Sermon for Easter Morning 2023 preached by the Revd Dr Trevor Jamison at Saint Columba’s United Reformed Church, North Shields
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‘Supposing him to be the gardener …’ (20:15)
What prevented Mary Magdalene from recognising Jesus? Maybe it was the tears in her eyes. After all, the question put to her by the two angels in the tomb was, ‘Woman, why are you weeping?’ Maybe it was as simple as Mary not being able to focus through her tears on the figure before her in the gloom of an early morning.
Or perhaps it was about her expectations. Who expects the person standing before you to be someone that you know has died? As we heard in our earlier reading (Luke 24:1-12) she had come to the tomb to place spices on the body of Jesus. Prior to that, on the Friday, she had been one of the small group of followers who stood near the cross, as Jesus died upon it. She had seen Jesus dead. She was aware that his body had been put in the tomb. So when she found that the tomb was empty she believed that someone had removed the body, not that Jesus was risen from the dead: ‘if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.’ (29:15)
Or maybe it wasn’t so much to do with Mary as it was to do with Jesus. Perhaps the way he looked was in some way different from what it had been before. An account of a later appearance to disciples in a locked room mentions the wounds on his body, but his ability to appear in such a way hints that his body might in some ways have different from, or more than, the form it had taken before his crucifixion and death. All in all, there are a number of reasons why Mary might not have recognised Jesus right from the off on Easter morning.
But then Mary does recognise Jesus. She did not recognise him on sight. Nor did she recognise him by the sound of his voice. Jesus, echoing the angels, asked, ‘Why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?’ (20:15) But even then Mary was still taking Jesus for the cemetery gardener, replying with her questions about whether he know where his own body lay. It’s actually when Jesus said her name – ‘Mary!’ (20:16) – that light dawned. ‘Rabbouni!’ she replied, which as John’s Gospel helpfully informs us, means, ‘Rabbi!’ Mary recognised the teacher that she had accompanied from the days of his early ministry in Galilee. (Luke 8:1-3)
Now Mary’s eyes are opened to see and recognise who it that stands before her. Now the gloom has lifted. Jesus who had died on the cross and who had been buried; Jesus, who had been lost to Mary and to the other disciples, was back with her; alive; risen from the dead. Physically, she could touch him, but she could not hold on to him: ‘Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father,’ (20:17) said Jesus.
Instead, Mary was to go to the other disciples and share her experience with them. And so, as John’s Gospel tells us, ‘she went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord,’ and she told them that he had said these things to her.’ (20:18) A stunning experience for Mary, and a shocking message for the other disciples. What should we make of all that today?
Recognising the risen Jesus Christ is strongly linked with having a relationship with Jesus. For years and years I worked with the assumption that Mary recognised her risen Lord when she heard his voice, but that’s not what it says in John’s Gospel. Jesus spoke to her with questions about why she was weeping and for whom she was looking but she still did not realise who he was. It was when Jesus said her name that she realised that he was alive.
Growing up in a 1960s and 70s Evangelical church setting there was a big emphasis on your own relationship with Jesus. It became a bit of a cliché to ask or be asked, ‘Do you have personal relationship with Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour?’ When you get asked that often enough, along with accompanying psychological and emotional pressure to respond with the “right answer”, you push back against it; you become almost allergic to talk about your ‘personal relationship’ with Jesus.
All the same, though, as we’re reminded by Mary Magdalene’s experience, there’s something important in this talk about personal relationship with Jesus. It was the personal teacher-disciple relationship that Jesus and Mary enjoyed that enabled her to see that Christ had been raised from the dead: ‘Mary’ / ‘Rabbouni!’ To know and meet with the risen Jesus Christ is a personal encounter; God, in Jesus, is meeting with you.
But as well as being an intensely personal event, the resurrection of Jesus is part of a bigger, cosmic story. Yes, this is Mary’s moment – the first one to meet with the risen Lord Jesus Christ – but that personal encounter is not the whole story. Mary wants to hang on to Jesus, but Jesus will not let her do so: ‘ Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father.’ (20:17) Jesus has business elsewhere.
The resurrection is a stunning, pivotal moment, full of joy for followers of Jesus. In the days that follow this meeting with Mary, there were meetings with other disciples, where they saw for themselves that the tomb was empty because Jesus has risen from the dead. But, amazing as it is in itself, Mary, those disciples, and we have to fit it into the bigger story of God’s plans for the whole of God’s creation.
We need to fit the resurrection into what went before and what is to come after. The resurrection could only occur because Jesus had come into the world – was incarnate. He was born in Bethlehem, he grew up, he became a prophet and teacher, one so challenging to powers-that-be that they executed him. And this terrible response to God incarnate was representative of humankind, a people deeply, tragically flawed; out of relationship with the God who made us; in need of rescue, redemption, radical change.
Now, with resurrection, with resurrection, God affirms Jesus’s life and teaching; and the worst that humankind can do, that death can do, is swept aside by the power of God’s love. A new era has begun. It’s the final movement of the whole of reality in the direction of reconciliation with God. But we’re not there yet. We know that we are not there yet. Christ has died and Christ is risen, but the world is still far from having arrived where we should be.
And so Jesus cannot stay with Mary. The resurrected Jesus will not be staying her on earth. Rather, he will be departing, returning to whence from which he came: ‘do not hold on to me.’ And we are left to share the story, to play a part in moving the world towards that time when all things are finally reconciled with God, and everything enjoys the abundant life that is God’s intention for us.
You see, that’s what happens with Jesus and Mary: ‘Do not hold on to me [says Jesus] … but go to the others and tell them … [so Mary] went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’; and she told them that he had said these things to her.’ (20:17, 18) The next step was not that Jesus would stay around for ever but that Mary, then others, then we, would share our experience of meeting with Jesus; our personal encounter with the risen Lord, and also identifying that as part of the bigger story of God’s love for all.
Today is Easter Day, the day of resurrection. We celebrate that Jesus is risen from the dead. He is risen for each one of us – personally. He is risen – a joyful, pivotal, needful moment in God’s greater plan to be reconciled with the whole of creation. He is risen, and now it’s our turn to take our place among the followers of Jesus Christ, telling others what we have seen and heard concerning our Teacher and Lord; and that he is risen indeed, alleluia!