The Magdalen and the Gardener (Easter Sunday 2018)
preached at St Luke’s Church, Queen’s Park, Brighton
There’s a new film out called Mary Magdalen.
I don’t know whether any of you have seen it – I haven’t yet - but friends tell me it’s beautiful to look at, serious, worthy and a bit dull. The Guardian review called it “a tasteful RE lesson” marred by the shoutiness of Joaquin Phoenix’s turn as Jesus.
The film is certainly not sensationalist or controversial (like Martin Scorsese’s The last temptation of Christ.) This new film actually asserts that she was not a prostitute, just a feisty rebellious girl.
But I have to say if you look through the mentions of her in the four gospels, the picture is more confusing.
- She was undoubtedly a follower of Jesus.
- She was probably at the foot of the cross when He died.
- He may have previously cast seven devils out of her.
- She may have been the sinner who anointed His feet in Simon’s house.
- On the other hand, she might have been the sister of Martha and Lazarus.
I’m only concerned on this Easter Day with the wonderful gospel verses we just heard.
Here is Mary Magdalen, whoever she was, at the tomb: the first person to whom the risen Lord chose to appear - a woman! – think about that in the context of 33ad!
She stood outside the tomb, weeping. “They’ve taken my Lord away, she said, and I don’t know where they’ve put him.”
She turned around and saw Jesus standing there though she didn’t recognize Him. Supposing Him to be the gardener, she said “if you have removed Him, tell me where you’ve put Him.” Jesus said “Mary.” She knew Him then and cried out “Rabboni” (Master).
Did this really happen? It’s a most moving story anyway but perhaps she was fantasising in her exhaustion and grief. Well, there’s more to come.
The stone had been rolled away. Nobody could find a corpse. The figure she sees speaks and she realises OH MY GOD (or OMG in twitter-speak) it’s HIM!
And then the pair of despondent disciples walking away from Jerusalem towards Emmaus after the tragic debacle of the crucifixion are accosted by a mysterious stranger who explains the whole thing to them. And when they arrive for supper, they recognize the way He breaks the bread. “OMG it was Him all the time – it’s Jesus!
And later the apostles holed up indoors, frightened to be seen in case the Jews or the Romans are after them too. Suddenly there He is. “Peace be with you” He says. “By the way, I’m a bit peckish. Have you got anything to eat? Oh you look rather shocked. Here, let me show you the scars on my hands and feet.” “OMG” gasps Thomas.
Did the resurrection really happen?
You know, I don’t waste my time sifting over the factual evidence in the cold light of day like some sort of tribunal chairman opining that, on a forensic basis, on a balance of probabilities, the Resurrection is more likely than not to have occurred.
And I can’t honestly get too inspired by the sort of believer who says “Well, I was brought up to go to Church. The Church teaches that the resurrection is true. I’m familiar with the creed being recited every Sunday, so……….yeah, I guess I sort of believe in it”
What really excites me is the idea of these personal encounters with the Risen Lord by Mary Magdalen and the others.
And a personal encounter with the Risen Christ doesn’t have to be while he was still making appearances on earth, before his Ascension into heaven
Saul of Tarsus – pre-occupied with his self-appointed task of persecuting the first Christians – was stopped in his tracks on a trip to Damascus by the sudden overwhelming presence of the risen and ascended Christ.
And it doesn’t have to be then. Back then. Biblical times.It can be now.
WE too can have an experience of the Risen Christ which will convince us beyond any factual debating or creed-mumbling about the Resurrection.
Have you ever been, or are you prepared to risk being, KNOCKED FOR SIX by the sheer thrill of the Resurrection, so that you don’t just accept that it’s true but can FEEL that it’s true.
How does that work?
Well, it almost always starts by daring to open your heart to the possibility (just the possibility, mind, not the expectation) of having it flooded by God’s love.
That sense of God’s overwhelming love may not come easily, or quickly or dramatically. This is part of the mystery of grace.
Occasionally, the presence of the Risen Christ is on you like a bolt from the blue without your asking for it or even wanting it. That’s what happened to Saul the anti-Christian who became S.Paul.
That is the exception. We normally have to go by the decision-to-open-your-heart-and-wait route.
But whenever it happens, whenever the flood starts, your trust in God and in his raising of Jesus from the dead is self-fulfilling (in the best possible sense – not a cop-out), because you then somehow know that God’s love is so strong and so generous that He must have done this incredible thing.
It’s not too good to be true. It’s too good NOT to be true.
So you see what we have to do in a sense is put the cart before the horse. ”O taste and see how gracious the Lord is..........”. And then as a consequence you will understand, and believe.
Usually, as I said, you need to make a deliberate act of will to surrender to the love of God. Then you wait on him.
And when sooner or quite probably later, you are given the grace to sense his presence in your life, then you become one of those who experience the gut feeling, the visceral thrill of the Resurrection.
And the final question is: why should it be so thrilling?
Simply because, once you have felt its truth, you simultaneously realize that this amazing event took place for our sake, he was paving the way for us. He has been through death and out the other side.
And what that means is that, against all appearances, all is well. And all shall be well. For ever and ever, world without end, amen.
Because by that horrible death of his – which is all part of the same process as the resurrection - he has absorbed and drawn the sting out of all the evil in the world – not only past, but also present and future.
It may not look like it a lot of the time. Right now, for example, you might wish to politely draw my attention to Syria, Lebanon, Afghanistan, ISIS, Trump.
But you see, I’m not a head-in-the-sand optimist saying no, it’s alright, you’ve got it wrong, everything’s hunky dory. What I am is hopeful. And there’s a whole world of difference between optimism and hope.
Optimism is trying, however unconvincingly, to make the best of things.Hope is based on faith.
Hope embraces the achievements and the promises of God which no human folly can destroy.
All shall be well. Because Christ has conquered sin and death for us.
Alleluia, He is risen. A very Happy Easter to you all!