Mary Magdalene was the model of faith, and the first to proclaim the resurrection of Jesus, the Apostle to the Apostles.
What does the Resurrection mean to our lives and to how Christians should look at social and political issues such as immigration?
Thomas Lynch is an undertaker in a small Michigan town who has written extensively about his profession and America’s changing attitudes about death.
His most popular book, The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade,
became the inspiration for the hit HBO show, Six Feet Under.
He says that with the shift from traditional funerals – where the body is present– toward memorial services – where no body is present – people seem to be caring less and less about the remains of their loved ones.
Exhibit A: his closet packed full of unclaimed cremains.
“Just have her cremated,” they say with instructions phoned in from Scottsdale or Fort Lauderdale.
But then they never show up to claim what is left of the one they loved.
So, from our cultural context, we might be a little baffled by how precious Jesus’ corpse was to those who remained behind.
After claiming Jesus’ body, Joseph, a caring rich man from Arimathea, and Nicodemus, the lawyer who’d secretly visited Jesus at night, pried the iron spikes from his hands and feet, peeled splintered wood from his scourged back, and picked the embedded thorns out of his bloody brow.
Next, they dressed his body with one hundred pounds of spices and perfumes – weighing almost as much as the corpse itself.
They lovingly carried a mangled Jesus to a garden where a cave had been hollowed out from the rock hillside.
Once inside, they placed him on a shelf that was chiseled into the wall, and finally sealed the cave by rolling a massive stone slab over the cave entrance.
Three days later, immediately after the Sabbath, Mary Magdalene appeared through the cold morning darkness to pay her respects to what was left of the one she so loved.
John’s writing always plays out on multiple levels, and he frequently uses imagery of dark and light to underscore meanings, so in addition to narrating the events, he’s emphasizing that at this moment Mary was still in the dark about what’s happened.
She must really have wanted to be with that body because it was not safe for a woman alone at 4:00 in the morning.
Remember that this was Jerusalem at Festival Time, so – while not as raucous as New Orleans Mardi Gras – drunken revelers were still prowling the streets and Roman soldiers were patrolling for anything suspicious.
Mary was from the fishing village of Magdala near the western shore of the Sea of Galilee where she encountered Jesus early in his ministry.
He healed her of seven personal demons – maybe depression, paranoia, or schizophrenia – we’re left to speculate just what they were except that for Mary there was life before Jesus and life after Jesus.
A diminished life before, a free life after.
It’s like she’d been born again.
So, from that day on Mary Magdalene remained by Jesus’ side and financially underwrote his ministry as he preached the length and breadth of the Palestinian countryside.
Mary was the model of faith because “to believe” in John’s gospel means to trust and to stay close.
For John, belief and faith are all about relationship.
The West’s later emphasis on belief just being an intellectual agreement with a doctrine misses the gospel’s point.
To the gospel writers, to say I’ve got some theory about how the resurrection of Jesus happened would be meaningless.
What matters is how the Resurrection, like everything about Jesus, affects my relationship with him as I go through life.
In the West, we want to reduce the mysteries of faith to intellectual analysis – but then we are only left with brittle doctrine which fails to heal, empower and inspire us through real life.
Jesus himself encouraged us to get out of our heads and the shackles of biblical legalism.
You know, Jesus displayed a temper – but he reserved it for those who used religion to exclude, ostracize or condemn the marginalized of his time: women, people with skin diseases, the poor, the aliens.
In our church, we are taught to ask, “Where is God in this situation?” because we seek to partner with God through all of life.
Maybe you’re facing a challenge with your boss, or a family member.
Maybe you’re feeling financial pressures.
Maybe you’re struggling with some important decision.
Find a quiet place to pray and ask, “God, what are you up to in this situation … and how can I get on board?”
It will change everything.
Now, we Christians, “get that” with our personal issues – but the same question also needs to be the first thing we ask with the social issues of our time.
Choose any issue to do this exercise.
Last week we considered immigration just because it is a hot topic these days.
Yes, there must be rules and policies, and I don’t have any great proposals … I’m not playing politician
But I can ask – as a Christian, I must ask – where is Jesus in the midst of this crisis?
So as a spiritual exercise, imagine Jesus near San Diego, Nogales or El Paso where thousands of people arrive after walking hundreds of dangerous miles.
Most have fled for their lives from gangs and corrupt military.
They have left their homes, all of their belongings, as well as their relatives and friends to seek safety.
Now imagine the Jesus you’ve met in the gospels and ask yourself, on which side of the border wall would you find him?
With what people would he be hanging out?
We aren’t policymakers, and we each may come to somewhat different conclusions, but if we are Christians, then we are required to begin our policy discussions with that question.
What would Jesus say to the immigrants, and what would he say to politicians in either party using this issue to stir up their base?
We may not like the added complexity it brings to the debate … but without having to agree on what makes an appropriate and balanced policy,
if we are a Christian nation, then this is supposed to be our starting point.
John reports some of Jesus’ most famous miracles – turning water to wine at the Cana wedding, healing of the royal official’s son in Capernaum, feeding the 5,000 – and Jesus describes each one as a sign.
He doesn’t use the word “miracle” but “sign” because his teachings and his miracles are all pointing to a greater reality.
Think for a minute: by all rights, we should be nothing but a cluster of molecules and vibrating energy, but here we are organized into intelligent life.
There is a mind, a mystery, a love sustaining all creation, and Jesus keeps pointing us to that as being the most important.
John’s gospel overflows with passages about love, and love is not stuff of the head but of the heart.
Now consider: if you knew that you were about to die, and you had a chance to gather your friends around you one last time, what would you say?
On the last night of his life, Jesus sat with disciples for a final meal before his arrest.
He could have said anything.
He could have told them to judge the ones who didn’t believe the way they did.
He could have raged about the unfairness of life.
Instead, he said, (John 13:34-35) “Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
And from everything he’d demonstrated before, “one another” never was limited to people who look like us … he meant everyone.
That would include people born in Nogales, Mexico or Nogales, Arizona.
Born gay or born straight.
Sober all your life or working through recovery.
A Democrat or a Republican.
I remind you of this because what may be the biggest threat right now to our nation and to our world-wide church is tribalism.
Only talking to, caring for, rallying for people who share our culture or point of view.
When Jesus taught about love, he included all people, and he did not mean a feeling or sentimental idea.
Love is all about relationship based on trust, closeness, and sacrifice.
So, we’ve come full circle.
From the gospel’s perspective, love and belief are nearly the same thing.
After her healing, Mary put her full trust in Jesus and stayed by his side through good times and bad, through celebrations and hardships, through cheering crowds and jeering mobs.
Unlike the men, Mary stayed with him at Golgotha when they nailed him to the cross and he bled out, and now she was the first to come to the garden tomb.
Alone in the dark, she is doubly grieved.
Not only is Jesus dead, but the open tomb could only mean that grave robbers had already taken his corpse – the last thing she had to hang on to.
You’d think that, too.
Find an empty grave and your first thought would not be resurrection but poaching, plunder, and pillage.
Back in those days, there was no market for corpses as there would be centuries later when anatomists were doing research.
Rather, grave robbers stole the burial clothes – an important fact as we’ll see.
So, Mary runs back to the men who are still hiding and says in what we may imagine as a panicked voice, (John 20:2) “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!”
So, Peter and the disciple whom Jesus loved – presumably John himself –
run to the tomb where they eventually see the neatly folded burial clothes.
This wasn’t the work of grave robbers or the clothes would be gone.
But neither is it like what they’d witnessed a few days before when Jesus called Lazarus from death and he stumbled out of the grave still wrapped in burial clothes.
Their confusion and fear ratcheted up another notch, the men retreated back to their hiding spot but Mary remained behind weeping.
This is when Mary mistakes Jesus for the gardener– another multi-level meaning of John’s narrative.
The Hebrew word for garden is paradise, and Jesus himself opened chapter 15 by saying my Father is the gardener … so her “mistake” reminds the reader that something new is unfolding, a fresh beginning is blossoming.
Jesus’ first words are intimate and personal, not doctrinal.
He simply says her name, “Mary”.
The first words Jesus speaks in John’s gospel are a question directed at the disciples of John the Baptizer (John 1:38) “What are you looking for?”
That marked the beginning of his earthly ministry.
And now here, Jesus asks Mary the same question, (John 20:15) “Whom are you looking for?”
This marks a new beginning – an invitation to continue to believe – to trust, to stay close – as Jesus leads us to the next step.
The old has passed and the new is arriving.
Mary dashes back to the men and says, (John 20:18) …“I saw the Master!” And she told them everything he said to her.
With that, she becomes the first person to proclaim the resurrection and so Mary becomes the apostle to the apostles.
The resurrection leaves us with a fundamental decision we must all make – whether to believe.
That does not mean we have some explanation of what happened, how it happened, or even that it’s true just like described in the gospels.
It means a choice: will we put Jesus and the Mystery he points to front and center in our life, in our daily choices, even in our politics?
Will we be born again, born out of a world of discord and of tribalism
and into a relationship with the One who says, I am the way, the truth and the life.