Some say she was a prostitute, and others the woman caught in adultery and thrown at his feet for judgement. But in reality she was neither of those things. She was from the city of Magdala, and three years ago he had freed her from the grip of seven demons, and ever since then she had followed him, and had helped provide for him out of her wealth.
Two days ago she had watched him, hanging on a cross, his breath getting weaker, his voice getting softer. “It is finished,” he’d said. And then he died. It is finished. The kingdom we thought he was ushering in. The freedom we thought he was bringing Israel. It is finished.
And now, while it was still dark, she was going to his resting place to pay her respects. To anoint his body with spices. And to say goodbye one last time. John makes a big deal of light and dark imagery, and we see that at the very beginning of John’s gospel, when he says “In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it”.
She was going to the tomb while it was still dark, and when she gets there she sees that the stone has been rolled aside – the tomb is open! What? Who? And she can see inside – NO! he’s gone! His body is gone! In a panic she runs back, to tell Peter and John. “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!”
Who’s they? Grave robbers? Roman centurions?
Peter and John run off to the tomb. Nobody runs in John’s gospel, until this day. Then they run. John gets to the tomb first but he doesn’t go in yet. But he can see what she had been talking about – the body is gone, but – the linen wrappings the body was in are still there. That doesn’t make sense; grave robbers wouldn’t’ve unwrapped the body before taking it.
Peter gets there a moment later, and instead of stopping rushes right into the tomb. He sees the grave clothes, and the cloth that was covering the head beside them. Almost as if the body had faded away and left them behind.
Then John enters the tomb. And he believed. Believed what? Her panicked report that someone had taken the body? No, in John’s gospel seeing and believing always refer to faith. John saw, and believed what the Lord had told them over and over – that he would rise from the dead. But, John doesn’t understand everything yet; he has faith that the Lord arose by seeing the empty tomb, but he doesn’t understand that the Scriptures said the Lord would rise again from the dead. His faith is as yet incomplete. But he will understand more later.
And then they leave. John goes home to tell the Lord’s mother what he’s seen, and Peter goes home too. But she doesn’t. She stays. She doesn’t believe, even though she’s seen the empty tomb. And she can’t help but weep because the one she had loved so much, who had done so much for her, is gone, and she now she can’t properly mourn. She weeps – but it’s not the quiet weeping we see in Canada; it’s the Middle Eastern wail, that pours out grief from the heart.
As she mourns she looks into the empty tomb, maybe, just maybe he’s still there. Maybe Peter and John missed him. But no, he’s not. But surprisingly, the tomb is no longer empty.
Two angels are there, clothed in bright white, sitting where the body was, one at the head and one at the feet. What does this mean? All four of the Gospels record the fact that angels were here, and their presence means one thing, that the remaining grave clothes hint at – it wasn’t grave robbers who took the body, or anyone else. This was a divine act. God was in this place.
The angels ask her “Woman, why are you crying?” And she tells them. “They have taken my Lord away and I don’t know where they have put him.” Never mind that these are literally angels talking to her, she’s so focused on what happened to his body that it doesn’t seem to register. She only has him on her mind in her grief, and her one desire is to have him back so she can finish the Jewish burial rites for him and have closure.
Before the angels can respond, she turns around. Maybe she heard a noise behind her, or maybe they pointed to something behind her. But she turns around, and sees a man behind her. Who is this? Who else would be among the graves so early in the morning. It must be a gardener. Maybe he knows where the body is?
“Woman,” he says, “why are you crying? Who is it you’re looking for?” Not what are you looking for. Who.
Instantly the angels are forgotten, they were no help to her anyway, apparently. “Sir,” she says to the gardener, “if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.” She doesn’t even say who she’s talking about – in her mourning she only has him on her mind, and she assumes everyone else would be thinking about him too.
He answers her one word. “Mary.”
And in that moment everything has changed. Her sorrow is forgotten and joy rushes in – He’s alive! He’s alive! You’re alive! The grave could not hold him! Everything he taught about God and about himself are vindicated.
And more than that, his relationship with his followers has changed in a substantial way too. This, this, his resurrection, is the defining moment of history.
He says her name and she recognizes him, just as he said “I call my sheep by name, and they hear my voice and listen to me” (cf. John 10).
She cries out “Rabboni” – “Teacher!” and runs to him, hugging him tightly so that she will never lose him again. He smiles, but tells her not to cling to him. “I haven’t returned to my father yet,” he says. Instead, he has a mission for her, the first missionary, a woman, Mary.
“Go and tell my brothers ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.'”
Everything has changed. He doesn’t mean his earthly siblings, he means his followers, like Peter and John. Before this they were his disciples, they were his servants, even his friends. But now, now they are his brothers. He says “tell them I am ascending to my father and your father, to my God and your God.” They are brothers and God is their Father – but he is still unique. It’s “my father and your father.”
Mary obeys, and goes to the disciples, telling them that she has seen the Lord – she’s the first to see the risen Lord – and gives them his message.
Later all the disciples, his brothers, will see him too, and more than that, 500 of his followers – both men and women – 500 of his brothers and sisters, will see him too, before he ascends to his Father. When they see him they will believe that he is the Son of God, and that he has risen from the dead. And he will tell them “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
And he commissions them the same way he commissioned Mary: Go, and tell. Make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you
And he ascends to His father, while they’re watching. He rises into the sky until they can’t see him anymore.
But now, everything has changed. Sin and death reign no more, and we ourselves will be raised in new physical bodies.
Before, while he was with them, his followers were cowardly and unsure of themselves. Now, they are bold, and they proclaim his teachings, and more importantly his death and resurrection, to the world – even to the point of being put to death for it.
The resurrection changes everything. His death was for our sins, but his resurrection makes us right with God (Rom. 4:25). The gates of heaven are open: this earthly life is not all there is, and God’s Kingdom is here.
He called Mary by name. And he calls us today, his sheep hear his voice, and know him. Have you heard his call? Have you encountered the good shepherd, who was dead but now is alive forever more? His name is Jesus, and he is the Lord. God has exalted him to the highest place, and given him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that he, Jesus Christ, is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
And “if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Rom. 10:9). Blessed are you who don’t see yet believe.
Everything has changed. The Kingdom of God is here and we are its people, brothers and sisters of the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, and like he told Mary, and like he told his disciples, he tells us to: Go, and tell. Tell of the good news of his resurrection – he who was dead is now alive forever more!
“Death has been swallowed up in victory. Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain” (1 Cor. 15:54-58).