Sermon for Easter Sunday 2014: Jn. 20:1-18
One of the striking elements of all the gospel accounts of the resurrection of Jesus is the fact that women were the first witnesses. There are different details, different aspects of focus, but all four gospel accounts agree that women were the first to find the empty tomb, the first to tell the disciples, and the first to see Jesus alive (Mt. 28:1-10, Mk. 16:1-11, Lk. 24:1-11, Jn. 20:1-18).
The Text: The other gospels note that Mary the mother of James, Salome, and Joanna and perhaps others were also there, but John focuses all of his attention on Mary Magdalene who rises early while it is still dark to see the tomb (Jn. 20:1). She runs to tell Peter and John (Jn. 20:2), and after they have left, she lingers at the empty tomb in sorrow (Jn. 20:11). She sees the two angels sitting in the tomb on either end of where the body of Jesus had lain (Jn. 20:12). When she explains why she is weeping, Jesus appears behind her and asks again why she is weeping and who she is looking for (Jn. 20:14-15). She thinks he may be the gardener, the keeper of the cemetery, and asks Him if He knows where the body has been taken (Jn. 20:15). When Jesus calls her by name, she recognizes Him (Jn. 20:16), and He entrusts her with a message for the disciples regarding His ascension (Jn. 20:17-18).
Adam & Eve
It’s no accident that when Mary Magdalene first sees Jesus she mistakes Him for the Gardner (Jn. 20:15). Even though there were likely several other women with Mary, John zooms in on the scene and for a moment, wants us to see a man and a woman in a garden, reminding us of the first man and woman in the Garden of Eden. It’s striking that in the first garden, Adam names his wife twice, first “woman” at her creation (Gen. 2:23), second “Eve” after the Fall as they are leaving the garden (Gen. 3:20). Here, Jesus does the same thing: He calls her “woman” (Jn. 20:15), and then He calls her “Mary” (Jn. 20:16). Adam names his wife Eve following his failure to protect his wife from the serpent, but here, Jesus names Mary following His victory over the serpent. In the first instance, Adam and Eve must both leave the garden in shame; here, Jesus sends Mary out of the garden but with news of glory. Jesus is the new, faithful Adam, and Mary represents a new, glorified Eve. While the first Eve had believed lies, this new glorified Eve has come to know the truth.
The other significant piece of this puzzle has to do with who Mary Magdalene was. Though John does not specifically mention it, Mark does, and we assume it was well know: Mary had been previously possessed by seven demons (Mk. 16:9). Though we cannot know for sure, some traditions speculate that Mary may have been the same woman who showed up unexpectedly at a dinner hosted by a Pharisee in order to anoint Jesus’ feet with oil and wash them with her hair and tears (Lk. 7:37-38). Even if this was not the same woman, it seems right to imagine her as having been a similar kind of woman: a woman who had been forgiven much (Lk. 7:47-48). And in this way, Mary Magdalene represents not only a new Eve here, but she does so having been previously a picture of the first Eve, overcome by sin, under the power of demons, like the nation of Israel itself.
It is popular to discredit the gospels and Christianity with myths of Jesus having a wife, and Mary Magdalene is often put forward as a likely candidate. But this is not only a slander on the historical records that we have in the gospels, it is also to miss the point of this scene. Jesus tells Mary not to cling to Him (Jn. 20:17). We know from other gospel accounts that Jesus is not forbidding her to touch him (Mt. 28:9, Jn. 20:27). The point that Jesus is making is that He must soon ascend into heaven, and that the resurrection is not primarily about Jesus and Mary (Jn. 20:17). It is much bigger, much grander than this. It is about Jesus and the disciples, Jesus and the Church, about Jesus and all of His people. In all of the other gospels, Jesus tells Mary that He will meet the disciples in Galilee, but here, John focuses on His ascension to the Father. We know from Acts that He ascends in order to send His Spirit on His people, in order to fill them with His life, in order to purify them, in order to empower them.
Resurrection of Male & Female
One of the great battles Jesus has called us to in our day has to do with gender and sexuality. What does it mean to been created male and female? Does it matter? Are we just interchangeable parts in the machinery of humanity? Part of the great wonder and mystery of the creation of humanity is the way men and women mirror one another. But we are not straightforward mirrors. The Bible clearly teaches that God created human beings, male and female, both fully bearing the image of God (Gen. 1:27-28). And yet the differences between male and female are important and glorious. If there is no difference between male and female, then it doesn’t matter that women were the first witnesses of the resurrection. Or if the Bible is merely saying that women are just as good as men at telling the truth or they should be considered just as trustworthy as men, then again, we’re left with the assertion that it doesn’t matter that the first witnesses were female.
The Bible does teach that in so far as women have been excluded from God, in so far as they have been considered lesser Christians, having greater or worse sins, and needing more grace than men – the Bible does teach that this is folly. In Christ, there is not male and female, nor slave and free, nor Jew and Greek, all are one Christ (Gal. 3:28). Or Peter tells husbands to honor their wives, to protect them like a great and precious vessel, as heirs together of the grace of life (1 Pet. 3:7). In Christ, men and women are co-heirs, or according to the old codes, we are all “sons,” we are all “brothers” and therefore are heirs of the Father (Gal. 4:1-7). But in another sense, Peter has also set up his exhortation in a way that makes wives examples for their husbands: husbands are to “likewise” imitate their wives as they imitate Jesus.
There is something about the relative vulnerability of being a woman, something about the weakness, the exposure to threats and dangers that women often face that Peter highlights as a model for all Christians. There is also something about the glory and beauty of the woman that makes her mistreatment and failures seem more tragic. We feel the shame of female dishonor in our guts, in our souls. And so Mary Magdalene is lifted up for us as a model witness of the resurrection (along with the other women). If all the disciples had reasons to fear what the death of Jesus meant for them, she perhaps pictures that vulnerability and shame most viscerally, most palpably.
If this scene is meant to transport our imaginations back to the original garden, to see in the resurrection something of a return to the Garden, one part of that meaning may be found in the idea of “seeing” rightly. Recall that in the original garden the man and the woman were naked and unashamed (Gen. 2:25). They saw one another in perfect innocence because they had been created by God and in His image, and they had been given bodies that were good, and their communion together was a gift of God and blessed by Him. But when the serpent came into the garden, he suggested that Adam and Eve in fact were not seeing everything. He said, “For God knows that in the day you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Gen. 3:5). But when they did eat, the eyes of both were opened and they saw their nakedness and were ashamed, and immediately covered themselves. Their eyes were opened, but they didn’t in fact see more, they saw differently, and the difference in vision actually caused them to see less. Instead remaining innocent and seeing the world as God’s gift to them, their disobedience cause them to be ashamed, caused embarrassment, and now all that they saw was distorted, blurry, unclear, unsure.
Shame & the Image of God
This is what shame does. It causes fear and anxiety and terror and worry and insecurity. Those who are ashamed are afraid of what others are thinking about them. They are afraid of the judgments of others. They are afraid of accusations. They are afraid of being taken advantage of. And some of this is quite understandable. When you have been hurt by others, when you have been angry or bitter and done things you regret, you build what you hope will be mental and emotional or even physical barriers so that you won’t go back there again, so that it won’t happen again. Shame masquerades as safety precautions. Adam and Eve saw their nakedness, saw their vulnerability, saw how they might be embarrassed, how they might appear to one another, and they took precautions. They covered their nakedness, attempting to prevent misjudgment, attempting to prevent misunderstanding, trying to prevent accusations. But this ultimately distorts the image of God in us; it distorts what it means to represent God as a woman, as a man.
Shame is ultimately a kind of powerlessness. Shame feels the chaos, the emptiness, the hurt, the guilt, the confusion and tries to duck and cover, tries to fend off the darkness, tries to hold back the tide, but it doesn’t work. Because shame distorts the world. Shame doesn’t allow us to see the world rightly, because the very things we do to protect ourselves create blinders, blurring the world. And so shame causes more shame and more instability and more powerlessness and despair. Because of our sin and shame and our feelings of vulnerability and nakedness, we cannot see ourselves or one another rightly. And so we become trapped in cycles of despair.
So, what can be done?
How Jesus Names With Grace
We need power from somewhere else. We need protection from somewhere else. We cannot protect ourselves because we are ashamed and cannot see the world our ourselves rightly. We cannot prevent ourselves from hurting others, and we cannot prevent ourselves from being hurt. And Satan sends people on empty searches for stability and safety. He offers them life through disobedience and self-reliance: just do what you think is best, trust yourself, believe in yourself, go ahead and have another drink, go ahead and look at those pictures, watch that movie, stay away from those friends, let him touch you, but Satan does it all with threats in his hand. He says there’s no other way. He says there’s nothing else to do. There’s nowhere else to turn. He says you’re a sinner, you’re guilty, it’s your fault, and you’ll never change. This is just who you are. You can’t be different. You can’t stop being this way.
And so many people find themselves brokenhearted, weeping in a garden, wishing they could go back to a happier time, wishing things could be put right, wishing they could change, wishing everything was different – like Mary Magdalene just wanting to know where have you taken Him? Where have you taken my only hope? Where have you taken His body?
Many people who have grown up in the Church are still like Mary. They have known Jesus, they have walked with Him, they know the stories, but in some of their deepest hurts, in some of their greatest disappointments, in some of their greatest failures, they do not see Jesus standing right behind them. They do not recognize Him. Because of their shame, they do not see rightly. They do not understand the story. They are still trying to figure things out for themselves.
And this is what shame does, it ironically invites self-righteousness, self-reliance: quick cover yourself. Don’t let anyone see. Grab some fig leaves. Don’t let anyone know. If they knew, they would be so embarrassed to have me as their friend, they would be so embarrassed to have me as their spouse, they would be so embarrassed to have me as their child, as their parent.
But Jesus calls Mary, “woman” – it’s her glory name – ishah – Fire. “Glory, why are you weeping?” And then Jesus calls Mary by her given name; He names her like Adam naming His wife. He names her like a faithful husband, like a bridegroom, like a Father names His newborn child. It’s all love. It’s all grace. It’s all glory. Does Jesus know Mary? Does He know everything about her? Does He know how the demons ravaged her? Does He know where she has been? Does He know what she has done? Does He know what has been done to her? Yes, He does. And He claims her, He embraces her, and He commissions her.
Until you understand that Jesus knows everything about you and calls you by name, you are still trying to take care of things on your own. You’re still trying to figure out how to cover your own nakedness. You’re still fumbling with fig leaves. But Jesus calls your name. Jesus calls your name.
The fact that He gives Mary a mission, a message is also shocking. It’s grace. You want Mary to carry this news? The woman who was infested with demons? The notorious sinner? The prostitute? The adulterer? The user and abuser? Who would believe her? Who would take her seriously? But Jesus chooses Mary. He says, Mary, you’ll do perfectly. Jesus sends forgiven sinners to tell the world that He is alive and has ascended to the Father. Are you a sinner? Then you qualify. If you think you qualify, then you don’t qualify. But if you don’t think you qualify, then you do. This is the glory of grace.
In other words, the answer to shame is grace. But this grace is outside of you. The way of honor and glory is not inside of you. It’s got to come from somewhere else, from Someone else. And we see this in the message that Jesus gives Mary. The message is not a message of self-reliance, of self-determination, of self-righteousness, of self-assurance. The message is that Jesus is leaving. The message is the Jesus is going to His Father. What a strange message of hope! How is that supposed to reassure us? How is that supposed to reassure us when we are afraid, when we are tempted to fear, when we are battling guilt and shame, when we feel vulnerable, exposed?
What does he say? He says, “I am ascending to my Father, and your Father, and to my God, and your God” (Jn. 20:17). The assurance that Jesus gives is that though He must go, He is going to Mary’s Father, to Mary’s God.
You see when Jesus calls your name, you begin to see the world rightly again. When Jesus calls you by name, He addresses you with honor, with glory. He speaks to you as a man, as a woman, as a child made in the image of God. And now because He has suffered for your sins, because He has overcome Satan on the cross, all the guilt is gone, all the shame is removed, all the pain is paid for, all the darkness is undone.
The insane grace of the resurrection is that Jesus speaks to Mary as an equal. Jesus speaks to Mary as a sister, a beloved sister. And says, go tell our brothers that I’m going to our Father. This is what it means to be a Christian. It means that you know your sin and shame are gone because Jesus has called you by name. It means you belong to His family. It means you have come back to the garden and God is putting everything right again.
What are you ashamed of? Are you ashamed of your past? Are you ashamed of what you have done? Are you ashamed of your family, the state of your marriage? Are you ashamed of how your children have turned out? Are you ashamed because your career has not panned out like you had hoped? Are you ashamed because you are not married yet? Are you ashamed because you don’t have children? Are you ashamed of your weakness, your sickness, your inability to help?
Easter is the proclamation that Christ is risen from the dead. He is alive and all that causes shame is undone. Jesus knows it all, and He calls you by name. And when He calls you by name, He calls you in His love, in His affection. He addresses you with honor. He calls you as His brother, as His sister.
And He calls you to believe. You cannot see yourself or this world rightly until you believe. You must believe in order to see. You must believe that He addresses you, that He calls you by name. That He forgives you, and that He is pleased with You. And that His Father is your Father. And that you are received as a beloved son.
Today, do not say that this is a message for someone else. Do not say that Jesus is talking to someone else, calling someone else. No, remember today and tomorrow and every day that Jesus is alive and He is calling your name. When you believe this, you begin to see the world aright. You begin to see that Jesus is making all things new. You begin to see that the greatest moments of darkness and shame are places where God is determined to display His greatest glory in and through you.
Mary Magdalene and the other women are this announcement to the world. It is the announcement that in our weakness and shame, Jesus calls us by name. In our sin and failure, He addresses us with names of honor and glory. By His death, He has nailed our sins to the cross and we bear them no more. He is alive, and He calls us by name. He is alive, and He is making all things new. He is alive, and He regards you as His equal, His brother, His sister, His friend.