Sermon Commentary for Sunday, April 9, 2023
John 20:1-18 Commentary
Perhaps you have heard, or even led, the same prayer as me before preaching: it’s something along the lines of, “Lord, give us eyes to see, ears to hear, hearts and minds to understand, and hands and feet willing to go and do what we hear from you in the Word today.” These petitions are found throughout Scripture and make for an impactful prayer of illumination, or, epiclesis, asking for the Holy Spirit’s presence and work.
It strikes me that such a prayer is the journey of discovery we see Mary Magdalene follow at the tomb. When she’s gone to the disciples and reported that Jesus’s body is missing, she comes back with Peter and the beloved disciple to what should have been Jesus’s resting place. Then, the disciples see what they see and decide to go back home. Mary, however, stays (verse 11).
Here her illumination journey begins, as she looks into the tomb through weeping eyes. And where the disciples saw nothing but the folded grave-clothes, Mary sees two angels. Have they always been there, but she’s just seeing them now, in her time of sorrow?
They speak to her, asking why she is weeping. Whereas the disciples, who we might give the benefit of the doubt that they are wrapped up in their own grief, walk away and leave her alone in her sorrow, the angels minister to her.
Mary continues to hear. First, she hears and responds to the angels’ question, then she seems to hear something behind her since she turns to see a man standing there, who she presumes to be the gardener. Similar to the angels, he asks her who she is looking for and why she is crying. And Mary answers like she did to the angels, but this time asks for his assistance.
Then, the real illumination happens, the power of the spoken word by the Word himself, as Jesus Christ, the resurrected Lord says her name. She hears, “Mary!” and all of a sudden, Mary understands who it is she is looking at. She has “found” the one she is looking for!
Found doesn’t quite seem like the right word, though, does it? She has simply persisted in being present, persisted in wanting to honour the body of the man she loved. She has stayed present in her grief and sought the Lord. It was the resurrected Jesus who made himself known to her, as he will do in all of the other post-Resurrection encounters.
Here the illumination comes through the personal and intimate saying of her name. At other times it will be in the breaking of bread, and still others through miraculous events. And yet, in each and every encounter, Jesus does not appear because of anything people have done or conjured, it is through Jesus’s gifting presence and the illuminating work of the Holy Spirit, helping them to understand who they are encountering.
Back to Mary and Jesus in the garden. She saw, she heard, she understood. Then, Jesus tells her to go and do for him; he wants her to go to the disciples and tell them that Jesus wants them to know that he is ascending to “his Father, their Father and God.” And how does Mary begin her message to the disciples? “I have seen the Lord.”
Because Peter and John went home, this is what they missed. They too saw, and in some way “believed,” but they settled for that being enough and went home. Mary, on the other hand, saw and was ministered to by the angels, she heard the voice of her shepherd, was made to understand, and she encountered the very presence of Jesus Christ. Then she went and did what Jesus told her to do.
This is the way of the Holy Spirit, who continues to make the Father and the Son known to us. In particular, this is what we believe is possible every time we come to the Word of God, and why we pray for eyes to see, ears to hear, hearts and minds to understand and bodies that will do what it is we hear God speak through the Scriptures. Christ’s resurrected body is surely ascended and seated at the right hand of the throne of God in heaven, but the same Spirit who raised him from the dead is active and at work in this world and in us!
We don’t have to settle with seeing the grave-clothes (see the Illustration Idea below)! We can hear God call us by name! We can know the very presence of the resurrected and resurrecting God-with-us! May we have the eyes to see, the ears to hear, the hearts and minds to understand, and hands and feet that will go and do as he wills; as Mary did.
I still don’t know what to make of the two male disciples. They find the tomb empty, and the ‘beloved disciple’ “believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned to their homes” (verses 8-10). So what was it that the disciple believed? Or is saying it this way an attempt to underscore that the beloved disciple could only have belief in the resurrection since he didn’t have the knowledge necessary to interpret the events?
English Puritan Thomas Goodwin (1600-80), Of the Object and Acts of Justifying Faith, wrote about the way this Easter encounter serves as a model of the immediate sense of God’s presence some of us Christians still have. Goodwin holds Mary up as an exemplary woman of faith and then tells his readers to not be like Peter and John, especially given what we read about how the disciples receive the women’s proclamation about the resurrection as “idle tales.”
Goodwin indicts Peter and John because they “think to live by a solid and rational faith, and content themselves with it, are apt to think any extraordinary assurance, or special manifestation of Christ, to be idle tales… they come… and see the grave-clothes of Christ, and rest in inferior discoveries of graces as signs in themselves which satisfy them, whereas these are but the grave-clothes of Christ, and severed from his person, afford but little hearty comfort; and they go again about their business… and think it a folly to look any further.”
In other words, Mary sought the person of Jesus Christ while Peter and John settled for knowledge based on grave-clothes. They too could have met Jesus in the garden that morning, but they settled for things adjacent to him rather than his person, resurrected Jesus himself. Maybe the disciples had their answer from the grave-clothes, maybe not. But one thing’s for sure: Mary sought the Lord himself, and he made sure she knew him.
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