Mary and the quiet Sunday morning | Easter sermon | 4/1/18

Scripture: John 20:1-18

Mary Magdalene was something of a celebrity among Christians in the first years after the resurrection. As the first person to have encountered the risen Christ, everyone wanted to hear from her and learn her story. That included, according to legend, the emperor Tiberius. That story tells of how she used her celebrity to gain an audience with the Emperor; the same emperor when Jesus was crucified and, basically, Pilate’s boss.

To Tiberius, she brought an egg, which had become a symbol in the early church of new life in the resurrection. Holding the egg out to Tiberius, she greeted him by saying “Christ is risen!”

Tiberius scoffed and said, “Christ is no more risen than that egg is red.” And at that moment, according to the legend, the egg turned red as a sign from God, to Tiberius, that he was wrong. Ever since, Christians have been dying Easter eggs in memory of Mary Magdalene’s witness.

In all four gospel accounts, Mary’s present at the tomb and it’s to her that Jesus first speaks. Perhaps that’s fitting, considering, that when almost all of the men in Jesus’s life had abandoned him on the cross, it was Mary, Jesus’s mother, Mary’s sister Mary, the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene who remained at the cross with one, just one, of the twelve disciples.

It was Mary who came to the tomb to tend to the body. It was Mary who was, it seems, the most devoted of the disciples. And Mary was definitely the first preacher of the gospel, running to tell the disciples that their Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, was risen from the grave!

For her, this was a monumental event, a giant event! For God had done something amazing! God had proven to be bigger than the world! And indeed, how else to understand God on this Easter Sunday than as a huge giant, bigger than everything else, even bigger than sin and death! The resurrection, the central story of Christianity, the most consequential act of God, proves God is larger than our imaginations, larger than our sin, larger than evil, larger than death. It’s Easter Sunday. He is Risen! Glory be to God.

[Pause]

So where, in our scripture this morning, is this giant God?

By all accounts, it’s a pretty quiet Sunday morning when Mary arrives at the tomb. She’s there to take care of the body, lovingly tending to it. When she gets there, she finds the body gone, the linens remaining but not disheveled like tomb robbers would have left them. She runs, in a confused panic, to tell the disciples who come and discover that she’s telling the truth. They then return home, probably out of fear, leaving Mary to her grief there at the tomb; the stillness of this Sunday morning disturbed only by her sobbing. What Mary doesn’t know yet, but we know as the reader, is that Jesus is already risen; the resurrection has occurred some time before Mary’s arrival to the tomb.

It seems Jesus has been pretty quiet about his resurrection on this tranquil Sunday morning. Perhaps he’s had the kind of idyllic Sunday morning we dream of, but rarely have: wake up (or, in his case, come back to life), read the paper, do the crossword, while drinking coffee and being leisurely. He’s not recorded to have said or done much of anything until he calls Mary by name. His first words spoken after the resurrection, are “Woman, why are you weeping?” What follows is a poignant, emotional, beautifully told, tender story of Jesus comforting and commissioning Mary, his first act after the resurrection. The whole scene is peaceful, quiet, serene, touching, beautiful.

Quite unlike the week prior.

What we now call Holy Week has been all about noise, chaos, characters, and crowds: crowds on the parade route as Jesus entered Jerusalem, crowds listening to his teaching at the temple, crowds at Pilate’s palace chanting for his crucifixion, crowds at the cross jeering him as he dies. Where’s the crowd now, proven wrong for all their disloyalty and hate? Where’s Pilate, who, if he knew about the resurrection, would look like a fool on this Easter morning. Where’s Caiaphas and the priests who sent Jesus over to Pilate to crucify him?

Maybe the better question is, what’s Jesus doing wasting time in a garden with one person? The resurrection, this event of singular importance to Christianity, is monumental. It’s huge! It’s gigantic! In theological terms, we’d say it’s cosmic! But here’s Jesus, with one person, in the garden. Only Mary knows, on this first Easter morning, about the resurrection.

And then, even more confusingly, Jesus tells Mary to go and tell the disciples. Jesus doesn’t do it himself. He’s not busy telling people, “I’m back!” He doesn’t go find Pilate, Caiaphas, or any of the antagonists of the passion story that he’s been resurrected, proving them wrong. He doesn’t corral a crowd in Jerusalem to teach about the resurrection, to show this greatest of all miracles that has occurred. A crowd would be astounded! A crowd would marvel! A crowd would be converted. Maybe Pilate and Caiaphas, too, would believe! We should expect that, after the resurrection, Jesus would live the passion story in reverse, proving to everyone that they were wrong and, probably, converting a whole bunch of people in the process.

But Jesus doesn’t do that. According to John, Jesus eventually makes his way to the disciples on the evening of that first Easter Sunday, Mary having already told them the news. The disciples themselves keep this news predominantly to themselves until Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit comes, some fifty days from now. So for fifty days, the resurrection is pretty quiet. Fifty days, almost two months pass, before any evangelism occurs. Jesus appears to a few folks, most notably on the road to Emmaus in the gospel of Luke, but there’s very little noise made, very little done.

The resurrection is mostly kept quiet for fifty days. The cosmic significance is underwhelming in our Easter story this morning. Where’s the grandiosity? Where’s the giant God? Doesn’t seem to be here in the text. No, instead, there’s just intimacy as Jesus comforts and commissions Mary.

This must strike us as odd this morning. It struck me as odd as I reviewed this very familiar scripture. I’ve preached this story every year I’ve preached Easter. I’ve heard it proclaimed most Easter Sundays I’ve sat in church. And sermon after sermon I’ve heard or preached has spoken to the cosmic significance of this moment, either how Jesus saved the world or how Jesus saved humanity through this event. And certainly, those things are true.

But one would think that, somewhere in this resurrection story, there’d be a conversation about that. Somewhere in this account, there’d be a hint of something grander, something bigger, something monumental, something gigantic! And if not in John’s account, we’d think that somewhere in the resurrection accounts in Matthew, Mark, or Luke, there’d be a sign, a symbol, something that would speak to the cosmic, grand, gigantic, consequential work God has just wrought through the resurrection of his Son!

But there’s not.

The scene is peaceful, quiet, serene, pierced only by the running of the disciples, both to and from the tomb out of fear, and Mary’s weeping. It’s a pretty low-key Sunday morning, all told; pretty much the opposite of how we think of Easter. Where is the victory, the miraculous signs and wonders, the heavenly portents breaking through the normalcy of life?

Where is this giant God?

In the movie The Incredibles, Bob Parr, Mr. Incredible, comes home one day, feeling defeated. He slumps out of his car, shoulders hunched, in a funk. Behind him, he catches sight of a little boy on a tricycle, who stops pedaling and looks up at him. This same little boy, just the other day, had witnessed Mr. Incredible pick up his car, like a trinket, and threaten to throw it down the street in anger. The boy was amazed! He couldn’t believe Mr. Incredible’s strength!

But on this day, Mr. Incredible is low-key. As he looks over at the tricycle, he says to the little boy, “Well, what are you waiting for?” The little boy responds, “I don’t know. Something amazing! I guess.”

Looking back at the first Easter Sunday, this tranquil, low-key, story that seems to lack any grandiosity, where God doesn’t seem like a giant at all, we’re left feeling like the little boy, waiting for something amazing, we guess.

[Pause]

At the tomb, Mary’s probably not quite sure what she’s waiting for. She’s probably not even expecting something amazing. All she knows is her beloved’s body is gone, compounding the grief she already feels from having witnessed his death some thirty-six hours earlier. Her grief compels her to remain at the tomb, probably unsure of what to do.

In fact, she’s so struck with grief that she seems unaware that the men in the tomb are angels. So struck with grief that she doesn’t recognize Jesus when he first talks to her. So struck with grief that she must hear Jesus speak her name, tenderly as my imagination hears it, before she realizes it’s Jesus. With an instant, her grief turns to joy, her mourning turns to dancing, and, at Jesus’s commissioning, she runs to tell the disciples, becoming that first preacher of the gospel.

It’s without grand signs and wonders that Jesus reveals himself to Mary. He speaks to her, directly to her and no one else, revealing himself and bringing her into new life. In an instant, Mary’s life is forever changed, she is reborn, as she experiences the wonder of the love of God that would send his only Son to die and be resurrected for us.

Unlike his birth with angels appearing to shepherds and a star in the sky, Jesus’s resurrection begins without heavenly signs and wonders but with intimacy; through the simple, tender, and gracious revealing of himself to one person by simply uttering her name: Mary.

I can relate. In the midst of my own grief one afternoon, I went for a walk. After a time, I sat by a tree and looked out across a field to a sunset going down behind a mountain vista. I sat with my grief, my sorrow, my agony. The tension, the stress, that came from that moment seemed overwhelming. I felt lost in life, lost in myself, unsure of who I was.

As I stared across the field, enjoying the sunset as it dipped behind the mountains, somehow, suddenly, deep inside of me, I felt a peace, a calm, a lessening of anxiety and a hope for my future. Nature seemed to come alive all around me with joy and hope. The beauty of that moment overwhelmed me and I felt God’s presence intimately. I ran home, joy in my heart, confusion abounding, turning to my bible for answers for how this mystical moment could have happened. I found the answer in a verse that only God could have led me to: Isaiah 55:12, “For you shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.”

I knew in that moment the power of feeling the intimate presence of Christ; I knew in that moment that Christ had called me by name.

I have gone back many times to that memory from years ago, for it’s there that suddenly, and powerfully, but intimately, the resurrection made sense to me. I understood from that moment that my relationship with Christ isn’t something I do, it’s not some list of rules or standards, it’s not a call to morality or to judge others for their immorality, it’s not a political platform, and it’s not the church. My relationship with God is not something I do; no, it’s something I am, for Christ has called me by name.

My agnosticism and atheism came after that moment under the tree, but the memory never left me. Somehow, deep inside of myself, in an intimate way, I knew Christ had, in that moment, called me by name. And when I came back to faith years later, when I chose again to live for Christ, other words of the prophet Isaiah suddenly made sense and spoke that powerful truth into my life: the truth that Christ has called me by name. Isaiah 43:1b-3 says:

“Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.”

God has called me by name and said, “Ted, Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.” To each of us, Christ has said those words, just as Christ said in the garden on that first Easter Sunday, “Mary.”

In that instant, when Christ called her by name, Mary knew that Jesus was alive and that made all the difference in her life. She knew intimately who he was and is, and she had to go and tell others about it, for she had been born into new life: a new life of hope. In the memory that would not let me go, I knew intimately that God had called me by name, and that made all the difference in my life and continues to do so. And like a fire in my bones, I must tell others of the new life I have found in Jesus, for no matter the circumstances, I have reason to hope. That’s the power of God’s love born into our lives when Christ’s resurrection births new life in us.

That’s the power of Christ calling us by name. That’s the power of the resurrection. That is the something amazing this morning!

But I wonder, do you know it? Have you experienced the intimacy of Christ calling you by name?

For we can know all about the resurrection, we can know, like the disciples, that the tomb is empty. We can be well versed in scripture and understand, more than the disciples did, that Jesus must rise from the dead. We can be thoroughly convinced of the rightness of Christianity. We can even be extremely dedicated to our church.

But if we haven’t experienced intimacy in our relationship with Christ, if we haven’t heard Christ call our name: if we haven’t experienced joy breaking into our sorrows almost magically, if we haven’t known what it is to feel a peace that passes all understanding, if we have no sense of a hope that transcends and resolves our despair, then we do not really understand, we do not intimately know, the resurrection.

The resurrection began, and continues to this day, through experiencing the love that comes from knowing that Christ is speaking your name, calling to you, softly and tenderly: Mary, Ted…You.

For Christ calls to us every moment of our lives, tenderly speaking our name, offering us the new life that comes from experiencing Christ intimately, from feeling his presence with us. We don’t have to have seen Jesus in person to know the intimacy Mary knew; the closeness that comes from hearing Christ speak our name. That’s the difference the resurrection makes: first birthing us into new life so that we can then, like Mary, go and tell others NOT about the resurrection, but about who we are: a new creature, born into new life, beloved of the Father, because we have been resurrected with Christ.

And in the end, that’s the grandest, greatest, most gigantic, thing about Easter. The something amazing is that Christ calls us by name; that God would love us so much, and desire relationship so much, that God would send his Son to die for us and rise again, so that we can hear God calling to us by name. In the resurrection, God acted out of love, an intimate, undying, unwavering, unyielding, unconditional, love, calling each of us by name.

You are called by name by our savior, who rose from the grave and reigns victorious on this Easter Sunday. I wonder, have you called back? Do you know the love of God intimately?

If you know that love intimately, don’t delay in telling others. The first thing Jesus tells Mary, after calling her by name, is to go and tell. If you have heard Christ call you by name, do the same: go and tell. Get involved in doing things here at the church or volunteering within our community in ways that let people know they’re loved, they’re cared for, especially if they’ve fallen upon hard times. Listen to the holy spirit’s voice when it prompts you to pray for someone or reach out to someone, for that’s God calling that person by name, asking you to share the love of Christ you know with that person in need. For it may be through you that someone hears Christ call them by name for the first time.

And if you don’t know the love of God intimately, if you haven’t heard Christ call you by name, if this has been a hard to relate to sermon, it’s time to call back. Christ is calling your name, all you need do is call his name back: Christ, I need you, I need your love, and I believe in your resurrection.

When you do, you will experience your own resurrection: the birthing of the new life Christ offers in the midst of your current life. You’ll know joy, you’ll know peace, you’ll know hope, no matter how sorrowful, chaotic, and desperate your current moment is. Problems won’t melt away, but you’ll know, in the very depths of your being, that God is saying to you:

“Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.”

God will not delay in causing you to experience Christ’s love. Call back, for Christ has been calling to you your entire life. Then go, and tell others, for we each have a commissioning to tell others not about the resurrection, but about who we are in Christ because of the resurrection.

That’s the something amazing Jesus did on this day, that’s the power of the resurrection, that’s the hope we have for our future: Jesus has called us each by name.

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Amen.

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