It must have seemed like a very cruel April Fool’s joke, even though in 1st century Palestine there was no such thing as April Fool’s Day. Mary Magdalene had been there with Jesus through the horrible crucifixion. She had stood there with Jesus’ mother, and his mother’s sister, and another woman named Mary; Mary, or rather, Miriam, was a pretty common name for women at that time. She had watched for hours as Jesus was slowly tortured to death by hanging on that cross; she had seen him give the care of his mother into the hands of the disciple whom he loved; she had seen him thirst; and finally, she had seen him die. And on top of all that, she had witnessed the Roman soldiers perform a final act of barbarity on her rabbi by driving a spear into his side, just to make sure he was dead. She came to the tomb early on that Sunday morning—not to anoint Jesus’ body, for, according to John, Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea had already done that—but to say goodbye to Jesus and to mourn for him at the tomb. So to arrive and to find the tomb open and the body gone must have sent Mary Magdalene into further shock. Resurrection was the last thing on her mind—even though Jesus had talked about resurrection in his ministry, Mary probably assumed that he was talking about resurrection on the last day. No, in Mary’s mind, a grave robber has come and taken Jesus’ body for some evil purpose, and she runs to tell Peter and the other disciple that the body is gone.
But before we get further into the story, I’d like to take a step back and talk about who Mary Magdalene was and who she wasn’t. Back when Jeff first announced to the choir that he wanted us to sing “Hey-sanna, Hosanna” from Jesus Christ Superstar on Palm Sunday, someone laughingly brought up the song that Mary Magdalene sings in that production, “I Don’t Know How to Love Him”. And I said that that song would never be sung in this congregation. Why? Because nowhere in Scripture does it ever say that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute. So, why is she often portrayed as a prostitute? Well, in the Gospel of Luke, chapter 8, Mary Magdalene is mentioned as one of the women disciples who followed Jesus and cared for his needs, as well as those of the other disciples. Luke says that Jesus drove seven demons out of Mary. And right before that story is the story of a woman who led a sinful life anointing Jesus’ feet. Pope Gregory the Great, in a homily in the year 591, made the mistake of saying that the unnamed woman who led a sinful life was Mary Magdalene, and since then, she has been portrayed as a prostitute in the Western church. In the Eastern Church, however, Mary Magdalene has been known as the Apostle to the Apostles—she was the first to witness Jesus’ resurrection, and without her, the other disciples would not have heard the good news.
So let’s go back to the story that John tells, of Mary going to the tomb and encountering it empty, with no body of Jesus anywhere in sight. She runs and tells Peter and the other disciple, who come running to the tomb, and they confirm that well, yes, the tomb is empty. But they don’t do anything about it! They shrug their shoulders and go home. Yes, John tells us that the disciple whom Jesus loved believed, but what did he believe? The next line says that “they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead.” So perhaps this other disciple simply believed Mary’s story that the body was gone. We don’t quite know.
But now we see Mary standing outside the tomb, weeping. She had already come to the tomb to mourn Jesus’ death, but now she has even more to mourn: Jesus’ body is gone and she does not know what has become of it, and the other disciples seem like they have no will to try and discover what has happened. Mary’s whole world has come crashing down around her. But then she looks into the tomb and sees two angels there who ask her why she is weeping. Well, that seems rather obvious, doesn’t it? If you’re at a tomb, it means someone you love has died, and you know what? You might just be sad about that. But Mary answers as if it’s nothing unusual to be questioned by angels sitting in a tomb, and says that they have taken her Lord away and she does not know where the body is.
Well, then she turns around and sees Jesus. You know, we don’t always understand why Mary does not recognize Jesus, and why she thinks he is the gardener. Was Jesus carrying a hoe or a spade or wearing a hat to keep his face shaded from the sun? That’s the image that I have when it says that Mary mistakes him for the gardener, which is kind of funny. But we don’t know how resurrection changes the appearance of someone. And it may simply have been the fact that, when someone dies, they usually stay dead: Mary simply wasn’t expecting Jesus, the man she saw tortured to death, to be standing there in front of her speaking to her. Perhaps also blinded by her tears, she does not see Jesus clearly and does not recognize him.
But then, he says her name, “Mary.” In chapter 10 of John’s gospel, Jesus says that he “calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice.” By simply calling Mary by her name, Jesus cuts through all of the grief and all of the doubt, and Mary instantly knows that this is her Lord and her Master, her great Good Shepherd, calling to her and telling her that he is, in fact, alive once more. And Jesus is not just a spirit, but is resurrected completely in the body. When he tells Mary, “Do not hold on to me,” the better translation of that would be “Stop holding on to me.” In her joy at seeing Jesus, I want us to picture Mary grabbing hold of Jesus in a big bear hug, and Jesus saying, “Okay, okay, it’s okay, you can let go of me now.” And then Jesus tells her to go and tell his disciples what she has seen, and Mary, joyfully named as one of his sheep and given the authority to do so, runs and tells the disciples that she knows now why there is no body in the tomb: she has, in fact, seen the Lord.
And so, my question for all of you is the same as the one that the angels and Jesus asked Mary Magdalene: Whom are you looking for? Why are you here today? Is it just something that you’re supposed to do, to go to church on Easter to make your family happy? Is it just something that you do out of a sense of duty? Or is it that you want to find hope? Have all of your dreams been shattered, and you don’t know where to turn next? Are you hoping against hope to hear some good news in your life? Or do you want to see Jesus: the Jesus who was crucified, who died for us, and who now lives again?
For those of you who are here to make your family happy or out of a sense of duty, I say to you: Rest easy, for you have now fulfilled all righteousness. But beyond that sense of fulfilling an obligation, I pray that you have also encountered the risen Christ and I pray that you would hear him calling your name and welcoming you into his community as a sheep of his fold. And if you would like to find out more about what it means to be part of this community that follows Jesus, please let me know after the worship service today and I would be happy to talk with you further.
For those of you who are here because your dreams have been shattered, you don’t know where to turn next, and who are hoping to hear some good news in your life, welcome. We are a people of hope, and it is our business to spread that hope to all of those whom we meet, both inside this church building and outside of it. The good news is that Jesus loves you: it doesn’t matter who you are now or who you were in your past. It doesn’t matter if you have enough to eat or are scraping to get by. And it most definitely does not matter what color your skin is or who you choose to love. Jesus loves you, and meets you with that abundant love and grace, calling you by name. We are a community who follows Jesus Christ, the one who is risen from the dead and who promises us resurrection as well. Please let us know how we can be as Christ to you and how we can walk beside you in whatever circumstances you find yourself in.
And for those of you who are here because you want to see Jesus: it is my prayer every week that somehow, during our time of worship, you do encounter the risen Christ. That encounter does not have to be in the sermon, although I am always very flattered and moved if that is where you see Jesus. But you can also encounter Jesus, and I certainly pray that you do, in the bread and the wine of Holy Communion; in the beautiful hymns that we sing and the music that we hear; in the laughter and the chatter of the children who worship in community with us; in the readings of Holy Scripture, and in the liturgy, which also has words taken from Holy Scripture in it. And I pray that you also see Jesus in the face of the person sitting next to you, and that you can lean on that person for material and spiritual support, and that they can lean on you for the same, in our journey together here on Earth.
On that first Easter Sunday, Mary Magdalene served as Apostle to the Apostles, and told the disciples that she had seen the Lord. The commission that Jesus gave to Mary on that long-ago day has been passed on to us. We have seen the risen Lord, and we are charged with telling everyone this great, joyful news. My prayer is that each one of us would take this commission seriously and tell others about our wonderful Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. But we can do this joyfully, letting the love that Jesus has shown us spill over into our relationships with others, and we can do it with laughter. Today is April Fool’s Day in the secular world, but what is foolish to the world is wise to us. Jesus, who once was dead, has been raised from the dead, and that’s no foolin’. Amen.