Sunday, March 27, 2016

The Worst becomes the Best - a sermon for Easter Sunday

Easter Sunday 2016

John 20:1-18

“As yet they did not know the Scripture; that the Messiah must rise again from the dead.”  John 20:9

Traditionally speaking, Mary Magdalene has gotten a bad rap.  The only thing we really know about Mary prior to her becoming one of Jesus’ most devoted disciples is that she had been cleansed of “seven demons” (Luke 8:2).  Prior to that, Luke’s text only speaks of “evil spirits and infirmities”. 

There is no specific mention of Mary having been a prostitute; but over time she has been so portrayed (and for reasons unknown beyond conspiracy theories).  The only thing many can figure is that because Mary was a woman, among those“seven demons” must surely have been one of prostitution.  This is the unfortunate result of our “reading between the lines” instead of allowing ourselves to be informed by the Scriptures themselves.  So when Mary is deemed a prostitute, she is also marginalized culturally and socially.

When we begin to talk about the significance of the Resurrection, however, that small title (true or not) becomes entirely insignificant – scandalous though it surely would have been.  It does seem to speak, however, of our strange need to assign to others a sin worse than our own – sort of like what we do with homosexuals today.  This way we can claim the Resurrection for ourselves and still leave those less-than-desirables out of the mix until they come around to our ways of doing and thinking. 

Isn’t it interesting, though, that the common factor in all the Resurrection accounts is that Mary is the first one to come to the tomb?  What this might suggest to us is that those who come to The Lord later in life, as opposed to those who grew up in the Church, may have a distinct spiritual advantage.  They may have experienced the worst.  They may have seen the worst and may have, most generally, been treated the worst.

Nowadays, it seems to be somewhat trendy to be an agnostic or even an atheist; a freethinker or a humanist – a designation of great pride for some.  And although we may be able to blame the presence of so much “progression” in our culture and in our colleges and universities, it may come closer to the truth that the Church has remained largely silent.  Maybe we’ve tried to be trendy ourselves, and those we propose to witness to can see that this culture and The Kingdom of Heaven are simply not compatible.  The Church cannot be “trendy” without compromising Her integrity.  Freethinkers know this.  They also know when they’re being played for fools.

Either way, the one who once knew degradation and marginalization all too well became the one who genuinely mourned the death of Jesus as opposed to the others who remained hidden out of fear now that the One who stirred everything up may have been a fraud – “As yet they did not know the Scripture …”; after all, how can the immortal Sonof God be destroyed by mortal hands?

Notice that even though the others came running to see after Mary reported the empty tomb, Mary remained at the tomb as the others left.  Maybe the others went away in confusion, but I think more likely they went away because it seemed clear at this point that the Romans or the religious authorities were not quite done with this “movement”.  It was not enough to kill the Leader of this “movement”, this self-proclaimed Messiah; now they took His body away!

Mary not only refused to leave; she even confronted, meekly perhaps, a Man she supposed to have been the gardener.  Even after seeing two angels, it is still not quite sinking in.  This passage often makes me wonder exactly what she was seeing – especially in coming face-to-face with Messiah, she does not recognize Him or the moment for all it is.

Think about this, though.  The “Teacher” suddenly becomes clear to Mary after this temporary “haze” during which she is probably filled with grief, maybe a little anger, and certainly a lot of confusion.  Through it all, however, she has refused to give up her search.  She is the manifestation of Jesus’ assurance that those who “seek will find”. 

But we should also be mindful of the encounters Jesus had with the religious authorities as He hung out with those “undesirables” who had been cast out, marginalized, or altogether ignored.  Tax collectors, prostitutes, sinners of all stripes found their way into Jesus’ heart by little more than a simple invitation: “Come, sit and eat.  Let’s talk for a while”. 

But this is also the breath of that very deceptive modern invention referred to – very often, incredibly arrogantly - as “spiritual but not religious”.  They might claim a “personal” relationship with Jesus or a “spiritual relationship with the universe”, but they generally keep “organized religion” at a safe distance.  The problem with these lofty claims is that these relationships they claim to be a part of rarely produce the “fruit” necessary to sustain any relationship, let alone invite others in.  It is entirely one-sided and takes nothing into account except one’s own personal gratification. 

When we think about the apostles themselves, then, especially on this Brand New Day which has dawned, who was the first to see?  It was Mary, of course, who came to see; but when she did not find what she was looking for, she committed herself to search.  She refused to allow “the world” and its encumbent distractions and potential threats to stand in the way of her search for “[her] Lord”.

Think of it.  The one who once had “seven demons” cast from her, the very worst of the worst in terms of being separated from The Lord, was the first to see the Risen Messiah.  The fullness of the Resurrection and the Glory of the Kingdom had been revealed to her!  Now we might be tempted to say that if the others had stuck around, surely Jesus would have revealed Himself just the same.

Maybe, but we cannot ignore what is written.  Only Mary stuck around.  AND YET when Jesus fully revealed Himself to her, He did not invite her to stick around for a “personal” encounter.  No, Mary was sent on an errand for The Lord.  She was in no way advised to keep it to herself nor is it suggested The Lord revealed Himself only for her sake or her personal sense of spiritual gratification.  She was not told to go back to her own life on her own terms.  NO, she became the Message itself!  She became, in that instant, an apostle to the apostles!  The others knew nothing … until Mary came back to tell them.  The Empty Tomb, it turns out, had no meaning to them, to any of them.

It’s too bad Mary has not been assigned a more prominent role in the historic Church, and it is a profound injustice that in spite of her intense fidelity in the face of possible danger, she stood her ground until she found her Lord, her Teacher.  Even before Jesus advised His Church to “go” and “tell the world”, He sent Mary to the Church … the apostles … to “tell” them the Good News!

So we know what happened on this Glorious Day so long ago … not because someone wrote about it but because someone refused to leave until our Lord’s Body was accounted for.  Not only the Body that was missing from the tomb, but the Body which would come about by the due diligence and the faith of the apostles … especially including Mary.

The Lord our God be praised, for He was once dead but is now alive … alive in the Father, alive in the Spirit, alive in His Body the Church.  The “worst” of Mary became the very best of Messiah!  Now go and tell it … for Christ has been raised, and death is no more!  Amen.

No comments: