This Easter Message is in 3 parts, interspersed with verses of the hymn In the Garden, a poetic recounting of Mary’s encounter with Jesus on Easter morning.
Scripture from John 20:1-18
Preached by Pastor Tracey Leslie
Verse 1: Today as Christians, we associate Easter morning with joy. But the first Easter did not start out joyously. It started in darkness and with heavy painful emotions. It‘s understandable that Mary came to the tomb that morning to grieve. Passover had just ended. Exposure to a corpse made one unclean and being unclean prevented someone from participating in religious feasts or festivals. So, this was Mary’s first opportunity to visit Jesus’ grave.
Now, I imagine that, had Jesus not risen, she would have behaved as many of us do when we go to the grave of a loved one: we sit quietly, we weep, we may even talk to them. We know our loved one is dead and yet we still want to be in the place of their final rest. It helps us feel close to them. Our hearts are so heavy when we grieve. So that first Easter began with terrible, crushing grief and sadness. And when Mary discovers Jesus’ body is no longer in the tomb… well, that just adds insult to injury. Imagine how desperate and bereft she must have felt. And that is her emotional state when Jesus appears to her.
One bible scholar points out that, in John’s gospel, everyone to whom the risen Jesus appeared was in a negative state. Mary is crushed with grief. The disciples in the upper room are hiding behind locked doors because they’re terrified of the authorities. Thomas is riddled with doubt and cynicism. And the disciples fishing overnight are abject failures when they return to their former occupation. They’d thrown in their nets when Jesus called but now when they pick them back up… Well, it appears those three years in itinerant rabbinical school must have wrecked their casting arm. Grief, fear, doubt, failure: those are the contexts into which Jesus comes to make his risen, death-defying presence known to those who love him. Our hymn writer’s poetic image of dew on morning roses sounds absolutely lovely. But I could imagine Mary had a reddened nose and puffy, bloodshot eyes from crying herself to sleep the night before. The voice of God’s Son doesn’t just call out to the happy, courageous, confident and successful. Wherever you are on the emotional map this day, whatever the condition in which you find yourself, Jesus still wants to walk with you and talk with you and assure you that you are his own.
v. 2: There is just something about the way some people say our names, isn’t there. Names are so personal. They are one of the only things that we own through the entirety of our lives from the womb to the grave. In the 10th chapter of John’s gospel, Jesus names himself as the Good Shepherd and this is what he says: “The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep… the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out… and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger… because they do not know the voice of strangers.” Jesus is a Good Shepherd who calls his sheep by name and they recognize his voice. There have been times in my life when I have felt lonely and one of the things that help me when I am lonely, when I move to a new place and feel like I’m far from the people who know and love me, one of the things I do is hear in my mind the way those who love me say my name. There is something about the recollection of their voices saying my name that brings me enormous comfort.
But the speaking of our names does even more than that. It gives us a sense of belonging. Jesus says there will be one flock with one shepherd. When Jesus speaks our name he calls us into the fold; a place of security and comfort and belonging. He speaks and the sound of his voice is so sweet. Listen! Can you hear him, right here and now, speaking your name? He speaks your name and tells you, you are his own: a sheep of his fold, a lamb of his flock.
v. 3: Once Mary recognizes Jesus, I imagine she would have given anything for time to just freeze in that moment; for the opportunity to just stay there in the garden with Jesus, her teacher, her friend. But Jesus has a job for Mary to do. She is the one who is to go and give the disciples the good news that he is risen just as he said he would. Perhaps you have never before considered the fact that Mary was an enormously unlikely person for this assignment. She is a woman. In the first century Palestinian world, women were not permitted to give witness or testimony. Mary was living in a man’s world. Women were little more than property and incubators for a man’s progeny. Yet in all four gospels, women are the first to witness the resurrection. The church began with the eye-witness of a woman: “I have seen the Lord.” “Go and tell” is the mission Jesus entrusts to her.
I wonder where you have experienced the presence of Christ in your life and to whom have you given witness. Maybe you don’t feel like a very good candidate for the task. You might think that is a job better left to the religious professionals. But Mary was about as far from a religious professional as one could have been. Friends: where and to whom can you go and tell the good news that you have seen the Lord? It is wonderful if you sense God’s presence with you when you worship and pray… perhaps even when you are out in the beauty of nature. But Jesus didn’t allow Mary to linger in the garden, much as she may have wanted to stay. The news of his resurrection was just too important. It was her mission to go and tell the good news: I have seen the Lord! It is our mission, as well: to go and tell.
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