The Seven Next Words of Jesus – a Red Letter Easter Message
John’s description of Easter morning is all about Mary of Magdala. It is quite unexpected and rather strange for her to be the center of such attention. Luke first introduces Mary to us by name. She is just one of the women who followed Jesus during his traveling ministry in Judea. The next time we meet her Matthew, Mark and John all tell us that she was one of a number of women at the site of the crucifixion. The other gospels tell that the women waited for sunrise to make their pilgrimage to the tomb. Not so with Mary. In John’s resurrection narrative, it is Mary who is first to return to the tomb. It was still night time – not just before dawn – it was still dark – when she made her pilgrimage. It is she who finds the stone that had sealed the tomb moved away.
John tells us that Mary runs back and reports her discovery to the Disciples and at her prompting Peter and John race to the gravesite. Evidently Mary had returned to the tomb with them. After a cursory look around Peter and John went home. But Mary, she stood there, weeping.
Read John 20: 1-23
When she peered into the tomb John tells us that two angels who for some reason were hidden from Peter and John were visible to her. Now angels are supposed to be messengers from God. Our first thought is that these two must be be angel school dropouts. On seeing her tears they ask “Why are you weeping?” Imagine that, a woman, standing at an open tomb, weeping. Is this just an interesting reminder that angels aren’t human? They can’t understand human emotion? Or is there more to it than that. She tells the Angels exactly what she had told Peter and John—someone–she didn’t know who– has taken Jesus’ body away and to some place–and she didn’t know where. Of all people she had no doubt that Jesus was dead. She had witnessed the crucifixion. To have even known the location of burial she had to have accompanied Joseph of Arimathaea and Nicodemus as they hurriedly prepared Jesus’ body for burial and placed it in that tomb. She had every reason to expect that Jesus’ body should be where she had left it. Thinking that it is the gardener she sees, someone who could answer her burning question, she turns around and here we have the first Easter morning red letter words. Not yet recognizable by Mary, Jesus first asks her what seems to be the same insensitive question.
“Woman, why are you weeping? Who are you looking for?”
Wouldn’t mourning be understood and expected? Her answer to Jesus’ first question seems perfectly understandable to us, she was mourning Jesus’ death. And then we learn from her response to the person she thought to be the gardener was that she wasn’t looking for Jesus’ body, she was looking for the person who had removed it. In reply to the gardener’s question she says: “If it is you sir who removed him, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Was that her intent all along. She was dissatisfied with all that had happened. For some reason she intended to move Jesus’ body from the tomb where Joseph and Nicodemus had placed it. Had she some plan in mind, some other place of permanent burial arranged?
We’ve come to believe that it was for reasons of the Passover the Jewish leaders did not want the body of Jesus left hanging on the cross. Clearly there was more to it than that. Deuteronomy 21:22-33 reads: “if a man has committed a crime punishable by death and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, his body shall not remain all night upon the tree, but you shall bury him the same day.” In the book of Joshua, the king of Ai is killed, hanged, and then buried at sunset as are the five kings who oppose the Israelites in Joshua 10.
The Mishnah, Talmudic texts and the Hebrew Bible also agree that criminals condemned by a Jewish court were not to be interred “in the burial place of their fathers” and, further more, rites of mourning were not to be observed for these criminals. Jesus burial is a situation of a dishonorable burial. Jewish religious cultural norms would have prompted them to see that Jesus was buried in shame at sunset on the day of his death. And to do that, someone had to approach Pilate about the body of Jesus. That might explain Mark’s telling us how Joseph of Arimathea dared approach Pilate for Jesus’ body.
Even though tradition has taken obvious steps to dignify the burial of Jesus, the canonical Gospels depict a burial which any Jew in Roman Palestine would have recognized as dishonorable. The very fact of a new tomb being used says that this criminal was not buried in a family tomb. And had you noticed that rites of mourning are absent as well. In all four of the canonical Gospels we have clear depictions of typical Jewish rituals of mourning. When Jesus dies, no one sits…grieving…: a few women merely note the location of the tomb and later, after the Sabbath, visit it. They go there, however, not to mourn, but merely to anoint the body or “to see the tomb.”
Late on the day of Jesus’ death, one or more of the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem requested custody of his body for purposes of dishonorable burial. Only the most basic burial preparations were administered–the body was wrapped and taken directly to the tomb. There was no funeral procession or eulogies and his personal effects had already been distributed. By sunset on the day of his death the body of Jesus lay not in a family tomb but in a burial cave reserved for criminals condemned by a Jewish court. No one mourned.
No one but Mary. That’s the answer to the question of ‘why are you weeping?” asked by Jesus and the Angels. Despite the rules she broke Sabbath to achieve her goal. Despite the rules she intended to bury Jesus among his family and friends. Despite the rules, Mary was weeping, mourning this one she loved.
“Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father.
Remember –all of this starts with “the word being made flesh”, the incarnation. Now, at the end, the opposite is happening, that which was flesh becomes Word. Mary is told not to hold on to Jesus. Even for disciples like Mary, Easter doesn’t transport her, or Jesus, to the past. Easter opens up a new future. The risen Jesus standing before Mary is not the Jesus who will stay forever. Neither she nor we can “hold on” to him. How different they are, the words we use in wedding ceremonies. Instead of saying ‘To have and to hold” Quakers pledge love and faithfulness. To love is to nurture. To encourage development and fruitfulness. To be faithful is to trust and be trust worthy. The earthly ministry of Jesus is over; now the ministry of the ever-abiding Christ begins. “Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away,” Jesus said, “for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you” (16:7). In fact, the one who believes will do even greater works than Jesus did, “because I am going to the Father” (14:12). Therefore, Jesus says to Mary Magdalene, “Do not hold on to me” (v. 17).
But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” A great struggle persists between holding onto that which is past and moving into the futuure. The permanent presence of Christ will be through the promised Spirit whom Jesus and the Father will send. The ascension is necessary for us to have the same relationship with God the Father as Jesus has with him — a relationship mediated through the Spirit.Rather, she is to go and announce his resurrection and his ascension into the presence of God, from whose presence the Holy Spirit will come to lead, comfort, and empower the church. How is it that we miss that detai, especially those of us in the less liturgical expressions of the faith. We haven’t just been resistive, we have denied the ascension, written it from our lectionaries. The message is simple: “Jesus has left the building.” Our relatiosnhip with God is now through the active presence of Christ’s spirit.
As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” So how did the Father send Jesus into the world. Jesus came to be a human person in first century Palestine because God wanted humanity to better understand who God is. Jesus also told his followers that if they wanted to know what God is like, they were to look at him. So if God the Father sent Jesus to reflect God to humanity… and if Jesus then said “As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you” – then one aspect of that must be that we are to live lives reflecting God to those with whom we come into contact. And that is a tough assignment – the good news is that we have Christ’s spirit within us to help us! But that’s getting ahead of the next red letter word from Jesus.
“Receive the Holy Spirit” . The resurrection is not a return to the past. It is a movement to the future. Neither Mary nor we can hold on to the past after the resurrection and ascension. We look to the even greater future that God has in store for us through the power of the Holy Spirit. John said that Jesus breathed on them. How appropriate to use breathing as the means of conveyance of the Spirit. It is the same word. To breathe is to have life. We find it first in Genesis 2 where in the creation story God breathes the breath of life into the nostrils of his first human. And Jesus’ breath gave that life to those gathered in that upper room in measures they could not imagine.
“If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” It is absolutely phenomenal how so many self proclaimed Biblical literalists will deny this verse. Of course, they are correct in how it’s use has been corrupted. But it is there. Think back to the Gospels for a moment, and consider what it was that got Jesus in the deepest trouble the fastest. He forgave sins. Remember what they said? That’s right: Only God can forgive sins. In the eyes of his detractors, in granting forgiveness Jesus was claiming equality with God. And now? Now he tells us that we have the authority to forgive or retain sins. They – we – are given an authority that belongs only to God. Where do I get off, claiming I can forgive – or not – someone’s sins? It’s important, I think, to keep this statement in context with all that immediately preceeds it: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” “Receive the Holy Spirit.” It’s important to consider this entire matter in the greatest humility, carefully avoiding arrogance. We can only act and speak as those sent by Jesus, as those entrusted with the message of reconciliation, those with the authority to forgive, through the active, present power of the Spirit of God in us.
But it’s purely consistent with the rest of these red letter words. We are now the incarnation of God on earth – we are the body of Christ. The same Holy Spirit that guided and empowered Jesus is now guiding and empowering you. It means that we now have the responsibility to forgive, to declare absolution, as did Jesus. We now have the responsibility to love as Jesus loved. We now have the responsibility to live lives of holy obedience. Daunting isn’t it!
Twice in this passage Jesus tells his followers: “Peace be with you.” The first time he said it they hadn’t yet recognized him. It was afterward that John tells us: “So when the disciples saw the Lord”. It makes you wonder, doesn’t it, that maybe there are situations when Christ is present but we just haven’t seen him yet, like Mary, thinking he is a gardener or a mechanic, a teacher or a politician. That can especially challenging when they have something to say to us that doesn’t fit our preconceptions. Jesus repeated it again, just before he commissioned them, empowered them and called them to offer absolution to even those who made them so afraid. Peace comes with Christ’s Spirit. A few chapters earlier in Jesus’ farewell discourse John relates another scary challenge for us. Jesus told his followers “In truth, in very truth I tell you, he who has faith in me will do what I am doing; and he will do greater things still because I am going to the Father.” Today is Resurrection Sunday. The words of Jesus on that day challenge us and give us Peace. What more could we want, he is Risen and he says to you and me “Peace be with you”. Amen