There are two distinct parts, two distinct movements, two distinct encounters to this morning’s passage from John. I think those two encounters also have a great deal to say to the church on Easter Sunday as well.
In the first movement of this passage Mary Magdalene and then Mary, Peter, and John have an encounter with an empty tomb.
Mary goes to the tomb and discovers that there is no body. She runs back to where the eleven are, and reports to Peter and the Beloved Disciple this fact: “The tomb is empty;” more specifically she says, “They have taken the body of Jesus.”
Insult has been added to injury: we can’t even give Jesus a proper burial. Remember he was taken down from the cross and placed in the tomb before Sabbath began; Jesus’ followers have been in the house resting according to Torah, waiting until Sabbath ends to properly anoint his body and create the space for grieving. That’s why Mary is at the tomb early on the first day of the week, she is there to anoint his body; she is there to grieve. And as far as she knows, the body is now somewhere else. So she runs to the house where the rest of the followers are and tells them what she has seen. The tomb is open; the stone has been rolled away.
Then John tells of a dramatic footrace to the tomb, of Peter and the Beloved Disciple running together. I remember at command PT one day in Sasebo we were running sprints across the basketball court in the base gym. I was lined up next to one of my RPs, who was quite a few years younger than me, but I pushed hard to beat him across the court. I tried, really, I did, but he outpaced me by a yard or two—a big grin across his face as he went by. Peter, likewise, tries to run with the presumably younger disciple, but the Beloved Disciple beats him to it, winning the foot race.
At the tomb the beloved disciple looks in, sees the wrappings, but does not enter. Peter arrives shortly after and enters the tomb. I initially want to think that Peter goes into the tomb in his classic excessively enthusiastic style, speaking or acting without fully thinking it through. But then I imagine that, because he is on the heels of denying Jesus, that maybe his entry is more tentative, more tender. He sees the wrappings used to cover the body of Jesus. The beloved disciple then enters the tomb and together they see that the Body of Jesus is nowhere inside. Then John says, “They saw and believed.”
Let’s stop for a moment and consider what did he/they see and believe? There is no body: it has been taken/moved. This is what they believe. They believe that the tomb is empty; they believe Mary’s report. John makes a point of saying, “for as yet they did not understand the scripture…” They don’t yet believe, know, or understand that the empty tomb means Jesus is alive and that he has been raised; they don’t grasp yet that the grave cloths are cast aside because Jesus no longer has need of them, ever.
For them, in this moment, Jesus is like Moses; his body is in a place that no one knows. The tomb is empty. Happy Easter? And they go home, perhaps making up their minds to go back to life as they had known it.
And maybe there are a few people like this in the Church, maybe some here this morning. People who believe that there was an actual empty tomb on Easter morning, but they’ve walked away before meeting with the Risen One. They’re going back to life as they have known it, they believe in the forgiveness of sins, but they haven’t met the Resurrected Jesus. If it’s you, wait a while; Jesus is here. As one pastor said, “[for] centuries Christians have begun their journey of faith by running to the empty tomb.”*
They believed something, even if they didn’t know exactly what they believed: “there was something in the story that reached the deepest regions of their hearts and minds, where both doubt and faith are found. That is, in the resurrection God gave us such a miracle of love and forgiveness that it is worthy of faith, and thus open to doubt. The very doubts we may hold attest to the scale and power of what we proclaim. So the place to begin in the life of faith is not necessarily with those things we never doubt. Realities about which we hold no doubt may not be large enough to reveal God to us.”* Maybe the hope in our questions is that we are open to finding out more about what God can do, even if we’re not sure what that may be, even if that thing that God does is bigger than our ability to comprehend.
In the second major part of this passage we have Mary waiting alone and weeping. She’s been robbed of her chance at closure. She cannot complete the rituals of lamentation.
And whether it is because she can’t believe it, or maybe because she thinks that if she looks in the same place one more time he’ll be there, Mary looks back into the tomb. (You know, like when you lose something and you look in the same place over and over and over again?) That’s what Mary does. She looks into the tomb one more time. Maybe it was simply a way of saying good-bye.
As she looks in she sees two angels. Sitting there among the wrappings that once held Jesus’ dead body are two messengers there to attend to her in her grief.
Their question seems so obvious, but it’s an important question: “Why are you weeping?”
We’re taught to pay attention to the body language of people. To look for signs of distress, not so that we can refer them to professionals, but so that we can be present with them in whatever moment of pain they are experiencing. Aloneness in grief, makes grief that much harder to bear. We’re invited to become messengers of hope for others, just as these angels are for Mary.
“Why are you weeping?” They give her a place to name her pain and she takes it: “They’ve moved the body of Jesus and I don’t know where it is!” And she turns as if to gesture to them the barrenness of the tomb, the emptiness of the garden, the vastness of places where his body could have been taken, and there he is. There is Jesus. But to her he is just the gardener with the same question as the angels in the empty tomb; she is blind with grief as he asks, “Why are you weeping? Who are you looking for?”
It’s almost as if she can’t hear the second question or that to her it doesn’t matter—why would the gardener care who she is looking for? She gets right to the point.
“Where have you taken him?” she cries. “If you show me where he is, I will take him and tend to his body!” To Mary he is just a gardener, and she is so blinded by grief and pain she can’t see him…until he speaks her name: “Mary!”
I imagine like a parent comforting a child saying their name, rocking them back and forth, trying to get them to calm down. “Mary!”
And in hearing the Risen Christ speak her name, she knows him for who he is. And she falls to her feet in front of him. The Gospel’s author says that her utterance of “Rabbouni!” means teacher, but it’s slightly more personal than that, a familiar, intimate name for a beloved teacher; she doesn’t just say, “Rabbi,” but “MY Rabbi!” Because Jesus spoke her name, Mary could move from mourning to dancing, from weeping to joy. From believing in an empty tomb to knowing the Risen Lord.
This is why I said to wait a while. Jesus is here and he speaks our names: Daniel, Joey, Dianne, Angela… He speaks our names so that we will know him for who he is.
There are quite a few studies about newborns recognizing the voices of mothers based on learning their voice patters in utero; there’s not so much support with regards to paternal voice recognition (sorry Dads), but newborns and infants will respond to—turn to—recognize Mom’s voice and eventually Dad’s when they hear those voices frequently. It may not necessarily create stronger bonds, but our children know who we are.
Mary knows Jesus because he speaks her name. Jesus speaks her name because he knows she will recognize him and know that she belongs to him. And he speaks our names this morning so that we will know to whom we belong and so that with our words, with our actions, with our lives we will testify to his risenness.
So off Mary goes, once again, serving as the Apostle to the Apostles, the first witness of the Resurrection, to announce her encounter.
“I have seen the Lord,” Mary told the eleven. “I have seen the Lord…and it is so much better than the empty tomb.”
* Bartlett, David L.; Barbara Brown Bartlett (2010-10-12). Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide (Feasting on the Word: Year A volume) (Kindle Location 13550). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.