Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” 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 Hebrew, “Rabbouni (which means teacher)!” (John 20:15-16)
The lectionary gives the minister a choice for preaching this morning. He/she can either preach the Easter story from Mark’s Gospel or from John’s Gospel. There is no contest; Mark offers a paltry eight verses of text for preaching while John provides a full 18 verses of resurrection material to choose from. The risen Jesus doesn’t show up at all in the Markan story but he’s front and center in John’s account. The biggest difference however, is this: the ultimate sign of God’s power over death in Mark’s Gospel is the empty grave, while in John’s Gospel the empty grave is just a beginning. The ultimate sign of resurrection in John is something far more persuasive... the risen Lord calling Mary’s name.
So, the sermon is being taken from John’s Gospel today... not just because it’s a richer text for preaching, but because John’s account deals with something that all people of faith struggle to explain... namely, the claim of having a real relationship with the risen Jesus even though none of us have ever physically seen him. The resurrection is something unique to the Christian faith and it is experienced in a deeply personal way. “He walks with me and he talks with me and he tells me I am his own.” As odd as that sounds, that was Mary Magdalene’s experience of the risen Jesus and that is how we experience Jesus still today. So, we talk about our “walk with the Lord.”
Granted, there are people who don’t experience Jesus in this way – to them it seems foreign, even odd. Their expression of the faith is largely limited to intellectual assent – I confess that Jesus is my Lord, I grant him equal status with God, I believe in his teachings, and follow his commands, but I don’t experience his risen presence in my life. I don’t judge their faith, but I do point out its incongruence with John’s resurrection account. Mary Magdalene’s encounter of the risen Lord was not abstract or intellectual but visceral and deeply personal, and her witness to the disciples afterwards was: “I have seen the Lord,” followed by an accounting of all he said to her.
So, let’s back up the story and walk through it together to better understand the resurrection of Jesus and how the he was first experienced by the disciples. Perhaps then we can understand what it is to experience the risen Jesus ourselves. According to John, Mary Magdalene was the first to go to the tomb early Sunday morning. She went alone and with no expressed purpose other than to be there. When she got there, she noticed the stone had been removed from the door of the tomb and that the body was gone. Mary ran to tell the disciples that Jesus’ body had been taken... perhaps even stolen! (Notice that John’s account does not consider an empty tomb to be the definitive proof of Christ’s resurrection as Mark does.) Peter and the other disciple ‒ the “disciple that Jesus loved” (many assume this to be John himself) – both run to the tomb to see for themselves. They enter into the tomb, and discover the linen wrapping that covered his body at one end of the tomb and the cloth covering his head neatly folded and placed at the other end. The disciple who Jesus loved sees this and dismisses the notion of a stolen body (robbers would have taken the linens with them) and believes instead that a new beginning is at hand. He doesn’t know what sort of beginning this might be, but he considers it good news. Peter, on the other hand, doesn’t draw any conclusions at all. Both of them go back home.
Not Mary. She lingers at the gravesite crying. Two angels dressed in white appear inside the tomb and ask her why she is crying. She explains that the body of her Lord is missing, and she doesn’t know where it is. Jesus approaches her and asks the same question. She does not recognize him and presumes him to be the gardener. She begins to explain her concern when Jesus calls to her by name... “Mary!” And in that moment Mary responds with recognition “Rabbouni!” She goes to embrace Jesus but is told not to – a sign perhaps that resurrection is not the same as resuscitation, so things are not as they once were. She is told not to keep Jesus’ presence to herself but is instructed to tell others what she has seen and heard. So, the first witness of Easter is an announcement to the disciples “I have seen the Lord.”
The moment of resurrection for Mary then, is when Jesus calls her by name. She recognizes Jesus’ voice in that calling... which seems to echo the words of Jesus earlier in John: “The sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.” (John 10:3) And again, “I know my own and my own know me.” (John 10:14) John claims the ultimate sign of resurrection is when the risen Christ calls us by name... when we hear his voice speaking to us, it’s unmistakable.
So how does Jesus call us then? Notice that the call of Jesus is not some general call: “Hey you!” or “Hey buddy” – rather, it’s a deeply personal call... a call made to you and heard by you. And when the risen Jesus calls us by name we hear it and are enfolded into the community... we claim our place as part of the Easter community, who have all heard the Good Shepherd calling their names and know he lives.
Our names are a curious thing – they are more than just our handle. Our names own us as much as we own them. If someone forgets my name, I feel it is me who has been forgotten. If someone mispronounces my name in some foolish way, I feel what is foolish is me. If someone speaks my name out loud in a noisy room full of people, I stop talking and turn around. For some reason, my ears are tuned to hear my name whenever its spoken and somehow when it’s spoken aloud it commands my attention.
When Mary was remorseful in the cemetery, she heard her name called and knew immediately that it was Jesus calling. She turned away from her remorse to embrace her mission to tell the others that Jesus is risen. When Saul was on the road to Damascus rounding up and persecuting Christians, the risen Lord called him by name. “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” He turned from persecutor to apostle. And every pastor I have ever met will tell you that they are in the ministry because they heard the call... the risen Lord called them by name. They each have their own story, but each heard their name called. Indeed, the one standing before you today has heard his name called and it’s why I’m here!
The implications of this Easter text are many and great. First, it’s important to remember names... to call people by their name, because when people hear their names it enfolds them into the community – human and divine. Secondly, it’s important to remind people that God knows them by name – baptism is a naming sacrament where God hears our name and never forgets that name – ever. And when we receive communion by intinction it’s important to call people by name because this reminds them that the body and blood of Christ is specifically for them ‒ that Christ died and rose for them!
Finally, it’s important for you to listen for your name because the risen Christ continues to call us all. We are called from mourning to mission, called from skepticism to faith, called from chaos to order, called from selfishness to servitude, called from disengagement to community, called from the darkness into the light, called from death to life! So, listen for your own name being called and call others by name – especially those lingering on the edges of the Easter community. They need to hear their name to know they belong in the company of Christ’s faithful. For Jesus Christ is risen ‒ how do I know? Not simply because the tomb is empty, but because Jesus continues to call people into service as his church.
Jesus Christ is Risen!
He is risen indeed.