(I preached this Easter message on John 20 two years ago, as a conclusion to the Mary Magdalene story we had already begun. Because I tell this in a narrative style, it includes some imaginative elements – conversations, gestures – but I’ve tried to be careful not to contradict the biblical evidence. In some cases, the use of the imaginative elements is meant to bring out implications that are in the text.)
One of the difficulties in telling the Easter story is that there is almost too much material. Each of the biblical Evangelists gives us glimpses into the story from the perspectives of different people who lived it. One tells what Mary Magdalene sees. Another describes what the other women disciples see. Some tell us what Peter sees, one what John sees, another what Thomas does not see, and yet another what the Roman soldiers see. There are gaps in some stories and overlapping chronologies in others. Trying to put all that together into a cohesive narrative can be a challenge.
I’m not going to try to put it all together this morning – there is not enough time for that. Instead, I’m going to tell the story, at least for the most part, from the disciple Mary’s perspective. There are so many Marys in the Easter story that we need to differentiate between them. This one is routinely distinguished by the town she comes from: Mary of Magdala, or Mary Magdalene or, for short, the Magdalene.
When Mary first met Jesus, her life was an absolute disaster. Sometimes you’ll hear people say, “We all have our demons,” but Mary had hers and enough for several other people besides. She was alone, afraid, and confused. Her life was like a bad dream from which she could not wake up. No one was able to wake her up. For the most part, no one even tried; that is, until Jesus.
He woke her up. He gave Mary back her life. He drove away the demons and, in their place, gave her something she had never known: acceptance. And when he accepted her, so did his friends. For the first time in memory, she felt included, wanted. She was part of something, and that felt good. She didn’t always act right, and she knew it, but these people didn’t push her away because she was weird or because she didn’t have it all together.
She owed her life to Jesus. He had given her peace, and hope, and friends. And he had given her God; taught her to know him as her Father, who loved and cherished her; taught her to trust him. Jesus had done more than just save her life, which was hardly worth saving; he had given her a new life. She owed everything to Jesus.
So imagine how she felt when on that dark Friday her savior, friend, teacher – her everything – was killed. It was like they were killing her too. What would happen to her new life, new friends, and new hopes, without Jesus? Without Jesus to hold them together, would her friends turn away from her, the way everyone else had done? With Jesus, she had the prospect of living in God’s kingdom. Without Jesus, she had no prospects—she had no life. And, she thought, she soon might have no friends either.
But for now, her new friends were letting her hang around. She was staying with them. She cried with them, worried with them, got angry and cursed the Romans. She went with them to find the tomb on Friday, the day Jesus was killed, and went with them on Sunday to perform the burial ritual.
Mary was from Magdala in Galilee, and didn’t really know anyone in Jerusalem, but during Passover she was staying in a house with some of her Jesus-friends. As soon as it was light, they were supposed to meet up with some of their other friends at Jesus’s tomb. It was the women’s job to prepare a body for burial, and they were not at all sure that the men had done it properly.
Before dawn, Mary and a few of the women she was staying with, started for the tomb. They were almost on top of it, in the dull light of early morning, before they realized that the stone had been rolled away from the tomb. Well, not just rolled away. The fantastically heavy stone looked like it had been pried loose and tossed aside. The women just stared for a moment, wondering what could have happened. Why force the stone right out of its track? No one who had a right to enter the tomb would have done that. And then Mary’s quick mind came up with an answer: Grave robbers. Someone has stolen his body.
Her mind was quick, but her feet were quicker. Before the others could stop her, she was running and yelling, “I’m going to get Peter!” If anyone would know what to do, it would be Peter.
She ran all the way back to the city, through its narrow, still quiet streets. By the time she reached the steps that led to the upper room apartment where the apostles were hiding, she was breathing hard and had a terrible pain in her side. She pounded on the door and, when no one answered, she pounded louder. Still no answer, so she began calling: “It’s me. It’s Mary. Something terrible has happened. Open up.” The door slowly opened, and she went in. All the apostles were on their feet. They looked haggard, like they hadn’t slept in days. They also looked scared.
Mary went straight to Peter and said: “They’ve taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they put him” (John 20:2). Peter just stood looking at her, as if trying to make up his mind. Then he pushed by her, went down the stairs, and started running. Young John bar Zebedee ran after him. The others just stood looking at each other.
A few minutes later, Mary was on her way back to the tomb, but this time she walked. She felt weak and was still breathing hard. As she walked, she thought about what had happened; tried to put the pieces together. The people who killed Jesus – disgust welled up within her at the thought of them – must have taken his body from the tomb. It was a final act degradation, their last attack on his dignity: to deny him a proper burial. In Jewish culture that was tremendously important. So, of course, they didn’t want him to have it.
When she finally got back to the garden tomb, Peter and John had already been there and gone. Her friends were also gone – for good? she wondered. She stood outside the tomb crying, utterly desolate. For a few minutes, her grief didn’t permit her even to think. She was not merely grieving; she was the embodiment of grief.
After a while, her sobbing quieted. She walked over to the tomb, bent low, and looked in. She saw what she took to be two men sitting on either end of the stone slab where Jesus’s body had rested. They asked her why she was crying, and in a kind of fog she answered, “They’ve taken my Lord away, and I don’t know where they have put him.” Then she turned around.
When she did, she saw through her tears someone standing a little ways off, and she thought he must be the groundskeeper. He, too, asked her why she was crying. She didn’t answer, but she could have said, “Because everything I had was taken from me. I’ve nothing and no one left. I am the most pitiful person on earth.”
When she didn’t answer, he asked: “What are you looking for?” (The “what” could refer to a person or an object.) How was she supposed to answer that? What was she looking for? In all the cosmos, there was only one thing worth looking for. She was looking for the one who gave her hope, gave her love; the one who gave her herself. Even though he had died, she was still looking for him. She knew that if she didn’t find him, she would lose herself.
All this was going on in her. But what she said was, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.” Mary’s mind was stuck, like a needle on a record, and all she could think about was finding her master and saving him from some final degradation. It was all that mattered. The world around her was fading and she herself was fading. The darkness was descending on her. She was falling back into the darkness before Jesus, when she had her demons and her demons had her.
It was the voice that saved her. Some people say they never forget a face. I’m not one of them. My brain is not hardwired for video but for audio; I remember voices. When my dad died, a man I had not seen or spoken to in 20 years called the house, and I knew him immediately. I suspect Mary was like that. Voices registered with her in a way that faces didn’t, and in the gathering darkness of her soul a voice reached her. The Voice reached her. It was the same voice that had called her out of darkness once before, when she was a lost sheep and had heard the shepherd’s voice. “He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out” (John 10:3).
The Voice called her by name. All it said was “Mary.” And the voice that had in creation turned darkness to light did the same thing once again. The darkness melted away and through the tears in her eyes, she saw him. The one who once walked in a Garden in the cool of the evening now walked again in a Garden, on the morning of the new creation.
She said to him, “Teacher!” It didn’t even dawn on her to ask him what had happened or how it was possible. She just knew he was there and because he was alive, she too would live. She grabbed hold of him, but after a moment he said, “Don’t hold on to me. Go tell my brothers!”
She didn’t argue. She went, her third trip that day along that route and it wasn’t even 8:00 AM. She didn’t understand what had happened, but she knew everything would be alright. She wasn’t afraid anymore. As long Jesus was here, she would be fine. Everything would be fine. She went back to the upper room – Peter wasn’t there; hadn’t come back – but she said to the rest of them: “I’ve seen the Lord,” and told them what happened.
They didn’t believe her. She’d never been a very stable person. She was distraught; hysterical. She needed to calm herself. But then Mary and Salome and Joanna and the others came and told them the same thing: “He’s alive. We’ve seen him. He told us to come and tell you.” But they didn’t believe them either.
They said, “You’re delusional. You’re seeing things.” One of them said something like, “They’re women. They’re emotional. They saw something they didn’t understand, and they’re blowing it all out of proportion.”
Someone asked John what he and Peter had seen. John told them that Mary was right: the stone cover to the tomb had been forced and Jesus’s body was missing. But they didn’t see any angels, and they certainly didn’t see Jesus himself.
One of the men said, “There, you have it. You saw someone about Jesus’s height and size, but it couldn’t have been him. Look, you haven’t slept for days, and you’ve hardly eaten anything. Combine that with shock and grief, and, uh, feminine emotionalism, and you have the explanation for what you saw.”
Someone asked John where Peter was, and John said, “I don’t know. I asked him if we should go back, and he just said, ‘You go.’ He didn’t tell me where he was going.”
That afternoon, Cleopas and his wife, one of the women who swore she’d seen Jesus, left. They were going home to Emmaus, and that was a seven-mile walk, and it was already getting late. It was clear she didn’t want to go, but he had made up his mind. The festival was over, and if he wasn’t back at work, there’d be in big trouble.
The day was winding down when Peter finally returned. He knocked twice, and everyone inside froze, thinking the temple guard had found them. When he said, “It’s Simon,” they all breathed again. The door was unbolted and, almost before he got inside, everyone was talking. “Peter: John said the body is gone.” “Mary said she saw him.” “So did the other women. They said they saw angels, and then they saw him.”
“They’re delusional,” someone snapped. But Peter held up his hand and waited for them to get quiet. Then he said, “It’s true. I’ve seen him.” And then they believed. Or wanted to. Except for Thomas, who had barged out of the room earlier and had not returned.
Some of the women had brought food during the afternoon: bread and fish, lentils and wine, and now people were picking at the food as they talked and argued and wondered what it all meant. And then suddenly everything changed. It’s hard to describe. Some felt the room had grown brighter. Others felt like a fresh wind had blown in. Others, like a snatch of a song had wafted in through a window. They were aware that something had changed before they were aware of what it was.
And then they saw him, Jesus, standing right in the middle of them, though the door was still bolted. At first, the disciples we were so startled they recoiled. They couldn’t move or speak or even think; it was like they were under a spell. But Jesus just laughed and said, “Shalom.” Then he said, “What – you think I’m a ghost?” and he laughed again and showed them his hands and his side. It was really him. The marks were still there. He asked them, with a sparkle in his eyes, if they had something to eat. They gave him a piece of fish and he made a show of eating it: “Mmm, that’s good.” Then he laughed again, and the spell was broken.
They all they gathered around him. Some of them touched him, wanting to make sure he was real—that they weren’t dreaming. He wasn’t a vision or a ghost. He was as real as ever – almost more real, they felt, though they could not have said what they meant by that. They heard his voice, they felt his breath, they received his commission.
Then he was gone. That was disconcerting. They wanted him to stay, to be with them like before. But they realized that he did not belong to them; they belonged to him. He was not at their beck and call; they were at his.
When Thomas returned, everyone was talking at once. They told him that Jesus really was alive. He had come here. He stood right there. He talked to them. He ate a piece of fish. Thomas waved them all off with a sweep of his hand, looked at Peter, and said: “Well?” And Peter just nodded: “It’s true.”
Thomas’s reaction was not one anyone would have expected. He got angry. He said something like, “You’re all crazy. You’re as crazy as those women.” They tried to explain it to him again, tried to argue with him, but he got even angrier: “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it.” Thomas was a stubborn ox, and he always had been. He was one of those guys who had to learn things for himself. He got the opportunity a week later.
Their patron was allowing them to continue to use the upper room. They weren’t so afraid anymore, except for Thomas, who insisted on keeping the door bolted, in case the temple guard came looking for them. It was Sunday evening, and it had been a week since any of them had seen Jesus. They were uncertain about what they should be doing, but they were certain about Jesus – except Thomas. When anyone would say something about Jesus, he would just put his right index finger to his left palm, as if to say, “When I see the marks and me put my finger where the nails were…”
And then it happened again. It was as if the candles flared or a breeze blew through the room. And there he was, standing right in front of Thomas. “Shalom,” he said, his whole being radiating joy and laughter. Then he said offered his palm to Thomas, pointing with his index finger, and said, “Put your finger here…Reach your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”
Thomas said, “My Lord and my God.”
We preachers often end the story there, but that was not the end of the story. They would see Jesus again and again over the next forty days, always at the time and place of his choosing. They would sit with him and learn from him and begin to understand that what had happened was part of a bigger picture: God was undoing the ancient curse, bringing to an end the rule of death, and forming a people for himself around Jesus. Jesus told them the story was not over; in fact, they had a key role to play in it: to announce the Good News of God and make disciples to Jesus. He promised he would be with them in the effort and that God would support them in response to their prayers.
Those disciples played their role well and with courage. They turned the world upside down with the good news of what God had done – and was doing – through Jesus. They died long ago, but the story didn’t. Sometimes we get the idea that when the first disciples died, the story paused for a commercial break. We feel like nothing important is going on now. After the break, we’ll have the wrap-up, the return of Christ and the resurrection. But this is no commercial break. The same story is going on right now, we are a part of it, and it is still being chronicled. Ours may not be The Acts of the Apostles, but The Acts of the Branch County Christians is good too, and it will declare the glory of God.
Let me close with this. I took the title of this sermon, Who Are You Looking For? from Jesus’s question to Mary. But there’s another question, at least as important, that we should ask: “Who is Looking for You?” Remember how, in the garden, after the first man and woman rebelled, they hid from God, but he went looking for them? Remember how Jesus went and looked for the Apostle Philip, and called him? How he went looking for the man who had been born blind, and found him? Remember how, in Jesus poignant stories, the shepherd went looking for his lost sheep, the woman went looking for her lost coin, and the father for his lost son? The truth is, as Augustine put it, we couldn’t look for God had he not already found us.
Who is looking for you? When God looks for people, he calls them. He called to Adam in the Garden, and later to Mary in another Garden. He still calls. Jesus said: “My sheep hear my voice” (John 10:27), and he calls them by name (John 10:3). The Scripture gives examples: In Genesis 22, God called. “Abraham, Abraham.” In Exodus: “Moses, Moses”; Later it was, “Samuel, Samuel”; “Martha, Martha”; “Simon, Simon”: “Saul, Saul.”
When he called those people – some of the greatest people in the Bible – he for some reason repeated their names. But Mary heard the first time. That’s the way I want to be.
God still calls people by name. If you’ve heard the Voice speaking to you, answer! Whatever you do, don’t harden your hearts – that’s the great danger. (You know how people do that, right? They don’t, “No!” They say, “Okay … but later.”) The one sure symptom of a hard heart is poor hearing. Hardening your heart plugs your ears. That is why the psalmist says, “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your heart” (Ps. 95:7-8a). If God is calling your name, please answer.