I preached something akin to a sermon in my homiletics class last week. I’ve never wanted to preach and so the process of writing something to present was a challenge on numerous levels. What I came up with is more like a rambling meditation than a sermon, per se, but as a meditation I feel pretty decent about it. Because I’m a writer and not (yet?) a speaker, I thought I would like to share my meditation in a medium more suited to its form, and so I’m going to share it here. (Even as a written piece, it could use work, but that is for another day.)
I have many resistances to being a preacher which I will not explore here (fruitful therapy topics, however!), but the one resistance I could address in this, my first attempt, was my fear of having to say something I don’t really believe just to make a suitable sermon. I knew that if I was going to get myself to stand up and talk, the one thing that was absolutely imperative was that I believed what I was saying. I’m in a place of wandering right now and so to present anything else felt disingenuous. Thus, working from the place where I am, and inspired by Shelly Rambo’s** reading of the text, I wrote about the fleeting encounter that Mary Magdalene had with the risen Jesus.
I imagined I was speaking at a retreat, rather than in front of a church congregation, and I said something like this:
Today I’d like to invite you to just sit with me and spend some time listening to this text. As we slow down and put ourselves inside the story a bit, I hope that you will notice something you haven’t noticed before, or maybe become aware of a feeling you haven’t spent a lot of time noticing before. It has been said that in this gospel, the Gospel of John, that Jesus is “exegeting” God to the world. That is, Jesus is living out in a very specific way that way in which God is always turned toward the world. Throughout the gospel, then, the way that humans react to Jesus is a concrete picture of the way humans react to God in general. In a similar way, I invite you to think about the ways that you react to the text and imagine that it is a little snapshot of something that happens in your relationship to Jesus or God in general.
We’ll spend a little time just working through this story, paying attention to details, dwelling in the text. I’ll give you a few thoughts on some of the implications the text might have, which and I hope will be helpful, but primarily I invite you to be attentive to the ways in which this story speaks to you. It is my hope that, through the Holy Spirit, we might each find an encounter with the risen Jesus, no matter how fleeting it may be.
At the end of John 19 we left Jesus dead in the tomb, and John 20 picks up the narrative a couple of days later with the story of Mary Magdalene. Mary is one of the women who had followed Jesus and stood by his side during the crucifixion and this is the story of her first encounter with Jesus after his resurrection. The notes in my Bible say that a lot of the action in this text takes place in the present tense, which makes the story very vivid to the original readers. The writer of the gospel wants us to feel the intensity of the events as if they are just now happening. It is as if we are there.
It is so early in the morning when Mary shows up at Jesus’ tomb that it is still dark. We imagine that she approaches the tomb slowly, and in the faint light has a hard time understanding what she is seeing. Where she expects to see the stone in front of the tomb entrance she sees an opening. Instead of seeing Jesus’ body, she sees an empty space. She is shocked, terribly upset. She takes off running in the direction of Simon Peter and another disciple, and tells them breathlessly, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have put Him!” Peter and the beloved disciple take off running towards the tomb. Mary goes back in that direction as well, but by the time she arrives the disciples are gone.
When Mary gets back to the tomb she stands there weeping. This word seems to not just mean crying with a few tears, but makes us think more of a wail or a lament. A loud expression of grief. Mary is sobbing by the tomb. Not only has the teacher whom she loved been brutally executed, but now it seems he has been further desecrated by the theft of his body.
Weeping outside of the tomb opening, Mary does not go in, but bends over and peers inside. As she looks, Mary sees “two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been.” One sits where his head had rested and the other where his feet had laid. It has been posited that these angels mark the place of Jesus’ body as if to demonstrate that it has not been removed by robbers, but by the very act of God. If this is their message, however, they do not speak it plainly to Mary, but instead ask her a question pointed unflinchingly at her grief, “Woman, why are you crying?”
Can you imagine what it would be like to look into the scene of a grave robbery, knowing that the body of your dear friend has been taken, and be met by the sight of two angles who want to know why you grieve? I imagine being pretty startled by these figures dressed in white, sitting in a place that had been empty last time I looked. But, if Mary is startled, the text doesn’t show us. Instead, it is as if she doesn’t really see them. Not for who they are, at any rate. It is as if she is too wrapped up in her own grief and questions to really see. Instead, she repeats nearly the same words she has already said to Peter and the beloved disciple. “They have taken my Lord away,” she said, “and I don’t know where they have put him.”
At this moment Mary, perhaps sensing a presence behind her, turns around and sees Jesus standing there. For us, the readers of the story, this is the moment of the big reveal. We already know the story. Jesus is not dead, he is alive. And here is the moment when he first appears! We saw him dead in the tomb and now, here he is, standing, breathing, talking. Living.
But, this isn’t the big reveal for Mary. Mary looks at the risen body of her teacher and sees a stranger. The stranger repeats the words of the angels, “Woman, why are you crying?” And then, although she has yet to tell him that she is looking for anyone he asks, “Who is it you are looking for?”
Just as she didn’t really seem to see the angels, the text tells us explicitly that Mary doesn’t see Jesus for who he is. She thinks he is the gardener. She think he may know where to find Jesus’ body. In this moment it seems that all Mary can think about is finding Jesus’ body. She can’t see Jesus for who he is, and she doesn’t even really answer his question. Instead she responds with her one repeating thought. “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.”
I don’t know what your own experience of grief has been like. It is different for each of us, but when I see Mary in her grief, some things feel familiar. Maybe they feel familiar to you too. In my experience, there aren’t a lot of words during the process of grieving. There are feelings, or maybe no feelings at all, but there are few words that seem adequate. Maybe this is why when faced with grief and death we often resort to clichés. “She’s in a better place now.” “He’s singing with the angels.” “At least her suffering is over now.” These words don’t really help. But they are something to say. Or perhaps we find that a refrain repeats in our mind. “I can’t believe he’s gone.” “How do I go on after this?” “I just loved her so much.” Even though Jesus is dead, Mary expects that his body still remains. His lifeless body, perhaps, but still, it is him. If she can find his body, there is some part of him that she can still touch. The only thing she can think about is finding his body. We imagine the repeating refrain in her head, “Where is he? Where is he?”
Looking back at the tomb she says, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.”
Jesus doesn’t say, “No, no. You’ve got it all wrong. I’m not the gardener! It’s me, the one you are looking for.” Rather, Jesus looks at this weeping woman, blinded by her grief, and simply calls her by name.
In fact, in Greek this moment is even more striking. Up to this point in the story, the narrator has called Mary, “Maria.” This, it seems, is what she is known by among the disciples, in normal speech. But when Jesus addresses her he calls her another variation of her name. “Miriam,” he says. This is not the address of a stranger. This is Mary’s name on the lips of someone who sees her, who knows her, who calls her by name.
This, this is the moment when Mary finally sees. Suddenly, she is not talking to a gardener, but Jesus himself! We can almost imagine her face, a mixture of shock and joy as she quickly turns to him. “Rabboni!” she cries. “Teacher!” This not just as a title, but is also a word of personal address. This isn’t just the teacher of many, though he is that. This is her teacher, the one she has followed, the one she has loved.
This is a moment full of excitement and joy. Now the Mary knows what the reader has already known: Jesus is not dead, but alive. This is impossible, yet it is true. Surely, Jesus is no ordinary itinerant teacher. God has raised him from the dead.
And yet, even at this moment when Mary is closest to the risen Jesus, the reader is pushed back a step. The author, in quoting Mary, speaks a language once removed. Mary cries “Teacher” in Aramaic and this must be translated for the text’s original Greek readers. And we are even more removed. This intimate moment comes to us from Aramaic, through Greek, and finally into English. Our sense of disconnection is jolted further by Jesus’ next words. “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father.”
All Mary has done so far in our story is to look for Jesus’ body. Finally, she has found it. In fact, Jesus’ body has found her because he himself is alive in that very body. It does not seem surprising then that Mary’s immediate impulse might be to reach out to him. We do not know what action Mary has taken, or if she is only just about to take it. Perhaps she has reached out to embrace Jesus. Perhaps she has begun to fall at his feet in worship. Whatever she is doing, Jesus tells her not to hold on. While the synoptic gospels use this word “to touch, or to cling” frequently, usually with reference to Jesus’ healing touch, John only uses this word once. These words of Jesus’ are enigmatic. We don’t really know what Mary is doing and we don’t really get an explanation for why Jesus tells her not to hold on to him. We had this brief moment of connection, but already Jesus has put distance again between himself and Mary. As the readers, we too may feel a bit jolted.
I don’t know how it is for you, but this is the part of the story that catches me most off guard. “Don’t be touching me,” as one author has it. I am jolted. I feel taken aback, rejected, even. Is Jesus really rejecting Mary? The text doesn’t say that. In fact, as Jesus continues he is letting her in on the work that God is doing at that very moment. “I have not yet ascended to the Father,” Jesus says. He is still in the process of resurrection and ascension. God’s work is not yet completed but underway. Not only that, but Jesus then gives Mary a mission. She is to bring this message to the disciples. An apostle to the apostles. Mary, a woman, will be the bringer of good news to all the men who have been the inner circle all of this time. This is not to say that Jesus’ prohibition of touch it isn’t puzzling. It is. Commentators have all different sorts of ideas about what it might mean. So, this is a part of the story that catches a lot of people, but as I read I am challenged to ask why it catches me.
The story does not end here, however. Jesus continues. “Go,” he tells Mary, “go instead to my brothers and tell them, I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” And so she does. Mary goes. She tells the disciples that she has, after all of her searching and lament, seen the Lord! Mary, along with the brothers, has been included in the family of God. “My Father and your Father,” Jesus says. “My God and your God.” We don’t know how the disciples take the news. In other versions of the story they don’t really listen to Mary, but John doesn’t tell us in his version how they react. The narrative moves on to other appearances Jesus makes.
Several times, Jesus appears in the midst of various disciples, has a brief interaction with them, and then disappears again. Thomas might get to touch Jesus, to feel the wounds in his hands and feet, but no one gets to be with him long. This risen Jesus, the one ascending to the Father, is the same Jesus his disciples have known, and yet he is somehow different as well. Unpredictable. Performing miracles and breaking bread, kind of like before and yet with a mysterious twist. He is here then gone. He may be back, but he is leaving again. It must be bitter sweet, this meeting the risen Lord. Knowing God has done something miraculous and new. Hearing that God will be present in a new way from now on. But sill knowing too, that Jesus will be gone once again. No longer dead, but his body, no one will be able to find it.
I don’t know where you find yourself in this story. Do you relate to Mary’s blinding grief? Are you overcome by awe at Jesus resurrected form? Are you struck with fear or indignation at Jesus’ command not to touch? Do you feel a glimmer of hope that Jesus chose a woman to be the first bearer of the news of resurrection? Do you hear Jesus call your name, the name that tells you who you really are?
There is much to read, much to notice, and much to feel in this story. Mary is the first to witness to the resurrection of Jesus. She both see and tells. She sees, but she doesn’t see all that well. It’s dark, she’s weeping, she doesn’t recognize Jesus. She is seen by Jesus and so finally sees him. He gives her a word and is gone. She tells, but we don’t know how anyone reacted. She tells, but we have no evidence for what difference her words made. In some ways, this partial seeing and telling could be discouraging. This climactic resurrection moment isn’t the pure, unadulterated joy we might hope for. And yet, perhaps this is the most hopeful thing about this story. Perhaps we too can see, even though we can barely see. Perhaps we too can tell, even if our words hardly communicate. Perhaps we too may encounter our risen Lord. Through our tears, in our confusion, or in our great joy. Perhaps Jesus will call our names and we will meet him, even for a fleeting moment.
(**Shelly Rambo is a theologian we’re reading in my theology class. She’s pretty much all I’m talking about these days.)
 George Beasley-Murray, John.. Volume 36 of Word Biblical Commentary, (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1999),374.
 Shelly Rambo, Spirit and Trauma (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2010), 88.
 Harold Attridge,“’Don’t Be Touching Me’: Recent Feminist Scholarship on Mary Magdalene,” in A Feminist Companion to John, Volume II, ed. Amy-Jill Levine. (Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, 2003).
 See Beasely-Murry, O’Day, Attridge, Rambo.
O’Day, Gail R. “The Gospel of John.” In Luke, John. Volume IX of The New Interpreter’s Bible, Leander Keck, conv. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995.