(To hear a version of this sermon as preached, click here.)
Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. 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. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned to their homes.
But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and 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?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). Jesus said 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.’” Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.
It was still dark when Mary Magdalene came to the tomb, and I will admit that there are days when I know how she feels. The writer and preacher Shannon Johnson Kershner says that Mary is someone who has experienced so much darkness that her eyes have adjusted to it, and if that is the case, my eyes have adjusted, too. I know what it is like to experience darkness. It seems like every other day, some unspeakable tragedy comes across my news feed. It is really hard to shock me these days. There is so much darkness out there that it can make a person feel stuck, like you’re out of options to battle it, boxed in with no place to go.
Maybe you can relate. I do not need to tell you that the world can be a dark place, that the circumstances of our lives can make us feel stuck, and so perhaps we should all join Mary Magdalene in this journey this morning, this search for light in the midst of darkness.
And so it is that on the first day of the week, while it is still dark, Mary Magdalene gets to the tomb of Jesus so that she may grieve, and she finds that his grave been desecrated. The thing that couldn’t possibly have been made worse was made worse. Someone had pried open the tomb, rolled away the stone, and stolen Jesus’s body. It is the sort of thing that boggles the mind, the kind of tragic horror that seems so beyond the pale that you can’t even really imagine it. Sure, they’d killed Jesus, Mary’s friend and savior, but surely, now, they’d finally leave him alone. And then this.
So she high-tails it back to where the rest of the disciples were gathered, and she tells them what has happened, that someone has taken the body of the Lord, and Simon Peter and another disciple drop everything they are doing, take off for the tomb, run as fast as they can, so focused on the goal that one of them started to outrun the other but just kept going anyways, until he reached the tomb.
The first disciple approaches the tomb and sees the linen wrappings that had been placed around Jesus’s body lying in a pile on the floor of the tomb, and he stands outside the tomb and waits for Peter to come in. And when Peter does get there, he goes inside the tomb, and Jesus is indeed gone. Peter sees the linen wrappings, but he also sees the cloth that had been wrapped around Jesus’s head, and it’s not in a pile. It’s neatly rolled up, as if Jesus had said to himself, I’m not going to need this anymore, so I might as well clean up after myself so that the next guy doesn’t have to deal with the mess.
And it is when they see that rolled up cloth that they know that this isn’t a grave robbery. Grave robbers wouldn’t have bothered to roll up the cloth. They’d have taken it, or let it fall on the ground under the cover of the same darkness that Mary Magdalene brought with her. And seeing this, the disciples believe. They understand that while it is true that Jesus is not there, it isn’t that his body has been stolen. It’s that it has left on its own accord. And so the disciples, John’s Gospel tells us, go back to their homes.
I have to say, that despite the detective skills of Peter and the other disciple, I am most impressed with Mary Magdalene in this story. For even though she has already come to the tomb, found it empty, and run to tell the disciples, she comes back. She turns around and comes back to the tomb, and I wonder what she was thinking. I mean, there wasn’t anything there. Just an empty cavern, a rolled back stone, some old linens. And yet something must have told her to return, to put one foot in front of the other and walk forward to the empty tomb, to stand there and then to bend over and to look inside, and this time, the tomb isn’t empty at all. There are two angels inside, in fact, dressed in white, one sitting where Jesus’s head had been, another where his foot had been, and you wonder how Mary’s life had been different if she’d stayed home, if she hadn’t ventured back out into the darkness, into the unknown, because even though the grave was empty the first time, even though she was faced with the horror of the abduction of his remains, this time was different.
I don’t know why she came back. They say insanity is doing the same thing twice and expecting different outcomes.
And yet this is how the mystery of the Resurrection begins, with the same thing happening twice, but the second time, the second time was different.
It is a mystery, of course, the Resurrection. I can’t tell you exactly how it happened. I can’t explain the physics of the Resurrection, just how it is that Jesus is raised from death to life, how his body is able to do the one thing that bodies aren’t able to do, which is quit being dead once they are dead. I don’t know how it happened. In fact, of all the Gospels, of all the stories of Jesus’s life, only one thing, one event happens in pitch dark. It is the Resurrection. We do not know the particulars of how it happened. The Resurrection, this central moment in history, the thing that changes everything forever and ever amen happens between God and Jesus, happens in the dark with nobody else around.
That’s not to say it didn’t happen. It’s not to say I don’t believe it happened. I do. I believe it more deeply than I believe the things I can prove. I’m just saying it takes faith.
Now, I want to acknowledge that faith isn’t always a popular word, and I get that. When hateful groups use the banner of the church to promote racist, homophobic agendas, I understand how faith can have a bad name. When people of faith are resistant to science, the ongoing exploration of the beauty and intricacy of creation, I understand how faith can have a bad name. When the church focuses so much on its own preservation that it misses people starving to death just outside its doors and around the world, when it forgets that the crucifixion teaches us that self-preservation is less important than God’s mission, I understand how faith can have a bad name.
It’s enough to make you feel stuck, like there’s no room to have faith in our modern world.
And yet even in the midst of all of this darkness, faith is what we’re called to have: not a hateful faith, not an anti-intellectual faith, not a self-serving faith, but a faith that acknowledges that there is a love beyond explanation, there is hope beyond tomorrow, there is life beyond death.
And on this day when we read the Easter story once again, when we gather to hear the story of the empty tomb and the risen savior, I am giving thanks for Mary Magdalene, whose eyes had already adjusted to the dark and yet who kept looking for light anyway. That’s faith, you know. Here’s a woman who saw Jesus die, went to the tomb and saw that it had been robbed, and went back anyway. That’s faith. And thank God for it, thank God for the faith of this woman we know very little about, for it wasn’t until her second trip to the tomb that things changed. The two angels. I don’t know what compelled her to go back. She’d seen with her own two eyes the first time. And yet she looked again anyway.
Isn’t this the message of the Resurrection? To experience pain but to look again anyway, because when you are willing to look forward, even in the face of tragedy and death, there is hope on the horizon?
I mean, here’s Mary, returning to the tomb, the scene of the crime, and this time, there are two angels, and they ask her why she is weeping, as if that were unusual behavior at a graveside, and then she turns around and sees the gardener and he asks the same thing, and she says, just tell me where he is. Just tell me—I will go get him. I will break the customs and laws that are supposed to prevent me from touching a dead body and I will go get him. Just tell me where.
Now, we don’t know why Mary Magdalene didn’t recognize that it was Jesus all along. The Gospel of John doesn’t go into specifics as to whether Jesus somehow changed his appearance or if Mary, so distraught at Jesus’s execution and the supposed robbery of his grave, couldn’t bring herself to believe that the Lord was standing in front of her. I get that. She’s watched him be killed. That’s not the kind of thing you usually come back from. Whatever the reason, honestly, I don’t think it matters, because when Jesus hears Mary offer to break her own religious customs for his sake, he simply says her name. Mary. And she knows. She realizes this is not a gardener but the savior of the world, and despite everything she’s seen happen, despite the trial and the crucifixion, the death and the burial, none of it is strong enough to stand in the way of God’s love.
And, you know, then Mary does the strangest thing. I am not quite sure how to say this, but it is as if she is running in two directions at once. It is as though even though she runs back to tell the other disciples, she’s actually running forward towards hope. Even though she’s returning, she’s running forward into uncharted territory, because she carries with her a message unlike any before, the message of the Resurrection. And the message is this: no matter how stuck you are, no matter the circumstance, no matter your station in life, there is room to run forward. There is nothing so strong, no force in life too strong for God. Fear and greed, bitterness and squalor, pain and loss. None of these things are more powerful than the love of God. Not even death.
This is the message of the Resurrection. Not just that Heaven is for real, though it is. Not just that God will save us, though God does save us, every moment of every day. The message is that there is always room to run forward. The strongest force in the world, death, is no longer the strongest force. It has been defeated by the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, by the God of love, and because of that defeat, there is always room to run forward. The barriers that used to stand in our way are no longer there. Not even death.
And maybe this is overplayed, and it’s Easter, so you’re already well aware of this, but can you imagine what this means? This defeat of death? It gives us license to stand up to the agents of fear who threaten us because fear no longer wins. Love does. It gives us the ability to go out into the world and proclaim the good news that God loves us, that God loves all of us, that the things that keep us down are no match for God. And at the end of our earthly lives, the Resurrection reminds us that there is room to run forward still, for death is not the final word. There is room for life, even beyond death. There is room to run forward.
This is the message of the Resurrection: that there is life beyond fear, that even in the darkness of the world, even in the darkest moments of our own lives, there is room, for just on the other side of the veil is God’s eternal goodness.
This kind of gift, this kind of grace reorients our lives, because preserving, maintaining is no longer the most important thing. There is a new most important thing, running forward in the name of Christ, because the old things can’t hold us back anymore. Nothing you’ve ever done can hold you back. Nothing you’ve ever done can keep you from God’s love. If not even your own death can separate you from God’s love, nothing stands a chance!
If you ask me, that’s pretty substantial. It helps you understand how Mary Magdalene would run in two directions at once. It helps you understand how people, for two millennia, have dedicated their lives to it.
Why, I have it on good authority that it’s enough to make a person stand in front of the church, in front of God and everybody, to declare his allegiance to God and to accept the waters of baptism. It may even be enough to make the people of God go out into the world to declare that death is no longer in charge, that fear is no longer in charge, that love is in charge, and then in what would have to be the most revolutionary thing of all, to act like we really believe it. And that would shake up everything, everything. Can you imagine? Can you imagine what that would be like?