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Encounters with Jesus on the Way to the Cross: Mary Magdalene and Thomas

April 22, 2010
Sermon:  Encounters with Jesus on the Way to the Cross: Mary Magdalene and Thomas
Text:  John 20:10-29


In Winston-Salem, North Carolina, a place Clare and I called home for seven years, the Moravian church is quite prominent.  Home Moravian Church, the mother church of all Moravian churches, is right at the heart of Old Salem.  The Moravians were among the first Protestant denomination.  Many of their beliefs are very much like the beliefs of Baptists and most mainline protestant denominations. 

Easter is a big deal among the Moravian people.  They celebrate Easter in grand style.  On Saturday before Easter, people show up at the cemetery outside of Home Moravian Church.  They whitewash all of the tombstones of their family members, of course, but they also make sure that every tombstone in that cemetery is whitewashed and that all graves are cleaned and decorated with flowers.  They call that plot of ground God’s Half Acre.

Then about sunset that Saturday night, brass marching bands from all of the surrounding towns – places with names like Bethabara and Bethania – start playing the songs and hymns of Easter while marching along the streets and highways of Forsythe County.  All of the bands arrive at Home Moravian Church just before sunrise on Easter Sunday morning where they join with the choir of that church to celebrate.  At sunrise, a minister steps out onto the steps of the church and looks out over God’s Half Acre at the thousands of people gathered for this service.  He addresses the crowd with a Call to Worship very much like the one we have used today:  “Christ has risen!  He is risen indeed!” 

Joy and celebration have been associated with Easter Sunday for centuries.  We, too, celebrate this day with joyfulness.  Could I suggest to you another way of looking at Easter Sunday, especially that first Easter Sunday? 


I was at Greenlawn Cemetery yesterday.  As I conducted a funeral service for a family there, I saw many people throughout the grounds, placing flowers on the graves of loved ones. 

Try to imagine arriving at the gravesite of someone you love, a family member or a close friend, and finding that the grave has been opened.  Imagine finding that the body has been taken.  That scenario would probably bring all kinds of emotion into your heart and mind.  What would your reaction be?  You might be shocked.  You might be angry.  You might be afraid.  You might be despondent.  I doubt very seriously that any of your emotions would be joyful. 

Dr. Edmund Steimle, a wonderful Lutheran pastor and professor of homiletics at Union Theological Seminary, brought to my mind the concept that the way the Gospels describe the first Easter Sunday morning is not at all the way we celebrate it.  In a sermon entitled “Disturbed by Joy,” Steimle points out that the Gospels, especially the Gospel of Mark, describe Easter Sunday morning as being very disturbing.  You might be able to call these events “The Case of the Missing Body.”  All four of the Gospels speak of the fear experienced by people who first found the tomb empty.  Chapter 16, Verse 8 of Mark’s Gospel reads, “Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb.  They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.”  When we see the Eleven huddled together, they are in that same upper room where they had observed the Passover meal the previous Thursday night.  When Jesus comes through the door, literally comes through the door, they are terrified.  Steimle points out that their reaction that first Easter was more like the reaction you might experience on a horrible Halloween.  Those disciples did not have a joyful Easter morning. 

It is important to remember that Jesus really died.  He did not just pass away, a euphemism we sometimes use instead of word “died.”  He did not vaporize.  He did not de-materialize.  He did not say, “Beam me up, Scottie.”  None of those options happened.  Jesus died.  He was as dead as the proverbial doornail.  This is not just a story about a dead man being resuscitated, as if he were given CPR.  This is a bodily resurrection.  Jesus, who was dead for three days, conquers death.  He speaks with the same voice as before, a voice that is recognizable.  He still bears the same wounds on his body from the crucifixion.  He cooks and eats fish with the disciples.  He breaks bread and walks along the road or seashore.  He was dead, but now he is alive. 

Following his resurrection, Jesus has very personal experiences with two of his disciples – one a woman, Mary Magdalene, and one a man, Thomas.  Those experiences bracket Jesus’ return to the upper room where he encounters all Eleven together.  First, we learn early, in John Chapter 20, of Mary Magdalene’s trip to the tomb after Jesus’ resurrection.  She does not recognize Jesus’ form or his voice after she finds the tomb empty.  She initially thinks Jesus is the gardener.  Once he speaks her name, however, she falls to her knees, proclaiming him as her teacher.  Eager to share the good news of Jesus’ return, Mary Magdalene returns to the other disciples after this encounter and says, “I have seen the Lord!” (Verse 18). 

Verse 17 in our reading for today is especially puzzling.  The meaning of Jesus’ statement to Mary, “Do not hold on to me,” has received much discussion.  The imperative is probably better understood, “Don’t cling to me.”  This clinging might best be described as the way a drowning person clutches onto the rescuer.  William Barkley points out that the wording of these two statements – “Do not hold on to me” and “Don’t cling to me” – is very close to the statement “Don’t be afraid” in the Aramaic language, which Jesus spoke.   Barkley suggests that Jesus is telling Mary not to be afraid.  That instruction fits with all the other Gospel accounts.  Jesus certainly can be touched.  He allows Thomas to touch him.  He allows Mary to touch him, too.

John’s description of the scene Jesus has with his disciples in that upper room is followed with another very personal experience, this time with Thomas.  You will notice that when the Eleven tell Thomas about Jesus’ appearance in the upper room, they use the same words that Mary has used: “We have seen the Lord!” 

Thomas is often the subject of criticism.  I have heard people say, “Thomas should have been there with the others.  He skipped church and missed out on seeing Jesus.”  That attitude shows the criticism some have for others who attend church only at Christmastime and Easter.  Why would you pass judgment on people who come only at those times?  Think about it this way.  Some people come almost every time the family gathers, while others only come occasionally.  Maybe they live too far away or they are too busy.  Regardless of the reason, do not fuss about the times they have missed.  Instead, welcome them because you are glad for those times. 

Thomas is not present when Jesus appears to the other Eleven.  Why?  I have a hunch that Thomas needed some privacy, especially in his grief.  This is true of me.  I have to grieve alone.  I must have some time away, some time by myself.  I do not grieve well in a group or in a covey.  I expect the same was true of Thomas.  He just needed to be by himself for a while. 

I like to say that Thomas was from Missouri.  He has the motto “Show me.”  He just wants to be shown.  We give this particular disciple the epithet “Doubting Thomas,” but he doubts only for about a week.  When Jesus appears a second time to the disciples, Thomas is present.  Thomas now sees the resurrected Christ for himself.  He sees the nail marks.  He sees the mark of the spear.  He reaches out and touches Jesus.  Then he believes and professes, “My Lord and my God.” 

He is actually a very courageous disciple.  When Jesus first announces that he is going to Bethany, Thomas answers, “Let’s go with him and die with him.”  Thomas doubts some, but he believes a lot, too. 

If the truth be told, we have more than one “Doubting Thomas.”  We also have “Doubting Mary” with Mary Magdalene, who does not believe the resurrection at first.  We see “Doubting Simon Peter” and “Doubting John” and “Doubting Christians,” then, as well as now.  The truth is that the resurrection has to be taken in small doses.  We cannot just swallow it hook, line, and sinker.  We have to come around to believing this miracle.  To Thomas and to all of us, Jesus gives his very last beatitude:  “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29).

What do we learn from Mary Magdalene and Thomas, who have experiences with Jesus that are very similar?  First, we learn that we all have doubts, gaps in our faith.  Our faith is never perfect.  Our faith is always a work in progress.  I still have some rough edges in my own faith.  God is not finished with me yet, nor is He finished with any of you.  Our uncertainty is the reason the Apostle Paul says that we grow in the faith and knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ.  Like Mary Magdalene and Thomas, our doubts actually enable our growth. 

I love the way Kathleen Norris tells of how she experienced this truth.  Kathleen took refuge in a Roman Catholic convent following a disaster in her life.  Her husband was responsible for completely ruining their marriage financially.  As Kathleen walked down the hallway to her cell, she told the Mother Superior, “I really do not belong here.  I have so many doubts.”

The Mother Superior laughed and answered, “That is a good thing.  Your doubts are the seeds of faith.”

Second, we learn from Mary Magdalene and Thomas that their experience with Jesus is not exclusive.  It is certainly unique, but John wants us to know that all of us can experience the risen Christ.  We are not going to experience him in the same way historically, but remember that John is writing his Gospel very late, perhaps as late as A.D. 90.  He knows that his readers have no first-hand knowledge of Jesus.  They have only the information they have been taught by those early Christians.  John wants us to know that this kind of experience is available to Christians in the first century, the second century, the third century, and yes, the twenty-first century.  Like those first believers who walked with Jesus, we can experience the risen Christ. 

An old spiritual raises the question, “Were you there when they nailed him to the tree?”  Historically, the answer is no.  I was not actually present at his death.  Experientially, the answer is very much yes.  I know about Jesus’ death.  I have experienced his dying for me.  The spiritual also asks, “Were you there when he rose up from the grave?”  The answer again is no, historically speaking.  Experientially, the answer is yes.  I know Jesus is the risen Christ. 

Third, we see in Jesus’ encounters with Mary Magdalene and Thomas that he is not judgmental.  When he realizes these two disciples have trouble believing, he is not condemning.  In fact, Jesus gives to each one of them exactly what they need.  Mary needs to hear her name called by that familiar voice of Jesus.  When he speaks her name, she believes.  Thomas needs to reach out and touch Jesus.  Jesus permits him to do so. 

The truth is that Jesus is not playing hard to get.  He is not trying to avoid us.  He is not playing hide-and-seek.  Remember that he told Zacchaeus, “I have come to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10).  He wants us to know him.  Jesus wants us to find him.  A double search is happening here.  He is searching for us, even as we are searching for him.  He gives us what we need in order to believe.  He makes himself available so that we can believe that he is, indeed, the risen Savior.

I believe, yet I have many questions.  I have learned in my relationship to the Lord that I can ask all of those questions.  I must tell you that though I do not always get answers, I do grow through these questions.  Mary and Thomas teach us that we can ask those questions. 

Here is a question:  “You ask me how I know he lives:  He lives within my heart.”  My hope and prayer is that Jesus will live within your heart. 

Do you know the Lord Jesus as your Savior?  Have you accepted him as the Lord of your life?  If you have never done that, I would like to invite you to make that decision.  I know some people here today have other decisions to make.  We invite you to respond to these invitations from God.

Kirk H. Neely

© April 2010

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