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Sermon: What Mary Magdalene Saw

Grace Presbyterian Church

April 21, 2019, Easter C

John 20:1-18

What Mary Magdalene Saw

At first, all she saw was a stone, displaced.

When Mary Magdalene arrived at the tomb, before sunrise, she saw nothing more. There’s no indication that she approached any closer to the tomb at all, much less looked in to see if there was in fact any body there. She saw the stone displaced and immediately leapt to a conclusion, the one she shared with Peter and the “beloved disciple”: “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” We don’t know who “we” is, either; as far as this gospel tells us Mary Magdalene went to the tomb alone. But the main point to notice here is: whatever she said, and however much sense that conclusion might have made, all Mary Magdalene saw was a stone, displaced.

Peter and the “disciple whom Jesus loved” run to the tomb. (Let’s clear this up now; in this gospel the “beloved disciple” is, because of a note in 21:24, associated with the author of this gospel, and as you can see this gospel is historically attributed to “John,” typically the one by that name among the twelve disciples. Without jumping into that history lesson, for the rest of this sermon the “beloved disciple” or “disciple whom Jesus loved” is going to be called John, because that’s a lot shorter.)

So Peter and John arrive at the tomb, John first; he stops at the door and peers in, while Peter – ever the impulsive one – blusters right on in. They both see the linen wrappings, which argued against Mary Magdalene’s assumption; grave robbers, or any speculative “they” of the time, were not likely to bother unwrapping the body before moving it – quite the opposite in fact. And then, they … go home.

Even as John (the “beloved disciple,” remember) is given credit for seeing and believing (although what he believed isn’t clear), whatever happened in their heads wasn’t enough to get them to stick around and investigate any further. They went in the tomb and looked, and then they left.

Mary Magdalene didn’t leave, and that will make all the difference.

She was weeping, but she was still there. So far as we know she has not yet looked into the tomb before verse 11 indicates that she does so, and when she does she sees something new: two angels, in white, at the head and foot of where Jesus had been placed in the tomb. This is, you’ll observe, the second thing she saw.

The angels have the nerve to ask why she is weeping, and her answer is very close to the report she first gave Peter and John. Probably getting much more frustrated by now, she turns away from the tomb and sees the third thing she has seen since arriving at the scene: a gardener.

Of course, we know what she doesn’t yet know; this is not the gardener. Whether it is some sort of odd unexpected thing about Jesus’s appearance throwing her off or simply the overwhelming distracting emotion and confusion of the moment, Magdalene can’t see Jesus for who he is. Again jumping to a conclusion, she assumes him to be the one charged with tending the garden that sits outside the tomb. For the person who ends up being called “the first evangelist” or “the apostle to the apostles” for the witness she will bear a few verses from now, she sure is off the mark a few times here.

“The gardener” speaks to her, asking who she is looking for, and this time she at least asks for the body. All of this only ends when Jesus calls her by name.

She finally sees Jesus when he calls her by name.

For all of this confusion and error, Mary Magdalene at long last does see Jesus, and receives a call of sorts from him, to go to his other disciples and tell them what she has seen, and that “I am ascending to my father and your Father, to my God and your God.” She does this, finally getting to announce what she has truly seen at long last: “I have seen the Lord.” It takes her a while, to be sure. But in the end she really does become that “first evangelist,” the “apostle to the apostles.” To that fearful bunch hidden away in a secret room, she gives the good news indeed – “I have seen the Lord.”

In the end there is only one thing that sets her apart from the other disciples, both Peter and John and those others who never do go to the tomb. Those disciples, so far as we know, would be completely clueless were it not for Mary Magdalene. Peter and John could have seen, but they left. They didn’t stay and keep looking.

Mary Magdalene kept looking. No matter how confused or emotional or distracted, she kept looking. And her continued looking was rewarded.

We certainly don’t live in a resurrection world. You only need to look at the news coming from Sri Lanka this morning to be reminded of that. It can be challenging, difficult, even seemingly hopeless to look for signs of the risen Christ in the death-fascinated world in which we live, and so hard to see any evidence of that risen Christ in the people around us. But if there is any Easter message in Mary Magdalene’s story, it is simply and emphatically this:

Keep looking. Don’t stop looking. Don’t ever stop looking.

For a risen Christ who shows up, Thanks be to God. Amen.


Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #232, Jesus Christ Is Risen Today; #254, That Easter Day With Joy Was Bright; #248, Christ Is Risen! Shout Hosanna!; #238, Thine Is the Glory



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