A sermon by Jim Somerville, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Richmond, Va.
April 20, 2014
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. So 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.” Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then 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.
But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and 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. They 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.” When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” 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.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). Jesus 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.’” Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her (NRSV).
I was driving home from the gym last Monday when I saw my friends Alex and Ginger Evans out for their morning walk on Monument Avenue. Alex is pastor of Second Presbyterian Church here in town and Ginger is on staff as Director of Christian Education. They are delightful people, lots of fun. I hadn’t seen them in a while and so I pulled over, rolled down my window, and shouted out a greeting. They came over to the car to say hello. We made small talk for a minute and then Alex said, “Well, this is it: Holy Week. Are you ready?” “I’m getting ready,” I said. “What are you going to preach on Easter?” he asked. “I don’t know yet,” I answered, “but my thoughts keep coming back to Mary Magdalene. I mean, what would compel a woman to get up before daylight and go stumbling around in a dark cemetery?” “Nothing but love,” Ginger said.
“Nothing but love.”
It was a good answer, and (I believe) the right answer, but I learned quickly that you have to be careful when you talk about Jesus and Mary Magdalene and love. A preliminary search on the Internet will turn up a number of scandalous rumors, including the rumor that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married, that they had children, and that Jesus often kissed her, presumably on the mouth (this may be as good a time as any to remind you that you can’t always believe what you read on the Internet, and that Wikipedia is not the most reliable source of information). But largely due to the success of Dan Brown’s 2003 novel, The DaVinci Code (which insinuated that the church has been hiding the truth about Jesus and Mary Magdalene for all these years), many of these rumors have entered the mainstream of public opinion. For example: I spoke at a Kiwanis Club meeting last week and on the way out someone asked me, “Hey, was Jesus married?” At a Habitat for Humanity build on Friday someone asked, “Jesus had children, right?” So let me just say it now, as clearly as I can: according to the best scholarship available, NO: Jesus and Mary Magdalene were not married, they did not have children, and there is no good reason to believe that he “often kissed her.” Theirs is not a romantic story, and yet it is a love story.
Where did it all begin?
In the eighth chapter of Luke’s Gospel we are told that Jesus was going through the cities and villages [of Galilee], “proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him,” Luke says, “as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources” (Luke 8:1-3). If you close your eyes you can almost see Jesus and his disciples traveling around Galilee with a group of grateful women who took care of them and provided for them.
One of those grateful women was Mary Magdalene.
In the passage just before that one Luke tells a story about a woman who was extremely grateful. When she learned that Jesus was having dinner at the home of a Pharisee in her town she came, bringing an alabaster jar of expensive ointment. Jesus was reclining at the table in the style of that time, his face visible in the lamplight as he talked and ate with his host, his feet somewhere back in the shadows of the room. That’s where this woman knelt down and wept, bathing Jesus’ feet with tears of gratitude and then wiping them with her hair and kissing them before massaging them with that precious ointment. It’s a very intimate moment—too intimate for Jesus’ host. He says to himself, “If this man were a prophet he would know what kind of woman this is touching him—that she is a sinner.” But Jesus knew what he was thinking and in Eugene Peterson’s version of the story he says this:
“Simon, I have something to tell you.”
“Oh? Tell me.”
“Two men were in debt to a banker. One owed five hundred silver pieces, the other fifty. Neither of them could pay up, and so the banker canceled both debts. Which of the two would be more grateful?” Simon answered, “I suppose the one who was forgiven the most.”
“That’s right,” said Jesus. Then turning to the woman, but speaking to Simon, he said, “Do you see this woman? I came to your home; you provided no water for my feet, but she rained tears on my feet and dried them with her hair. You gave me no greeting [no kiss], but from the time I arrived she hasn’t quit kissing my feet. You provided nothing for freshening up, but she has soothed my feet with perfume. Impressive, isn’t it? She was forgiven many, many sins, and so she is very, very grateful. If the forgiveness is minimal, the gratitude is minimal.”[i]
And then, in the very next passage we hear about some grateful women who traveled with Jesus and his disciples, providing for them out of their means, and one of them was Mary Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out. Is she the one who anointed his feet that night? We don’t know. Many people are reluctant to make that association because in that story she is identified as a “sinner.” But if you were possessed by seven demons who knows what you would be possessed to do? There’s no telling, and no way to know if it was Mary Magdalene, but if it was here is one way it might have happened: that as Jesus was going through the cities and villages of Galilee, “proclaiming and bringing the good news of the Kingdom,” he came to her village, Magdala, and brought good news to Mary by casting seven demons out of her.
It’s not in the Bible, but I can easily imagine she was so grateful that she went home and got the most precious thing she had—this jar of expensive ointment—and then came back to town and found that Jesus had gone to the home of Simon. She went there, and talked someone into letting her slip in through the back door, and that’s how she got into the room with Jesus where she wept tears of gratitude on his feet, covered them with kisses, and massaged them with precious ointment. That’s why Jesus knows who she is and why she’s doing what she’s doing: because she has been forgiven many, many sins, and is therefore very, very grateful. The next thing you know she’s traveling with him, along with several other women, and providing for him and his disciples out of her resources.
In Luke’s Gospel she is among those who first hear Jesus say that he will “undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (Luke 9:18-22). She must have been, because later, at the empty tomb, the angel says to her and the women who are with her, “Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again?” (Luke 24:6-7). And then they did remember. These women—Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary, the mother of James, and others—were part of the inner circle. They heard what Jesus said in some of his most private moments.
And so it shouldn’t surprise us too much that Mary Magdalene is one of those standing at the foot of the cross in John’s Gospel. John says she was there with Jesus’ mother, and with his mother’s sister, and also Mary the wife of Clopas. Just the four women, apparently, and the disciple whom Jesus loved, standing there beside Jesus’ mother, so that he said, “Woman, here is your son,” and to him, “Here is your mother.” But that means Mary Magdalene would have been there when Jesus was crucified, when the soldiers drove the nails into those feet she had kissed; when they gambled for his clothing, leaving him naked and dying on the cross; when he said, “I am thirsty,” and when he said, “It is finished”; when they broke the legs of the thieves on either side of him; and when they pierced his side with a spear, so that blood and water came out. She may have still been there when Joseph of Arimathea took his body down from the cross, and she may have even seen how he and Nicodemus anointed that body with a mixture of myrrh and aloes, wrapped it in a linen cloth, and laid it in a garden tomb.
The next day was the Sabbath, and she wouldn’t have been able to go to the tomb, but can’t you imagine how she tossed and turned that night, waiting for daylight so she could go and be as close as possible to the body of her Lord. Because that’s what she seems to want most: to be close to him. From the time he casts those seven demons out of her she stays as close to him as she can—bathing his feet with her tears (if that was, in fact, her), walking the dusty roads of Galilee with him, standing there at foot of the cross, and coming to the tomb early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark. My friend Rachel May is pastor of Boulevard United Methodist Church. Last week she told me that she would be doing a sunrise service at Hollywood Cemetery this morning. I said, “Would you go extra early, while it’s still dark, and spend a few minutes walking around among the tombs so you can tell me what that’s like?” Rachel appears to be a very brave person, but even she shuddered at the thought. What would compel a woman to do such a thing?
Nothing but love.
That’s what caused Mary to throw back the covers, finally, to get up, put on her sandals, throw a shawl around her shoulders and set out toward that garden. I picture her feeling her way, tripping over roots and rocks, trying to get back to that place where she last saw the body of Jesus. She doesn’t care that she’s stumbling through a graveyard. She doesn’t think to ask who will roll away the stone. My guess is that she just wants to sit outside the tomb, leaning back against that stone, getting as close to Jesus as she can get. But by the first light of dawn she is able to see that the stone has been rolled away. And she goes racing back to the city, telling Peter and the disciple Jesus loved, “They have taken away the Lord, and we don’t know where they’ve laid him!” And then Peter and the other disciple ran to the tomb, but the other disciple got there first, looked inside and saw the linen cloth lying there. When Peter got there he went in, saw the linen cloth and the cloth that had been wrapped around Jesus’ head rolled up by itself in a corner. The other disciple went in, saw those things, and even though he didn’t understand all that the scriptures said about the Resurrection he believed.
And then he and Peter went back to the city.
But Mary stayed behind, weeping. She bent over and looked into the tomb and saw two angels in there! They said, “Woman, why are you weeping?” And she said, “They have taken my Lord, and I don’t know where they have laid him.” She turned around and saw Jesus standing there but she didn’t know it was Jesus. She thought it was the gardener (and maybe it was because he had borrowed some of the gardener’s clothes from the toolshed, especially if he had left his linen wrappings behind in the tomb. Some artists have pictured him in the first-century equivalent of a pair of overalls, holding a shovel, hiding his eyes behind the brim of a big, floppy hat). He said, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” And if you have ears to hear it there is almost a playfulness in his voice. He knows why Mary is weeping. He knows whom she is looking for. He is not insensitive to her grief but he knows that in a matter of seconds her grief will turn to joy. She said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him and I will take him away.” And then he can’t wait any longer. “Mary,” he says. “Mary!” And he lifts his head, and she sees his face, and her pet name for him pops from her mouth like the cork from a champagne bottle:
We really don’t know what happened next. John doesn’t tell us. But I can picture her flying across the space between them and into Jesus’ arms with such force that she knocks him to the ground, and covers his face—as she once covered his feet—with tears and kisses, not tears of sorrow, not tears of gratitude, but tears of joy, until at last he laughs and says, “Mary, Mary! You’ve got to let me go.[ii] You’ve got to let me ascend to the Father. But go and tell my brothers that I’m ascending to my Father and your Father, my God and your God.” Somehow she does it. She lets go. She disentangles herself and heads back toward the city, but slower this time, still savoring the warm, solid, flesh-and-blood reality of that embrace, and the sound of her name on his lips: “Mary.”
It’s not a romantic story, but it is a love story. It’s the story of someone who loved Jesus almost as much as Jesus loves us. Mary went back to the disciples and said, “I have seen the Lord!” and in that moment became the first Easter preacher ever, the first person to share the astonishing good news that Christ had risen from the dead. For Mary and those disciples things would never be the same. If resurrection was real, then death was no longer an enemy. If resurrection was real then life had won the day. If resurrection was real then anything was possible.
It was true for them; it’s true for us.
At 3:40 this morning I woke up from a dream that was so vivid I thought it had really happened. I lay there for a while just going over the details, impressing them on my memory, because I didn’t want to forget. Many of you know that my father died back in January. In this dream I was with my backpacking partners in the woods, breaking camp. I remember that I was winding up a piece of nylon cord so I could put it in the side pocket of my pack, where it belongs. I heard someone singing and looked over to see my dad, pulling up tent pegs. He looked young and strong. He had a full head of thick, dark hair. He was singing an old hymn as he often did when he was outdoors. I nudged Chuck, my brother-in-law, and said, “Look at that.” He did, and gulped. He knew how sick my father had been. He knew that he hadn’t sung for a long time. “We need to pause and acknowledge the miracle of this moment,” I said.
“My dad is singing.”
And that’s what Easter is for: it’s a time to pause and acknowledge the miracle of this moment. Christ is risen. Christ is risen indeed. And because he is death is no longer an enemy; life has won the day; anything is possible;
And nothing will ever be the same.
[i] Luke 7:40-47, the Message
[ii] It’s possible that I owe this mental image to C. S. Lewis’ description of Aslan’s resurrection in the Lion the Witch, and the Wardrobe. “The rising of the sun had made everything look so different—all the colours and shadows were changed—that for a moment they didn’t see the important thing. Then they did. The Stone Table was broken into two pieces by a great crack that ran down it from end to end; and there was no Aslan. “Oh, oh, oh!” cried the two girls rushing back to the Table. “Oh, it’s too bad,” sobbed Lucy; “they might have left the body alone.” “Who’s done it?” cried Susan. “What does it mean? Is it more magic?” “Yes!” said a great voice behind their backs. “It is more magic.” They looked round. There, shining in the sunrise, larger than they had seen him before, shaking his mane stood Aslan himself. “Oh, Aslan!” cried both the children, staring up at him, almost as much frightened as they were glad. “Aren’t you dead then, dear Aslan?” said Lucy. “Not now,” said Aslan. “You’re not—not a—?” asked Susan in a shaky voice. She couldn’t bring herself to say the word ghost. Aslan stooped his golden head and licked her forehead. The warmth of his breath and a rich sort of smell that seemed to hang about his hair came all over her. “Do I look it?” he said. “Oh, you’re real, you’re real! Oh, Aslan!” cried Lucy, and both girls flung themselves upon him and covered him with kisses. “Oh, children,’ said the Lion, ‘I feel my strength coming back to me. Oh, children, catch me if you can!’ He stood for a second, his eyes very bright, his limbs quivering, lashing himself with his tail. Then he made a leap high over their heads and landed on the other side of the Table. Laughing, though she didn’t know why, Lucy scrambled over it to reach him. Aslan leaped again. A mad chase began. Round and round the hilltop he led them, now hopelessly out of their reach, now letting them almost catch his tail, now diving between them, now tossing them in the air with his huge and beautifully velveted paws and catching them again, and now stopping unexpectedly so that all three of them rolled over together in a happy laughing heap of fur and arms and legs. It was such a romp as no one has ever had except in Narnia and whether it was more like playing with a thunderstorm or playing with a kitten Lucy could never make up her mind…“And now,” said Aslan presently, “to business. I feel I am going to roar” (pp. 131-133).
Jim Somerville is pastor of First Baptist Church in Richmond, Virginia.