Easter Sunday Sermon| Rev. Rolf D. Preus| April 8, 2007| St. John 20:11-18
“But Mary stood outside by the tomb weeping, and as she wept she stooped down and looked into the tomb. And she saw two angels in white sitting, one at the head and the other at the feet, where the body of Jesus had lain. Then they said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping?’ She said to them, ‘Because they have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid Him.’ Now when she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, and did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?’ She, supposing Him to be the gardener, said to Him, ‘Sir, if You have carried Him away, tell me where You have laid Him, and I will take Him away.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Mary!’ She turned and said to Him, ‘Rabboni!’ (which is to say, Teacher). Jesus said to her, ‘Do not cling to Me, for I have not yet ascended to My Father; but go to My brethren and say to them, “I am ascending to My Father and your Father, and to My God and your God.’’ Mary Magdalene came and told the disciples that she had seen the Lord, and that He had spoken these things to her.” (St. John 20:11-18)
Peter and John were willing to leave, but Mary Magdalene was not. She could not leave. Her grief was too great. It was a grief grounded in a deep devotion to the Man who had shown her mercy when she was suffering. Jesus had delivered her from demon possession, and she had been His devoted disciple ever since, helping to provide for His material needs. Church tradition identifies Mary Magdalene with the sinful woman who washed Jesus feet with her tears and dried them with her hair, but the Bible doesn’t actually say this. Still, Mary Magdalene knew Jesus as her merciful Lord. She had seen His power over evil in her own life as He drove out the demons that tormented her. She had witnessed many of His miraculous acts of mercy in service to others. Most of all, she had listened to Jesus teach the gospel.
Jesus was happy to teach women. He did not regard them as inferior to men, as the other rabbis did. It is true that Jesus chose only men and still chooses only men to be preachers, but what Jesus gives His preachers to preach He gives to all of his disciples to take to heart. Jesus does not regard theology as the playground for preachers, but as the daily bread of men, women, and children. Jesus is the teacher and all of His disciples are His students. But He is more than a teacher and His disciples are more than students. He is the Word become flesh. He is the revelation of the Father’s glory. It was as His student who was learning His heavenly doctrine that Mary’s love for Jesus grew. She saw in Jesus the love of God the Father. When she heard Jesus talk, she knew God was talking. Jesus spoke with the authority that belonged to God alone. The Word made flesh spoke words that were spirit and life.
And now He was dead.
The tomb is empty and yet she keeps looking into it in search of a dead body. She won’t leave until she finds the dead body. She insists. She begs. She pleads. What impotent grief! Grief is helpless, isn’t it? Maybe that’s why it hurts so much. It hurts to be utterly helpless when facing sorrow. You cling on to the most foolish things. Did she really want to see a dead Lord Jesus? But she asks for a dead Lord Jesus.
The angels ask, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She replies, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid Him.” And then a remarkable thing happens. Before the angels can respond to Mary, she turns and sees Jesus. She doesn’t recognize Him. He asks her the same question, “Woman, why are you weeping?” Then He adds another question: “Whom are you seeking?” She cannot even say. Who else could she be seeking, but Jesus? She says to Jesus, thinking He’s the gardener, “Sir, if You have carried Him away, tell me where You have laid Him, and I will take Him away.” Take Him where? What good is a Lord who is dead? But she is blinded by her grief.
Mary addresses Jesus thinking He is only a gardener. She doesn’t know who He is. She doesn’t know until He calls her by her name: “Mary!” In hearing her name, she recognized Jesus. In hearing Jesus say her name, she saw Him risen from the dead. He was risen before she could see Him risen. No body had been carried away. Jesus had raised Himself from death as He said He would, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.” (John 2:19) She was looking at life but all she could see was death because that’s what she was looking for. All she could see or know or believe was death until she heard her Lord Jesus call her by her name.
And so it is with all of us. As Jesus describes Himself as the Good Shepherd He says “he calls his own sheep by name.” He says, “The sheep follow him, for they know his voice.” (St. John 10:2-5) He calls us by name and we know His voice. He is risen, but it means nothing to us until we hear Him call us by name. The entire life of the Christian can be encapsulated in hearing Jesus call us by name. When Jesus calls us by name He establishes a relationship with us that death cannot destroy. He elicits faith in our hearts. He raises us out of death into life.
“Rolf David Preus, I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.” That’s when I was born again. That’s when the Word made flesh spoke the word by which my sinful flesh was crucified and I was raised to eternal life. Jesus, my Good Shepherd, my teacher, my rabbi, my master, my Lord, my Savior spoke my name and in so speaking He claimed my heart and He made me His own.
Mary wanted to cling to Jesus. She wanted to hold on to Him for dear life. She didn’t want to lose Him again. She would not lose Him. But she would not be able to hold on to Jesus with her own hands. Jesus would be ascending into heaven to fill all things and to be present with His church here on earth. This is why Jesus told her to tell His brothers, the disciples whom He would soon send out as the first preachers, these words: “I am ascending to My Father and your Father, and to My God and your God.”
God is Jesus’ Father by nature. God is our Father by adoption. Jesus shares the nature of His Father from eternity. We become children of God by God’s grace in Holy Baptism. Jesus is the eternal Word become flesh. We are flesh, born of the flesh, born into death until the Word become flesh joins Himself to us and so joins us in holy fellowship with the Father. This He does by the holy washing in which the Holy Spirit gives us the new birth to eternal life.
Mary wanted to hold on to Jesus. She did. Jesus did not ascend into heaven without first giving to His church here below the gospel and the sacraments through which He would remain with His church until the end of time. Mary was to hold on to Jesus in her baptism. She was to hold on to Jesus’ words to her in the preaching of the gospel. She was to eat and drink Christ’s body and blood in the Lord’s Supper and by clinging to these precious means of salvation, she would continue to be in fellowship with her Lord Jesus for the rest of her life.
Easter is a wonderful holiday. It is the celebration of an event in which deep sorrow is replaced by great joy. The resurrection of Jesus from the dead is an historical event. Just as surely as Jesus died, He also rose. The tomb was empty. The dead body was not carried away. Jesus rose from the dead with the same body that was nailed to the cross. The same Jesus who suffered for our sins on Good Friday rose from the dead on Easter Sunday. The sins that we committed were laid upon Him and He suffered for them as if He were guilty of them. He became the sin-bearer. He endured God’s anger against sin. He drank to the dregs the cup of God’s vengeance. He, who lived in a pure fellowship of holy love with the Father from eternity, was forsaken in His bitter suffering as God’s justice against all evil doers was accomplished. All the evil done against us was washed away. All the evil we have done against others was washed away. Our sins against God whereby we denied Him, despised Him, defied Him and betrayed Him were all washed away by His blood.
The proof of all this is that He rose again even as the Bible said He would. He rose from the dead free from the sins He bore. He rose from the dead with eternal life to give.
And how we need Him! We have nothing of value without Him. He is the One who drives every evil demon far away from us by giving us forgiveness of all our sins and by silencing that father of lies who would persuade us that this is not so. He is the One who guarantees us life when we look upon Christian loved ones whose bodies lie in the coffin prepared for burial. He is the One who gives us hope when we are afraid to die because we don’t want to face God. He tells us that His eternal Father who loves Him and gives Him the name that is above every name is now our Father who will never turn against His children.
He does all this simply by saying our name. And He does more. He creates a new heart within. He purges the old leaven of malice and wickedness from our hearts and replaces it with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth. When our name is bound to the name of Him who is exalted up on high, we are exalted with Him. Heaven becomes our home. Truth becomes our native language. Hatred and bitterness are buried in the grave where Jesus lay. We live a new life. We do not anticipate death. We anticipate living in righteousness and blessedness forever.
Mary’s heart soared when she heard Jesus speak her name! No matter what pain she had to face after that moment in her life, it would always be tempered by hearing Jesus call her by name, showing Himself to be alive, ready, able, and willing to give her everlasting life. And so it is for us. We as Christ’s church gather Sunday after Sunday here in this place where we hear Jesus call us by name. Every time we gather together in Jesus’ name He renews us in our baptism and joins us to Himself. He covers up our sins and shameful failures with the robe of His righteousness, rendering us worthy to stand before His Father as dear children. The Word of Life speaks His words of life to us. All our sadness vanishes and our hearts are filled with joy.