John 20:1-18 The Rev. Helen Havlik Easter 2 April 28, 2019
Behold, I make all things new. We’ve heard that, but what does that actually mean to us? Maybe we can’t wait till something changes but maybe we also like things the way they are? Easter is about God doing something new that’s also eternal. And it begins in a garden. I’m reading from John’s version of the resurrection, Ch. 20, beginning with vs. 1. Listen with me to God’s holy word.
I’m waiting for the text message that tells me it’s time for a new smartphone. I’m coming up on two years with the one I have and I think at least two versions of it have come out since I bought it. And I can’t even say how many updates I’ve been offered for the many other electronic products I use. For some people this is exciting —new and improved mean something wonderful is being added to the app, right? I think Jessica, our secretary, was quite shocked when we switched out computers recently and I had been using Windows 2003—she insisted that we upgrade to at least Windows 10 and I’m not sure what I have now. I know it looks different. I don’t know if it’s improved or not. At least our office computers are now compatible!
Eternally new. When we look at the way our world continues to work, it seems like the old system is still hanging on despite what the Bible tells us about “new life in Christ.” Are people really any nicer? Do we treat each other better? Is there more honesty in the world? Have the values of peace, joy, kindness, etc. become more common in more people’s lives? Christian educator Tom Trinidad says, “Easter is the time when the church reminds itself that what God creates anew remains everlasting. Our resurrected Lord is the first concrete fruit of the ‘new heavens and earth.’” And we, the church, are given the task of proclaiming this new old understanding of God’s kingdom. We are to speak aloud the grace and forgiveness that Jesus’ life, death and resurrection testify to—and bring the promise of new life to those who believe.
Maybe no one shows us this new life better than Mary Magdalene. She didn’t just pop out of nowhere that first Easter morning, but had been a faithful follower of Jesus, maybe from the beginning in Galilee. Much misinformation has been shared over the years about this Mary—it helps to know what scripture actually says about her so we can understand the importance of that meeting in the garden. According to the Junia Project, we know only five things for sure about Mary Magdalene: that she was probably from Magdala, a fishing town on the Sea of Galilee, not far from Capernaum, where Jesus started his ministry and called Peter, Andrew, James and John; that, according to Luke, Ch. 8, Jesus healed her by “casting out seven demons,” whatever that means, likely some sort of mental illness; that Mary’s devotion to Jesus is deep—she and other women followed Jesus throughout Galilee and finally to Jerusalem, financially supporting him and the male disciples; and that she was a leader in the early church, called “Apostle to the Apostles” because she was the first person to see Jesus risen from the dead and to share the good news with the rest of his disciples. (“On Mary Magdalene: 5 Things You Should Know,” juniaproject.com, 11/21/14) The rest of what we’ve heard about Mary Magdalene—that she was a prostitute, that she was Jesus’ wife, for example, come from speculation.
What we do know is Mary M.’s presence is no afterthought in John’s version of the first Easter. By the time he writes his gospel, maybe 40 or more years later, the church is no longer a dream but a vibrant reality. John’s focus on Mary meeting Jesus that day reminds his readers of what can happen when God does something eternally new: Mary is healed, Mary follows Jesus, Mary finds Jesus alive in the garden—and life is never the same for her or anyone else who has met Jesus ever since. The details may be different but the outcome is the same. That first Easter morning it looks like the last words we’re going to hear are death, deception, fear, disbelief—but then the old gives way to the new.
As John tells about Mary at the tomb, it becomes clear that no meeting with Jesus is an accident. And anyone who meets Jesus has a role to play in the grander story of salvation. He knows their names. He knows all about them—who they are, what they need, what makes them tick. As Jesus and Mary Magdalene met that morning, distraught, full of despair, she had seen Jesus questioned, rejected, tortured, entombed. We don’t know how he said her name, his tone of voice might have been tender or firm, but that he said it speaks volumes. He didn’t say, hey you; he didn’t call her “woman”—he simply said “Mary” in a way she’d probably heard dozens of times before. And that was the point, the dozens of other times that represented their relationship as healer and healed, teacher and disciple, friend and friend. So when Jesus called Mary by name that day, it meant something about the relationship they had and it meant something about what their relationship would be in the future. When Jesus called Mary by name, it changed her life again. She was now his sister, with God in heaven their father. For Mary, for the other disciples, for anyone who hears Jesus call their name, the last word isn’t deception or fear or disbelief or despair. The last word is hope.
And so, according to Jim Wallis, that day Mary Magdalene became a midwife of hope as she brought the good news of the resurrection back to the disciples. We may hear the word “hope” and shrug it off—the rest of the disciples did. They thought she was telling an “idle tale.” Jesus was dead—and all their dreams died with him. What’s the point? We’ve heard it before, done it before, nothing changes, not really. But hope, Jim Wallis says, “is a choice, a decision, an action based upon faith. Hope is the very dynamic of history. Hope is the engine of change. Hope is the energy of transformation. Hope is the door from one reality to another…. Hope unbelieved is always considered nonsense. But hope believed is history in the process of being changed. The nonsense of the resurrection became the hope that shook the Roman Empire and established the Christian movement. The nonsense of slave songs in Egypt and Mississippi became the hope that let the oppressed go free. The nonsense of a bus boycott in Montgomery, Ala., became the hope that transformed a nation.” (Sojourners, 4/13/17) It’s hope believed that allows us to imagine ourselves transformed and forgiven and blessed by God—hope is an old word that’s always eternally new.
After Jesus healed her, Mary M. had reason to hope as she never had before. And as Jesus called her again to help bring that kind of hope into the world, so are we. We have good news to share: our sins have been forgiven, our lives have been made whole. Jesus is alive and we are his body. We have been called by name, he knows us, he knows our needs, he heals us and sends us out to speak an eternally new word to our broken world.