Acts 10:34-43 • Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24 • Colossians 3:1-4 • John 20:1-18
This week’s theme is Raised to New Life. In Jeremiah we see the everlasting love and faithfulness of God calling Israel to himself to be his people. Psalm 118 is read anew in light of the resurrection, where a new day of rejoicing is made. Peter preaches in Acts the gospel proclamation and Paul writes to the Colossians of their new life hidden in the risen Christ. The sermon from John 20 tells the Easter story by walking with Mary Magdalene along her journey of the resurrection, where Jesus lifts her into new life with the Father.
The Journey of Resurrection
Have Psalm 118:24 read at the beginning of the worship service, and then have someone read John 20:1-18 just prior to the sermon.
Happy Easter! Let us begin with the verse read at the beginning of today’s celebration service. Psalm 118:24 says “This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.”
Easter is no doubt the high day in the cycle of Christian worship. It is the center of the Christian calendar with Christmas, Epiphany and Lent leading up to it and then Ascension Sunday, Pentecost, and Trinity Sunday flowing out from it. But it is not this specific day of celebration that has brought us together this morning. It is the one that this day celebrates who has gathered us to himself in his name: Jesus the Christ. For what we see on Easter morning is that the Lord is alive and among us. He is still calling us to himself and meeting us where we are. Even today, the Lord is lifting us into his resurrection life. Alister McGrath provides a fitting intro for our Easter message today:
“The resurrection of Jesus is a sign of God’s purpose and power to restore his creation to its full stature and integrity…. In the aftermath of Gethsemane, we catch the fragrance of Eden…. The resurrection is like the first day of a new creation.” (Alister McGrath, What Was God Doing on the Cross?, 51-52)
So, Jesus is leading us today in our celebration. In his leading he brings us further into the new creation he has inaugurated through his life, death and resurrection. He’s not leading us to a potential possibility or in an idealistic pursuit. Rather, he is leading from the sure ground of his own resurrection. Potentiality has become reality. Ideal has become real, and myth gives way to fact. Our response is to believe and live out of the hope found in Jesus. After all, Easter is a real celebration.
Today, we can have our faith renewed by the story of Easter found in John 20. But we don’t get far in the story before we must pause for consideration.
“Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark…” (John 20:1 NRSV)
As we gather in the budding warmth of spring anticipating longer daylight and blooming life all around, we are also mindful of a darkness that stretches across all creation. Although we celebrate the risen Jesus today, we do so while it is “still dark.” Like those first disciples who discovered the empty tomb, we too are just beginning to see the signs of a new creation. The darkness can dampen the celebration, but it does not change the reality of what we celebrate. The Light of the World has risen. Just as longer shadows are found when the sun rises early in the morning, so does the shadow of death appear when we first believe. The way John tells the story of Easter lets us know that faith in Jesus is a journey and a progression. Although the story begins after the fact of Jesus being raised, the disciples struggle to see and believe in this reality. Aren’t you glad John tells the story like this? We are called to believe “while it is still dark.” There are days where we can barely make out any light at all, days when our journey feels more like walking to the tomb where life has been taken away rather than walking with the Lord. But none-the-less, Jesus has risen.
Although “it was still dark,” we find that Mary Magdalene was able to see the first sign that something had changed:
…the stone had been removed from the tomb.
Perhaps we are so familiar with this story we forget how difficult it is to discern initial signs of change. Have you noticed how easy we may resist change even when it’s a good change? Change presents us with one of our greatest fears—a loss of control. So, here is Mary, stumbling upon a change that, in hindsight, we know to be a very good thing. The stone has been rolled away. But for Mary in this story, all she sees is an empty tomb. Her response is to run back to Simon Peter and some unnamed disciple to report her alarming discovery:
They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him. (verse 2 NRSV)
Notice she is afraid on two fronts.
First, she fears some unidentified “They” have taken the Lord. “They” could be the Roman authorities or perhaps the religious rulers. Or maybe just grave robbers. Whoever “they” are, they have taken what little was left for Mary to hold on to. For Mary, Jesus was her everything. He was the one who restored her and the one who raised Lazarus back from the dead. How can she go on without Jesus to call on? But now death had taken him from her. But at least she has his tomb to visit. At least she can come here to lean on the stone. As long as the stone is in place, at least nothing more can be taken from her. Does Mary’s fear of the “they” echo in our lives? Do we live in fear that “they”—whoever they are and wherever they come from—will rob us of what we so dearly cling to? If we can somehow barricade all that we hold dear behind some immovable stone, we can maintain control.
Mary’s second fear is fear of the unknown. She does “not know where they have laid him.” Jesus is no longer where she expected to find him. This will be a major adjustment for us as we come to believe Jesus is risen. It means Jesus is alive and free to roam as he pleases. You can’t control him or put him in a box. Certainly not a box made for death. Our journey with Jesus will be on his terms, not ours. This is a walk of faith, not a walk where we are in control, trusting our own leading.
If you are a Mary Poppins fan, you probably saw the film, “Mary Poppins Returns.” It seems Mary Magdalene could have written the lyrics to one of the songs in this sequel. It’s a song called “A Conversation,” sung by Michael, the left-behind widower who lost his beloved wife Kate. Michael is in a dusty attic rummaging around old memories. Read the lyrics and see if you can hear Mary Magdalene’s fears in this one-sided conversation.
Maybe that was the question Mary and we have of Jesus: “Where’d you go?” We may prefer the predictability of Jesus staying put. But he is risen and afoot. For Mary, this question is not settled yet. She will raise it again with some angels and then with Jesus himself. Three times Mary voices concern that Jesus has been taken away to a place she doesn’t know.
But first, John records Peter’s and an unnamed disciple’s response to hearing Mary’s discovery.
Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. (verse 3 NRSV)
We probably don’t need to make too much of the foot race that seemed to take place between these two disciples. But we can see it as a picture of the different pace to belief we may experience. Sometimes we take the lead and sometimes we follow. But let’s take a look at the unnamed disciple today. We are told that he is “the one whom Jesus loved.” Who is this unnamed disciple? Some say it may have been Lazarus who was raised by Jesus and referred to as the one that Jesus loved. More commonly, people see the beloved disciple as John, the author of this Gospel. Maybe he is hiding his identity so as not to distract from Peter, who has a central place in the narrative. Or, maybe it is someone else. But for today it’s you—you are the beloved disciple. Today in this story Mary is running to you with the claim that the stone has been rolled away. John wants you to know that you are loved by Jesus, just as he knows he is, and he is inviting you to look into the tomb with Peter. What will you see?
The disciples saw a startling sight. Peter went in:
He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. (verses :6-7 NRSV)
This is not the work of grave robbers. If someone wanted to take the body, why would they leave behind his wrappings, neatly put away? This is what the disciples saw, and we are told the other disciple “saw and believed.” However, their belief still seems to be lacking:
For as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. (verse 9 NRSV)
The result is, they “returned to their homes.” They know something big has changed, but they have not yet understood the scriptures in light of that change. Often when we experience changes, even very good ones, it will take time for those changes to have full effect. Until we understand the truth, we will often just return home to what we know. The scriptures move us forward, more deeply into the changes God has brought about.
Now we return to Mary who must have returned with the other two disciples.
But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb. (verse 11 NRSV)
Notice, she never actually enters the tomb. Can you feel the pain Mary had to push through to look into the tomb? Mary had to face her loss, as painful as that was for her. She had to come to a place where she would let go of her desire to be in control. When she looked in that tomb, she opened herself up to know the truth. This was a moment of vulnerability and courage. It will be painful for us to revisit tombs that Jesus has vacated, especially if we don’t know where he has gone. Because wherever he has gone, he has taken our losses with him. We will have to choose to trust him with our empty tombs. This painful step in Mary’s journey fills her tear-soaked eyes with an incredible sight.
She saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” (verses 12-13 NRSV)
They know something she doesn’t. The darkness is lifting, and they know it’s Easter. This is a day of joy, not tears. Her answer reveals that she is still fearful of what is unfolding before her.
“They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” (verse 13 NRSV)
This is the second time she has said these words.
Before we get to the third time, let’s take a moment to drink in the picture Mary saw. Two angels, in white. One at either side of where Jesus once laid. This is an interesting description of what Mary saw as she peered into the tomb. John has already introduced the Garden motif in his Gospel, and he will bring it into this story in just a moment. So, is it possible that this scene can remind us of two other angels who were standing guard between two sides of one entrance? John is not explicit, but since it’s a story, we can explore a little.
After the fall, God placed angels with a flaming sword to guard the entrance back into the Garden (Gen. 3:24). Sin had created a barrier into God’s presence that no one could cross. Now we have an image of two angels, not with flaming swords, but at least dressed in white. They seemed to be on guard once again, only this time guarding what was once the death of Jesus. Mary has been concerned about where Jesus was laid. But right before her is evidence that he is not laying around at all. It seems that anyone looking to enter God’s presence by coming to tombs will be turned away. The entrance into God’s presence has stood up and walked out of the tomb. It’s not up to us to find our way back into the Garden. Jesus, the Door, the Way, is on the move finding us. Even death has been turned on its hinges to swing open into new life.
After she stated her concern for the second time, she “turned around…” Remember, Mary did not enter the tomb. So, at this moment she is standing outside the tomb but has turned her back on it. She knows there is nothing for her in the tomb. This is progress. In her turning she finds herself face to face with Jesus. But we also find that “she did not know that it was Jesus.”
At this point you may be wanting to jump into the story and grab Mary to tell her, “Wake up, girl. It’s Jesus standing right here in front of you. Open your eyes.” But Jesus knows how to bring us around. He is God’s Word that opens our eyes. He starts with the same question the angels had asked but adds one of his own.
“Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” (verse 15 NRSV)
These two questions go together. Jesus is connecting Mary’s tears to her longing for him. Our tears tell us there is more, leading us to look further. With each loss, we come to know we are made to belong. Mary is almost home, but she must state her concern one last time. Only this time it is stated to Jesus himself, except she thinks she is talking to the “gardener.”
John is clever here in his story telling. For in fact, she is talking to the Gardener, only he’s not the gardener who keeps up burial places. He is the Gardener walking in the cool of the day, bringing God’s presence back to his lost children. He comes to Mary first, and she responds with:
“Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” (verse 15 NRSV)
Now Mary wonders if the man before her is responsible for her grief. We may wonder the same when we don’t recognize Jesus for who he is. She has been concerned that someone has taken him away. Now she is offering to do the same. If she can take Jesus’ body away, then she can regain control of her loss. She can find another tomb to lay him in. We may find ourselves doing the same. In our grief we want to find Jesus right where we put him. Have you ever laid Jesus in a tomb you think you can control? Maybe we lay Jesus in an unhealthy relationship. Or perhaps he lays in an incessant pursuit for money. For some, he may even be laid to rest at the bottom of a bottle. But try as we may, Jesus has risen and is not to be found lying in empty tombs.
At this point you may wonder if Mary will ever get it. She is standing face to face with Jesus, speaking to him and still does not recognize him. She still sees him as being taken away and laid somewhere she doesn’t know. If you could jump into the story you probably would have a million things you could say to her. You may want to remind her of the rolled away stone and the empty tomb and try to convince her that this is proof that Jesus is alive. Maybe you would want to dismantle all the arguments that Jesus didn’t rise on Easter morning. Surely if we use our words convincingly with irrefutable logic, we can get Mary to see the truth of the resurrection. Many books have been written filled with words of logical, ironclad arguments aimed at convincing others that Jesus has indeed risen.
But maybe we should simply hold back and let Jesus speak. After all, he is the Word of God. This Word has the power to speak the entire cosmos into existence. And here in this story we get to hear the words he chooses to say to Mary to open her eyes. He uses only one. “Mary.” This was probably the last thing Mary expected to hear from the “gardener.” Perhaps, it’s the last thing you expect to hear this morning. Perhaps you were expecting to hear proof upon proof that Jesus has risen and therefore you should believe. Maybe you were expecting a cascade of words aimed at telling you where you can find Jesus, sending you back on a frantic search. Or maybe you weren’t expecting any words at all. At least not for you. But Jesus speaks the only word that no one can dismiss as spoken personally to them: your name. That’s what we see in the story. Jesus restores all that Mary has lost by speaking her name. And her words of response are recorded as well:
She turned and said to him in Hebrew, ‘Rabbouni!’ (which means Teacher). (verse 16 NRSV)
Notice the journey Jesus has Mary on. He begins by addressing her politely with “Woman,” which she responds in kind with the respective address of “Sir.” But Jesus knows she is not grieving over the loss of cordial and considerate relationships. Her tears run much deeper than that. So he addresses her by name, “Mary.” She responds by addressing him according to their personal connection. “Teacher.” Jesus has restored their relationship. But her journey is not complete. Jesus needs to bring her to one more step in their relationship.
He is going to give her a deeper name. He says to her:
“Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” (verse 17 NRSV)
Do you see what Jesus has done?
First, he tells her that she cannot control their relationship. “Do not hold on to me…” Jesus is not to be a possession. We don’t keep him secure in a tomb. Jesus is not our little pet on a leash that we allow in the house occasionally. He is risen and he is Lord. We must trust and obey him in the relationship. He is free and will not be contained by our attempts to hold on to him. Jesus is not done with bringing us into the fullness of his restored creation. We cannot hold him down to our expectations. He will not let us settle for less than the full perfection of his resurrected life that culminates with his ascension back to the Father.
Second, Jesus has moved Mary’s relationship with him beyond how she related to him during his earthly ministry. She is now to relate to him as her brother. Her real name still awaits her. But it’s a name that is given to her by Jesus’ heavenly Father. Her relationship is now to be one where Jesus’ Father is hers. She is being made into a child of God. How does she respond to her new identity as a child of God? She obeys by going back to her “brothers,” as a sister in Christ, to tell them she has “seen the Lord.” And because of her obedience, we have this story to read on Easter morning.
Sisters and brothers, may God lift you today higher into the glorious hope of our risen Savior, Jesus the Christ. Amen!
Small Group Discussion Questions
- How did the story of Paco in the Speaking of Life video make you feel about the Father’s word of forgiveness in Jesus? Can you relate to Paco? Can you also relate to Paco’s father?
- The sermon drew attention to the fact that “it was still dark” on Easter morning. Does this detail in the story help you relate our Easter celebration when so much darkness exists in our world? Discuss!
- Mary Magdalene struggled to adjust to the changes she was encountering at the empty tomb. Can you identify with Mary’s struggle to adjust to change, even when the changes are good ones?
- Mary was afraid that “they” had taken the Lord away. In what ways do we fear the nameless “they” and what they can take away from us?
- Can you identify with Mary’s fear of the unknown as she did “not know where they had laid him?”
- In what ways do we try to control out of fear of changes and the unknown? Can you think of times you fought changes that were good for you or times that you wanted to keep the status quo even when it was bad?
- Discuss how Mary’s experience on Easter morning was a journey of faith. Can you recount how the Lord has led you in your journey to grow your faith in him?
- How might the resurrection of Jesus challenge our desire to be in control? In what ways do we try to “hold on to Jesus” instead of trusting his work in us?