do this, the gospel must go out in word and in action, and in this moment, God picks Mary, the most unlikely of people to serve as the messenger of the divine. For here, Jesus does not pick Peter, the rock of the church, or even John, the disciple whom Jesus loved, but instead, he picks Mary, who has also been his disciple, to be commissioned to give the news. Then again, it is just like our God to pick the least and the most surprising of people to change the world. Jesus has gone before, conquering death and overcoming sin, and he will not be content until he brings the people of God with him, so “‘he goes before them and they follow him, because they know his voice.’” He called Mary by name, so she could experience the living Christ and share the news so others may experience the living Christ as well.
We often forget a simple fact, but here is a reminder: these resurrection narratives are commission stories. Without the commission, there is no good news. Resurrection means nothing if it does not go past Jesus’ reunion with the people who knew him, loved him, and followed him. Instead, he tells them that he is going on to his Father, his God, who is also our God and our Father. Instead of clinging to the past, Jesus invites Mary to move into the future. Friends, you may or may not have noticed, but I have been citing verses from John 10 this morning where Jesus first calls himself the good shepherd and promises to lead his sheep “‘so that they could have life—indeed, so that they could live life to the fullest.’” He will lead them to the good pasture where they will flourish, but he cannot do that if he doesn't call their name and ours, and doesn’t invite them and us to call the names of others. He is the good shepherd, not found among the dead, but here among the living so that we might experience him and know him. He is here so we may be Christ to one another, so that we may all have life and have it to the fullest.
All of this happens because Jesus called Mary by her name, and took this most unlikely of disciples to be the bearer of his good news. For you see, women were not seen as reliable witnesses at that time, but our entire good news happens because generation after generation has believed the women or in this case the woman at the tomb who came back and said, “‘I’ve seen the Lord.’” My friends, instead of an ending, Easter is a reminder that the story is not over. Easter is a beginning for Mary and for all of us here today. We can all be the most unlikely witnesses who can and will experience the living God. Once we do, the resurrection will not be some story to believe or not believe but something that we will have felt in our very beings and bodies as an undeniable reality and future hope! My friends, I hope Mary’s story encourages you to leave this place, knowing that the tomb is empty because Christ lives in you and in me, so let us be Christ for the world and let them know that Christ is risen, He is risen indeed! Amen.
Pastor Paul Grossman