When Mary Magdalene Met Jesus

Sermon preached for Easter Sunday at Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church.

John 20:1-18

Early in the morning of the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb. She ran to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said, “They have taken the Lord from the tomb, and we don’t know where they’ve put him.” Peter and the other disciple left to go to the tomb. They were running together, but the other disciple ran faster than Peter and was the first to arrive at the tomb. Bending down to take a look, he saw the linen cloths lying there, but he didn’t go in. Following him, Simon Peter entered the tomb and saw the linen cloths lying there. He also saw the face cloth that had been on Jesus’ head. It wasn’t with the other clothes but was folded up in its own place. Then the other disciple, the one who arrived at the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed. They didn’t yet understand the scripture that Jesus must rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned to the place where they were staying.

Mary stood outside near the tomb, crying. As she cried, she bent down to look into the tomb. She saw two angels dressed in white, seated where the body of Jesus had been, one at the head and one at the foot. The angels asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?”

She replied, “They have taken away my Lord, and I don’t know where they’ve put him.” As soon as she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she didn’t know it was Jesus.

Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who are you looking for?”

Thinking he was the gardener, she replied, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him and I will get him.”

Jesus said to her, “Mary.”

She turned and said to him in Aramaic, “Rabbouni” (which means Teacher).

Jesus said to her, “Don’t hold on to me, for I haven’t yet gone up to my Father. Go to my brothers and sisters and tell them, ‘I’m going up to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”

Mary Magdalene left and announced to the disciples, “I’ve seen the Lord.” Then she told them what he said to her.


For the biggest event in human history, the resurrection was surprisingly understated.

We do our best to correct this cosmic oversight. All across the world today, Christians will be pulling out all the stops to celebrate Christ’s Resurrection. Brass quintets will play. Mass choirs will sing. Millions of lilies have been purchased. Families in brand-new Easter outfits will squish into polished pews. Easter will be loud and bright and shiny, as we seek to recapture even a smidgen of the glory of God’s great triumph.

Except that’s not how the first Easter was. There was no trumpet blast when Christ came out of the tomb. No angel chorus singing praises overhead. No crowd to cheer his return.

In fact—and this never fails to amaze me—nobody even saw the resurrection. We don’t actually get that scene, in any of our gospels. We don’t get that moment when “the body” became Jesus again. Whatever happened, however it happened, nobody noticed. The resurrection itself never got to be a part of human memory.

We only get to see what happens afterwards. Each gospel tells it a little differently. This morning we heard John’s account. John makes a point of letting us know it’s still dark out. Mary Magdalene has come to the tomb alone, to be care for Jesus even in death. It is a far cry from our Easter splendor, this lone woman standing in the dark, peering into the shadows, beginning to realize that the stone that covered her friend’s tomb has been rolled away. Something has gone wrong. That is where Easter begins: darkness, confusion, and fear.

Soon you can add chaos to the mix. Mary Magdalene runs—runs—to the other disciples. Simon Peter is one; John doesn’t give us the name of the other. They come running back, but even though the unnamed disciple is faster, he won’t go in the tomb; it’s Peter who does that, when he catches up, and sees not only the linen cloths Jesus’ body was wrapped in but also the cloth for his face, folded up separately. John says the unnamed disciple believed—but believed what? John also says they didn’t understand that Jesus would be raised, and that they left and went home.

It’s all so disjointed, as stories go, this running back and forth, and unnamed characters, and strange details that don’t seem to make sense. Nothing in this story so far sounds like a miracle. It sounds like a sideshow.

Mary Magdalene sticks around though. It isn’t that she suspects a miracle. Far from it. There are rational explanations for why an enemy of the state might be missing from his tomb. Plenty of folks who might want to ruin the dignity of a burial. There’s no leap of understanding, no sudden burst of hope. She’s simply faithful enough to Jesus’ memory to want to stay and figure out what’s happened.

In fact, it seems almost supernatural the way Mary Magdalene doesn’t see signs of the resurrection. She talks to angels in Jesus’ tomb without blinking an eye, and when Jesus himself shows up, she doesn’t recognize him. Perhaps it is simply still too dark out; perhaps her grief has made her confused; perhaps he looks different; we can offer perhapses all day long. But Mary Magdalene looks right at Jesus and thinks he’s the gardener.

So far, this is the story of Easter: a confused, exhausted, grief-stricken woman, trying to carry the weight of her loss alone.

But Jesus is there. She is not alone.

She doesn’t recognize him, but he recognizes her. And if I were writing up this scene, I’d expect him to say something like “it’s me, Jesus.” But he doesn’t. He doesn’t say his name. He says hers.


It’s then that she recognizes him. “Rabbouni,” she says. “Teacher.” Her teacher. The one who knows her inside and out. The one who knows her by name.

And again, I expect there to be a reunion scene, hugging and shrieking and what-not, I expect Mary Magdalene to ask how this can be possible, how Jesus can be standing in front of her when she watched him die just three days ago. But we don’t get that. It’s straight to business.

Jesus tells her, “You can’t stay here, holding onto me. It’s your job to tell the others what’s going on. You have a mission. Go.”

And she does. Mary Magdalene becomes the first to preach an Easter sermon: I have seen the Lord. This lone, exhausted, confused, grief-stricken woman becomes the bearer of the most important piece of news the world has ever heard.

In some parts of the ancient church, Mary Magdalene was known as the apostle to the apostles, the indispensible link between the risen Christ and those who would form his church. It must have taken a great deal of courage and strength, to turn so quickly from the miracle of the risen Christ to go do the work he asked her to do.

I love the lyrics of Chris Tomlin’s song I Will Rise, which Nikki sang for us so beautifully a few moments ago. I have a feeling that when Tomlin wrote it, he was thinking about our eternal life with Christ, and that is certainly part of the Easter miracle. But I have to admit I hear the song in Mary Magdalene’s voice:

I will rise
when he calls my name
no more sorrow
no more pain

Jesus called Mary’s name, called her to the work of sharing the good news, and she rose up and went to it. This could be her testimony:

Jesus has overcome
and the grave is overwhelmed
victory is won
he is risen from the dead.

Easter transformed Mary Magdalene. She came to the tomb in sorrow and fear, and left with courage and purpose. Had she not gone and told the good news, perhaps the whole resurrection would have slipped out of human memory. Perhaps we would have no Easter worship.

Mary Magdalene didn’t expect a miracle when she went to the graveyard that morning. Not her Jesus, and certainly not for her. But that’s exactly what she got. A miracle that has carried her name all over the world, and carried her story to our hearts today.

The miracle of Easter is that Christ’s resurrection is not only for him, but for each of us who encounter him. Christ calls each of us by name, has a purpose for each of us, asks each of us to rise, too.

Christ is asking us to be part of the Easter miracle. To proclaim hope and joy and renewed life to all those who live in fear and sorrow. To go and tell the good news that the lost are found and the last are first. To not only say “I have seen the Lord,” but to help others see the Lord through us.

It’s a tall order. And it’s only possible if we let Christ transform us, transform our lives. It’s only possible if we’re willing to stick around when we are exhausted, or grieving, or scared, or confused. It’s only possible if we’re willing to show up in the dark, and look for Christ there.

Friends, there is Easter work for us a-plenty. Death still holds sway in so many places; despair and disbelief have their teeth sunk deep in our collective human psyche. Our families, our communities, our schools, our workplaces, our country, our whole world needs to hear the good news that new life is possible. The world is in desperate need of Mary Magdalenes, of men and women brave enough to go when Christ calls their name.

But the thing is, most of this work won’t seem big. Most of it won’t seem glamorous. It won’t be accompanied by trumpets or cantatas or big speeches. Most of it will be small, quiet acts of faithful love and kindness. It may look strange and disjointed and confusing when we’re in the middle of it. Most of it will go as unnoticed as that moment of resurrection did. All we’ll be able to see is the aftermath. But one day we will see—in the light of a new dawn—that we have seen the risen Lord at work, and it has been glorious.

Easter is not just something God does for us. It’s something God does with us.

That’s the whole point of Jesus: Emmanuel, God with us, forever and always.

So that’s my question to you this day:

Will you listen for Jesus to call your name
and when he does
will you rise?

Will we rise?


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