I had just gotten off the bus in a tiny coal mining village in County Durham England, when I saw the Methodist Chapel steward running down the hill to meet me. It was Easter Sunday and I was scheduled to preach in that little chapel. The steward came up to me, somewhat breathless and said, “I’m ever so sorry but Mr. Witherington I need to ask you a question.” I said “Shoot” and he replied “No nothing so drastic as shooting, just a question.” I said “Go ahead.” He said “You do believe in the resurrection of Jesus don’t you?” I said, “Of course, that’s what I’m here to preach on.” You could see the relief written all over his face. “I’m ever so relieved,” he said, “because the chap we had last year didn’t. He rattled on about spring and the beauty of the flowers returning and that sort of drivel.” But resurrection is not something that happens every spring, like the flowers popping up out of the grounds. The resurrection of Jesus was an eschatological event out of due season, long before the resurrection of everybody else, and we need to discuss it. And the way we will do that this morning is through examining the story of Mary Magdalene and her visit to the tomb of Jesus early on Easter morning.
Let’s start with a few basic facts—- her last name was not Magdalene. She came from a little fishing village called Migdal on the northwest coast of the sea of Galilee. She was a small town Jewish girl, and in fact she was an outcast. More on that in a minute. Her first name was not Mary either, it was the Aramaic name Miryam— named after the prophetess in the OT, as are all the so-called Marys in the NT, including Jesus’ mother. So her real name is Miryam from Migdal. She is not to be confused with the anonymous sinner woman in Lk. 7.36-50, nor with Mary of Bethany, nor with the woman caught in adultery. Her problem was not sexual immorality, it was something else as we shall now see.
When we first hear about this woman in Luke 8.1-3, she is mentioned first in a list of female disciples, and listed as a person who was demon possessed— indeed as possessed as one could imagine— with seven demons, the Jewish symbolic number for a complete set. Jesus had exorcised those demons out of her, and she had gone from being an outcast to being his follower. There are various remarkable things about this, the first of which is that early Jewish teachers before Jesus did not have female disciples, and they certainly didn’t have female disciples who had been dabbling with the dark arts or the Devil. And yet, in the Gospels her name is listed first among the women disciples in every single such name list except one. She is listed ahead of a woman like Joanna the wife of Herod’s estate agent, surely a much higher status woman than Miryam of Migdal. Now here is the truly remarkable thing.
Not only did Jesus have women disciples he had travelling women disciples. You can imagine the headline in the Galilean Gazette— ‘Radical rabbi on the road again with women and men he is not related to—- Oyveh! News at Eleven’. Jewish men were not supposed to study with, fraternize with, or travel with women they were not somehow related to, and yet in Luke 8.1-3 we see Jesus on the road with a significant group of women, as well as the Twelve men. And in fact we hear that they travelled with Jesus to that last fateful Passover festival in Jerusalem. And when they got there, it was the women, not the Twelve who were last at the cross, first at the empty tomb, first to see the risen Jesus, and first to proclaim ‘he is risen’. And Miryam of Migdal is at the forefront of this story, hence the full presentation of her encounter with Jesus in John 20. Now in a patriarchal culture, a man’s man’s world like first century Judaism in which the witness of women was consider suspect, and not necessarily valid in court, you don’t make up a story like we find in the Gospels about these women if you are trying to start a world religion involving both men and women. The prominent role of women in the Easter story is a sure sign of its authenticity.
Let’s have a close look at John 20 now, the story we have just watched from the film the Gospel of John. The first thing to be noticed about the story is that the woman we call Mary Magdalene has gone to the tomb to mourn the loss of her teacher, Jesus. She will have brought spices and clean linens presumably to re-anoint the corpse and re-wrap it. Jews normally mourned a dearly departed loved one for a full week, and would visit the tomb various times during the week. Jews did not practice mummification like the Egyptians did, and so an odor retardant like myrrh and other spices would be packed into the winding sheet around the corpse. But when she gets to the tomb nobodies home— there is no corpse to be found. One of the things all the Gospel Easter stories have in common is that none of them describe the event of the resurrection. Imagine being present when that happened. (Steve the crocodile guy example). Well, we have nothing like that in the Gospels. What we have are stories about how the risen Jesus appeared to a variety of witnesses over a 40 day period in a variety of places, sometimes to groups of witnesses, sometimes to individuals like Peter or James. The stories all differ in detail because they happened in different ways to different persons in different places. The common element is simply the risen Jesus and his encounter with people.
One of the most striking facts about the story in John 20 is the contrast between what happened when Peter and the Beloved Disciple raced to the tomb, having gotten the report from Miryam that it was empty, and went into the tomb, and saw nothing but grave clothes as compared to what Miryam saw when she looked into the tomb after the two men had left— she saw two angels, God’s Fed Ex boys, his messengers. Angels are like billboards. Where ever they show up they indicate God is at work and something dramatic has or is about to happen. Now the strange thing about the angels in John 20 is that although they do address Miryam they are hardly singing ‘Up from the Grave He Arose’. Rather they ask the strange question— ‘Woman why are you crying?’ Now you would think they would know perfectly well why she was crying. In Miryam’s view, someone has stolen the body of her beloved Teacher, she doesn’t know where it is, and so she can’t even mourn him properly according to the Jewish customs. As if it were not enough that he was dead, now his body is gone too!Now it is interesting that Miryam is apparently more perceptive spiritually than the two men. She does see two angels, and they only see grave clothes. But this hardly gets her out of her funk, or beyond her grief. She continues to weep and mourn. And then, equally oddly, she hears the same question being asked of her again, only this time outside the tomb. She turns and sees a man standing nearby, who had also asked ‘Woman why are you crying’. Thinking the man is the gardener she asks him where he has put Jesus so she can go retrieve the body. It is then that something very special happens. It is then that the first Easter happens for Miryam herself, and she becomes the very first person to see the risen Lord, so far as we can tell.
Jesus calls her by name— Miryam! And it is only when he calls her by name that she realizes it is Jesus! Now this matches up nicely with what John 10 says— Jesus says he is the good shepherd and he knows his sheep, and they know the sound of his voice, and most importantly, he calls each one by name. That is what happens here, and at that juncture Miryam’s eyes light up, she grabs Jesus and exclaims -Rabbouni! This is Aramaic for my teacher. You will notice she does not call him ‘Honey’ or ‘husband’ or suggest they jump start their marriage again by reading a Dobson book, despite the hysterical fiction of Dan Brown’s da Vinci Code. The relationship between Miryam and Jesus is that of teacher and disciple— that is all. Miryam is the lead female disciple from Galilee, nothing less, and nothing more.
Jesus’ response is interesting. He tells her— ‘don’t cling onto me’. If your translation reads ‘don’t touch me’ this is incorrect. Jesus is telling her that there is no clinging to the Jesus of the past. He is no longer just Miryam’s teacher, and there is no going back. He is now the risen Lord. There was something strikingly different about the risen Jesus. We are not sure what it was, but he is not instantly recognized in these first appearance stories. Compare for example the story about the disciples on Emmaus road, or even Saul’s conversion on Damascus road—he asks ‘Who are you sir!’
We need to be able distinguish between what happened to Jesus on Easter, and what had happened previously to say Lazarus or the daughter of Jairus or the widow of Nain’s son. These latter resurrections were back to the old form of life, and these people all went on to live and die again. I am not an archaeologist, you know what they say about them— their life is always in ruins. But if I was I would like to find Lazarus’ tombstone— it would say died 29 A.D. and then after that died 42 A.D. That would confuse some people. What happened to a Lazarus is not identical to what happened to Jesus. Yes, they were both raised from the dead, but only Jesus gets a resurrection body that he takes with him to heaven— a body immune to disease, decay and death. Paul in 1 Cor. 15 is very clear that normal flesh and blood cannot enter the Kingdom of God. You need a resurrection body, not merely a jump start of the old body again. This is also why Paul calls Jesus the first fruits of the resurrection when he knows perfectly well the OT stories about Elijah raising the dead. What is new at Easter is a person, for the first time on earth having permanently overcome death, having a body immune to disease, decay and death. As the old preacher puts it—- in Jesus, God’s yes to life is much louder than death’s know. Because of resurrection, instead of death being a period, the end of something, it becomes a comma, the story continues with everlasting life, with an afterlife. Praise God.
We would be remiss however, if we didn’t notice that Jesus commissions Miryam of Migdal to be the first Easter preacher— he commissions her to go tell the boys what she has just seen and touched and heard. He tells her to tell them he will soon be ascending to God the Father. Jesus did not rise from the dead to continue earthly existence, so things could go on business as usual. Jesus rose from the dead to begin the endtimes, then and there, the eschatological age, the age in which all manner of things would change, and when Jesus comes back, we too will experience resurrection from the dead as 1 Cor. 15 promises. Christ’s history is our destiny, for we will be conformed to the image of God’s risen Son. And so, Miryam faithfully, went and told the male disciples what Jesus had said.
Did the men then believe her? Well, Luke 24 suggests they did not. Indeed, Luke 24 says they thought it was an old wives tale, a typical male reaction to a female testimony in those days. And they were dead wrong about Jesus, as he was not dead and gone. But it took his appearance to them in the upper room before they too believed, he had arisen.
Miryam of Migdal is the only woman disciple, for whom we have something like a complete story. Her story is a story of courage, and change, and redemption, and witness. When Jesus arises and commands you to do something— you do it. Whether you are believed or not. And this is still true today. What is it that the risen Jesus is saying to you this morning? Could it be, don’t cling to the Jesus of the past, don’t cling to the church of the past. It is not about getting back to the good old days. It is about going forward into a bright future, which is where Jesus is leading us. As Adoniram Judson said, the future is as bright as the promises of God— and what the resurrection of Jesus promises is that neither death nor life nor powers nor principalities nor things present nor things to come can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. Christ is risen— and all manner of things are possible for this church and for your Christian life. AMEN