Mary Magdalene, the first witness to the Resurrection, Mary Magdalene, who is known as the Apostle to the Apostles because she was the first to witness Christ as risen from the grave and she went and told that good news to the rest of the disciples, Mary Magdalene, when she first witnessed this risen Christ, she mistook him for the gardener. She didn’t recognize him. She thought he was someone she hadn’t met before.
You could imagine it was like one of those awkward moments at a party, “I’m sorry, ha-have we met before?” “Uh, yeah, I asked you out in high school.” “Oh, um, sorr…” “…It’s okay, you told me to get lost. And I got lost and I’ve also lost a lot of hair since then, so …”
At any rate, the intriguing thing is that in all these gospel stories about Jesus appearing after his passion, death, and descent, this keeps happening: the people who knew him in life don’t recognize him when they first see him again.
And it’s not like it’s their fault.
It’s more than just doing a double-take: “O! Jesus Christ! It’s you! I wasn’t expecting … I mean, I thought, um, you know, you were dead…”
It’s more than just surprise. The Easter stories are stranger. There’s this quality of the uncanny when people first encounter this risen Christ. Christ appears and as soon as people wake up to the fact that it’s him, he slips away again. And folks are left with their mouths hanging open. “What just happened?” There’s something dream-like going on, but not in the way of un-reality, but rather hyper-reality. These are heightened experiences, more real than our usual sleepy awareness allows existence to be. It’s like, I remember when I saw the Grand Canyon I couldn’t believe my eyes, which is a cliche until you experience what it’s like for what you’re seeing to totally blow the scope of your usual understanding. What was stretched out before me was too tremendous and beautiful, too vivid to totally take in. Reality almost shimmered with fairy dust in my eyes. Totally astonishing. So, you could say that these encounters with the risen Christ take place in the uncanny valley beyond death and life as we know it.
There’s an impact to this new Christ-being that is direct and powerful.
In one story from the gospels two disciples encounter a stranger on the road and get to talking. They hit it off and they invite guy to eat supper with them. They sit down together and this man takes the bread into his hands and thanks God and blesses it and breaks it and gives it to them – and that’s when it hits the disciples, right between the eyes: It’s Jesus. And once they’ve woken up, the disciples remember that when they first met this stranger on the road, their hearts burned in their bodies. They had this powerful feeling that they didn’t taken it. It’s like the scope of feeling, then scope of reality involved here is too much to bare.
There is a powerful transformation that is taking place in these resurrection encounters. Christ is transforming, his face and voice and very being are moving beyond the forms they took in Jesus’ mortal life, moving into a fuller and deeper realm.
There is an unveiling, a revelation.
Yet at the same time it’s the most ordinary thing in the world…
The gardener: Mary mistook Jesus for the gardener. The seed planter. The sprout-tender. The composter. The harvest worker. That’s a good way to see Jesus. And that’s mostly the kind of stuff that Jesus talked about. When he was teaching about the Kingdom of Heaven, he’d talk about what it’s like to plant and grow. What it’s like to gather up the harvest together. What it’s like to go fishing. What it’s like to tend to each other’s hunger to tend to each other’s hurts. The basic elemental stuff of being human together.
One time the disciples asked Jesus “The Kingdom, the Realm of Heaven, when will it come?” Jesus told them, “It won’t come by watching for it. People won’t say, ‘Look, here!’ or ‘Look, there!’ Rather, the Realm of Heaven is already spread out upon the earth, yet people don’t see it.”
Jesus also said, “What you do to the least of these you do to me.” And if we dare to believe in the Resurrection it means we dare to take this in its simple, direct meaning: we literally see Christ and care for Christ or literally scorn Christ in how we respond to folks who are hungry or hurt or lost or alone. A Savior who was crucified and who rose again into the fullness of Christhood is a Savior who abides within each and all whom we encounter. Yet so often we don’t walking around seeing this.
The Apostle Paul said, “We see only in a mirror, dimly.” “Through a glass darkly,” is the more well-known turn of phrase. The Greek word here is “enigma”: We see the truth as an enigma in a mirror, as a riddle in a reflection. But, Paul says, the time will come when we encounter the truth face to face.
“For now, I know only in part. But then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.”
“I will know, as I. Have. Been. Fully. Known.”
“Mary!” The gardener said. “Mary!” he called her by name. Then the scales fell from her eyes and Mary Magdalene beheld the true nature of the one who was before her. She witnessed the Resurrected Christ only after he witnessed her and called her by name. Story after story about Jesus turns on how he witnesses people for who they are. He sees them fully, sees what is good and true and beautiful, and sees the falsehood eating away at them. Jesus names the demons that haunt people. And he calls the true child of God to be free of those demons. He calls to the beloved child of the Living God in each of us, no matter how scarred or scared, no matter how calloused, or clenched, no matter how cast-off, or crucified.
Christ embodies God’s witness of us as we are, God’s love for us.
Christ embodies God’s humble yet powerful movement into human life, joining us in all our joys and all our agonies. Emmanuel, God-with-us, with us to carry us through.
I have been fully known, and so I know that my redeemer lives.
“And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three. And the greatest of these is love.”
Thanks be to God.
(Delivered Easter 2018, April 1st, at First Congregational church of Walla Walla, by Rev. Nathaniel Mahlberg)
Isaiah 25:6-10 (The Message) But here on this mountain, the God of Hosts will throw a feast for all the people of the world, a feast of the finest foods, a feast with vintage wines, a feast of seven courses, a feast lavish with gourmet desserts. And here on this mountain, God will banish the pall of doom hanging over all peoples, the shadow of doom darkening all nations. Yes, God will banish death forever. And God will wipe the tears from every face and remove every sign of disgrace from God’s people, wherever they are. Yes! God says so! Also at that time, people will say, “Look at what’s happened! This is our God for whom we have waited. God arrived and saved us – this God, the one we waited for. Let’s celebrate, sing the joys of salvation. God’s hand rests on this mountain.”
1 Corinthians 13:12-13 (New Revised Standard Version) For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three. And the greatest of these is love
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 toward 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[a]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 around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” 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.