Sermon, Easter Day

(With the children in the congregation) Let’s open our wooden tomb…  Where is Jesus?…. (Wait for them to find the resurrected Christ figure)  Where else is he? He’s in US. WE are the resurrected Christ. Jesus is alive in the world today because Jesus is in us, and WE are alive in the world today! It’s pretty amazing, isn’t it?…Do you know who else thought it was amazing? Tiberius Caesar, the Emperor of Rome. He was the ruler of the whole wide world,  back in Jesus’ time. And he heard the story about how Jesus rose from the dead from a woman named Mary – Mary Magdalene.

Mary Magdalene had been a friend and follower of Jesus. She came from a wealthy and important family, so after Jesus was killed by his enemies and then rose from the dead, she went to Rome, to complain to the Emperor, Tiberius Caesar, that the Roman governor in Judea, Pontius Pilate, had allowed himself to be tricked into executing Jesus,who was innocent and good. Now, because the Emperor was so important, everyone who came before him was supposed to bring a gift. Mary Magdalene brought – an egg. Not a very fancy gift, is it?

She told the Emperor all about Jesus, the amazing things he did and said, and that even death couldn’t stop him.The Emperor listened, but he listened with this kind of look on his face…and then he said, A dead person can’t come back to life! That’s impossible! Just like it’s impossible for that white egg in your hand to turn red!….

And then, do you know what happened? The egg in her hand TURNED RED. We use all different colored eggs at Easter, but Orthodox Christians use red eggs, to remember Mary speaking the Gospel to the Emperor, and the holy sign that was given to her. Here are some eggs for you to color! Use markers or crayons or colored pencils or stickers. (Send kids back to their places) 

What do we know about Mary Magdalene? Less than we think, perhaps. There’s been a long tradition in Christianity of glomming all the women in the Gospels together, so that Mary Magdalene is ALSO Mary the sister of Lazarus and ALSO the woman who was forgiven her sinful life, and so on. In fact, Jesus probably just had a lot of women followers and friends, just like he had a lot of men followers and friends. And Mary was a common name, so there were quite a few Marys, including his mother. That’s why the Gospels call this particular person Mary Magdalene – to set her apart, like your first grade class might have had Jason D. and Jason R. Magdalene was probably a place name, meaning that she was the Mary who came from the city of Magdala – though it’s also possible that the name means that she was a hairdresser by profession!

Here’s what we do know. She was part of a group of women who traveled with Jesus, just like the (male) disciples, though they are barely mentioned until the Crucifixion. Here’s the Gospel of Mark, chapter 15: “There were also women looking on from a distance [as Jesus was crucified]; among them were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger…, and Salome. These [women] used to follow him and provided for him when he was in Galilee; and there were many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem.”

The fact that Mary and the other women are named as providing for Jesus may mean that she was wealthy, as the later story about her visit to Caesar assumes. Or she may have just been stubborn enough to leave home and family and follow Jesus, and resourceful enough to help make sure he and his group of friends always had somewhere to sleep and something to eat.

So, Magdalene is one of this group of faithful female followers of Jesus. But she stands out even among that group. ALL FOUR GOSPELS name Mary Magdalene as one of the first witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection. Now, our four Gospels – the four books of the Biblethat tell the story of Jesus’ life, ministry, death, and resurrection – they agree in the general shape of the story, and they complement each other in many ways.They agree on the big stuff, the central truth they’re telling. But they differ on details a lot. So it’s actually really something that they all agree on this detail: that Mary Magdalene was one of the first to discover that Jesus had risen from the dead.

John’s Gospel, the Gospel we heard a few moments ago,tells of that discovery so beautifully. Jesus’ body was buried in a hurry, before the Sabbath,when it was not acceptable to touch dead bodies. So it hadn’t been washed and anointed and cared for in all the ways that those who love him would have wanted. So as soon as the Sabbath is over, early in the morning, Mary goes to the tomb where Jesus was buried. In the other Gospels she’s with several other women; in John’s account she’s alone.

She finds that the great stone that covered the opening to the tomb has been removed – and she immediately assumes that Jesus’ body has been taken by his enemies. She runs to find the Simon Peter and John, leaders among the disciples, and they all run back to the tomb together. They look inside and see that the linen cloths are still there,the ones that were used to wrap Jesus’ body, but Jesus himself is gone.They’re not sure what to think – verses 8 and 9 say that they believed, but did not yet understand. Then Peter and John go home. Nothing else to see here.

But Mary stays. She stands weeping outside the tomb. And she looks into the tomb once more, the way you do, the way you confirm terrible or amazing news one more time. And this time there are angels there, who ask why she is weeping. She tells them what she told Peter and John: “They have taken away my Lord,and I do not know where they have laid him.” Hear her longing and grief – she had wanted to embrace her friend and teacher once more, to clean and anoint and care for his body, to honor him in death as she did in life. She turns away from the tomb, blinded by tears, and there’s someone standing nearby, maybe a gardener, and she asks her desperate question, “Sir, please, if you have taken him somewhere, tell me where,” and he says her name – Mary! – and she recognizes the voice and cries out Rabboni! My teacher!

John doesn’t tell us what she does in that moment but I imagine a desperate, fierce embrace,the way you hug a loved one lost and found. And I think I must be right about that because the next thing Jesus says is, Don’t cling to me, Mary. I still have to leave you. I can’t stay. I must go to be with my Father in Heaven. But tell the others what you have seen and heard. And Mary Magdalene went and told the disciples, I have seen the Lord!

Listen. Christianity was born in a patriarchal culture, in which men made the decisions, owned the property, ran the world. Christianity has matured and diversified and spread around the world as a patriarchal culture among patriarchal cultures. Many Christian churches still don’t admit women to leadership. Many Christian churches that do admit women to leadership are still burdened and blinded by structural sexism that means that few women are actually invited onto the higher rungs of the ladder. Far too often, and for far too long, in institutional Christianity, we have followed the script of the Gospel of Mark: telling and living a story that centers on men, and then, four-fifths of the way along, suddenly remembering to mention, Oh, there are some women here too. They’ve actually been here all along.They’ve actually made the whole thing possible.

But. This story, of Mary Magdalene, whom Eastern Christians call the Apostle to the Apostles for her role as first witness to the Resurrection – This story of Mary Magdaleneis not feminist fan-fiction. It’s not something somebody wrote last year to correct the lack of women in the Gospels. It’s in the Gospels. All four of them. Which I think allows us to say two things: One, it’s true. She really was the first to receive the good news of Easterand tell it to others. That fact was so well-known among early Christians that all four Gospel writers acknowledge it. And two, these guys, these four men, Mark, Matthew, Luke, John, formed as they were by the male-dominated cultures of Judaism and Rome, these four men were also formed by their faith in Jesus Christ in a way that led them to write Mary into the story where she belongs.

That’s the thing about Christianity. For all its flaws, its crimes, its failures. At its best, at its heart, what it’s all about is people gathering to help each other and ourselves to follow Jesus. Jesus who carried forward the vision of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and the other prophets of God who went before him,in holding the social and political order accountable to God’s vision of justice and mercy.  Jesus whose words and actions taught his followers to look beyond the rules of respectable morality and social status and view each person as a beloved child of God. Jesus who called and sent forth a people to live and proclaim a Gospel of love that transcends the labels that divide us – We are no longer Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free, for we are all one in Christ Jesus.

At its best, at its heart, our Christian faith equips and empowers us to reflect critically on our world, our culture, in the light of God’s vision of justice and mercy. Ours is a way of faith that always contains the seeds of its own renewal, and of the renewal of the society around us. Ours is a way of faith that casts a vision so radical that there is ALWAYS farther for us to go, in living into it. A Way that stands against our human tendency to stigmatize and exclude, and tells us we are not whole until we learn to welcome, hear, and love the stranger and outsider. A Way that stands against our human tendency to laud the rich and powerful, and calls us to honor the poor and the marginalized, and to strive for a more just and sustaining common life. A Way that stands against our human tendency to value each other differently on the basis of race, gender, age, and more, and gives us a Gospel in which – against the grain of their culture, and, still, against the grain of ours – women and children and foreigners and disabled people and criminals are treated with respect and compassion, as if they were fully worthy of understanding and love…!

No wonder Mary wept at his tomb, thinking him dead. To hear that voice silenced, to see that vision crushed. To believe that it was over. No wonder she wept. And no wonder she cried even harder when she heard his voice, saw his beloved face, and knew that not only was it not over, it was only just beginning.

That’s what matters about the Resurrection. About Jesus’ rising from the dead, the joyful mystery we celebrate today. What matters about the Resurrection is that it validates everything Jesus did and said to teach everyone who would listen about the heart of God and the worth of humanity. The meaning of Easter isn’t, Hey, some guy was dead and came back to life! He must be God! Let’s worship him and have a party! As our Presiding Bishop said in his Easter message, This is not a fairy tale.

The meaning of Easter is that the guy who said all THAT stuff, about justice and kindness and redemption and God’s fierce relentless love for each and all of us, THAT guy came back to life. THAT guy is God with us. His message, his inexhaustibly radical message of a world turned upside down by God’s love and God’s priorities, his message is ratified by the empty tomb.

Take heart, Mary. Take heart, children. Love wins. Alleluia!