Click here for the audio.
It’s really too bad that this year’s Gospel lesson for Easter isn’t the one where the disciples and the women who see the empty tomb go running back into town yelling: It worked!!! He did it!!!!! Holy... something! It’s just like he said it would be!
But let me tell you why that’s not the Gospel lesson for today or for any Easter: Because it’s not there. Nowhere in Scripture do they walk away from the empty tomb fully understanding what happened.
In Mark’s Gospel, the women see the empty tomb and the angels and they are told to go and tell. And they don’t because they were afraid. For Matthew and Luke, the women run back into town to say that he’s not there and that some guy all in white told them something about him rising from the dead. Even that story isn’t fully believed, and the disciples have to go and see for themselves. And they still don’t understand. Nowhere does it say that they got it. No where does it say they finally understooand all that stuff about fulfilling Scripture and rising to life again that Jesus talked about. They are left on that first Easter morning with far more questions than answers.
In John’s telling of the Resurrection, Peter and the disciple whom Jesus loved, which was probably John himself, see the empty tomb after Mary’s report. They even see the linens lying there, one of them neatly rolled up. And yet, John recalls that the disciples “returned to their homes.” The disciple-whom-Jesus-loved saw and believed, but all he seemed to believe was that the body wasn’t there. You would think that if they had moved with some level of urgency or speed, that John would have recorded that. Instead, they simply went back home.
Let me ask you: What do we make of this? What about these disciples who merely walked back into town? I guess that the other question to ask is: Would we have done anything differently? I mean, we have nearly 2,000 years of history and witness to know what happened and what a crazy miracle this is. But in the actual moment, would we have been with it enough to shout it from the streets?
Who knows. They hadn’t understood half of what Jesus said when he was teaching them, both in public and when he explained them in private, so why would they understand now? Plus, there is also the whole “fear of the authorities” issue-- that the same fate might meet them as met Jesus. There’s the fear of not being believed. There’s the reality that they themselves did not believe it. I mean, really? Someone rising from the dead all on their own after three days... who’s ever heard of that? Certainly not these guys! So if you find this notion of Resurrection uncomfortable or unfathomable or simply hard to believe: You’re not alone. In fact, I would say that if you don’t find the notion of resurrection a little difficult to buy, then you might not be taking it seriously enough. In John’s Gospel, it’s not until the Disciples see him in a locked room later that same evening that they begin to believe what has happened. The Gospels of Luke & John have some amazing stories of the disciples’ encounters with Christ after his resurrection, and the common theme that runs through all of them is that Jesus is not instantly recognized, even by those who were knew him best. Even his own disciples. It’s not until Jesus does something or says something that is familiar to his friends and boom! They know that it’s him. Most of the time, the “boom!” is the sound of their jaws hitting the floor.
Which brings us to our friend Mary Magdalene, and her understandable confusion and fear and wondering and her unspeakable amazement. I love little, trivial moments in the Bible, especially with stories we think we know by heart. Do you notice that Mary doesn’t walk back with the other Peter and the other Disciple? In fact, it almost seems like she’s left on her own. Or maybe she chose to linger.
She sees the two angels, she says who she’s looking for, and the angels don’t have a chance to respond before she turns around and sees her Lord standing there, and still doesn’t know it. She says the same thing to him that she says to the angels, and Jesus lets her keep going. “If you’ve taken him away, tell me where you’ve laid him. I’ll go bring him back.” Her level of devotion is epic and unwavering.
Here’s another piece of trivia: John’s Gospel records few accounts of Jesus actually calling people by name. He calls Lazarus out of the cave (John 11). He calls Simon Peter by name after his resurrection (John 21.15). And here he calls Mary by name. It is in that moment that she recognizes him and she reaches out to hold him. Who wouldn’t, really? Her life was changed when Jesus healed her. She is credited with helping fund Jesus’ ministry and travels. She was faithful to Jesus all the way to the Cross and now to the empty tomb. So it is Mary Magdalene, not one of the men, one of the women working in the background, becomes the first person to encounter the risen Christ who we proclaim as Lord and Savior.
When Jesus says, “Do not hold on to me,” what he’s saying is that neither he nor Mary could stay in that place, that there was more work to be done, more people to hear the news. What was going to happen next could in no way, shape or form be anchored in the past; it is rooted in the future. So Jesus appoints Mary the First Apostle of the Resurrection. She gets to become the first one to proclaim the most amazing Good News if ever there was Good News to proclaim.
“I have seen the Lord.”
Now, John doesn’t tell us anything about anyone’s tone of voice. Maybe she whispered it because if she said it too loudly, it might not be true. Maybe she was still three houses away when she started yelling it, so everyone could hear. John doesn’t say if the Disciples believed her or not. Or how quickly Mary went back to tell them. But what had been Jesus’ earthly ministry proclaiming the Good News of the Kingdom of God has become a ministry for all people to proclaim the Good News of that Kingdom. Jesus commissions her, and later commissions his Disciples, to tell the Good News that death is not the end. Mary fights the impulse that we all fight to stay where she is and cling to what she thinks is familiar. Instead, she goes and tells what she knows to be true.
“I have seen the Lord!”
Here’s why Easter matters. Easter matters because it is the chance for real resurrection. We are witnesses to the resurrection of Christ every single day in nearly everyone and everything we encounter. Resurrection is now and it is every day. Resurrection means that something unbelievably amazing is happening. What we see now may look similar to what we knew previously, but it’s enough different to know that God has done something new and, in many cases, totally unexpected.
The story of the Resurrection is our story. It is a story of commissioning, a story of sending out, to proclaim that God is at work every day and in every moment in every corner of the world. Jesus sends Mary Magdalene to tell the Good News, and Jesus sends us from this place to tell his Good News as well: The tomb is empty and the Kingdom of God is here, and now, and right in front of us, and it is calling our name.
How fast can you go into the world to tell the Good News? Don’t wait for someone else to share it. Be the one who shares the Good News.
Be the one who says, “I have seen the Lord.”
My favorite image of the Resurrection. It is from the Resurrection Chapel in the Washington National Cathedral.