Mary Magdalene had followed Jesus for months—possibly even years. The gospel of Luke tells us that he had healed her, and drove away the demons that haunted and hunted her, and afterwards she and a group of women helped provide for Jesus and the disciples as they traveled.
All four gospels tell us that Mary Magdalene was with Jesus at the cross when he died – and because Saturday was the sabbath day, Sunday would’ve been her first opportunity to care for Jesus one last time.
We pick up this story in the gospel of John.
Scripture: John 20:1-18
Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, ‘They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.’ Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went towards the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned to their homes.
But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping?’ She said to them, ‘They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.’ When she had said this, she turned round and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?’ Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Mary!’ She turned and said to him in Hebrew, ‘Rabbouni!’ (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, ‘Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.”’ Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’; and she told them that he had said these things to her.
In this particular account, we have three followers of Jesus and three very different reactions to the empty tomb. Mary Magdalene is surprised by the sight, and runs to find Peter and another disciple. The beloved disciple, who is never named in John, runs ahead and looks in. Peter, always the bold one, arrives and walks inside to find it empty.
The beloved disciple follows him, and sees the cloths that had covered Jesus’ body lying folded – if you were going to steal a body, would you really take the time to fold things? – and he believes.
Peter says nothing, and they both turn around and go home.
Mary, on the other hand, stays to grieve again, and it’s not until she hears Jesus say her name that she really, fully understands what’s happened – that he is not dead, but risen.
The one who sees and immediately believes, the one who sees but leaves skeptical, and the one who needs to hear the risen Christ call her own name: these are the first three witnesses to the resurrection.
But the first to proclaim it, the first person to say it out loud, is Mary. After her conversation with Jesus, she runs to where the disciples have gathered and bursts through the door and makes the announcement that would echo throughout history: “I have seen the Lord!”
She told her own story, which had now become part of Jesus’ story – and she told the disciples that Jesus had gone to the Father. That doesn’t seem to comfort them, because in the very next story we find them still huddled together in fear in the Upper Room.
Even with all of Jesus’ predictions about his own death, which are scattered throughout the gospels, and even a few predictions about resurrection and new life, this news doesn’t take root very easily for most of the disciples. Next week, we’ll hear about Thomas the Doubter and Peter the Betrayer. Most of them need to see to believe, and even then, some simply cannot wrap their minds around it.
Which is to say: if you’re hearing this story of miraculous resurrection for the first or 100th time, and not quite sure whether you can believe it, you’re in good company.
Earlier in John, Jesus tells a story about sheep and shepherds to illustrate a point about leadership – that those who are less connected to the sheep, who have less invested in them, are likely to run at the first sign of trouble. But Jesus, who is the Good Shepherd, is willing to lay down his life for the sheep. Then he says: “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.”
This is what Mary experiences. It’s not his face, or the guys in dazzling white robes, or the scars he bears – it’s Jesus’ voice, calling her name, that brings everything together. This is what we celebrate in baptism: Jesus, calling your name, claiming you as a witness to the resurrection. Like a sheep knows its shepherd, Mary recognizes Jesus by his voice.
Mary is often called The Apostle To The Apostles – apostle simply means ‘the one who is sent’, and she was sent to the Eleven to proclaim the good news.
And so, she becomes the First Preacher.
Over the years, the decades, the centuries, the good news that Mary tells the disciples would grow and solidify into doctrines and creeds. These things help shape our faith, guide our questions, and give us a solid foundation to rest on when we’re unsure.
But we also can’t forget that the resurrection began as a personal encounter, and was first told not by reciting a specific formula or reading a book – but by someone telling a story that begins: “I have seen the Lord.”
At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter who was first or second. Mary told the Eleven who told the crowds at Pentecost who told their friends and neighbors who told still more – on and on and on down through the centuries.
What matters most is who’s next.
Not the next person to stand in this pulpit or write a sermon or study theology – but who will be the next one to say:
“Here’s how Jesus has shown up in my life.”
“This is why my faith matters to me.”
“I trust in God’s goodness because…”
Where does God’s story intersect with yours?
I can think of a million tiny moments – a nudge, a conversation, a prayer, a person – where God has intervened in my life to help me grow into a new way of thinking and being and living, even if I didn’t know that’s what was happening at the time.
Today, I want to tell you one of those stories.
It was my first year of college, and I returned from spring break in March and realized I needed to start working on finding a summer job. In typical college-student fashion, I immediately began procrastinating on Facebook. At that point, the ads were about the size of a quarter and were all at the bottom of the page. I noticed that a few of the ads dealt with summer jobs, but nothing stood out. So I continually refreshed the page for new ads, until I found one that said “SummerShine Resort Ministry.” It had a photo of a beach, and the name seemed interesting enough, so I clicked it. The website said that SummerShine hires Christian college students to work in family campgrounds during the summer, providing family-friendly, fun activities. After some research to make sure this was an actual organization and not just a sketchy website, I filled out the application, just for fun. It took two minutes. I never really expected to hear from them.
The next day, however, I got a phone call from their recruitment representative, and a couple of weeks later we talked again. At the end of that second conversation, she offered me a job and mailed me a contract.
SummerShine had 10 locations across the country, from California to North Carolina, but because I had applied rather late in their process, I told her to send me anywhere they still needed someone.
Here’s the God-has-a-sense-of-humor part: one of their locations just happened to be in my college roommate’s hometown in Connecticut. As it happened, that was the only campground still in need of a staffer. Two months later, I was on a plane to North Stonington, Connecticut. I knew very little about what I was getting myself into – all I knew was that someone in a neon yellow shirt would be there to pick me up from the airport.
To this day, I’m convinced that the only reason my parents actually let me get on that plane is because they knew my roommate and her family would be just a few miles down the road. But I was content to trust that if God had brought me this far, then God would surely bring something good out of that summer.
And God delivered on that promise. I lived, worked, played, cried, and prayed in that campground. By the end of those three months, the campers and staff were family. These complete strangers had embraced an awkward, shy college student as we tie-dyed shirts and cleaned bathrooms and hosted movie nights. I became a popcorn-machine expert. I helped lead worship at the campground’s shelter house, and learned that complete strangers can make up a Christian community as powerful as any.
God stretched my comfort zone in a lot of ways, and the presence of the Holy Spirit in all of those spaces showed me a new and lively way of being God’s people together – especially in a space that isn’t particularly “Christian.”
That summer, I met Jesus in the faces of little ones making friendship bracelets and parents helping their teenagers choose tie-dye colors and couples on cross-country road trips and the folks who just really needed to get away to a cabin in the woods for a few days.
It’s not a news-worthy story–it won’t go in any history books–but it’s mine, and it’s just one of the ways that God has shown up to bring new life out of chaos, when I least expected it.
Peter looked at the empty tomb, then turned around and went home. The beloved disciple saw and believed. Mary Magdalene, ever faithful, waited with her questions and her grief until she heard and saw Jesus for herself. Then, she ran to tell her story – God’s story.
Friends, whether you receive the news of resurrection with joy and surprise, with confusion and questions, or with hope and longing, hear the good news: the risen Christ is here with you, calling you by name.