Adapted from the Easter Sunday sermon at Old South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, in Hallowell, Maine. Scripture: John 20:1-18
Many years ago, when I was a young adult, I found myself, for reasons that I don’t remember, home for Easter weekend. Part of that weekend, of course, involved attending one of the Easter Sunday worship services at the church where I grew Massachusetts. The sanctuary was full of spring flowers and the choir loft full of singers. Easter was a big deal.
But, I’m sure I was a bit skeptical of what I would experience at that worship service. For various reasons, I wasn’t a big fan of the minister who was serving the church at that time.
And, on that particular Easter Sunday morning, he easily fulfilled all of my low expectations for him.
I remember it still.
In his Easter Sunday sermon, the pastor took the opportunity to deride the women who went to the tomb on that first Easter Sunday morning and those who seek to celebrate them. Sure, maybe some might be tempted to think it a big deal that the women went to the tomb. But, alas, all of those who seek to champion the women fail to acknowledge that the women went there for the wrong reason. They were there to care for the body, to clean and anoint it after death. They were not there in search of an empty tomb, to proclaim resurrection. So, no need to make any sort of big deal of them.
I probably don’t need to mention that I left that worship service seething with rage.
Now, for that sermon, that minister probably wasn’t using the Easter account found in the Gospel According to John, since John only mentions one woman. The story of the first Easter includes multiple women in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. One of those passages was probably the scripture for that day so many years ago.
Still, it’s a reminder of how easy it has been to belittle the role of women in the Church. Generation after generation, male clergy have found all sorts of ways to sideline women—beginning with one of the most important of the women: Mary of Magdala.
For the writer of the Gospel According to John, Mary Magdalene is a key figure. And, more than that, she is a sort of cornerstone figure for how we approach, appreciate, consider, and reflect on what that first Easter morning means, and should mean, to the followers of Jesus Christ.
It’s not solely an extravagant, crazy act of God, this resurrection, this remarkable victory over the grave. It’s even more than that. And, Mary Magdalene shows us the way.
Let’s be clear, the men, or one of the men, like Peter, could have been in Mary’s place. But, that’s not what happened. It is importantly, and purposefully, Mary, Mary Magdalene.
That she has been sidelined, belittled, denigrated, is a witness to the Unfaithfulness of the Church—the big “C” church, the Church universal.
So, what exactly does Mary have to teach us?
- To be a person of faith, to be a follower of Jesus, involves an openness to the unexpected.
- To be a person of faith, to be a follower of Jesus, involves attuning our ears to the presence of the Divine. We may indeed not always be able to understand what we see. We must also listen. It is in hearing her name that Mary recognizes Jesus.
- It’s also not simply about opening our ears, but appreciating that Jesus calls us by name, if we are open to hearing his voice.
- To be a person of faith, to be a follower of Jesus, involves grief and sadness. Faith does not offer a “get out of grief and heartbreak”’ card. Instead, Jesus offers himself as a presence with us in our grief. Through his own experience of some of the worst of what human life can be like, he walks with us with a deep and abiding kinship.
- To be a person of faith, to be a follower of Jesus, involves sharing the good news, inviting others to come and see, to come and hear, to come and know for themselves.
- To be a person of faith, to be a follower of Jesus, involves some thoughtfulness about the things that we cling to, the things that we hold fast as a sort of security blanket, as tokens of our relationship with God. What are the things that we cling to—as individuals and as a church—that actually get in the way of our relationship with Christ? What are the things that we reach for, that we hold onto, those things that feel and seem familiar and constant, yet in truth, are not what feeds our faith?
We should spend a few moments considering this last point, because it is so important to our life together as a community of faith.
Through Mary, we have the opportunity to understand that clutching onto the familiar, even those things that are deeply meaningful, can get in the way of our relationship with Christ.
Try to grasp this scene, to stand in Mary’s shoes. So confused at the empty tomb, there in the darkness before the dawn on that Sunday morning. Then, sharing that news with the men and discovering that, though the men also saw the empty tomb, and seemed to understand—or, more likely, asserted that they understood—they simply left and went home.
But, Mary couldn’t do that. She may have been confused, but she was also full of grief and heartbreak. Wouldn’t you be?
And, then crying by the tomb, she sees those otherworldly beings and engages in a bit of conversation with them about the missing body. And, then this gardener guy shows up, but when he speaks her name, she knows who it is and that it is indeed Jesus.
All she wants to do is to touch him. Wrap her arms around him. Assure herself that he is indeed right there in front of her and more than that, that she will experience the comfort of his presence by holding onto him.
Think about it: you visit, or perhaps just happen to run into, a friend who has experienced a terrible loss. What do you do? You probably grasp ahold, offer a caring touch, and a long, meaningful hug. There are no words to convey the grief at the reality of profound loss. So, a good, solid, long hug—much better than words.
Mary, I suspect, felt something similar. No words could adequately convey what she must have felt. What words could?
So, reach out to grasp, to hold, to feel, to touch.
Jesus tells her that she can’t. Whatever is going on with this resurrection business, it involves no holding at this stage of the game. Besides, she has a job to do. She is to be the first witness, the first evangelist, the Apostle to the apostles. She must go. She must tell.
I think there’s something in there that speaks to us, that calls to us. When it comes to faith, when it comes to relationship with Jesus, be careful about the things that you hold fast to. Be careful about what you cling to. Be careful about what feels sure, what feels like the most trusted thing that reminds you of God’s presence. That very thing may actually be getting in the way. That very thing may actually interfere with your—with our—relationship with the Divine.
On this Easter Sunday morning, take a moment to consider those things that feel most familiar in your faith— and in our communal faith—and then consider that they may be getting in the way of what truly matters in following Christ, who so often calls us to walk unexpected paths. Even to wondrous new life.