Acts 10:34-43 Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24 I Corinthians 15:1-11 John 20:1-18
Pete decided to go on a vacation and asked his friend John to look after his cat. A few days into his trip, Pete calls John and asks about his cat. John said, “I’m sorry he died.” Pete said, “Man, that isn’t how you share bad news. You don’t come right out and say it. You say the cat has climbed up on the roof of the house and we can’t get him down. Then the next day you say, well, he finally came down but got hit by a car. Then the next day you say the Vet tried to save him, but he died.” That’s the way you tell somebody. I asked you to check on my Mom, too. How is she doing?” A long pause and then John said, “Well, she climbed up on the roof…”
Alleluia. Christ is risen. Jesus didn’t climb up on the roof, but on the cross. In the first verses of John’s account, the narrator reintroduces the three characters whose responses dominate John’s version of the story. Mary Magdalene finds the tomb with its stone rolled away. When she runs to tell the others that the body has disappeared, Peter and the Beloved Disciple, John, take off to see for themselves before Mary returns to make her own discoveries. It is in the responses of these model disciples we find the riches of Easter.
The Beloved Disciple. The minute the beloved disciple hears Mary’s news, he takes off to see what has happened, arriving at the tomb before Peter. His actions seem perfectly understandable, since his behavior is always appropriate. After all, he stayed with Jesus all the way to the bitter end; why would he not want to see what has happened now? Because the Beloved Disciple serves as a faithful witness, he must see for himself the linen cloths and the bodyless tomb. He instantly believes without full comprehension or explanation of what it all means.
We know people like this, every church needs them to survive. These are the people who have no evidence to believe that the boy who messes up the sound equipment in the sanctuary will be anything but trouble, yet insist that he is headed toward a brilliant career in sound engineering. These are the people who see service possibilities in broken-down playgrounds and faded fellowship halls. These are the people who require no proof that eternal life trumps death and smile inwardly every time they hear the word “resurrection.” Although they may often annoy us with their boundless optimism and refusal to face facts as we see them, we secretly cheer for them and draw strength from them for our own faith journeys from their unwavering trust that God will work for good, even out of a crucifixion.
Peter runs. Peter’s reaction to Mary’s news about an open tomb is less clear to us. We are not sure why he joins this outrageous foot race to Jesus’ tomb; after all, he has just spent the last few days running away from Jesus. Why is he running toward him now? Although John does not speculate, we may offer some guesses. Perhaps it is simple jealousy, a sense of competition, a desire to prove that he is as good as the faithful Beloved Disciple who is several years younger. Or perhaps guilt motivates Peter to run out the door so that he can say that he is sorry – for denying Jesus after boasting about his loyalty, for not being present at the cross, for running away when the chips were down. Or maybe Peter felt a hopeful curiosity. With all the other disciples, he was present at the raising of Lazarus. Could it be possible that the same thing has happened to Jesus?
Many of us live with Peter in this complex of emotions. We harbor petty jealousies in our souls for those who seem so blessed by the love of God, so full of confidence and joy. We are resentful of the success of others. Or we promise ourselves that we will not fall away from whatever God has given us to do, but the minute we are threatened in some way, we leave, we run away. With Peter we are hurrying to confess our shortcomings. Or maybe we remember something remarkable and life-giving from our past, running to see if it might happen again, if new life is possible even for those of us caught in a web of conflicting feelings and actions.
Mary speaks. Then there is Mary Magdalene who enters the tomb after her male companions have returned home, weeping for what is gone. She obviously expects nothing to happen; she has come to mourn the loss of life, of a body to touch, and to bid good-bye. In her grief she can hardly think clearly. So Mary went to the tomb to say her good-byes and pay her respects. The other gospels tell us that other women came to the tomb along with Mary Magdalene. The other gospel accounts give their names. Matthew says that Mary Magdalene and Mary, the mother of James and Joseph, set out together at the first light. In John, we hear that Mary Magdalene is alone. So early on that Sunday morning, she leaves her pallet and walks out onto the tree-shadowed path. Hers is a somber task. The morning promises only one encounter, an encounter with a corpse. Remember, she doesn’t know that this is the first Easter. She is not hoping the tomb will be vacant. She isn’t thinking of what her response will be when she sees Jesus. She has absolutely no idea that the grave has been vacated.
There was a time that she dared to dream such dreams. Not now. It’s too late for the incredible. The feet that walked on the water had been pierced. The hands that had healed lepers had been stilled. Noble aspirations had been spiked into Friday’s cross. Mary has come to place warm oils on a cold body and to bid farewell to the one man who gave reason to her hopes.
But it isn’t hope the leads the woman up the mountain to the tomb. It is duty – naked, devoted duty. She expects nothing in return. What could Jesus give? What could a dead man offer her? She is not climbing the mountain to receive, she is going to the tomb to give. There is no motivation more noble.
There are times when we, too, are called to love, expecting nothing in return. Times when we are called to give money to people who will never say thank you, to forgive those who won’t forgive us, to come early and stay late when no one else notices. Service prompted by duty. This is the call of discipleship.
Mary knew a task had to be done – Jesus’ body had to be prepared for burial. Peter didn’t offer to go. Andrew didn’t volunteer. The forgotten adulteress or the healed lepers are nowhere to be seen. So Mary decides to go.
I wonder if halfway to the tomb she sat down and reconsidered. What if she looked into her heart and said, “What’s the use?” What if she had given up. What if she had thrown her hands into the air in frustration and bemoaned, “I’m tired of being the one who cares. My heart is broken, it hurts too much.” Let Andrew do something for a change. Let Nathaniel show some backbone.”
Whether or not she was tempted to quit, I’m glad she didn’t. That would have been tragic. We know something she didn’t. We know the Father was watching. Mary Magdalene thought she was alone. She thought her journey was unnoticed. She was wrong. God knew. God was watching as she walked up the mountain. He was measuring her steps, smiling at her devotion and touched by her love.
It was still dark, but even from a distance she knew something was wrong. She could smell damp earth, cold rock from inside. Someone had moved the stone! Afraid he would become a saint, afraid his tomb would become a shrine, someone has taken him away – God knows where - to a steep cliff, to the town dump. His body was all she had left and now it was gone. She sees Jesus and thinks he is the gardener. Then he speaks her name, and she suddenly knows exactly who this mysterious stranger is. She responds to the call of her name; “Rabbouni!” Then Jesus commissions her to go and tell what she has seen, just as he commissioned the woman at the well way back at the beginning of his ministry.
We are reminded that the resurrection narratives are really commission stories, sending believers out into the world to tell everyone that death is not the last word. Otherwise, no one would ever know what happened, and Easter would be just a reunion story with tears and hugs all around. However, Mary obeys the risen Jesus, fighting her impulse to cling to a familiar friend, and she leaves the garden to tell what she knows to be true. An expected ending is now a beginning – of telling the truth about life to those who want to deal only in death, of offering living water and the bread of life to those who want only to buy and sell things that perish.
The lesson that Mary Magdalene teaches us – three words, don’t give up. Is the trail dark? Don’t sit. Is the road long? Don’t stop. Is the night black? Don’t quit. God is watching, God is waiting. For all we know, God may be trying to move a stone right now. The check may be in the mail. The apology may be on our lips. The job contract may be on the desk. Don’t quit…. Don’t forget to love… for if you do, you may miss the answer to your prayers.
Mary speaks, and in her speaking we find our own voice. We speak in a voice that proclaims the love of God, the sacrifice of Jesus and the faith of our community. We speak in one voice with all who are baptized as we affirm who God is for us and what that means in living our lives in the community of faith. As a community of faith we celebrate - Alleluia, Christ is risen! Amen.