The Gospel lesson this morning is about Mary going to Jesus’ tomb just as dawn was breaking that first Easter morning and finding it empty. And this past week I spent a good bit of time thinking about another grave. When Rose died last week her family asked if I could take care of the burial arrangements. And by “burial arrangements” they meant quite literally contacting and dealing with the cemetery about the actual burial itself. They had hit a snag. As it turned out Rose had the last plot in St. Andrew’s cemetery. The last burial there was her husband in 1989—twenty-seven years ago. No one there knew what to do. There was no equipment for digging a grave. They didn’t even know who to contact. In the end I contacted Trevor, he located a mini-backhoe, and we excavated the grave ourselves. Earlier in the week I was worried: There’s a big oak tree right there. What if we hit the roots? What if we don’t dig it right? What if we aren’t able to dig deep enough? But then I had a new worry. The St. Andrew’s folks gave us all sorts of rules. One of them was to make sure the grave was covered so that no one would fall in. I took a four-by-eight sheet of plywood, but it turned out the hole was too big. The sheet barely covered it and almost fell in as I was placing it. We had to give up on covering it. And so all Wednesday night and early Thursday morning I kept waking up and worrying that some idiot might be out on the stormy, windy night in the pouring rain, wandering through the cemetery, and fall into the hole! I hardly slept, worrying about that empty grave. I went by Thursday morning hoping and praying it was empty—that no one and nothing had fallen in. And it made me think of Mary.
Now, as we read in the Gospel this morning, when Mary went to Jesus’ tomb that morning the last thing on her mind was an empty grave. Of course, she didn’t go there expecting to find it empty. She fully expected Jesus’ body to still be there. She was going to finish anointing the body for burial—something they hadn’t been able to do in the rush of Friday. But it’s easy to forget this. If someone who was a Christian pieced the Easter story together from the hymns we sing and from all of our talk and focus on the Resurrection, he’d probably think that the disciples were camped out at the tomb over the weekend, waiting expectantly for Jesus to blow the stone from the door and jump out in all of his resurrected glory. But that’s not how it went.
St. John tells us that Mary saw the stone rolled away and she immediately knew what that meant. She ran straight to Peter and John, beat on the door, and when Peter answered it she was smiling and crying tears of joy and shouted, “He is risen! I saw it. The stone was rolled away and everything. It happened just as he said!” No…not at all. In fact, she ran weeping to find Peter and John and when she got there she said in grief and panic, “They’ve taken the Lord’s body out of the tomb and we don’t know what they’ve done with it!” And Peter and John didn’t understand any more than Mary did. They ran and looked for themselves. And, sure enough: no Jesus. And John himself says that they didn’t understand. They went back home thinking that the body must have been stolen—because they didn’t understand the Scriptures, because they didn’t understand that Jesus had risen from the dead.
Every year around Easter Macleans or Time or Newsweek or one of those magazines runs a story about Jesus and usually they’re written by sceptics who are critical of the Easter story. They say it couldn’t have happened. And that’s understandable. It’s a hard story to believe because everyone knows that people don’t rise from the dead. And yet that’s part of what gives the accounts given in the Gospels their credibility. People today often think that ancient people were somehow simple and more gullible or superstitious than we are—that it was easy for them to be believe in something like Jesus’ resurrection. That’s not true. Most ancient people didn’t believe in resurrection either. The Greeks and Romans generally believed in any number of variations on the idea that death releases the soul or the spirit from the body and that the soul would then go to be with the gods or would continue on in hades. The Greeks had ruled out any possibility of resurrection. In fact, it was popular amongst the Greek—and Romans too—to see death as the great liberator, releasing the goodness of the soul from the body, which was part of this evil material world. The Jews were the only people who believed in resurrection—and even then it was hotly disputed. Many Jews, like the Sadducees, believed that when you died that was it. Death was the end. But based on prophecies like those of Ezekiel and Daniel, many Jews increasingly believed that the bodies of the faithful would one day be brought back to life and that it would happen at the end of history when the Lord’s Messiah came to vindicate Israel and to crush her enemies. This would have been the thinking of Jesus’ disciples. But that’s just it. The believed that everyone was supposed to be resurrected all at once. So it didn’t occur to them when they saw the empty tomb that Jesus had risen. All of the other graves in the cemetery were still sealed shut. Nothing had changed for the disciples—at least not as far as they could tell. The idea that one person, that the Messiah, that Jesus might be raised first and that sometime later everyone else would follow—that wasn’t even remotely on their radar. If they had wanted to make up a story about Jesus, this is not the one they would have made up. And they most certainly wouldn’t have made up a story in which they themselves had no clue about what had just happened.
Getting back to the story in our Gospel: What John wanted to get across in telling us about the empty tomb and about Mary’s encounter with Jesus is first that Jesus really was alive again. His body wasn’t stolen. And he wasn’t a ghost or some kind of disembodied spirit. If that’s what had happened his body would still have been in the tomb. No, the point John stresses here is that Jesus was—and still is—very much alive. And that Jesus—who had been very much dead—is now alive means that he has been vindicated by God. He said he was the Messiah, he said he would die, he said he would rise again on the third day—and his own people rejected him. In fact, when Pilate gave them the option of releasing Jesus they shouted him down, crying out “Crucify him!” Nobody believed Jesus. Even the disciples were having their doubts. But now he’s alive and that means that he was telling the truth—and not just about his death and resurrection. He was telling the truth about everything. Jesus had said that God’s kingdom was at hand. People laughed or they got angry, but the Resurrection proves that Jesus was right. That Sunday morning Jerusalem was just waking up to another day as usual. Herod was still in his palace and Pilate in his. Tiberius was still Caesar. But everything was different because Jesus’ Resurrection that morning set in motion the long hoped for restoration, the re-creation of the world. Jesus is the world’s true Lord, his kingdom has come, the world is a different place no matter what appearances may say, and so John then makes the point that Jesus’ people are called to be witnesses of this truth; Jesus’ people are called to be heralds, going out to the world to announce the Good News that the kingdom of God has begun and that Jesus is Lord.
And here in the Gospel this morning we see Mary Magdalene. She was the very first person to be given this ministry—the very first herald to be sent out into the world by Jesus.
When you hear Jesus’ command to go out into the world to make disciples do you feel inadequate? Does the idea of being a herald of the Good News feel challenging? If it does, you’re in good company with Mary. Peter and John went running off to tell everyone the bad knew that Jesus’ body was gone. There was Mary standing outside the empty tomb, tears pouring down her face. She was shell-shocked. She stooped down, John says, and looked again into the tomb. But this time she saw two angels sitting at either end of the stone ledge on which Jesus’ wrapping still lay. Imagine the double-take she did—wiping away the tears, rubbing her eyes. But, no, the angels were still there. And then they spoke. “Why are you weeping?”, they asked. And still, even seeing the angels, she thinks the body of Jesus has been stolen. And that’s what she tells them as she turns around to point back behind her, pointing to that some other place, not here, that “they” must have taken Jesus. And as she turns to point…and suddenly there’s Jesus. Right there.
And Jesus asks Mary why she’s weeping. And between the tears and the fact that she, like everyone else, knew that dead people don’t rise from the dead, she failed to recognise Jesus. No. She mistook him for the caretaker, for the gardener. “Ah,” she thought, “maybe the gardener knows what’s happened to Jesus!”
It’s worth pausing there. Mary mistook Jesus for the gardener. He wasn’t the gardener in the sense that Mary thought, but the risen Jesus really is the gardener. God placed Adam in his garden to steward it and to care for it. Adam rebelled, he spoiled the garden and was cast out. But Jesus is a sort of second Adam, come to fulfil the task where the first Adam failed. And so Jesus really is the gardener—not just of that little cemetery outside Jerusalem, but the new gardener to whom God has given the task of clean-up, pulling the weeds, replanting, setting everything in Creation to rights.
And then Jesus says her name. “Mary.” And as she hears him speak the recognition comes. This is Jesus. And she grabs hold of him, her tears of sadness turn into tears of joy, and she calls him “Teacher”. But then Jesus does a funny thing. In verse 17 he says to her, “Do not cling to me, for 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.’” Don’t cling to me. Why would he say that? Jesus’ point is that because he has risen everything—everything—has changed. Mary’s first thought was probably something like, “Oh good! Jesus is alive. I don’t know how. I don’t really understand. But he’s alive and now everything can be normal again.” But it can’t be “normal” again. Jesus can only stay with them long enough to get them set on their mission—the mission of carrying on what he started—and then he’s got to go. What he’s talking about is his ascension, which took place forty days later.
And it’s very easy at this point for us to think that what Jesus is saying is that now that he’s alive again he’s going to heaven and that, if we believe in him, one day we can escape this rotten, sinful, and death-infested world to be with him in heaven too. It’s easy at this point to turn Christianity into a religion of escape. We retreat from the world into our churches, we try to be good, maybe we tell a few of our friends or family hoping that they’ll join us, but basically we hunker down and wait for Jesus to come and rescue us from the world and take us to heaven.
Brother and Sisters, the Resurrection tells us something different. The bodily resurrection of Jesus tells us that Jesus is not in the business of relocation. No. The bodily resurrection of Jesus tells us that Jesus is in the business of transformation. In his death he has freed us from our bondage to sin and in his resurrection he has despoiled death itself. The ascension—which we’ll celebrate in forty days—isn’t then about Jesus going up to heaven where we’ll someday join him for eternity. It’s not about escape. No, the ascension is about Jesus, having won his battle, ascending to his throne to rule as Lord. Again, the resurrection proves that Jesus’ claim to be Israel’s Messiah was true and, as the Old Testament prophets made so clear, it was Israel’s Messiah who was to be creation’s true Lord. Mary was starting to understand this even on that first morning as her tears of sorrow turned into tears of joy and as Jesus sent her off to tell the other disciples. John says in verse 18 that Mary ran to them and announced: “I have seen the Lord!”
What did she mean by that? We’re so accustomed to talking about the “Lord” and praying to the “Lord” that we sometimes forget the significance of that title. It’s not just a polite form address, like calling someone “sir”. For the Jews the Lord was the King of all of Creation. He was the righteous Judge. He was the faithful God of the covenants. He was the one who made all things and now he’s the one making all things new. We see the same recognition in Thomas as he pokes his fingers at the wounds in Jesus’ hands and side and suddenly declares, “My Lord and my God!” The resurrection is the proof that Jesus is Lord. And so the Ascension isn’t about Jesus going away and someday we’ll go to be with him. It’s about Jesus taking up his throne, it’s about his sovereignty, it’s about him ruling until every last enemy has been put under his feet, and then it’s not we who go to him, but he who returns to us. And he doesn’t return alone or empty-handed. He brings heaven with him and in this amazing act of recreation, like a might trumpet blast of victory, Creation itself is remade and the bodies of the saints along with it in a great act of resurrection in which Jesus has already led the way that first Easter. Having accomplished his mission to make all things new, Jesus will hand it all back to his Father, and he—and we with him—will take up the role God had for us from the beginning, to be his faithful stewards, his faithful image bearers in the world.
I doubt that Mary had all the details of this plan worked out that morning, but she must have known the basic outline. Everyone did, even though Jesus did some things no one expected. But she was the very first one Jesus sent out to herald the Good News. And that in itself is pretty amazing. Consider who she was. We don’t know much for certain, but Luke says that Jesus had cast seven demons out of her. Because they’re mentioned so close together by Luke, it’s been traditional to associate Mary with the “sinful woman” who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. Again, this is another proof of the truthfulness of the story the Gospels tell. If Christians a generation later had made up these stories, Mary would not have been the first of the witnesses. No one would have dreamed up a story in which a woman acted as the primary witness, and they would never, never have given that role of witness to a woman who was known to have been demon-possessed and who, according to tradition, was likely a former prostitute. Mary’s testimony in that culture was utterly worthless, and yet she was the first of the disciples to whom Jesus appeared and it was to her that he first sent the message to the world that everything had just changed. Not Peter, not John, not James, not his own mother or his siblings or cousins, but Mary Magdalene. Again, no one would have made this up. The Church Fathers spent a good deal of time addressing the objections that people of their own time had to this part of the story. The very unlikeliness of it is what makes the story trustworthy. If it were made up, this is not how it would have been told.
But notice again, as much as Mary had to know that her witness in a court was worthless, she didn’t hesitate to go to the other disciples when Jesus sent her. John says she went and announced all of this to them. And, Brothers and Sisters, this is what Jesus calls us to do too. And if Mary could go and tell, so can we. Our calling as Christians is a two-fold one. Jesus has taken up his throne to reign until all his enemies have been put under his feet, but in the meantime he has given us the task of being his royal heralds. He sends us out into the world to announce that he has died for our sins, that he has risen to conquer death, and that he is the world’s true Lord. But he has also poured the Holy Spirit into us to regenerate our hearts and renew our minds, he’s made us a holy people, and in doing that he’s made us agents of his work of re-creation. Again, we often get things wrong in thinking that the Good News is about being holy people and hunkering down to wait for Jesus to rescue us from this evil word. That wrong formulation of the Gospel takes all the power and all the good news out of our proclamation that Jesus is Lord. No, again, the resurrection tells us that Jesus is about the business of transformation, not relocation; he’s about the business of renewing the world, not escape from it. And so we go out to declare the Good News that he is Lord, that he is making all things new, and that he’s coming back; and we seek to manifest his kingdom in the world, not just in our personal holiness, but also as we actively take practical steps and practical actions to show Jesus’ kingdom and to demonstrate his lordship and it’s goodness.
Think of it this way. When a new emperor took the throne in Rome, his heralds were sent out with the good news that Augustus or Tiberius or Vespasian was lord. And their heralds or their officials or their soldiers often brought proof of Caesar’s lordship. Sometimes that came as his officials brought food to hungry people. Sometimes it came in the form of the rule of Roman law and justice to people living in war and chaos. Sometimes it came as Roman soldiers violently showed Caesar’s power by crushing rebellion. But one way or another, Caesar’s representatives showed that he was lord. And yet Caesar was just a pretender at the true lordship that belongs to Jesus. Jesus sends us out as his heralds, not just to proclaim the Good News that he is Lord, but to make the perfect goodness of his lordship known. The proclamation and the lives we live go hand in hand. Jesus calls us to show the world the fruit of the Spirit. Jesus calls us to give of ourselves sacrificially for the sake of others, just as he did. And Jesus calls us to actively work to make the mercy and the justice and the grace of God’s kingdom manifest in the world. We proclaim this morning the acclamation: “He is risen!”. Brothers and Sisters, don’t just proclaim it here. Proclaim it to the world and don’t just proclaim it with your mouths, but live it in such a way that people around you will know that because Jesus has risen everything has changed; live it in such a way that everyone around you sees that Jesus’ kingdom has come.
Let us pray: Almighty God, who through your only-begotten Son Jesus Christ overcame death and opened for us the gate of everlasting life: Grant us by your grace to set our minds on things above; that by your continual help our lives may be transformed; through the same, Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.