Easter Sunday is the most important day for Christians. Even more important than Christmas. This is the high point of the Christian calendar. The Christian faith stands or falls on the resurrection. If Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, there is no point to Christianity. This is our foundation.
The problem is that we have become overly familiar with the story. Jesus’s friends discover the empty tomb, Jesus gives them a bit of a surprise, everybody rejoices and the celebration begins. The truth is that Easter Sunday was a lot more messy than that. It was mix of grief and joy, of faith and doubt. The disciples were confused and Jesus had his work cut out to make things clear to them.
This morning we are going to look at Jesus’s appearance to Mary Magdalene. This is far more than just a happy ending to a bad weekend. We can find in this interaction between Jesus and Mary some practical principles that will help us in our own walk of faith.
The first thing that we need to know about Mary Magdalene is that she was not a prostitute. That is a later legend that is not found in the Bible. Magdalene is not her last name but a reference to her home of Magdala, to differentiate her from all the other Marys in the Gospels.
We do know that Mary was very close to Jesus, although she was not his wife despite the best efforts of conspiracy theorists. Seeing Jesus die on the cross was devastating for her. We are told that the twelve disciples fled but the women, including Mary, stayed there to the bitter end. Her heart was broken to see her close friend executed in a humiliating and painful way, not for doing something wrong but because of the jealousy of his rivals and the hears of the Romans.
Jesus died on the Friday and things were so hectic that not much could be done. Sabbath started Friday night and lasted all day Saturday and so no work could be done. On Sunday morning, so early it was still dark, Mary went to the tomb. She expected to see the sealed tomb, a stony reminder of her recent grief. Instead she saw that the stone had been moved from the entrance. Her first thought was not that Jesus had been raised but that Jesus had been the victim of grave robbers. They may even still be there. She called for Peter and another disciple who investigated the tomb to find it empty. The strange thing was that the strips of linen were still there. Why would someone unwrap the body before stealing it? It didn’t make sense. The two disciples went off to try and sort out what had happened.
Mary wasn’t ready to leave. It was bad enough that Jesus had been killed. Now his body had been stolen so that she couldn’t mourn him properly. Who could be so cruel? Still wrestling with what had happened, Mary took one last look inside the tomb. There she saw two men dressed in white. They were angels, although Mary probably didn’t know that at the time. Seeing her weeping, they inquired and Mary told them her frustration of Jesus being taken away. The angels offered no solution to the mystery, but someone else did.
Jesus stood there, asking her as well about her crying. Mary didn’t recognize Jesus. Was it because his resurrection body looked different? Was it because her vision was blurred from the weeping? Was it because she just didn’t expect to see Jesus alive?
Mary assumed he must be the gardener. Who else would it be? Perhaps he had taken away Jesus for some strange reason. Mary’s question seems filled with mental exhaustion. Just stop messing with her and tell her the truth. That is when Jesus calls her by name. “Mary!” At the sound of her name, her eyes were opened and she was filled with joy. Jesus was alive! The story begins with Mary going to the disciples for answers and ends with Mary going to them to provide answers. Mary Magdalene became the first witness of the risen Jesus.
Jesus the Gardener
I want to rewind for a moment to that point when Mary asks Jesus if he is the gardener. Was she right or was she wrong? The answer is yes. She was wrong in that she assumed Jesus was just the regular gardener that took care of the grounds where these tombs were. But she was also correct in the sense that Jesus was a gardener who cultivated faith.
We can see all of the steps of this spiritual growth. It starts with a time of grief and pain. Mary is feeling alone and forsaken. She encounters the angels but doesn’t get any answers. She sees Jesus but doesn’t recognize him. Jesus calls her by name and she recognizes him. There is joy and she witnesses to the resurrection. This is done as carefully as gardener who prunes and cuts to produce the most beautiful plant.
Mary’s story is not all that different from us. Many of us have dark times where there seems to be no hope. We probably don’t see angels but we see hints of God’s presence. Like the angels, they provide no answers but remind us God is around somewhere. We may even encounter Jesus without recognizing him. We are told in Mathew 25 and the parable of the sheep and the goats that the people met Jesus in the needy but they didn’t know it was him. Jesus is all around but we may be as ignorant as Mary was. And then there is the calling of our name. There is no mistaking Jesus when he calls our name. It breaks through all of the fog and confusion. It is not an audible voice and it sounds different for each person but it is real. You know it when it happens. And our response should be the same as Mary’s. She ran off to share what she had experienced. Evangelism is one of the scariest things for people. They are afraid to offend someone or to be seen as shoving religion down people’s throat. And yet when people discover a new diet or an exercise regime, they can’t wait to share it. Or if someone watches and amazing television show or movie, they share it with friends. But we have encountered someone who has risen from the dead. Isn’t that something worth sharing? Mary thought it was.
As Christians, we often talk about faith. But faith isn’t something that appears in an instant. Faith is something that is to be cultivated, to be cared for in the difficult times and to be worked on so that it can become stronger and stronger. Thankfully our faith is not a wild plant out in a field. We actually have gardener who cultivates and tends to our faith. His name is Jesus. Mary Magdalene was mistaken when she thought Jesus was the gardener but in another way she was absolutely correct. We can watch as Jesus tended to her faith and we can experience the gardener working on our faith as well.