When Mary Magdalene got to the tomb, and saw that someone had rolled the great stone away, her stomach churned and her heart lodged in her throat. She was stricken by the thought that grave robbers had stolen Jesus’ corpse. Resurrection was the last thing on her mind.
Eventually, Jesus himself appeared to her, but she mistook him for the gardener. Realizing that Mary couldn’t recognize him, Jesus asked her, “Whom are you looking for?”
That’s the question that Jesus asks each one of us this morning. That’s because to be a follower of Jesus Christ means first and foremost to seek him, to devote ourselves to a personal relationship with him, a relationship that provides the focal point for everything else in our lives.
Now, Mary Magdalene had every reason to assume that she already had a relationship with Jesus. She was under the impression that this relationship was now just a memory. After all, he was dead. But she was in for a surprise.
Contrary to her expectations, she could now have a new, deeper, more intimate relationship with Jesus than she had ever imagined. And so can we.
But this all rests on the fact that Jesus is risen. Easter is the holiest feast of the Christian year. We celebrate not only that Jesus rose from the dead two thousand years ago.
We recommit ourselves to developing a personal relationship with the risen Christ. Through our relationship with Jesus, we begin to inhabit a radically different kind of life.
This will sound like nothing more than an abstraction or hazy church talk until we get really clear about the resurrection.
So, to explain what I mean, I will first talk about the resurrection itself. What it means to say that Jesus is risen. Next, I will explain what it means to have a personal relationship to Jesus. And finally, I will talk about this new life in Jesus, what it actually looks like.
So, let’s start with the resurrection.
Jesus is risen from the dead. This does not mean that his immortal soul has escaped his body and now continues on some non-physical plane. John’s Gospel provides ample evidence for the resurrection of the body.
The first piece of evidence is that the tomb was empty. No body was present. Since Caesar took pains to seal the tomb and he posted guards at the tomb’s entrance, we can be assured that this was not the work of grave robbers.
Peter and the Beloved Disciple John entered the tomb. They found the burial linens that had been wrapped around Jesus’ body and the shroud that had covered his face. Grave robbers would have simply carried the corpse away still in its wrappings. They would have been in a desperate hurry to get away, since capture by the authorities would have resulted in a terrible punishment.
And just look at how the text describes the linens and the shroud. They have been neatly folded and calmly set aside. Jesus seems to have matter-of-factly removed the burial linens as if they were a soiled set of pajamas.
This is all indirect evidence. But there is direct evidence. Jesus himself appeared to Mary Magdalene. She was the first of many eyewitnesses.
In addition to seeing and hearing Jesus, Mary Magdalene actually takes hold of him. He has to tell her to quit clinging to him. He is no ghost and no figment of her imagination. And he is certainly no corpse. Jesus is right there in the flesh.
Only, there is an important difference from any other flesh and blood encounter Mary Magdalene or we could ever have.
Jesus has not been merely revived, like a heart attack victim who has been brought back to life. A heart attack victim will die again some day. That person’s death date has merely been postponed. Let’s look a minute at how being risen is much more than being merely revived.
Jesus has passed through death and come out on the other side. Had Jesus been merely revived, it is unlikely that he would be standing at all, much less standing outside the tomb playing a guess my name with Mary Magdalene.
Remember that Jesus had been scourged. His back had been torn into bloody shreds by a whip. Thorns had gouged deep scars into his scalp and forehead. Large nails had pierced his hands and his feet.
Leaving aside the obvious blood loss, a revived Jesus would have been in such battered condition that he could hardly have talked, much less walked and endured anyone’s embrace
Jesus’ robustness and vitality suggest that his body has undergone a radical transformation. And that is just what resurrection is all about. Jesus is whole: body, soul, and spirit. But the body that he has is a new creation.
His body is continuous but also discontinuous with his old body. It bears his wounds, and yet those wounds have been transformed from disfiguring scars into dazzling tokens of God’s love. They are so beautiful that they take your breath away.
He looks and sounds like the old Jesus, only more so, as if the Jesus that Mary Magdalene and the rest of the apostles had known during his earthly ministry had been just a kind of sneak preview of the true Jesus.
The risen body of Jesus is no longer susceptible to death, sickness, pain, or decay. As later post-resurrection appearances teach us, Jesus eats and drinks, but he can also pass through locked doors and some people find him difficult to recognize.
In other words, the very Jesus who walked the streets of Nazareth and was crucified on Golgotha lives and breathes today. He has ascended to the Father and has sent the Holy Spirit to us in his stead.
You will just have to wait for more sermons during the Great Fifty Days of Easter to hear more about what that means. For now, let’s talk about what it means to have a personal relationship with the risen Jesus.
It is entirely possible to occupy space next to someone without connecting to him or her in a personal way. We’ve all had that experience at the office or in the neighborhood or in the grocery we frequent.
We recognize a face, maybe even work on a project alongside some people without knowing anything about them and having never really revealed anything about ourselves to them.
Mary Magdalene had been very close to Jesus of Nazareth. She clearly loved him enough to stand beneath the Cross as he suffered and to return to the tomb on the third day to prepare his body properly.
But she came to the tomb looking for a corpse. She was completely unprepared to connect with the risen Christ. Even when Jesus spoke to her, Mary Magdalene spoke to him as a stranger.
And when she finally recognized him, she took hold of him as if she were recapturing the past. Jesus had to tell her not to cling to who he was. That he was the same but also vastly different.
To know him now required getting to know him in a very different way. Eventually, she got it. And shared her experience with the disciples. But initially, Mary Magdalene was just occupying space adjacent to Jesus.
Being a follower of Jesus means more than to insist on the right doctrines, to adhere to a biblical moral code, and to care about the least and the lost.
People with a personal relationship with Jesus will in fact do these things, but just because you do them does not mean that you have developed a personal relationship with Jesus.
Jesus said, “Many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you.’” (Matt. 7:22-23)
In other words, they did all the external things right, but something on the inside was missing. They said, “Lord, Lord,” with their lips, but not with their heart.
To have a personal relationship with Jesus means to acknowledge him for who he really is. He is the pearl of great price, the hidden treasure. He is the highest good, the chief desire we pursue above all others.
As Paul says, “I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ.” (Philippians 3:8)
Everything we do arises from our love for the risen Christ.
Now, let’s look at what happens when we devote ourselves to developing this kind of relationship with Jesus.
Over time, we start to resemble the one we love. Haven’t you ever noticed how some couples even start to look like each other after decades of marriage? Frankly, Joy and I often catch ourselves saying exactly the same thing in response to situations. At the same time.
We rub off on one another. And that is just what happens when we abide with Jesus. He rubs off on us. As Paul puts it, we are “transformed by the renewing of [our] mind.” (Romans 12:2)
Our relationship results in what Paul calls the fruit of the Spirit. In The Message, Eugene Peterson describes Paul’s list of spiritual fruits this way:
“Things like affection for others, exuberance about life, serenity. We develop a willingness to stick with things, a sense of compassion in the heart, and a conviction that a basic holiness permeates things and people. We find ourselves involved in loyal commitments, not needing to force our way in life, able to marshal and direct our energies wisely.” (The Message, Galatians 5:22-23)
This is a foretaste of life eternal. The life that we will inhabit fully only after this life has run its course. The life that only our relationship with Jesus will give us.
Who are you looking for today? If you’re looking for the one to whom you can give yourself completely because he has already given himself to you, you don’t have to look far. He’s right here. You only think he’s the gardener.
This sermon was preached Easter Day, April 8, 2012, at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Shreveport, Louisiana.