This sermon is offered by the CRCNA as part of our Reading Sermons series.
Scripture: John 20:1-18
Sermon prepared by Rev. Jack B. Vos, Barrie, Ont.
[Note: This sermon comes in the form of an interview. It seeks to reflect the details of the text as found in John 20:1-18. This format is excellent for holding attention. When read with care, it can be every bit as effective as a "regular" sermon. It can serve as an Easter-day message, but can also be used on a subsequent Sunday. Its reading calls for three participants: a reporter, Mary Magdalene, and the apostle John. The three will need to prepare together, to get the right pacing and to provide a good flow. The introduction is meant to be read by the reporter.]
An interview with Mary Magdalene and John
John's account of Jesus' resurrection differs somewhat from that of the other three gospel writers. John tells the story of Jesus' personal appearances. For example, while the other three mention that several women rushed to the tomb that early Easter morning, John speaks only of Mary Magdalene. Jesus appears to her. He appears to the disciples, first without Thomas, and then with Thomas. And John alone recounts the story of Jesus' restoring Peter to the ranks of the disciples.
The resurrection story in John 20:1-18 tells how on Easter morning the apostle John and Mary Magdalene came to discover that Jesus rose from the dead. An "interview" with them many years after the resurrection can help to recapture some of the liveliness of John's account. This sermon is written as just such an interview. There are three parts to it. The first begins with Mary Magdalene. The second is with the apostle John. And the third rounds off the interview with Mary Magdalene.
1. Preliminary interview with Mary Magdalene
R. Mary, you have been connected with the resurrection story right from the beginning. Can you tell us about that Easter morning?
M. It was still quite dark when I, with a number of other women, left for the tomb where Jesus lay buried. We wanted to get there as soon as there was enough light to see the way.
R. Why were you in such a hurry?
M. The death of the Master happened so fast. We were totally unprepared for it. When he was buried that evening, we didn't have time to wrap the body in spices the way it had to be done. The next day was the Sabbath, so we couldn't do it then. And, as you know, there's always the problem of a smell developing. We wanted to waste no time. Especially because we believed in him and loved him so much.
R. Why did Jesus become so important to you?
M. Because he is the Messiah promised in the Old Testament. And I came to know him because he did a lot for me. I felt his love and power in my life.
R. What do you mean, you felt his love and power in your life?
M. Let me just say that, if it were not for him, I'd never have been part of these events, nor would I be here talking to you.
R. So you rushed to the tomb first thing on Sunday morning?
M. And we were stunned when we got there. Joseph's tomb where Jesus' body had been laid, was a typical rich man's grave — you know, a shallow room chiseled out of rock and with ledges on the sides for the bodies. A heavy flat stone was rolled in front of the entrance, to keep out the animals and protect it against grave robbers.
As I said, when we got there, we were just stunned! For that heavy stone had been rolled away, the tomb was wide open, and the body was gone!
I knew right away that something was terribly wrong. I didn't wait for the other women but quickly ran back into town. I first went to Peter and then to John, and I told them, "They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don't know where they have put him." At that point I was totally convinced that somebody had taken the body and put it somewhere else.
R. You mentioned that you went and told Peter and John. Now I'd like to turn to John and ask him about what you told him.
2. Interview with the Apostle John
R. John, how did you and Peter react when you got Mary's message?
J. It shocked us. We were still reeling from all the things that happened on Friday, Jesus' terrible death, and our own cowardly conduct. But when Mary told us that someone had taken the body, we had to go to the tomb to see for ourselves. We ran as fast as we could. I got there first, and Peter came a moment later.
R. And when you got to the tomb?
J. I stood at the entrance, bent over, and took a quick look into the tomb. I did notice grave cloths lying there, but that's all.
R. You didn't walk into the tomb?
J. No, not right then. But Peter did. As I said, he was a little ways behind me, but when he got there, he walked straight into the tomb. That's typical Peter. He just plunges in.
R. Did Peter see something that you had missed?
J. A lot! At first I took just a glance into the tomb, but Peter looked around very closely. Then something peculiar caught his attention. The cloths in which the body had been wrapped were lying there, and they were still in their folds. So was the head-cloth, which is one of those large cloths they wrap around the head of a body. That head-cloth caught his attention, too. It was still carefully rolled up, just the way one twirls it around a person's head. And there was a gap between the body cloths and the head-cloth, where his face and neck had been. Peter called these things out to me from inside the tomb.
R. Then you went in too?
J. I sure did! I wanted to take a careful look myself, to try to figure it out. With the cloths still there, and that head-cloth twirled up by itself, I began to see that Mary's story about someone having taken the body just didn't fit. Nobody had taken the body. If they had, they certainly would have taken the cloths and the head-cloth as well.
R. Could you make any sense out of what you saw?
J. Well, it came slowly. You see, the tomb was empty. And it was not a case of someone having taken the body. So I thought about the empty tomb, and I looked at the cloths and at the head-cloth, and where it lay. It didn't look at all like someone had gotten out of bed, taken off the night clothes and folded them up in a neat pile. Instead, it seemed that Jesus simply evaporated out of the cloths and the head-cloth, and left them behind almost undisturbed. It was just the way he later showed himself to us disciples by entering through a locked door, but I didn't know that then.
So I looked at the empty tomb, and the collapsed cloths, and the specially folded head-cloth, and I said to myself, This is a message!
R. What message?
J. Two things came to me. First was a passage from the Old Testament about the Messiah. How the Messiah, after suffering, would be raised to glory. I also remembered how Jesus told us several times that he would have to suffer, be killed, and on the third day rise again. At that time we didn't understand the Bible. And we paid little attention to what Jesus told us. We just didn't want to hear about his dying.
But when I saw the tomb with its cloths and head-cloth, and the unusual way it had been left, I connected it with the Old Testament and with what Jesus had told us. I now know that was the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
R. That's when you came to believe that Jesus had risen from the dead?
J. As soon as I connected the details of the empty tomb with Jesus' words and the Old Testament, I knew that he wasn't dead any more. I knew he had risen.
R. Did you tell Peter?
J. No. Strange as it now seems, I didn't. Probably too much had happened. When Jesus was arrested, we all behaved like cowards and ran for our lives. Then Peter three times denied that he had anything to do with Jesus; I heard him myself in the courtyard. At the tomb I just didn't know how much to say. But I knew that Jesus had risen from the dead.
R. When you now look back, what difference has Jesus' resurrection made in your life?
J. The difference between night and day! In an instant I went from despair to hope, from the deepest sadness to enormous joy.
During Jesus' life I had seen God at work in him. With my very eyes I saw love and truth and power from God never seen on earth before. And as soon as I knew that Jesus was alive again, I knew that he would win the war against his enemies, against sin, and against death. I knew that no matter how strong sin and evil is in the world, Jesus' love and power will conquer it all.
R. I hesitate to ask you this last question, but you probably expect it anyway. Are you telling us a good story, a phantasy that you wish were true?
J. Well, if you look at the life I've lived since that morning, you'll see that I have no reason to tell baseless stories. I myself am not a gullible person, and I don't want anybody else to be.
From what I learned at the tomb, and from many meetings with Jesus after his resurrection, I swear that he has risen from the dead!
I've had to pay for my testimony that Jesus has risen and is alive! I've been ridiculed for it, beaten for it, and imprisoned for it. I've been exiled and threatened with death. Why would I endure all that for a story I knew to be a lie? And why would I want to mislead people? I desperately want them to know the truth, unbelievable as it seems.
No, it's wonderful story because it's true. I swear before the God of heaven and earth that what I have told you is the glorious truth! And I will go on telling people of Jesus' resurrection, even if I have to pay for it with my life! Because it is true. And because everybody on earth ought to know it, and believe it, and share in the life that Jesus has given me.
R. Thank you, John, for your witness to Jesus' resurrection. Now we have to turn to Mary again, because we want to hear more of her story.
3. The core interview with Mary Magdalene
R. Mary, after telling Peter and John, did you go back to the tomb?
M. Yes, I did. But when I got there, I just cried and cried. And it wasn't until John and Peter had left that I stooped to look into the tomb.
R. Did you see anything unusual?
M. I did. But because I was so upset, it didn't seems strange to me at the time. Two angels were sitting there, but I took them for two ordinary people. One of them even asked me, "Woman, why are you crying?" I told them I was crying about the body of Jesus. I didn't think they could help, so I turned my back to them.
R. And then?
M. As I turned around, there stood another man. I didn't recognize him either, but I thought, 'He must be the gardener!' He spoke to me in such a kind way: "Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?" That was all the encouragement I needed, and I blurted out, " Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him."
R. Even then you were still sure that Jesus was dead?
M. Absolutely! And I figured that this kind gardener, if he had the body, would surely give it to me. But then he surprised me. He spoke my name. And it was the way he said it: "Mary!" Only one person had ever spoken my name like that. That was Jesus a couple of years earlier. And when at the tomb he spoke my name again, I immediately recognized the voice. Jesus was no longer dead! He was alive again! And he was speaking to me!
I was so excited! I dropped to my knees. And right away a title sprang to my lips, "Rabboni!" That's the title we often use for God, the great Teacher and Lord of all. "Rabboni!" That's what I called him. It was my warm expression of faith. On my knees and with that title I worshiped my risen Lord!
R. Then what did you do?
M. I wanted to touch his feet. I wanted him never to go away again, so that things would be just the way they'd been since the day he helped me. But he told me that couldn't be done. He now had to do his work in a different way. He would carry it on, he said, not from Jerusalem or Galilee, but from heaven.
R. Were you hurt when he told you not to hold him?
M. Not at all. I was too excited that he was alive. What's more, he had work for me to do. He told me to go to the eleven disciples, who were ashamed of their conduct on Thursday night and Friday. He told me to bring them a message from him.
What a message that was. Because, after the miserable way in which they failed him, he still called them "my brothers." Can you imagine? "Go ... to my brothers and tell them, 'I am returning to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.'" What a wonderful way of telling them that he still loved them. It meant that he still wanted their love and wanted to use them in his work.
What a delight that I could bring such a heart-warming message from him!
R. Then you left Joseph's garden?
M. I rushed to the disciples. My feet have never been so light! I kept on saying to myself, "I have seen the Lord!" When I saw the disciples, that's what I shouted to them. "I have seen the Lord!" You can't believe the joy it brings me to this very day!
R. Mary, you demonstrate a lot of pleasure in telling this story. Is there a secret to that?
M. I was born in the town of Magdala, to the East of the Sea of Galilee. There are things in the past of many of us that give us a great deal of pain. That is certainly true of me. Why was I so broken up when they killed Jesus? Why did I cry and cry when the body wasn't in the tomb? And why was I beside myself with joy when he rose from the dead?
Well, when Jesus first saw me, I wasn't even a human being. I was a beast, possessed by seven demons. People avoided me like the plague. They wished I were dead. But Jesus didn't. He saw me in that living hell of demon possession. Then he called me by my name, "Mary!" I'll never forget it. He commanded the demons to leave, and they did! I was free! I was a human being again! And right then and there I knew that he was the Messiah, God-in-the flesh.
By the tomb he spoke my name again. His voice was the voice that set me free. His voice is loaded with the love and power of God. And then to know through the resurrection that this love can never be stopped! What wonderful news for people who live in the misery of brokenness and sin.
R. A final question, Mary. Why do you think the Lord appeared to you?
M. I think it's this. I was a person under the control of evil powers, and one for whom people had no use and no place. But Jesus sought me out and set me free. Now a person like me can be a witness to the greatest thing God has done since the creation of the world: raising Jesus from the dead. Praise God for the privilege of it! As we Christians say when we meet each other, "The Lord is risen indeed!" Praise God!
R. I'll say it with you, Mary, 'The Lord is risen indeed!'
Proposed Order of Service
Welcome and Announcements
The Service of Worship Begins
Call to Worship
Leader: Congregation of the Lord Jesus Christ,
Where does our help come from?
Congregation: Our help comes from the LORD who has been our home throughout all generations, who made heaven and earth and who is God from everlasting to everlasting.
Leader: God's greeting
Congregation: God be praised! Amen!
Songs of Adoration: #241, This Is the Day
#389, Come, You Faithful, Raise the Strain
The Ministry of Reconciliation
Prayer of Confession — Options: Ps. 51:1-4, 7-12; Ps. 130
Assurance of Forgiveness — Isaiah 43:25 or Isaiah 53:4-6
The Lord's Will for Our Lives — Exodus 20 or Ephesians 4:17-5:2
Hymn of Response #395, Hail, O Once Despised Jesus
Alternate for p.m. service:
We express Our Faith
The Apostles Creed or Contemporary Testimony, paragraphs 24-27
Hymn of Response #399, Jesus Lives, and So Do We
The Word Opened
Prayer for the Light of the Spirit
Scripture reading: John 20:1-18
Hymn #402, Alleluia, Alleluia! Give Thanks
Sermon: "The Triumph of the Lamb"
Responses of Faith and Love
Hymn #403, This Joyful Eastertide
Offering of Gifts for Prayer of Thanksgiving and Intercession
Leaving to Serve
Closing Song: #401, O How Good Is Christ the Lord, (2 x)
Parting blessing — 3-fold Amen