April 17, 2022
• Rev. Rob Fuquay
John 20: 11-18
For the past six weeks, we have been talking about what it means to live by faith. So this morning I want to focus on the second part of the Easter story in John’s Gospel because it focuses on Mary Magdalene who represents a particular kind of Easter faith. Like Peter and John who witnessed the empty tomb, they were all believers in Jesus. They didn’t exactly come to faith on Easter, they came to a new faith.
The first half of John’s Easter story focuses on Peter and John. They see the evidence, the stone rolled back, an empty tomb, grave clothes neatly folded, but Peter doesn’t know what to make of it. John believes, but the Gospel still says neither yet understood the scripture about Christ rising from the dead, which is an interesting statement because there was no scripture written about Easter yet! Nonetheless, they both went home confused and probably not ready to celebrate and hunt Easter Eggs.
Mary, however, remained at the tomb. And like Peter and John, she knew Jesus, but unlike them Mary didn’t just witness Jesus’ miraculous power, she was a recipient of it. Jesus had healed her by casting out seven demons. She had been an emotionally and mentally tormented soul until she met Jesus. Because of Him she was able to return to life again. She was able to be restored to family and friends. She no longer had people pointing at her and whispering, “Something’s wrong with her.” No, Jesus made her a full human being again.
So for Jesus to die, and for it to happen so suddenly, is a deeply painful experience for Mary. She has been let down by God.
You know, I find the people who have the hardest time believing in God are not always the people who don’t believe at all. It’s the people who actually believed in God at one time and were disappointed. They are people who can look back and remember a time in their lives when they really believed, faith was powerful and important but then something happened. Something occurred that made them question everything about their faith. If that has ever been your story, then Mary’s Easter experience may be helpful.
Alone at the tomb now, she looks in for the first time and sees something neither Peter nor John did—two angels sitting where Jesus’ body had been. They ask Mary, “Why are you crying?” That’s not just a recognition of tears. It recognizes her mood. Why are you mourning? Why are you sad? Why is your heart heavy?
That is where Easter started for Mary. Is that where you are this Easter? Is there anything making your heart heavy today? Is your heart heavy for Ukraine? Is it heavy for the people there, for a ruthless dictator who is causing this? Is your heart heavy for the discord in our country? Is it heavy for a personal reason? A grief? A loss? Something that makes you weary? Has something gotten in the way of your faith?
Now, the question, “Why are you crying?” is meant to challenge Mary’s reality. When you encounter someone crying, what do you typically ask? Wouldn’t you most likely ask, “What’s wrong?” Obviously if someone is crying there’s a reason. But when you ask, “Why are you crying?” it doesn’t assume that there is a reason. It’s like something really good happening and a person cries for joy but we ask, “Why are you crying?” as if it doesn’t fit what has happened. By their very question, the angels are questioning Mary’s reason for grief.
So notice what Mary says, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” You would think she would say, “I’m crying because my Lord has died. Someone I really loved is dead. I’m sad.” But she says her reason is something that never happened. No one took away her Lord. Where did she get this idea?
She made it up. In light of the evidence she saw, her brain kicked into gear and she sought to make sense of it. That’s what we do. That’s what our brains are created to do, to rationalize. We make sense of things based on what makes sense to us. It would have taken more than one person to roll the stone away. Jesus’ body is missing. A group therefore took the body!
Have you ever done that kind of irrational rationalizing? Jumping to conclusions? “I know why you didn’t stop by the store to get what I asked. It’s because you…” “I know why you didn’t return my call, it’s because you were too busy with your friends and you…” Ever done something like that? Ever let your rational mind come up with irrational ideas?
The late Bishop Mike Coyner used to tell the story of getting tickets with his friend for the classic 2007 AFC championship game between the Colts and Patriots. Just how his friend Doug Anderson got the tickets is a story in itself, but they got seated and Bishop Mike was so excited to be there until he got to know the young man sitting next to him. He was a Colts’ fan, but couldn’t enjoy the game. Every bad play he would say, “I knew it. I knew that would happen.” Then the Colts would make a good play, and Bishop Mike would try to encourage him and say, “See that turned out okay.” But the guy would say, “Yeah but it almost didn’t.”
Every time the Colts got behind this kid said, “That’s it. They’re going to lose now.” He couldn’t celebrate any good play for fear of what might happen next. Bishop Mike said it was miserable sitting next to him. He didn’t know if he was there to pull for the Colts or try to pull this guy through. Of course the Colts won, but this guy was exhausted. Bishop Mike says about the experience, “Some people are more motivated by a fear of losing than they are a hope of winning.”
Now understand, to live with a hope of winning doesn’t mean you go through life with your head in the clouds. It doesn’t mean escaping reality and living in la-la land. It means accepting grief and loss but believing that loss does not have to be the defining narrative of your life.
That was what Mary was about to discover at the tomb.
She became aware that someone was behind her. And the Bible says she “turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus.” Why didn’t Mary recognize him? This is a big debate among Bible scholars. No one can say for sure. It seems clear that Jesus didn’t appear in some dazzling fashion because Mary thought he was the gardener. She even asked if he knew where the body was. But pay attention to a detail that reveals something of Mary’s posture.
Jesus calls Mary by name. This got her attention. Of course it would. She thinks he’s a stranger, but he knows her name. When someone you think is a stranger calls your name, it gets your attention.
Some years ago I was in a store, and a woman a feet from me took an item from a shelf and said, “Rob, what do you think of this?” I looked up assuming it would be someone I recognize, but it wasn’t. So now my rational brain is trying to figure things out. I thought, “This must be someone who has attended church who knows me, but I honestly looked at her and thought, ‘I just have no idea!” So I did what any normal person would do in that situation and faked it! I said, “Oh, that looks like a good choice to me.” And then she said, “I was talking to my husband right behind you.
I said, “I was just making sure you knew which Rob you were married to.
My point is when someone you think is a stranger calls your name it gets your attention. You focus on them. And this gets back to my point about Mary’s posture. Look at what it says next, “She turned and said to him in Hebrew, ‘Rabbouni!’ (which means teacher).”
Now we just read that she had already turned toward him in the previous verse. It doesn’t mention that she turned back around. When Jesus calls her name it says she turned again. Why the two turns? Wasn’t she already facing him? Maybe, maybe not.
Perhaps she first turned when she realized the person she assumed was the gardener standing there, but she might not have even looked up enough to see who it is. Her focus was still on the tomb, on her loss, her pain, on her obstacle to faith. That dominated her world. It colored life for her now. It filtered the way she looked at everything. But when she heard her name that’s when she really turned and looked up. And in an instant her world is jolted into a new reality; a reality that separates her from her obstacle; a reality that lets her know that while her world and life is filled with obstacles God is doing things she hasn’t fully seen.
In fact, not seeing God’s presence would become a new part of Mary’s faith experience.
When she reaches out to grab Jesus, he says, “Do not hold me because I have not yet ascended to the Father.” The resurrected Jesus didn’t say this to everyone. For instance, he invited Thomas to touch Jesus’ scars. Why would he tell Mary not to hold him?
In his book Hope in Times of Fear: The Resurrection and Meaning of Easter, Tim Keller points out that Mary’s holding was not because she needed to touch Jesus in order to believe. She wanted to hold Jesus just as she had always known him and the way she knows him now will be different. Keller imagines Jesus saying to Mary:
You were grieving over the loss of our relationship, and now you are thinking that you will grab me and never let yourself be parted from me. But you don’t understand. When I ascend to the Father…then everyone in the world who believes in me will have personal intimacy with me…let me go to the Father, and you—and all who seek it—will have fellowship with me beyond anything you can imagine.” (p86 Hope in Times of Fear)
As much as Mary wanted to have Jesus in her life like before, there were still limitations. She could only know Jesus as long as he was physically present. Now, Jesus through the Holy Spirit would be with her always.
Keller goes onto share the story from one of C.S. Lewis’ stories in The Chronicles of Narnia. The main character, Shasta, is trying to escape from a foreign land and get home, but on the journey everything seems to go wrong. There are lions and other dangers. Finally, in a fog, Shasta senses a presence guiding him. A strange Voice begins a conversation, and Shasta describes everything that went wrong, and then the Voice gives a surprising response:
“I was the lion.” And Shasta gaped, “I was the lion who forced you to join Avaris. I was the (One) who comforted you among the houses of the dead. I was the lion who drove the jackals from you while you slept. I was the lion who gave the horses the new strength…for the last mile so that you should reach King Lune in time. And I was the lion you do not remember who pushed the boat in which you lay, a child near death, so that it came to shore where a man sat, wakeful at midnight, to receive you.” (p.95)
God was there all along. This is what Mary discovered at the tomb. She now had an option by which to evaluate her life. She could look at the things in her life and see setback and failure and disappointment and loss. But now she can see that God has been present all along the way, showing up not apart from these events, but in them, through them. And none of these events have stopped God from working.
Mary has a new narrative by which to understand her story.
And so the Easter encounter closes with Jesus giving Mary a mission: “But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord” And we see the cycle of faith. Mary started the morning in despair and leaves as a vehicle of hope.
Let me offer two key things to take away from this story:
1. God was working before Mary realized it. What appeared to be evidence of further pain, an empty tomb, was actually a sign of God’s activity! God didn’t show up when Mary recognized Jesus. God showed up long before. While Mary was still in grief, God had already been working, she just hadn’t realized it yet. No doubt that would be a lesson Mary would need to remember many more times in her life. This would not be the last experience of grief or disappointment or heartache. But now she had a different way of facing these experiences. Now she could know that God is doing something she just has yet to experience.
And we, too, can hold onto that truth this Easter Day. The war in Ukraine makes us wonder how God could allow such evil? Where is God? It just causes further grief and obstacles for out faith. Sickness or deaths of loved ones can make us feel this way. The divisions in our country, the violence of our city, any of the obstacles in our lives, they can be obstructions to our faith, just as an empty tomb was to Mary.
But Easter declares that there is another evidence we can’t see and that is the invisible hand of God at work. Right now! We just have yet to experience it, but we will.
But how do we have such experiences? How do we encounter such a hope, and experience a Risen Christ who turns life around for us?
2 That is a second observation I want to make. Mary had her experience while carrying out an act of devotion. The other Gospels tell us that the reason Mary was at the tomb was to anoint Jesus’ body, something she didn’t have time to do when he was buried. She was there as an act of worship. This is important. Jesus didn’t meet her at home. He didn’t meet her while doing the laundry or going to a friend’s house. He met her at the tomb where she had gone to carry out one last act of devotion—worship.
Now, certainly God can show up anywhere. God can meet us anywhere. But something Mary’s story might have to offer us is that performing our acts of worship even when they come in the midst of disappointment with God, not believing in or expecting God to show up, but just being present, can be the place where God meets us.
My administrative assistant, Marsha Thompson, is an example. Marsha grew up in the church. Her grandfather was a pastor. Many years ago she and her husband Lann joined St. Luke’s, but over time they fell out of the habit, and got away from church. And in 2012, Marsha felt something was missing, that the faith that had once been important in her life was not there. So she and Lann came on Easter Sunday. She said they got here late and ended up being ushered to the front row in front of the baptismal font, because that’s what happens when you get here late!
And that morning she heard something that made her say, “I need to get back in church.” So she did. She started attending regularly. She joined a Disciple Bible Study class my wife, Susan, was leading. About a year later she saw an ad in the bulletin for administrative assistant to the senior pastor and applied and she’s been in the office next to me ever since! Her life has become an offering of hope everyday.
So take heed those of you sitting in the front row!
Is that your story today? Have you gotten away from your faith? Maybe nothing bad has happened, you’ve just fell out of the habit, but you also feel that something is missing? Maybe this Easter morning is the day to recommitment yourself.
Maybe you are in Mary’s shoes…
Tim Keller quotes a NYT columnist who knew popular stars before they became popular (Sylvester Stallone, Julia Roberts). A lot come to NY to make it big. Many believe fame is what will give them all they want but then they get it and the things that haunted their souls before was still there. Their fame, their answer to their prayer, didn’t solve it all and the columnist says, “Nothing changed, they were still them.” (ortberg sermon April 2019)