Mary Magdalene

What We See, What We Say

It’s Easter. Let’s hear the story again—how about the account in the twentieth chapter of the Gospel of John?

This story is the core of our faith. To a Christian, this story is everything: proof that what happened on the cross was effective, evidence that this world is becoming so much more than we can imagine.

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.

Panic and confusion—that’s the initial reaction to the empty tomb. We have no scientific description of the actual resurrection, of what happened to Jesus at the precise moment he moved from death back to life. It was a unique moment; even when Lazarus was raised from the dead, he was not truly resurrected. That is, Lazarus was not transformed into something indestructible and mysterious, made of matter and yet impervious to the laws of physics. We know Jesus underwent just such a transformation.

We don’t know if the Jesus event happened with a great flash of light or in the near silence of a small, still voice whispering, “Live and be transformed.” Like the disciples, we begin our understanding merely with an empty tomb, a missing body.

Things go missing in our lives all the time, and usually these vanishings cause us grief. It’s no wonder the two male disciples walk away, seemingly perplexed. We’re told the unnamed disciple finally looked in and “believed,” but that, in itself, is puzzling. Believed what?

Apparently, the disciple believed Jesus had somehow beaten death. It’s not a complete belief, yet, not the kind of belief that makes you fully Christian. But the empty tomb was a beginning, at least for this one disciple. He would have to see Jesus in full later, the walking, eating, breathing Jesus who also could walk through walls as if they were vapor.

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.”

What an astounding vision. Angels in white, appearing from nowhere within the tomb! Yet Mary was so grief-stricken she could not process what she was seeing. She could not move past the human explanation that someone must have taken Jesus’ body.

We’ve been there, so stricken by brokenness and sadness that we forget the hope and glory God constantly offers us. We forget the story we’re hearing now.

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).

Even with Jesus before her, Mary Magdalene could not immediately comprehend through her grief and tears whom she was seeing. We also may be gaining some insight into resurrected forms. In their perfection and unhindered glory, they may not be immediately recognizable. We have become so used to the imperfection and brokenness of this world. At our own resurrections, I wonder if we may struggle at first to recognize our loved ones in perfectly healthy bodies, the flaws they may have carried even from birth gone. But we shall recognize Jesus, and surely, we shall recognize one another as people changed for the better.

Here’s an important point I want you to take away today. Jesus’ resurrection lets us  shift from seeing the world as it was to seeing it as it will be. When we accept the truth of the resurrection, we find ourselves able to see the goodness and perfection toward which we head.

Have you ever wondered why we talk about Christian joy being something that remains in our hearts even in the midst of sadness? We understand this story of Jesus’ resurrection and remember we as part of God’s creation are to experience resurrection, too.

We can witness horrors on the news or in person and know that when the time comes, God is going to put that situation right. We can think of the worst kinds of sins, sins committed by us or inflicted upon us, and know that God’s power is greater than the effect of those sins. We can stand and look at the body of a loved one, and know death is not the end.

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.’”

Here is a glimpse into how salvation works. Jesus brings humanity back into full relationship with God despite sin. At the ascension 40 days later, Jesus would carry human flesh into heaven, making it part of the Godhead. What was barred from paradise may now re-enter, and God wants to dwell in human flesh even now, through the Holy Spirit. These are ideas we’ll talk about as the church year continues, as we consider Ascension Sunday and Pentecost Sunday.

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.

“I have seen the Lord.” See that shift in viewpoint? Everything is going to be okay. All we’re called to do is be like Mary and declare the great wonder of what God has done.

Do you accept that you have seen the Lord? Certainly, none of us stood at the tomb with Mary that day, but at the same time, most of us worship on Easter Sunday because in one way or another, we have seen the Lord.

As people who have seen, we also have a responsibility to tell others. Go this day and tell the story!

Four Parts of Worship: Sending Forth

Matthew 28:1-10

At the end of each worship service, I “send us forth,” to use the language of fourfold worship. The obvious question is, “Send us forth to what?”

The answer, of course, lies in the word of God.

Our text today is typically used as an Easter reading. Easter—the day we celebrate the resurrection of Christ—also is the key to understanding “sending forth,” however. We’re going to use Matthew’s story of Christ’s resurrection, focusing on the characters, to help us better understand what we’re sent forth to do.

Jesus doesn’t appear until late in the story, but as he is the starting point for all things, we’ll begin with him. Even if you’ve heard this core story of Christianity a thousand times before, try to hear it with fresh ears today.

In the resurrection, Jesus is revealed fully as the Christ, the son of God, the promised gift of God sent to redeem the world. As we understand the resurrection more fully in the context of other holy writings, we see he is God in flesh, God among us.

In Jesus’ resurrection, we are exposed to the most effective mystery creation has ever experienced. It is mystery because how it works can never be fully grasped in this life; it is effective because it proved in a single moment that sin and its result, death, were overcome by holy Jesus’ wrongful death on the cross.

The other characters in Matthew’s version of the resurrection are two Marys, an angel of the Lord, Roman soldiers assigned to guard the tomb, and Jesus’ disciples.

The two Marys. One is clearly identified as Mary Magdalene, a woman Jesus freed from demon possession. She was clearly devoted to Jesus. The “other Mary” is less easily identified; Matthew would never have referred to Jesus’ mother in such a way. She was likely the “mother of James and Joseph” identified as being at the cross. If you haven’t figured out by now, Mary (Miriam in Hebrew) was a very common female name in Jesus’ day and place.

What I take away from their part in the story is faithfulness, likely combined with an expectancy that something more was to happen. Unlike the other gospels, Matthew says the Marys merely went “to see the tomb,” rather than going with a specific purpose, such as to anoint Jesus’ body more thoroughly. I think that unlike many of the male disciples, the women had fully heard Jesus’ words about what was to come after his death, and hope remained in their hearts.

Through their faithful attendance to Christ, even when all seemed lost, they became important witnesses to mighty events surrounding the resurrection, standing at an intersection of heaven and earth. They also became the first humans to declare the truth about the remarkable event that changed the world.

The Angel of the Lord. The angel leaves no doubt that the resurrection is a God-ordained event directed from heaven. He brings glory and majesty to the story, a reflection of the One who sent him. The angel’s job was simple; roll back the stone and deliver a message. How he did his job underscored what had just happened.

I would think mighty angels have little need to sit and rest. This one sat on the stone, however, a symbolic act reminding us once again that death has been defeated. His decision to take a seat has almost military overtones, that of a conqueror forcing something into submission. It also comes across like a challenge: “Anyone want to try to roll it back?”

His message to the women had two parts: Jesus has been raised from the dead; go tell others he has been raised from the dead, in particular, the disciples.

The Guards. Let’s understand something here—these are Roman soldiers, part of the toughest fighting force on the planet. They represent worldly power, a kind of power that seemed insurmountable to the people they had conquered. But when faced with just one of God’s angels, they collapsed into a quivering mass. The word translated as “shook” in relation to these soldiers has the same root as the word used to describe the earthquake that occurred when the angel rolled the stone away. All that was worldly trembled at the resurrection.

The Disciples. Just as they were Jesus’ primary audience in his three years of ministry, they seem to be his primary audience immediately after the resurrection. The angel told the two Marys to go to them with word of the resurrection. Jesus repeated this instruction when he appeared to the women suddenly, as they ran to the disciples.

Later in Matthew, we’re told something interesting about the 11 remaining key disciples—despite seeing Jesus, some doubted. I wonder if they muttered in Aramaic, “It’s just too good to be true.” Jesus told them to go forth and spread the word of the resurrection, however, baptizing believers in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. It’s clear they finally did believe. After all, we’re here on the other side of the planet, worshiping Christ as Savior.

As people who gather to worship Christ, we have the potential to fulfill some of these roles today. Where do you fit in the story?

I would assume we have taken at least one foot out of the world. By that, I mean a full-blown encounter with God won’t leave us on the ground, quivering like a jellyfish. At a minimum, we’re like the disciples, following Jesus, even enamored with Jesus.

And yet—doubt creeps in. The question is, can we join the Marys? Can we declare what has been revealed to us through God’s word? Can we live as if we expect greater things to happen?

That is what we’re sent forth each week to do. We’ve gathered here week after week and equipped ourselves through the word. We’ve celebrated what has been declared.

Now share the good news about Jesus Christ with those who so desperately need to hear it!

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Note: Any good church does more than just tell its members to tell others about Jesus. We also equip people to tell the story successfully. If you’re near Cassidy UMC, you’re invited to join a small group where we develop our evangelism skills and keep each other in loving accountability. If you’re interested, contact me.

Confusion and Clarity

It’s nice to understand why events have occurred a certain way, and what is to come because of those events.

I’ve certainly craved such clarity in my life, and judging from what I’ve read and heard, that desire is common to much of humanity. Different religions attempt to provide such clarity in varying ways; the Easter event takes us to the core of how Christians view God and the very nature of the universe from beginning to end.

In other words, Easter is about celebrating the unveiling of The Really Big Picture.

The specific Easter story I’m focusing on this year, John 20:1-18, can be read as a movement from confusion to clarity. (If you want to see this text dramatized, it is part of a video clip found here.) As we experience the story, we can watch Mary Magdalene, Peter and another disciple, simply called the disciple whom Jesus loved, move from panic to a dawning awareness of what has happened.

The story begins with Mary Magdalene, who clearly adored Jesus with a deep, tender love. She discovers the stone covering his tomb has been rolled away and immediately runs for help. When she announces what she has discovered, she triggers a footrace between the two male disciples back to the tomb.

After they see Jesus’ burial linens and leave, Mary Magdalene remains at the tomb, weeping.

Confusion clearly has a grip on Jesus’ followers early in the story. It’s a confusion brought on not by the Easter events, but by the arrest and crucifixion of Jesus. They are horrified at what they’ve seen. They’re also mortified at their own cowardice and betrayal, and they fear the Jewish leaders and the Romans are preparing similar crosses for them.

Our individual circumstances are all different in the details, but I feel certain most people will recognize the general pattern Christ’s followers go through in this story. Somewhere there is a moment where life doesn’t make sense. What came before, good or bad, seems like part of an arbitrary universe; where you are headed can seem meaningless.

Oddly enough, it’s a feeling we can experience in the midst of worldly success or failure. Such confusion seems to walk hand-in-hand with youth. And often, old age can trigger a common question: “Is this all there is?”

At first, an empty tomb only magnifies the confusion of Jesus’ followers. It is interesting to me, though, how evidence of the resurrection almost immediately begins moving these disciples toward a clarity of thought that changes everything.

The open tomb and its unwrapped linens offer an answer: “There is something more.” The unnamed disciple in the story seems to at first hear the answer more clearly than Peter.

“Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in,” we are told in verses 8 and 9, “and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead.”

Belief, even when not fully formed, is much better than despair.

Mary Magdalene receives an even greater revelation—she is the first to see with her own eyes why the tomb is empty. Her mind cannot process the answer at first. Even after a vision of angels, she believes the man before her must be the gardener. But at the sound of Jesus’ voice calling her name, she cries out with recognition.

She then runs and preaches what is for all practical purposes the first Christian sermon: “I have seen the Lord!”

If you call yourselves Christians, I’m sure you remember that first burst of clarity in your life, too. God does provide us with answers. God has imbued a wandering, sin-filled world with meaning and healing, and that gift to the universe becomes a gift offered to each one of us.

Death has no power. Why? Because God walked among us as Jesus Christ, experienced death, overcame it, and then told us not to fear it. Even if we pass through death before Christ returns, the void on the other side has been filled by his loving arms.

Sin has no power, not even in this life, not once we turn our lives over to the risen Savior. Why? Because when God crushed death, he also smashed and subjugated its cause, the evil that has run loose in this world for a time.

When we sin as Christians, it is only because we have forgotten who is on our side. Christ trumps Satan whenever we call on Christ’s strength to sustain us. The one who will be destroyed cannot stand against the one who is eternal.

It should help us to remember that the disciples did not achieve complete clarity of mind all at once. The Really Big Picture came into focus gradually, as if through a lens slowly twisted. The resurrected Jesus had to spend time among his followers, strengthening the weaker ones with signs, reassuring them that even in their failures they were loved. Ultimately, they needed the Holy Spirit working within them to achieve perfect clarity and strength.

Clarity did come, however. Great works in the name of Jesus Christ happened and continue to happen despite the human fragility of those who follow Christ.

And best of all, we know what we move toward—the full and complete restoration of all Creation. He is risen, and that truth changes everything.

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I’ll spend the rest of the Easter season relating some of Jesus’ other post-resurrection appearances.