READ : John 20:1, 11-18
How do you know Jesus is really alive? You can recognize his voice when he calls your name.
Do you have any great ambition in life, some goal that drives you forward and keeps you
striving to achieve it? For many that ambition would be making money. For others it’s
athletic success, or political power, or personal importance. Still others devote their
time, money, and energy to maintaining their health, or enhancing their appearance. The
apostle Paul had a rather unusual ambition, or at least one that would seem odd to most
people today. He described it this way in one of his letters:
that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings,
becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection
from the dead.
Paul’s one great ambition has everything to do with Christ. His one goal is to know
Christ and the power of his resurrection, and one day — after sharing in the
suffering that Christ himself experienced — Paul wants to experience as well the same
kind of resurrection Jesus did.
A Relationship with the Living Lord
Just like the apostle, what you and I most need today, whether we know it or not, is to
know Christ and the power of his resurrection. We need the consciousness of his living
presence among us and within us. Authentic Christianity is not just a set of beliefs about
Jesus; it’s a relationship with the risen Lord. Beliefs are important, but not without the
relationship. One of the best places in the New Testament to discover what that kind of
relationship is like is in the gospel stories about the risen Lord Jesus, the accounts of
the post-resurrection appearances of Christ to his disciples. The fullest and most
complete description of those is found in the last two chapters of the Gospel of John, and
the first of his followers to whom the risen Lord appeared was a woman, Mary Magdalene.
Here’s her story:
Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early, while it was
still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb. . . .
But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb . . . . then she turned around and saw Jesus
standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you
weeping? Whom are you seeking?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she 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 in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means
Teacher). Jesus said to her, “Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the
Father; but go to my brothers and say to them, `I am ascending to my Father and your
Father, to my God and your God.'” Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I
have seen the Lord.”
John 20:1, 11-18
All four Gospels report that several women, Mary Magdalene most prominent among them,
stood by Jesus’ cross until he died, watched as he was buried, and went back to his tomb
early on Easter morning to finish anointing his body for the grave. When we think of
Jesus’ disciples we tend to focus on the men, don’t we, the famous twelve, but the
devotion and courage of these women disciples is more remarkable still. After all, it
wasn’t a woman who betrayed Jesus for 30 pieces of silver, or a woman who denied knowing
him three times; it wasn’t the women who all forsook him and fled when he was arrested.
Those things were all done by men.
Mary Magdalene above all the others was faithful to the end. She was the last to
leave Jesus on Friday afternoon and the first to return to him on Sunday morning, and
because of her loyalty, and even more, because of her love, Mary was the very first person
to see and talk to the risen Lord on Easter day.
Recognition and Reunion
What can we learn about our relationship if we’re believers with Christ from Mary’s
encounter with him? The first and most important lesson Mary can teach us is that, for
those who truly know him, Christ is the love of our lives. The bond between believers and
the Lord is the most personal and intimate of all relationships. Everything about Mary
testifies to her deep love for Christ. Look at her commitment to him, an attachment so
strong that when Jesus is taken by death, Mary refuses to abandon his body. “Sir,” she
says to Jesus rather ironically as it turns out, because she doesn’t recognize him through
her tears, “if you have carried him away, just tell me where you have laid him. I’ll take
care of him again.” Her words call to mind the cry of the beloved in Solomon’s Song:
I sought him whom my soul loves; I sought him, but found him not. I will rise now and
go about the city, in the streets and in the squares; I will seek him whom my soul
Song of Solomon 3:1-2
Now this is not romantic love. In our day novelists have absurdly speculated about Mary
Magdalene and Jesus’ relationship. But Mary calls Jesus her Lord, not her husband. She
addresses him as “Teacher, Master,” not as lover. But it is real love nonetheless, and
it’s a devotion that outshines all merely human attachments. There’s a striking little
post-script that the apostle Paul appended to his letter to the Corinthians, writing in
his own hand. He says this: “If anyone has no love for the Lord, let him be accursed” (1
Cor. 16:22). Now that’s a very sobering remark. But I also find it encouraging if I switch
it around because those who do love the Lord Jesus are blessed, blessed beyond all
measure. To a new generation of Christians the apostle Peter wrote,
Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you
believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory.
1 Peter 1:8
Here’s a second thing we can learn from Mary: our love for Christ springs from a
consciousness of how much we owe him. During the middle ages Mary Magdalene was one of the
most popular saints. Both Oxford and Cambridge Universities have a college named for her.
Mary was identified in the popular mind with the unnamed woman whose encounter with Jesus
is described in the seventh chapter of the Gospel of Luke. This woman is described as “a
sinner” (probably a prostitute) who approached Jesus at a dinner and washed his feet with
her tears, then wiped them with her hair. So Mary became a symbol of the ultimate
penitent. In Medieval art she’s depicted with long hair and weeping eyes. And even her
name pronounced Maudlin became a synonym for sorrowful penitence.
But there’s no biblical evidence for connecting Mary with the woman in that story,
though they did have this one thing in common. The Bible tells us that the Lord had once
cast seven demons out of Mary (Luke 8:2), delivering her from great spiritual and physical
bondage. And Jesus’ comment on the incident with the sinful woman could just as well have
described Mary Magdalene — her great love was a measure of how much she had received
from Christ — forgiveness above all. This is something every real believer knows and
feels. Long after his conversion Paul wrote,
I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives
in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved
me and gave himself for me.
Every time I read that last phrase I’m moved by it. That note of personal, grateful
wonder — “who loved me, and gave himself for me” — it never faded from Paul’s
heart through all the years of his life and all the hardships of his ministry. Nor did the
sense that nothing we could ever do for him could match what he has done for us. Paul felt
that love; Mary felt it too. Do you?
Here is one more thing Mary can teach us. This same kind of intimate, loving
relationship that she had with Christ is open to everyone. There’s something a little
strange about this encounter. Did you notice it? When Mary first saw Jesus she didn’t
recognize him. In a way, I suppose it’s understandable. After all, when you go to visit a
grave you don’t expect to meet and have a conversation with the person who was buried
there. Maybe Mary’s grief distracted and confused her. Maybe something about the Lord’s
appearance was altered; there does seem to have been something very mysterious about his
resurrection body. But as soon as Jesus spoke her name, Mary knew him.
Faith comes by hearing Jesus, not seeing him. “My sheep hear my voice and know me,”
he once said, “and they follow me.” When Mary tried to take hold of Jesus he told her not
to cling to him, “for,” he said, “I have not yet ascended to the Father.” He meant more
than just to say he wasn’t leaving quite yet. The night before his death Jesus told his
disciples that it would actually be to their advantage that he left them physically
because he would come to them in another way, through his Spirit (Jn. 14:18; 16:7).
When he ascended to the Father, he would pour out upon them the comforter, the
helper. And now that he has ascended and the Spirit has come, everyone who believes in
Christ can know and experience his presence. He is no longer limited by the constraints of
time and space. His promise is that he is with us always, even to the end of the world
(Matt. 28:20). And some day, all who love him will see him again in the flesh. “Even so,
come, Lord Jesus!” That’s the prayer of the church.
Meanwhile, just like Mary Magdalene, the Lord has given us a task: Don’t just cling
to me; go and tell my brothers and sisters. So Mary “went and announced . . . `I have seen
the Lord.'” Let’s do likewise.