Easter Sunday, March 27, 2016

It started in the dark. John tells us it was the first day of the week and it was still dark outside, no hint of dawn at all. It was a darkness that covered everything—not just a physical darkness, but also an inability to see and understand the Jesus they followed, hidden by the dark, dark events of the last few days. 

In our Gospel story this morning Mary was facing an eternal, life-altering question for which she could not discern any answer at all.  The events she had witnessed had flung her life into utter chaos.  She was living grief beyond belief, questions far beyond any answers she could see . . . and in the darkness of that morning, all the questions were looming, with no answers anywhere to be seen.

What could Mary do but return, if only to pick up the pieces of her life and try, squinting through the darkness, to make some sense out of what was left? She wanted to start there, in the last place she’d seen Jesus, ground zero of whatever life she was going to have to rebuild, all the while desperately wishing for everything just to go back to the way it had been before.

After an exhausting week and the utter dreadfulness of what had happened, perhaps she’d finally collapsed out of exhaustion and then, a few hours later, while it was still dark, her mind started the questions all over again. Stretching her aching body and prying open her red, raw eyes, all she could think of was the memory of Friday—the horror of the cross and the urgent rush to prepare Jesus’ body before Sabbath began. She had to go back.  

And so she went to the tomb, early that morning in the dark.  Once she got there, though, she could see clearly that the foggy recollection of days just past were real memories, and that, in fact, the nightmare had just gotten worse. 

All the care and love the women had put into entombing Jesus’ body had been upset, the stone moved, the seal of the tomb broken, the grave clothes piled there and no body to be found at all.  John tells us Mary runs to tell the disciples—this was a serious turn of events, the looting of the grave—and Mary couldn’t stop crying.

She came back and stood at the open tomb, weeping and all alone, grieving the loss of a Savior and, even worse, the loss of everything she knew to be true about her life. Until two days ago she’d finally known who she was: Mary Magdalene, disciple of Jesus.  Now, in the darkness, she didn’t recognize herself, the one she’d become since she met Jesus . . . and she couldn’t see through the darkness to know who on earth she was supposed to be now.

And as she stood there, weeping, she met a stranger in the garden.  This man must be the gardener.  He looked at her with compassion—she was obviously distraught—and asked her why she was crying, how he could help her, if there was someone she had lost. 

“Yes!” she sobbed.  “If you have moved his body for some reason, please tell me where you have laid him and I will take his body and care for it.”

“Mary.”  Her name.  That was all he said, but then she knew.  She knew.  His voice pierced the foggy, befuddled chaos of her brain and she looked up in sudden recognition and said, “My teacher.”

In the moment when Jesus called her name her whole world shifted and she knew in an instant: nothing would ever be the same again. One moment she was in the throes of grief, surrounded by the darkness; the next moment she recognized Jesus, and the light began to dawn.

It’s a strange interaction, if you think about it.  I know Mary was tired and emotionally drained, but don’t you think she might have recognized Jesus?  But I do know the writer of John is introducing a powerful theological idea by telling us this story. 

When Jesus calls Mary by name, it is then that she is able to see and in that moment, when she encounters the risen Christ for the first time, everything changes. 

Her hopes suddenly rise—he’s here!  He’s alive!  Everything can get back to the way it used to be!  Only to plummet when Jesus says no, it’s time to let go, Mary.  Now that I’ve called you by name and you have witnessed the power of God, everything changes.  Now, this is YOUR story to tell.

In that moment Jesus asked her to change everything.  Which is nothing new, if you’ve been following how Jesus works.

There’s not one person Jesus encounters in the entire Gospel narrative who is not asked to change.  Lay down your nets; repay those you’ve stolen from; get up and walk . . . and for Mary it’s nothing different.  When Jesus calls her name, everything changes.

Oh, if only everything could stay the same: if God could just see fit to do things our way, everything would be so much simpler. But resurrection is definitely NOT about staying the same or having God do it our way.

Jesus continues to call us by name through his Spirit and invites us like Mary to go and tell. Because everything has changed, Christ is risen!