Christ is risen! He is risen, indeed, hallelujah!
This may be the best greeting of all time. It expresses hope, love, and freedom for those who believe in, welcome, and follow Jesus Christ. This is the day that we celebrate everything that the Bible promises. God created the universe and placed human beings in it to live, thrive, and care for each other and the universe that God provided. Throughout the Bible we read stories of God’s grace and humanity’s need for grace. Over and over we hear how God loves us and rescues us from the perils of our own sinfulness and selfishness. Today, on Easter Sunday, we celebrate because God proves that we are the most-loved beings in the universe. God gives up everything for us and offers us the chance to enjoy this life by living more like Jesus, as well as the promise of an eternity spent in God’s presence. What more can any of us ask for?
It is fun to spend some time with the children, hunting Easter eggs, and enjoying family gatherings. It is fine to wish each other “Happy Easter.” The trappings of a cultural Easter celebration are ubiquitous and unavoidable. Theoretically, there is no harm in this reality, as long as we keep the truth about Easter in the forefront of our minds.
Today we gather, first as Christians, and we greet one another with a joyous: “Christ is risen! He is risen, indeed, hallelujah!”
“I have seen the Lord!” – This wonderful realization is unique to John’s Gospel. Matthew’s version of the story uses an earthquake to help explain what happens and to bring drama to the scene. Mark and Luke focus on how the disciples react to the Empty Tomb and heavenly messengers who send them to Galilee to meet the Risen Christ. John asks us to spend time at the tomb with Mary as she lingers in her confusion and confronts her own emptiness.
Let us pray…Lord, this morning we encounter the empty tomb again, but also for the very first time. Help us to understand the emptiness and the joy of realization. In Jesus’ name, we pray. Amen.
First, I think we need to talk a little about why Mary Magdalene is at the center of all the resurrection stories. Who is this woman and why do the gospel writers include her as the central figure in this story? What we know for sure is that she came from a village on the shore of the Sea of Galilee called Magdala. There is some controversy over what exactly the circumstances were that surrounded Mary. There is the idea that she was a repentant prostitute; though there is no evidence to support this view. Some think she was a leader among those who followed Jesus. Some speculate about whether Mary Magdalene is the same woman who washed Jesus’ feet with her hair; the Bible doesn’t say. Some even suggest that she and Jesus were married; highly unlikely. When the male disciples abandoned Jesus at the hour of mortal danger, Mary of Magdala was one of the women who stayed with him, even to the Crucifixion. She was present at the tomb, the first person to whom Jesus appeared after his resurrection and the first to preach the “Good News” of that miracle. These are among the few specific assertions made about Mary Magdalene in the Gospels. From other texts of the early Christian era, it seems that her status as an “apostle,” in the years after Jesus’ death, rivaled even that of Peter.
We know a little about Mary, but there is much we cannot know. It is obvious though, that she deserved to be at the center of the Resurrection Story. In Luke’s gospel, Mary was reported to have had seven demons cast out of her. The “seven demons” indicates an ailment (not necessarily possession) of a certain severity. Did Mary suffer from a serious illness or seven character flaws? We can’t know. Regardless of the unknown details, Mary represents the humanity and sinfulness we share. She represents the emptiness that many of us, both men and women, encounter when people just don’t understand who we are or what we need. If we could see others through the eyes of Jesus, what surprises might we find? What despair, what remorse, what struggles might we find?
The story of Easter begins with great loss. For Mary, losing Jesus was more than just losing a great teacher – because he was, perhaps, the first person who had ever understood her jaded journey and had accepted her as she was. Mary had learned firsthand that she would never again encounter a friend like Jesus. He had healed her of her issues and had accepted her as a friend. He had validated her very existence;
and now he was gone. John’s gospel causes us to ask the question, “Why did Mary go to the tomb?”
The other gospel writers include Mary in a group of women who go to the tomb to anoint the body. John has Mary alone, going to the tomb with no stated purpose. We are left to wonder, did she go to verify her belief in Jesus, or to confirm her worst fears about him? Peter and John looked into the empty tomb and seem to have no problem believing; they don’t understand yet, but they believe and head for home. Mary doesn’t know what to believe and so she lingers outside the tomb. When she looks into the tomb again she sees the angels and she confesses her worst fears. “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” At this point, Mary has made up her mind, Jesus is dead. It’s clear that she did not come to the tomb to verify a belief that Jesus would rise again; she came ready to grieve and mourn his untimely death.
Today, the question is: “Are we any different?” Have we already made up our minds what God can and cannot do? Are we convinced that this ancient story is past and has no bearing today? Do we approach the difficult situations of our lives looking for a confirmation of the glory and power of God; or do we approach them looking for a confirmation of our worst fears? Do we go to the empty tombs of our lives where things are fuzzy and unclear to celebrate a victorious resurrection? Or, is it our mission to verify the existence of dead bodies while we wish for things the way they were or the way we wish they had been? Why did we come to the tomb this morning?
In the story, Mary was so disoriented that she could not recognize that Christ was present. First, Jesus attempted to make himself known to her in a quiet way, “Why are you crying?” Jesus spoke to Mary much as we would to quiet a fretful child. “Woman why are you weeping; whom are you looking for?” Still, Mary could not see that the Risen Christ was right there with her. Can you remember a time when you heard from God, but it was a long time before you realized that you had heard from God? How many times have you found yourself running around in circles, looking for an answer to prayer, only to find that it was right there in front of your face all along?
Mary did what we often do, she responded with a well-rehearsed response. Standing there, with Christ attempting to comfort her, she went into “auto.” “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away” (verse 15). Finally, Jesus called her by name as he had done so many times before…Mary! With a tone that said stop looking for a dead body. Mary! Stop looking for solutions inside a closed box! Stop acting as though limited perception limits outcome…Mary! Her response? – “Teacher?”
Finally, she heard and understood. The same Jesus who had fed the 5,000; The same Jesus who had walked on the water; The same Jesus who had opened the eyes of the blind; The same Jesus who had outraged the Pharisees by being seen with tax collectors like Matthew and sinners like her; The same Jesus who had raised Lazarus from the dead after four days when all hope was gone; The same Jesus who had healed her of her afflictions; Had risen from the dead — just as he had said he would!
This morning when we encounter the empty tomb, what does it mean? There is a mountain of difference between “he’s not here” and “he has risen.” When Simon Peter and John saw the empty tomb, they believed. Mary stood at that same empty tomb and wept at her own emptiness. The good news for us today is that God does not leave us to our own thoughts, even when we are full of doubt or despair. The lesson Mary teaches us today is to persevere until God’s voice breaks through the fog of our lives. Two of the disciples ran back to town with a believing conclusion, Mary stayed where she was until Jesus cleared her confusion.
Will God do anything less for us? God has brought you here for this message and for this Scripture and for this story of the resurrection of Jesus and this witness. And my prayer for you is that you will, now or very soon, by God’s grace, say, “I see.” That’s what Mary said, “I have seen the Lord.” In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.