Early in the morning of the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb. 2 She ran to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said, “They have taken the Lord from the tomb, and we don’t know where they’ve put him.” 3 Peter and the other disciple left to go to the tomb. 4 They were running together, but the other disciple ran faster than Peter and was the first to arrive at the tomb. 5 Bending down to take a look, he saw the linen cloths lying there, but he didn’t go in. 6 Following him, Simon Peter entered the tomb and saw the linen cloths lying there. 7 He also saw the face cloth that had been on Jesus’ head. It wasn’t with the other clothes but was folded up in its own place. 8 Then the other disciple, the one who arrived at the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed. 9 They didn’t yet understand the scripture that Jesus must rise from the dead. 10 Then the disciples returned to the place where they were staying.
11 Mary stood outside near the tomb, crying. As she cried, she bent down to look into the tomb. 12 She saw two angels dressed in white, seated where the body of Jesus had been, one at the head and one at the foot. 13 The angels asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?”
She replied, “They have taken away my Lord, and I don’t know where they’ve put him.” 14 As soon as she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she didn’t know it was Jesus.
15 Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who are you looking for?”
Thinking he was the gardener, she replied, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him and I will get him.”
16 Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned and said to him in Aramaic, “Rabbouni” (which means Teacher).
17 Jesus said to her, “Don’t hold on to me, for I haven’t yet gone up to my Father. Go to my brothers and sisters and tell them, ‘I’m going up to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.'”
18 Mary Magdalene left and announced to the disciples, “I’ve seen the Lord.” Then she told them what he said to her. (CEB)
I Have Seen the Lord
The resurrection story tells of an event that is foundational to our Christian faith. The very first sermon in Christendom was preached by a woman named Mary Magdalene who proclaimed the resurrection of Jesus by shouting, “I have seen the Lord!” To most of us, this story contains an element of holiness which draws us to this building and this community of people so we can hear, see, and maybe even touch or taste something of the divine. We know the story: Jesus was raised from death to a new kind of life. Yet, the story seems hard to believe. Perhaps the question lingering at the back of our minds is a simple longing to know: Is it true?
It’s an honest and fair question to ask when you consider what Mary Magdalene proclaimed here. Someone was raised from the dead? Seriously? We’re modern people who like to think we’re advanced beyond the primitive naivety of our ancestors, but the truth is that ancient peoples were not stupid. In Luke’s version of events, when the women told the apostles that Jesus had been raised from the dead, the men dismissed their words as nonsense (c.f. Luke 24:11). But, as it often is the case, the women were right and the men should have listened to them. Later, when Paul proclaimed the Easter story to the Athenians on Mars Hill, they laughed and ridiculed him when he mentioned Jesus’ resurrection from the dead (c.f. Acts 17:32). Stuff like this didn’t happen. They had seen people die and the dead never came back to life. They didn’t believe it any more than we might be expected to believe it.
So, what are we to make of this story? Kurt Vonnegut had the idea that all stories have shapes which you can draw on a graph by marking the highs and lows that the character experiences along the plotline. Some of you know that I write fantasy. Some of it’s historical fantasy. Some it’s high fantasy. Some of it’s fantasy with Sci-Fi elements. Most of my stories start in the middle, somewhere between life is horrible and life is amazing. Then, bad things happen and they drop low, with a few more ups and downs thrown in for good measure. Finally, good things happen and they end on a high note. Why? Because I’m the author and I like happy endings.
The resurrection story starts low on the scale due to the recent tragedy of Jesus’ death. Then, it rises on the scale to a happy ending. One of the curious things about this story from John’s Gospel is how strongly it resembles the format of ancient Greek comedy such as that of the great playwright, Menander. John crafted the resurrection story with all the comedic elements necessary for a great laugh. Seriously, William Shakespeare couldn’t have written a better short-story comedy. We’ve got the mystery of a missing body, confusion on the part of the mourners, a frantic race to the tomb, bewilderment from the witnesses, sudden appearances of heavenly beings who are not recognized as such, mistaken identity, sudden recognition of the formerly dead person as alive-and-well (that’s the comedic resolution), and a race back to share the good news that everything is better than it was before.
Mary Magdalene is the story’s hero with whom we, as the audience, identify. She’s the one who holds the story together. The plot begins and ends with her, and she has the last word. Mary goes to the tomb and finds the stone has been removed. She runs back and tells Peter and the disciple whom Jesus loved that someone has taken the Lord out of the tomb and she doesn’t know where they have laid him. The disciples run and find the tomb empty and leave. We’re told that the disciple whom Jesus loved “believed” but we’re not told what he believed. Did he believe Mary’s account that Jesus’ body was missing? Did he believe in the resurrection? Or, did he believe Jesus had ascended, which is kind of the emphasis in John’s Gospel? We’re left as confused about what this disciple believed as the disciples were at the missing body.
Mary, who must have run back to the tomb with the two disciples, stays there, weeping. Finally, she bends down to look into the tomb but finds it is no longer empty. It’s the kind of surprise twist that was a hallmark of ancient comedy. One angel is sitting at the head and the other at the feet of where Jesus’ body had been. And, they ask her why she’s weeping. Mary is so distressed that she doesn’t freak out, which is also part of the comedy of it. Without missing a beat, she answers their question by saying, “They have taken away my Lord, and I don’t know where they’ve put him” (John 20:13, CEB).
As soon as she says this, she turns around and sees a man who wasn’t there a moment ago. We’re let in on the secret. It’s Jesus, but Mary Magdalene doesn’t recognize him yet. She supposes he’s the gardener. Disguise is another hallmark of ancient comedy. That’s why Shakespeare’s comedies had women disguising themselves as men and men disguising themselves as women all the time. Because it’s funny when the reveal comes and the disguised person says, Surprise! I’m a dude, not your wife, but thanks for thinking I’m pretty. The man whom she thinks is the gardener asks Mary the same question, “Woman, why are you crying? Who are you looking for?” After all, she’s peering into an empty tomb, or a tomb with two living people inside of it. What is there to cry about?
Mary’s only concern is finding the missing body of her Lord. She’s so desperate that it doesn’t matter if the gardener is the guilty party or not. But if he was the one who moved Jesus’ body, she begs him to tell her where he is so she may get him. The disguise falls away when Jesus speaks her name: “Mary.” In that moment of familiarity when she hears her name on her Lord’s lips again, as she so often had, she knows him, speaks to him, and reaches out to take hold of him before he manages to get away again.
We have to admit that there is something in this story that lends itself to doubtfulness by those who hear it. It sounds like nonsense precisely because it goes against every experience of death we have ever encountered. I have presided over a lot of funerals in my nearly 14 years as an appointed pastor, and I have never seen a dead person get up out of their casket and walk away.
Yet, something about this story touches the deepest parts of us and tugs on the strings of our hope and faith. It reaches into the recesses of our hearts and minds where doubt and faith mingle and vie for our attention. In fact, I would argue that the very doubts we have about this story speak to the scale and power of the Easter proclamation that God raised Jesus Christ from death. What we proclaim in this story is that God has given us a miracle of love and forgiveness on such a massive scale that it calls to our hopes, is worthy of our faith and is, thus, open to our doubt. The resurrection is so big, so powerful, such an unbelievable example of love and forgiveness that how can we not question it? How can we not wonder if God would really do such a thing for us and, at the same time, experience wonder that God would do such a thing for us?
Easter is so big of an idea that our imaginations almost require us to relegate it to fantasy. That’s part of the beauty of Easter and the proclamation of Jesus’ resurrection. The promise of Easter has, throughout history, stood the juncture of the greatest doubt and the deepest faith. I wonder if that’s the reason why churches are so full on this day. We come because we’re looking for the answer to that question, Is it true? Easter, with its proclamation of God’s victory over death so that we can live, might just be a story large enough to reveal God to us and the measure of God’s love for us.
At the end of this story, Jesus tells Mary not to hold on to him, but to go and tell Jesus’ brothers and sisters that he is going up to his Father and their Father, to his God and their God. So, Mary lets go. She does as Jesus asked of her and declares, “I have seen the Lord!”
Ancient comedies often ended with a marriage, which is always the beginning of another story. We can ask, Is it true? We can also ask if we might see and believe, too. That’s actually the theme of the next passage in John’s Gospel. We know that Easter is a big Sunday. But every Sunday is a little Easter. Like any good story, the story of Jesus’ resurrection and the promises of Easter continues, and the journey between doubt and faith is what we wrestle with together as a community of faith called Church. Today, even amid our lingering doubts and questions, we proclaim that Jesus Christ is risen. It’s a claim big enough to be worthy of our faith. Especially when we know that the promise of Easter is that we, too, shall rise.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!