1Early 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. 2So 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.” 3Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. 4The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. 6Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, 7and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. 8Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; 9for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. 10Then the disciples returned to their homes.
11But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; 12and 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. 13They 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.’ 14When she had said this, she turned round and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?’ 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.’ 16Jesus said to her, ‘Mary!’ She turned and said to him in Hebrew, ‘Rabbouni!’ (which means Teacher). 17Jesus 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.” ’ 18Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’; and she told them that he had said these things to her.
One day up in heaven, Saint Peter saw Jesus walking by and caught his attention. “Hey Jesus, could you watch the Pearly Gates while I go run an errand?”
“Sure,” replied Jesus. “What do I have to do?”
“Just talk to the people who arrive. Ask about their background, their family, and their lives. Then decide if they deserve to be let into Heaven.”
So Jesus waited at the gates while St. Peter went off on his errand. The first person to approach the gates was a kind looking, wrinkled old man. Jesus stopped him at the entrance to the gates, greeted him, and asked, “So…what was it you did for a living?”
The old man replied, “I was a carpenter.” Jesus remembered his own life on earth, and he leaned forward just a little.
“Did you have any family?” Jesus asked.
“Yes, I had a son, but I lost him.”
Jesus leaned forward some more. “You lost your son? Can you tell me more about him?”
“Well, he had holes in his hands and feet.”
Jesus leaned forward even more and whispered, “Father?”
The old man leaned forward and whispered, “Pinocchio?”
Mistaken identity is one of many themes in today’s scripture passage. Mary Magdalene does not recognize Jesus because he isn’t where he is supposed to be. I can relate to that a little bit—as a pastor, people are used to seeing me here in the sanctuary, dressed in my robe (or suit). So when I see someone in the grocery store on a weekday, and I’m dressed in blue jeans, t-shirt, tennis shoes and a baseball cap, and I say “Hi (so and so)! How are you?” occasionally I’m met with a blank stare. “Who are you, strange person, and how do you know my name?”
We’ll come back to Mary Magdalene and this idea of mistaken identity later in the sermon. First there are some other themes I’d like for us to explore, starting with the very first verse: “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.” When we read this passage, our eyes quickly jump to what we think is the most important thing: the stone had been removed from the tomb. But I’d like to direct our eyes back a little, to five little words at the beginning: Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark.”
Easter is one of our biggest celebrations of the church year—it’s a day for bright colors, happiness, sunshine and light. We decorate the church with white paraments and white Easter lilies. But notice (and this is a profound thing) that Easter begins in darkness. Those of you who got up early this morning to join us for the sunrise service at El Paso High school already know this!
It’s not just the resurrection that begins in darkness: Jesus enters into the world as a baby on a dark, star filled night. Jesus comes to the disciples walking on water in the darkness of a stormy night. In the Old Testament, it is in the dark of the night that Jacob wrestles with God, and God changes his name from Jacob to Israel. It is in the dark of the night that God leads Moses and the Israelites out of Egypt. It is in the darkness of the whale’s belly that Jonah turns to God and answers the call. It is in the dark of blindness that Saul has his conversion experience and becomes Paul the Apostle.
Barbara Brown Taylor, an Episcopalian Preacher, has an article in this week’s issue of Time Magazine where she argues that we are actually more likely to encounter God in our times of darkness than in those of light. Perhaps this is because when things are bright and cheery, we don’t think we need God. We can find our own way, thank you very much. But in the dark, we are lost without someone to guide us.
So this Easter we’ll definitely celebrate, we’ll definitely rejoice in the light of the resurrection. But if you find yourself still in a season of darkness and struggle, that’s ok. Know that there is hope. Know that even the greatest miracle of all began, in the words of scripture, “while it was still dark.”
Alright. Mary runs to tell the disciples this news—and realize it is not good news, not yet. At this point, it is the horrifying news that, in addition to taking the life of her Lord, now “they” (presumably the Romans) have taken his body as well. They’ve taken the only thing she had left. What follows would be intense, if it weren’t actually so…funny. Yes, that’s right…funny. Mary’s story is the serious story, the emotional story in this passage, while the disciples provide what they have provided all through the gospels: Comic relief.
Mary tells her news to Peter (the leader of the disciples) and to “the other disciple.” The one Jesus loved. The one, not coincidentally, telling this story, who wants to make sure we know that he is the disciple Jesus loved. Not Peter. Yes, this is John, the author of the 4th gospel, and Peter’s chief rival and nemesis.
Clearly, Peter and John are so emotionally devastated by the loss of their master that they lay aside all their differences and competitiveness at this latest news. Clearly. We read in verse three that “Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple (the one Jesus loved) outran Peter and reached the tomb first.” Probably if Jesus had loved Peter just a little bit more he would have run faster.
So John gets there first, and he looks inside the tomb, but he doesn’t actually go inside…because that would be incredibly rude. Verse 6: “Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb.” Sigh. Peter, Peter. I can almost hear Peter saying to John, “No, man, when I said I’ll race you to the tomb, I meant the finish line would be *inside* the tomb. Looks like I won, bro—Oh hey! Where’s Jesus?”
I’m sure that’s exactly the way it happened. Trust me…I’m a pastor.
Finally, John goes in to the tomb as well, and they both observe that Jesus is not there. The next few verses seem a little confusing at firs. We read in verse 8 that “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.”
If John “saw and believed,” why did they “not understand the scripture?” Why did they return to their homes? I think the answer is simple enough: What they “believed” was not (yet) the resurrection of Jesus. What they believed was exactly what Mary had told them: That someone had stolen the body of Jesus. And faced with this loss on top of all their previous losses, the greatest of Jesus’ disciples…go home. And they don’t just go home: We read later in John that they actually go back to their lives as fishermen before they met Jesus…as if he had never existed, as if their lives had never been transformed.
But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. Mary stayed. There is an important teaching here: Because at some point in your Christian journey, you too will lose sight of Jesus. He won’t be where you expect him to be. Maybe you will lose hope that he is anywhere at all. When that happens, don’t give up. Don’t go home. Don’t just go through the motions of your life as if you never knew him at all. Stay. Hold on just a little bit longer than you think you can, or should. Weep and grieve if you must. But stay. Chances are, he’s been right beside you all the while.
Now what happens next is pretty astonishing. Mary looks inside the tomb—and remember, she’s been here the whole time, when both Peter and John went inside the tomb and said, “Nope. No one here. Nothing to see. Let’s go home.”—and Mary sees “two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet.” The angels talk to Mary. Mary talks to the angels. No big deal. Usually in the bible, when angels apear to someone, the first thing they say is “don’t be afraid.” Presumably this is to keep that person from running away screaming in terror long enough for the angels to deliver their message.
Not only is Mary one of the few (if not only) people in the bible not to appear troubled by the appearance of angels, it doesn’t seem to bother her that they didn’t exactly come in through the front door. Or any door for that matter. That’s ok. Mary has had a rough, roller-coaster ride of a week.
Then Jesus appears, speaks to her, and she speaks to him. As we’ve already noted, she mistakes him for the Gardener. There’s an interesting wordplay here that gets lost in the translation to English. Mary says she is looking for her Lord, which in Greek is κύριος, but what she finds is a Gardener, which in Greek is κηπουρός. The closest I can come to that in English is that she’s looking for the Monarch and she finds a mechanic. She’s looking for the President and she finds a resident. She’s looking for the Emperor and finds an umpire.
And this is perhaps the most profound part of the entire passage. Because it’s not just Mary. We do the same thing all the time. How often are we looking for a majestic savior, decked out in shining robes of white with a golden halo speaking with a voice like thunder…and we miss him, because he speaks to us in the humble voice of a gardener, a carpenter, a waitress, a housekeeper? Jesus said to his disciples “whatever you do to the least of these my brothers and sisters, you have done unto me.
If we, like Mary Magdalene, are looking for our risen Lord on this Easter Sunday and beyond, perhaps the best place to find him is in the faces of those he loves, those who are all around us every day. In fact, when Jesus calls out Mary’s name and she finally recognizes him, he says as much himself. He tells 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.”
Don’t hold on to me. If you truly love me, don’t keep me to yourself, but go to my brothers and tell them. Here “my brothers” is not the specific word for “my disciples” but rather αδελφοι, which can be translated in the broadest sense of “my brothers and sisters”—which is to say, everyone.
When we celebrate Easter, we make a big deal out of a lot of things: Out of Easter Eggs, butterflies, brunches and brass quintets, bright colors, new outfits, angels, and an empty tomb. We make a big deal out of the resurrection. All of these are great things, and I’m not telling you to abandon them. But there’s another aspect to Easter…a quieter side that is far more subtle and a thousand times deeper…a side we often forget, and it’s this:
Easter is born in darkness, loss, and confusion, where Jesus is nowhere to be found.
Easter comes when you wait for Jesus just a little bit longer than you should; just a little bit past the point of reasonable hope.
Easter arrives when Jesus speaks your name and you recognize him, even if it’s just the gardener.
But Easter truly begins when you go and speak his name to your brothers and your sisters throughout the world.