Through Lent we have looked at the answers to a series of questions regarding Jesus: Why does everyone fast but you? Are you the one who is to come? Do you also want to go away? Is not this Joseph’s son? Do you hear what these children are saying? So it seems only fitting to look at one more question on this Easter Sunday, a question addressed to Mary Magdalene but also to us: Who are you looking for? It is quite clear and logical that Mary was looking for the dead body of a beloved friend that first Easter morning. Who or what exactly are we looking for?
It is hard for us to remember, since we know how the story ends, that Easter morning begins in deep grief which is very fresh and raw. If you participated in the Maundy Thursday and Good Friday services and relived the horrific events which brought the earthly life of Jesus to a close, you can imagine the pain and sorrow of his friends and family members who witnessed all of that. Grief brings shock and numbness and paralysis. Mary is in the midst of that on Easter morning. She arrives at the tomb while it is still dark. Grief will not let you sleep. There is a persistent feeling of wrongness. So awake early, unable to sleep, Mary goes ahead to do what she really wants to do, which is go be near Jesus and grieve over him. That is literally the only thing on her mind.
But when Mary arrives at the tomb in the dark she finds the stone has been taken away from the entrance to the tomb. She is totally disoriented by things not being the way they are supposed to be. She does not hang around. John doesn’t even say that she looked into the tomb at that point. There could be only one explanation for the stone being moved, in Mary’s thinking.
So she ran to find some disciples. She finds Peter and “the one Jesus loved,” whom we assume was John. And she tells them what she believes to be true: “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” The stone being moved meant to Mary that somebody had come and taken the body, whether friend or foe. Perhaps Joseph had changed his mind about the use of the grave, or his fellow Pharisees had put him up to this to get rid of his body; perhaps those who crucified Jesus did not want him to have a dignified resting place and wished to humiliate him further – bodies were frequently left on their crosses to serve as warnings to others who thought about defying Rome; perhaps some of Jesus’ family wanted to take him back to Galilee. Whatever has happened, Mary wants some allies in getting answers.
The two disciples first run to the tomb to confirm Mary’s words. They see that the body is indeed gone. What did they do about it? They went back home. John says, “As yet they did not know the scriptures, that Jesus must rise from the dead.” And what are they going to do, go to the authorities who might be looking for them for all they knew?
But Mary stayed. She was numb, disoriented, she knew there were no answers back where the disciples went. She wept some more, with the double grief that he was not only dead but his body had disappeared. Through her tears she decides to look into the tomb and sees two angels who ask her why she is crying. Even angels cannot distract her from the one question on her mind: “Because they have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” And she turns and leaves.
As she leaves the tomb she sees another man and makes the assumption that he must be the gardener. She is filled with hope that he might be able to help her locate the body. The man asks her why she is crying and who she is looking for. She says, “Look, if you are the one who moved the body that was in the tomb, just tell me where you put him and I will take him away.”
The supposed gardener, who is of course actually Jesus, calls her by name, “Mary.” This finally breaks through her grief and numbness and disorientation, and she understands that this is Jesus standing before her. It is a bittersweet moment. There is the great joy of knowing that her friend lives, but there is the sadness that things are still going to be different – that he will no longer be bodily present with Mary and the other disciples, but will be present spiritually. Mary has to let go of the way things have been. She needs to go tell the disciples the good news so that they can all let go of the past and move into a very important future. Assuring them that he still lived and would always be alive and present with them would help them move beyond grief, beyond guilt, beyond despair. Why are you crying? Who are you looking for?
Kim Clayton has written some powerful words about what Mary teaches us in this story. She writes, “Mary’s is the one sustained witness in this passage because she is the one who stays… Perhaps there is lesson enough in that small detail. She stayed long enough, waited long enough, to glimpse resurrection. People who have gone through the long, dark experience of grief say this is what it takes. Call it by whatever name you like: stamina, courage, stubbornness, dogged determination, anger, faith… but staying there – through the dark, the confusion, the questions – this is the way we come to glimpse, eventually, resurrection life. All of the gospels tell us that, this side of heaven, there are glimpses of resurrection, but it will always be beyond our grasp.” (Journal for Preachers, Easter 2007, pp. 4-5)
Who are we looking for on this Easter morning? Are we looking for a Savior whose story ended with rising from the grave and now we can all live happily ever after? If so, we are going to be disappointed. Are we looking for a Jesus we can hold on to and use him like a puppet to say the things we want him to say? You know that’s not going to work. I’m pretty sure that we have to be prepared to encounter Jesus, as Mary did, in surprising ways and places, calling us to do surprising things like leaving something behind and following him into an unknown future.
I still think Albert Schweizer described it best. He wrote, “He comes to us as one unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lakeside, he came to those men who knew him not. He speaks to us the same words: ‘Follow thou me!’ and sets us to the tasks which he has to fulfill for our time. He commands. And to those who obey him, whether they be wise or simple, he will reveal himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in his fellowship, and, as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience who he is.” (The Quest of the Historical Jesus)
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
David J. Bailey
March 27, 2016
Central Presbyterian Church