Strain as I might, my eyes cannot read normal-sized print without the aid of glasses. About a decade ago I could still make out words on a page by holding a book at arm’s length. That strategy no longer works. Without help I can’t see things clearly when they’re up close.
Mary Magdalene seems to be having the spiritual version of the same problem. Jesus is standing right in front of her, and she can’t recognize him. To bring the risen Jesus into focus, she has to become spiritually nearsighted. And so do we all. That is because the risen Jesus is close to us in a way–in a more intimate and abiding way–than Jesus of Nazareth could ever have been. Let me explain what I mean.
Jesus and Mary Magdalene had grown very close.
Strictly speaking, no one could hide things from Jesus. He had a way of seeing right through all your phony fronts and defensive shields. Your thoughts and your feelings, your dreams and your motives, your fear and your shame announced themselves to Jesus before you even opened your mouth.
Jesus started every relationship knowing everybody’s stuff. And no matter what he saw, he reached out. He invited you to come closer. Some people pushed him away, hated him for it, and even plotted his ruin because of it.
Mary Magdalene loved him for it. She took him up on his invitation to get closer. Walking with him day after day, she began to be able to read Jesus. She understood the words he spoke but also the tone of his voice. Without a word from him, she knew when to let him be and when to tell him a joke.
Like all good friends, Mary Magdalene could read Jesus’ outward words and actions as signs pointing to his inner life. She was as close to Jesus as she could be to any human being.
And not only did she understand Jesus, she had shaped her life around him. She arose when he awoke and laid her head down when he finished his day. They shared a common table and his feet directed her wandering through the Judean countryside. Home was wherever Jesus was. The world made sense because Jesus inhabited it.
When Jesus died, Mary Magdalene lost a friend and saw her universe disintegrate. Her sense of loss was real and there was nothing misplaced about her grief. What she had known with Jesus was gone forever.
But what Mary Magdalene did not initially grasp was the closeness she knew was being replaced with an infinitely more intimate closeness, not a heartrending absence. And the world that had been shaken was giving way to a new heaven and a new earth with Jesus himself at its very center.
Now, Jesus is so close, she cannot see him at first. She never imagined that anyone could be so close. And strictly speaking, neither do we.
This helps us understand what for many of us is Jesus’ puzzling response to Mary Magdalene. He chooses her to be the very first to see him risen from the dead. He tenderly speaks her name. And yet when she understandably reaches out to hold him, he says, “Don’t cling to me.”
Jesus’ words sound at first like an uncharacteristic rebuff. But they are nothing of the sort. Jesus invites Mary Magdalene to let go of less so that she can take hold of more.
Mary reaches out to Jesus to recover the life they had known together. It was a lovely life. Filled with common purpose, heartfelt laughter, well-earned exhaustion, and mutual affection. No wonder Mary Magdalene wanted to pick up where they left off.
Jesus didn’t blame her. He just wants more for her. He is more for her. He is the crucified and risen Christ. He is not less than he once was, as if he were a mere ghost. He is not someone entirely different, as if their time together no longer shaped his sense of identity.
The risen Jesus is the fulfillment and completion of the Jesus she had known wandering the byways of Galilee. If she will let herself, she will see that who she had come to know–as winsome and loving and wonderful as he was–was but a mere suggestion of who he had now become.
Jesus came to embrace everything about our condition. Everything. The joys and the sorrows. The triumphs and the failures. The life and the death. On the cross, he embraced all that was dark and chaotic and destructive and throughly overcame it. Not only for himself, but for all who put their trust in him.
And the risen Jesus can be available to her, and to us, in a more intimate way than could Jesus of Nazareth. Yes, Mary Magdalene could embrace him. And eat fish with him. And hear his voice. And see his eyes seeing her.
But now his touch is something more. He can permeate her. Saturate her. Dwell within her heart. Speak from within her own spirit. Adjust her view of the world by adjusting the focus of her eyes from within.
Here’s what I mean. Later that same day, Jesus appeared to the remainder of the Twelve (minus Thomas, who was apparently making a Starbucks run). He breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” (John 20:22) Through the Holy Spirit, Jesus himself abides in each of us.
Earlier in his ministry, Jesus had said, “Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.” (John 7:38) He was referring to the Holy Spirit, and the Spirit’s work is to make Jesus himself available to every believer.
Jesus saturates us from within. At least, that’s what he offers. Like Mary Magdalen, we can have a powerful, ongoing experience of Jesus Christ himself. Today. Every day.
Let me outline two basic ways to have access to the living Jesus.
First, take time to be still. To listen. It’s as if we are desperately thirsty and a clear, cool stream of water wells up right within our souls all the time. And yet we resist taking the time to stop, kneel down, and take a drink.
We are too busy with such important things. Sports. Homework. Projects at work. Leisure activities. In our over-scheduled world we slip into putting Jesus in the “to do later” slot.
And then we wonder why we feel so thirsty spiritually. People and things don’t live up to our expectations. We get irritable and disappointed. We criticize others and even berate ourselves. This life never seems to measure up. No wonder. We’re getting spiritually dehydrated.
The second way to have access to the living Jesus is to do. To act. To get out of ourselves by seeking to serve somebody else. Jesus slakes our thirst so that we can know him in doing his work. He inhabits our hearts in order to extend his kingdom through our hands and feet.
This certainly means that we can devote our normal, everyday routines to him. But he wants more from us. He teaches us to reach out in works of mercy. Feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, visit those in prison, and defend the powerless.
Jesus isn’t just in church buildings or the heavenly courts. He is near. So near that we may struggle to recognize him. We just don’t expect that God could love us so much that he would stand so close.
But he does love us that much. And wants us to know it and to live our lives as a response to that love. We just have to learn to be spiritually nearsighted. And he’ll even help us with that.
This sermon was preached on Easter morning at St. Mark’s Cathedral, Shreveport.