Sermon: Walking Where Angels Walk
Scripture: John 20: 10-17
This morning we are concluding the Mary, Did You Know series of messages as we think about what it means that Jesus walked where Angels trod? Now when I first started this series, I decided that it needed to not stop at Palm Sunday or even Easter morning. That to really understand what Mary was thinking during all of this, that we really needed to take her from under the Cross to beyond the Empty Tomb. So I decided to take the series through the Sunday after Easter and really kind of complete the story line for Mary. How was Mary feeling and thinking after discovering the tomb was empty? Because some of these questions asked in the song can’t really be fully answered from just the perspective of the Cross. That it was new life not death that truly defined who Mary’s boy is for her and for us. Now all of that sounded good in theory. And then I started studying the scripture and what I discovered was that the Gospel writers don’t seem to take Mary beyond the Cross. In fact the last place that we really see Mary in scripture is when Jesus says from the Cross, “Mother behold your Son”. Now you may be thinking that’s not right. Don’t the Gospel writers identify Mary as one of the women who went to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body? Well the answer to that question appears to be no. Mark, the earliest of the Gospels, says that there were three women whom he identifies as Mary Magdalene, Mary the Mother of James and Salome. Matthew seems to defer to Mark on this point though he drops any reference to Salome and simply says it was Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary”. Luke says it was Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joanna who is earlier identified as the wife of the manager of Herod’s palace. The note in the NIV study Bible in talking about Luke’s identification even says: “The absence of the mother of Jesus is significant. She was probably with John.” But John simply says that it was Mary Magdalene alone that went to the tomb that morning. Where was Mary, the mother of Jesus on Easter? It seems to be one of the great mysteries of scripture. And to further add to the mystery, a quick study of all the post resurrection appearances of Jesus indicates no record of the resurrected Jesus ever appearing to His mother. Mary, did you know that your Son walks where angels trod? Apparently not. If the Gospel writers are to be believed, for Mary, Jesus never came down from the Cross. But how could that be? How could it be that Mary would not have followed Joseph and Nicodemus when they carried Jesus’ body to the tomb? And how could it be that she would not have gone after the Sabbath to properly prepare the body for complete burial? That just doesn’t make sense. The absence of the mother of Jesus is just not significant, it’s unbelievable to me after everything else we know about Mary. And scholars have tried to explain her absence. One article I read tried to make the case that Mary was so convinced of Jesus resurrection that she knew the tomb was empty even before the women set out for it, and she saw no need to go. Others say that the fact that the Gospels don’t mention her either at the tomb or in the Upper Room was just an oversight. That, of course, she was there but the writers just assumed that the readers would know that. Or others suggest that she simply got lost in the confusion. That since Matthew, Mark and Luke were relying on the accounts of others, that they weren’t eyewitnesses, we should not read too much importance into the fact that she is not mentioned. Well, whatever the explanation, I am convinced that Mary would have seen this out to the end. Which brought me to John’s Gospel. John was an eyewitness and it occurred to me that if any of the Gospel writers knew the complete story, it would have been John. He was the one who took responsibility for Mary at the Cross. He would surely know where she was as the resurrection was unfolding. So why didn’t he mention Mary? Well, let me be so bold to suggest that centuries of Biblical scholarship has gotten it wrong, and that this passage which has been assumed to be all about Mary Magdalene, might really be about Mary. Let me briefly explain my thinking.
First we know that the Gospel of John was the last of the Gospels that was written. Some date it as late as 110 A.D. or 80 years after the events that it writes about took place. Others say it was being circulated somewhere around 90 A.D. If it was completed by 90 A.D. then it is possible that John wrote it himself, but he would have been a very old man at that point. If the 110 A.D. date is correct, John would have been well over 100 years old, and so it seems unlikely that he actually wrote the Gospel. The more likely scenario was that someone close to John, after his death, wrote down the stories that John had shared with he or she. But either way, the Gospel is probably based on the memory of an old man. As my Mom aged, she delighted in telling stories from her early life and did so with remarkable detail. I often thought how amazing the human brain is. She struggled to remember what happened yesterday, but she could recall things that happened 50 or 60 years before with great clarity. But as she shared those stories from her past, she would often get confused about who was actually a part of the stories. She would place people who I know could not have been there in the story and leave others out who were probably there. And then there were times when she would merge stories together. Make two or three accounts of similar incidents from her life into one story. Now I’m guessing that many of you could relate similar things about aging people in your life. It seems to be a natural part of the aging process. So I wonder if, as the old man John reflected back many years to that morning in the Garden and Upper Room, in his writing or in his telling he merged some things together in his mind. So that, for instance, all the women who the other Gospel writers say were in the garden that morning, became just one in his memory, and that was Mary Magdalene. That the details of the story were good. Going to the garden, the stone rolled away, the angels present, the appearance of Jesus, the reaction of the Disciples, but that through the years John’s memory had become a bit fuzzy about which Mary experienced these things.
And then secondly, as I studied the text, it occurred to me that every time John referred to Mary Magdalene, he called her Mary Magdalene. He tells us that Mary Magdalene was the one who came by herself to the tomb, and that Mary Magdalene goes to the disciples to tell them that she found the tomb empty and that Mary Magdalene tells the Disciples what she had heard. But in relating the part of the story that we just read, John just says that it was Mary who looked in the tomb, and Mary who encountered the risen Christ. He does not say Mary Magdalene. And then there was the presence of the two Angels. In scripture, the number of persons that Angels appear to is very limited. In fact, John makes it clear that Mary was the only one who saw the Angels in the tomb. Peter and John look in and do not see any Angels. Only Mary. The implication is that the Angels are just there for Mary. Now, of course, the Angel had come to Mary before to announce that she was going to give birth to Jesus, to announce new life. But we don’t have any indications that Angels had ever appeared to the Disciples or Mary Magdalene in the past. But Angels had come to Mary, the mother of Jesus before. In fact, at every significant step along her faith journey, the announcement that she had been chosen to to bear God’s son, in convincing Joseph to not abandon her, at the manger, and now in the tomb, Angels had been present for Mary, and always there to proclaim new life. Birth life and now resurrected life. In essence, Angels had bracketed Mary’s life of faith, and with the empty tomb her work was complete. She had brought Jesus into the world raised Him, followed Him and now she released Him into the world. Earthly life becomes eternal life at the empty tomb. Earthly ways became the way of Angels. Mary, did you know, that your son would walk where Angels walk? And that because of that, those who believe will also walk where Angels walk with Him for all eternity.
And then the final thing I would say in making the case for Mary rather than Mary Magdalene, is that a careful reading of John’s account has no indication that once Mary Magdalene went to where the Disciples were staying (presumably the Upper Room) to tell them the tomb was empty that she ever went back to the Garden. In telling the story John is pretty specific about everyone’s movements. Mary Magdalene ran from the tomb. John and Peter ran to the tomb (but no mention of Mary Magdalene going back with them.) And then John tells us that he and Peter returned to the Upper Room, but again no mention that Mary Magdalene came or went or stayed behind. Let me suggest that perhaps the reason that none of the Gospel writers mention Mary as one of the women who went to the tomb that morning, is because Mary was already there. That she had followed Joseph and Nicodemus when they took Jesus’s body from the cross and laid it in the tomb, and that she had stayed there to hold vigil, to mourn Jesus’s death. We know that according to Jewish custom that there should have been mourners outside the tomb. Remember, when Jesus came to Lazarus’s tomb after he had been dead for four days, we’re told that the mourners were there in the cemetery. When Jesus went to the house of Jairus to resurrect his daughter, the mourners were already there gathered outside the house. Some tombs even had a chamber for the mourners in addition to the chamber where the body was laid. A person’s status in life was illustrated by the number of mourners at their tomb. There should have been mourners at the tomb but scripture says that Jesus was rejected and despised by men. Few mourned Him and those who did were too afraid to mourn for Him in public just as they had been afraid to be at the cross, they were too afraid to come. Except Mary. She had been there at the Cross and is it too far fetched to assume that she would have held vigil at the tomb. That, at least, SHE would have mourned for her son when no one else did? And so as John’s story is told – the stone is rolled away, the soldiers flee, Mary Magdalene comes and goes, Peter and John come and go – Mary peers into the tomb and there encounters Angels as she had back when this incredible journey began. From that morning in Nazareth to that morning at the tomb, from manger to cross and now the empty tomb, her journey had been along the path that Angels had walked. Mary, did you know?
And so once Mary encounters the Angels, she turns from the tomb and she sees a figure but it is not clear who it is in the mist of the garden and the veil of her tears, until He calls her name and she, of course, recognizes His voice. It’s her son. Leonard Sweet in reflecting on this encounter talks about how much of life is dependent on voice recognition. As a baby, the first voice we recognize is that of our mother, bringing calm assurance and sometimes protective warning. Teaching us essential lessons about life. We learn early on to respond to our mother’s voice. And in nature, voice recognition is an amazing part of the circle of life. Sweet writes: When seals and sea lions gather together in huge colonies to give birth and raise their babies, hundreds of seal pups swim out and then come back and hit the beach together. But each and every pup can find its way back to its own mother because she calls out with a distinctive, utterly unique bark. The baby seal locates its mommy by voice recognition.
In identifying Himself as the Good Shepherd, Jesus had said, How will you know my sheep? They will be the ones who hear and know my voice. Leonard Sweet goes on to say: A disciple is defined by Voice Recognition. A disciple is one who recognizes “The Voice,” and whose voice is recognized in return to follow wherever “The Voice” leads.
And so when she hears the voice of Jesus, Mary cries out, “Rabboni”. Now calling out that name is a very interesting response. The name is a very intimate one and literally means “beloved teacher”. It is one of the highest and most endearing names you could call someone in that day. But in Biblical terms it means even more than that. The term Rabboni is used only one other time in scripture. We find it in the tenth chapter of Mark’s gospel when Jesus encounters the blind man begging at the gate. We talked about that a few weeks ago. Remember when he is brought to Jesus, Jesus asks: What do you want me to do for you? And the blind man responds: Rabboni, I want to see. In scripture, Rabboni is the beloved teacher who helps us see.
A few weeks ago, someone came and sat down next to me at the meal table during Wednesday.comm and started to talk with me about this Mary Did You Know? sermon series. He really liked it, he said, but then with tongue in cheek said he was going away every week a little frustrated because I had yet to answer the question Mary, Did You Know? Does she or doesn’t she know?
Well I believe that in the call of Jesus in the garden, Mary, could finally see, finally knew. Her Son, the worker of miracles, the healer, the sacrificial lamb had become the Lord, Rabboni, the teacher in whose call she could truly see. No longer just her Son. He had transcended time by defeating the finite limits of death and now he belonged to all ages. Now he belongs to all people. He no longer walks just Jewish paths, or even familiar paths. Now, He walks the way of Angels. And all throughout this Easter story He was calling out to you and me. As He road triumphantly into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, He calls us to a life of praise when He says to the Pharisees watching from the wall that even if these people are silenced, from now on all creation, all peoples, will sing praises to God. And in the Temple, He calls us to a deeper level of Discipleship that is of God and not of man. Calls the church to be faithful. And from the Cross, He calls us to a life of service and sacrifice. To a life that is somehow worthy of the atonement that He now offers. And now from the Garden of the Empty tomb, He calls us to new life, to follow Him along the path that Angels walk. And, you see, ultimately it does not matter whether He called the name Mary, or Mary Magdalene, or Peter or John, because the glorious news of Easter, is that from the Garden of the empty tomb, the path that Angels trod, He calls out our name. We spend so much of our life searching for the way. Do we see? Do we know? Only in the call of Jesus, do we truly see. Rabboni, Jesus, Lord, Mary’s son, help us to truly see. In His call, Mary, now you know what all of this had been about. From annunciation, to birth. Life and even death on a Cross. Because of the empty tomb you can truly see, truly know. And so can we.
And now it is through this Sacrament that we can once again come to hear His call on our lives. Mark, come, take this bread, drink this juice, in remembrance of all that I have been and done for you. Come to this altar this morning. He is calling your name today and inviting you to follow the way that Angels walk. Mary now you truly know and so do we.