Easter Sunday, 2021: John 20:1-31
Hallelujah! Christ is Risen! He is risen, indeed.
I actually teared up when I wrote that—you know, in a manly way—knowing I would get to speak those words, and knowing I would hear the response this morning. The first Easter sermon I preached I preached to a computer screen a year ago, and I can’t tell you how glad I am to be here among you this morning. How much of a privilege it is to preach on Easter Sunday, to even speak of the resurrection of God which is the single most significant event in the history of God’s redemption. Christ’s resurrection is the consummation of time, the final crushing victory of God over the enemy; it is the foundation of our Christian faith, it is our only hope for the future. And today, church; today Christ is risen.
Go with me to the book of John, chapter 20. All through the season of lent, we’ve been focusing on individual people involved in the last week of Jesus’ life, trying to understand Jesus’ death from their perspectives so we can understand the ways in which Jesus died for our sake, and in our place. Today, I’m going to do one last perspective, but this time on the resurrection, hopefully to show how, through Christ’s resurrection, we have a living hope today; we can find new life, life abundant in him. I want you to see yourself in Mary Magdalene’s place.
Read with me, John 20, and we’re going to start in v.1. [John 20:1-31] This is the word of the Lord; thanks be to God. Pray with me, briefly: Father God, we praise you because you have revealed yourself perfectly to us so we can know the deepest truths of this world, even teach them to children; Christ, we praise you as the firstborn from among the dead, the first of many; Holy Spirit, we praise you for the life you bring, life enough to push back darkness, to reverse death, to give us life; we pray you would show us your truth in your word today, because we know your truth will set us free. Amen.
We are, all of us, Mary Magdalene. We are just like her. Her sins are ours, and the new life offered to her in the resurrection of Christ is offered to us as well.
Mary was from Galilee, the same basic area where Jesus was from, but she was on a different side of the lake. And this is something we can very easily imagine in New Orleans. Mary’s side of the lake had money. Jesus’ side did not. This may sound familiar.
Luke tells us Mary provided for Jesus and the disciples from her means. He makes it sound like Mary was their patron, meaning just that she paid for the needs of the ministry, which would have been fairly common in that society—Luke understood this. He, himself, had a patron, which is how he had time to investigate these things and write his gospel. It’s also more common today than you might think—I know several pastors, teachers in New Orleans who have a patron who sponsors them. Our church is only able to do what we do because of the generosity of people who mostly live on the other side of our lake, and we praise God for them. For me personally, though, the wealthy patron slot is still open. If you would like to apply to be my wealthy patron, you may do so at any time.
Luke also tells us, Jesus healed Mary of seven demons, the number seven usually being significant as a number of wholeness and fullness. Mary was wholly overcome by evil. I want you to imagine a woman who has money, yes, but who’s life is completely filled with oppression and pain. She has forgotten what happiness is. The money doesn’t help—it usually doesn’t. She’s slowly destroying herself with men and wine. At this point, she doesn’t seem to be married, likely because her reputation was entirely destroyed. No one wanted this lady, and no one cared for her. Then, one day, she meets Jesus, and her life begins to change. She’s filled with a new Spirit who doesn’t want to destroy and ruin her. All of the sudden, she’s around people who actually mean her well, men who don’t want to use her.
Slowly, something new began to happen in Mary. Life sprang up, where before there were only weeds and dirt.
As with all of us, this new life doesn’t seem to have been immediate or comfortable for Mary at first. It’s unclear, but some people ask if this is the same Mary who poured out the perfume on his head and feet, and I think it probably is. That would explain how she had the money to buy perfume worth a year’s wages, and it would help explain why his disciples were so upset about that use of her money in the ministry. It would also explain why the Simon the wealthy pharisee knew her—wealthy people tend to know each other—and why he didn’t want her in his house. He didn’t want any part of her reputation to rub off on him.
She doesn’t seem to know the rules to be polite or proper or womanly for that time, either. She makes decorum mistakes that infuriate the people who have been religious for a long time. She accidentally crosses lines of propriety—I imagine her saying and doing things that made the room fall silent, and she has no idea why. Rumors of all kinds start about Mary’s relationship with Jesus, and Jesus still doesn’t send her away, he bears the shame, as he does by associating with each of us, allowing us to call ourselves Christians. For my part, I think their relationship was one of gratitude, like the woman at the well in Cana, if you know that story—he knew Mary’s whole life, yet still chose to speak to her. This is Jesus loving well a sister who has demons in her past and is still in recovery. She was forgiven much, so she loved much.
Mary’s the first person to find the empty tomb. V.1 says she came to the tomb early, while it was still dark. We know from the other gospels that she was meeting the other two Marys, Jesus’ mother, and his aunt, John’s mom with spices for the burial—this was the tradition at the time, if you could afford it. Again, Mary probably paid for the spices, so she’s there with the family to finish the burial which was interrupted by the high Sabbath day. But she gets to the garden in front of the tomb, and the stone over the tomb—it would have been large, would have taken several people to move. They covered graves with those stones to keep people from robbing the fresh graves, but Jesus’ stone is rolled away. Imagine the feeling of your friend’s grave being robbed, and then seeing that even the body is missing. What would they possibly want with the body? Mary freaks.
She doesn’t wait for the other two women, and runs to where they were staying, and from the other gospels, it seems she ran into the other two women on the road, because the three of them show up together where Peter and John are to tell them the tomb is open and empty. The men run, probably hoping to catch whomever it was, but they don’t find a robbed grave, they find something else.
The linen with which he was wrapped, not thrown on the floor and desecrated, not taken by robbers, but folded neatly. The cloth on his head, as well, folded. I wonder if, having lived with Jesus for so long, they recognized a care and concern typical of him—but the care of the folded cloth told Peter and John, the grave wasn’t robbed, and for the first time, they understood the scriptures and Jesus’ prediction.
Even before Jesus appears to them, they believe, and off they go to begin telling this story that we are still telling today, the story of a person even death couldn’t keep hold of, someone whose life was so overflowing that death couldn’t contain it. And I’m telling you these things for the same reason John is—“that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”
Mary doesn’t run off with the others, she remains, and it says she was weeping. She’s like Thomas. She doesn’t see what the others see in those folded cloths. She has doubts, she’s not convinced. In the midst of the resurrection, all she can see is death, and wrongness, and even when angels appear she tells them, “someone’s taken him.” Christ, himself, appears to her, and she still doesn’t see the story she’s a part of, the meaning of the garden she’s standing in, the identity of this man she calls the gardener.
When I first read this passage, not thinking about Mary and who she is, it didn’t really make sense to me why, looking at the resurrected Christ, she doesn’t believe in the resurrection. People usually just chalk her doubt up to hysterics, or Christ’s resurrected body, or the chaos of that morning, but I think it’s deeper than that. When I think about Mary’s life, growing up with so much pain and oppression, turning to men who used her, behaviors that would have destroyed her, and others who just rejected her and wanted nothing to do with her.
She was used to everything going wrong, and everyone who should have been able to help either using her in her desperation or not having the power really to heal her or improve her life in any way. After a life like that, sometimes it takes a minute to believe that good news isn’t too good to be true. If you’ve tried and failed in life over and over again, sometimes hearing that there is hope for life in Jesus doesn’t sound plausible, even when it’s Easter morning, and there are people around you saying, “Christ is risen!” It’s hard to believe.
We are Mary. The reason she can’t believe the resurrection is the same reason we doubt and have trouble believing in Christ’s resurrection, and in his ability actually to change our lives for the better, give us new and abundant life. We’ve heard that kind of thing before, and someone was just conning us, using us, for money, for pleasure, for whatever we had to give. Sometimes we need Jesus to stand with us for a second, call us by name, show us that he really is alive, that death and loneliness and tears really won’t be the last thing we know.
I think he is calling your name today. Why else are you here? I love that he doesn’t tell her to do anything or ask anything of her in that moment, he just calls her name. Mary. To tell her that he hasn’t forgotten about her, he’s not going to fail her or let her down, and he’s not going to leave her. It’s only at that point that this woman, always on the sidelines, on the margins, making mistakes, feeling ashamed, is able to stand in the assembly and declare with confidence her faith, her testimony: “I have seen the Lord!”
What can we say in response to this? What can we do? What does this mean, that Christ appears to Mary and calls her name?
First, Jesus’ response to Mary means that Jesus loves broken people, people who are hopeless, who are completely filled and overwhelmed by their demons—literal or no. And listen, if you think I’m talking about the person sitting next to you, I’m not. I’m talking about myself and you. Part of understanding the meaning of the resurrection is understanding that you, me, we are the sinful, broken people in the room. We are Mary. Even if your demons are mostly in your past, and you were never as bad as she was, and you know all the rules to be religious and proper—even then, we are Mary. We’re so broken, we’re so used to things being wrong, that even when people around us believe and have faith, even when God himself comes to us, we can’t see him through our tears, we accuse God of wrongdoing, we, like Mary, think he’s the gardener.
The irony of Mary thinking Jesus is the gardener is that God is a gardener. That was one of the first things we ever knew about him as a human race, way back at the beginning of the story of the Bible, we find God our creator, God the gardener. We first got to know him in the midst of his garden; that was the first work he invited us into as people. We sinned in that garden and caused creation to fall into death of all kinds. And here in our passage today, in this garden by the open tomb, God is resurrecting it—all of it; creation, his people.
Eventually the whole earth will be filled with the life that sprang up out of the garden in which Mary’s standing around the grave. God the gardener. God starts new life in you by tilling the soil, breaking the ground. This can be painful, and it takes time. It’s hard to believe when you’re walking on broken ground that out of this comes new life. But it does, and the ground has to be broken for anything to grow. We have to recognize that we are broken. But out of broken earth, and out of broken people, he causes new life to grow, pushing through the dirt.
Jesus loves broken people, like Mary. And we are Mary, each one of us. Each one of us is broken. We have pasts we need to be healed of, reputations we can’t shake, mistakes we make. And even though it may be hard for us to believe, our hope is standing before us today, risen from the dead.
Second, Jesus’ response to Mary means Christ is risen indeed. It’s true—the gospel story. It’s all true, whether we can see it or not. Whether or not we can ever get past all of the things in our life that cause us not to recognize our hope and life when he is standing in front of us, he’s still there, still calling your name.
Again, I’m telling you about the resurrection of Jesus today for the same reason John did—so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God. There’s so many reasons not to believe. There are reasons why we should weep and accuse even God himself, just like Mary did, and there’s only one reason why you should believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; because he’s here today. If you can’t see him, look. Dry your eyes for a second, and listen to the people around you who see something you might have missed, not because we’re special, but because we’ve spent that time with him, we know him. We recognize his work in the garden, because he’s done the same thing in us a thousand times. That’s why we say Christ is risen.
There are so many reasons not to believe. In John’s day, Mary, herself, would have been one of the reasons people had not to believe. She is the first witness of the risen Christ, and in that day women weren’t even allowed to give testimony in court, or swear oaths; they weren’t considered trustworthy.
In our day, there are other reasons not to believe. Maybe your experiences with religion in the past have taught you you don’t belong in church, and you can’t trust the word of religious people. When the Marys of our world come to our door and say, “I’ve seen the Lord,” we say, yeah, and I’ve heard that before. But Christ himself is risen today, and he has a way of calling out names through our tears and our doubts, to where we know it’s him—you can recognize the voice calling you to put down your doubts and believe in his resurrection and promises.
Lastly today, Jesus’ response to Mary means new life is possible. New life is possible. We see it all the time here at our church. People who have given up on their lives ever really changing—either they don’t realize change is necessary, or they’ve just given up any kind of hope that change is possible—and yet, Jesus, the one who couldn’t be kept down even by death, raises them up.
God certainly resurrected my life from the dead—I didn’t even think it needed changing, I didn’t recognize those dead limbs and branches that needed pruning; I never do. I was actually pretty satisfied with my life the way I’d made it—I usually am. I had a whole plan of what I was going to do and who I was going to do it with—I usually do.
Then God the gardener went to work in me. Digging up weeds, preparing the soil, planting new life. Still now, in every season, there are things he takes away and things he gives to allow new life to spring up in me. And I have faith that one day he’ll finish his work in me. It’s not today, but one day, when the whole world has been raised up, when every grave is empty, and every weeping sister or brother is given reason to rejoice. One day he will finish his work, but today, I’m just satisfied to see that he is working, that he hasn’t left me, or forgotten my name.
And if God is able to work even in me, then I know he’s able to work in you, too, to bring new life out of you, beauty, food for the people you love. If he’s able to turn back death itself, is there anything that is too large for him? No, nothing is too large for him. Because Christ is risen, he is able to resurrect you as well, in this life, and into the next.
Even if you’re like Mary, or John, or Peter, or Judas even, Pilate, Caiaphas. God is able to work in you, to raise you from whatever grave you find yourself in. Today, if he calls your name, respond. Pray where you are, pray with me or others in the church. Pray with me now.