Sermon, 3/31/24: Mary Magdalene and the Case of the Missing Body, or When Seeing Is not Believing!

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Easter Day

Acts 10:34–43; Psalm 118:1–2, 14–24; 1 Cor. 15:1–11; John 20:1–18

Tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away. John 20:15c

In the 1980’s there was this great board game called “CLUE,” which was later produced as a hilarious full-length film. It was this board game and film that came to mind as I read, privately at home, the gospel appointed for Easter 2024.  As I read, it occurred to me that if the authors of our Book of Records, the Bible, were still living, they could bring a lawsuit against the writers of CLUE and the producers of the same-named film, for I am convinced that today’s gospel by John was the prototype for CLUE. 

The names of the cast of characters in CLUE have been changed, and the location has been altered.  However, human nature, which is being explored and exposed in the gospel, is front and center.  Do not misunderstand!  I do not imply that the Easter story is a comedy, on the contrary.  For people of faith, today’s accounting by John of the Resurrection presents a splendid opportunity, to reflect on that which underlies the story of the Resurrection which, in my opinion, is traceable to the Book of Genesis and the Story of the Creation.

My version of Proto-CLUE bears the following title:  “Mary Magdelene and Case of the Missing Body: When Seeing is not Believing.”  And I have divided my version into three distinct, but related, sections: I. The Problem: Discovering that a body is missing.  II. The Resolution of the Mystery.  III.  Implications for our own sleuthing in 2024.   

I. The Problem: Discovering that a body is missing.

If ever you have had the pleasure of reading a bedtime story to a child, and especially if said child has asked you to read the same story again and again, if not on consecutive nights, then perhaps every other night, if so, then you will recall that that the child knows the story “by heart,” as we Midwesterners are prone to say.  And the child does not brook any change in the narrative.  Omit so much as a sentence, and that child will correct you.  I know because I often violated that principle and was corrected.

Today’s story, I have just read it to you.  Notwithstanding, it is crucial that I recount, just briefly, several details.  Mary goes to the tomb to anoint a body, and not just any old body, but the body of Jesus whose feet she had just days prior anointed with an oil which cost two hundred denarii.  Upon arrival at the tomb, it struck her that things were not as they should have been.  The scene presented a novelty, not what her experience had taught her to expect.  1) A tomb hewn out of a hill and sealed with a large stone, should have been sealed at the hour of her arrival.  It was, after all, early morning.  She discovered an open tomb and that there was no body.  What does one do, when a body comes up missing?

Part II: the Resolution of the Mystery of the Missing Body

Under a different set of circumstances, one might have assumed that Mary was intoxicated, (too early in the morning for that) or that so stricken with grief, she must have gone to the wrong grave site.  Neither of these conditions applied to Mary Magdalene.  In fact, a more level-headed, sober approach to reality could not be found.  No fear, no shame, no false assumptions, rather Mary Magdalene was prepared for the stark reality of finding a dead body, but not an empty tomb.    

Mary Magdalene, the epitome of calm, although clearly disturbed, but not hysterical, sought a solution to the case of the missing body.  And one was at hand, but it reaches her in a somewhat convoluted manner.  First, given her status as a woman, Mary fetches Simon Peter and the disciple whom Jesus loved.  But they were of no help.  In fact, in other descriptions of this scene, Peter and the other disciple believe Mary to be hallucinating. They go, in order to appease Mary.  After their inspection, they returned to their hiding place.  But the case of the missing body had still to be solved.  Thus, Mary returned to the tomb, where the solution awaits her. 

The solution is at hand, and in the form of another individual at the entrance to the tomb/cave.  John describes Mary’s calm demeanor: “Supposing him (this person) to be the gardener, she (Mary Magdalene) said to him, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.”   Perhaps Joseph of Arimathea, a somewhat closeted disciple of Jesus, who had offered up his own tomb, had under the cloak of night’s darkness, returned to reclaim secretly the tomb for himself, after Jesus had be laid to rest.  However, there is nothing to support this theory.

This all seems perfectly legitimate, clear, and realistic to me, nothing otherworldly, nothing hysterical about Mary Magdalene’s approach to life and death, despite her strong feelings for Jesus.  She grieved, but she could not be duped.  Facts were facts, and nature could not be denied.  Indeed, the only totally unrealistic line in this portion of John’s narrative is the statement attributed to Mary Magdalene that, if the gardener knew whereto the body of Jesus had been taken, she would remove it from wherever it now lay, to a more appropriate place. 

My own male chauvinism shows through here, for being slight of build myself, I find it difficult to imagine a woman schlepping the heavy remains of her deceased teacher and friend a mere centimeter.   Maybe John, as author, was exercising poetic license, or maybe as he played out the narrative in his head, Mary would go to seek the help of the other women, because—let us not forget—all the men were in hiding.  However, let us not get distracted by this minor literary technicality.

How John solves Mary’s mystery is the exciting part of the tale.  The gardener, not in the sitting room of the cave, but at the entrance, says only one word, a name: “Mary.”  And Mary’s response is likewise only one word: “Rabbouni!”  Case closed.

III. Implications for our own sleuthing.

Sight and sound are the two of the five senses which help us to navigate our environment.  This is not to deny those of smell, taste, and touch.   On this occasion, one of her senses, that of sight, had failed Mary.  One would surely think that she should have recognized the person, with whom she spoke, for he was the same person whose feet just days before she had washed with her tears and dried with her hair and then anointed with oil.  What Mary had done at that time was undeniably intimate.  Yet, she did not recognize him, perhaps because of her grief, but I suggest less out of grief, than out of facts of life.   Jesus had died and had been buried.  Her Jesus could not be standing outside the tomb!  Full stop!

I cannot tell you the number of times that I have encountered someone whom I know, with whom I have sat in meetings, and when I chance upon that same individual outside of the venue, where I would normally see her or him, and not attired as I might have expected him or her to be, and when my mind is preoccupied with other matters, I have found myself  embarrassed by more than a moment of memory lapse.  I just cannot recall his or her name.   Often, we require the assistance of other individuals or, as in “the Case of Mary Magdalene and the Missing Body, or When Seeing is not Believing.” another of our senses.  The sense of sound brought Mary Magdalene literally to her senses.  It was the uniqueness of sound.  

Once, on an occasion, when I was visiting my older daughter and family in Hong Kong, on the evening of my arrival, to aid me in fighting a 12-hour time differential, I was invited to accompany them on an outing with several of their friends and their young families.  The women gathered in a group, and the men had gathered in their group.  I sat on the periphery of the men’s group. Their children were allowed to play on trampolines and other facilities there.  In my daze, I heard suddenly a distressing cry from a child.  All the men heard the child, but they continued their conversation, that is to say, all save one man who, like a detonated canon ball, raced off in direction of that distress cry.  That father had heard a sound that was uniquely owned by his offspring.  There is something unique in a voice that brings about a response that settles ambiguity.

When Mary Magdalene recognizes Jesus, it is not by sight, nor by touch, but rather by sound.  Only when “the proposed gardener” called her by name, with that unique timbre, did she know him.  It is a truth that echoes in John’s gospel: “my sheep know my voice.” 

Easter Day begins with a sound: Alleluia!  HEAR the Good News!  This had to be comforting to the early church—those who, by only one or two generations, had missed firsthand experience with Jesus.  Those for whom John wrote—and biblical scholars are almost unanimous in their conclusion that the Gospel of John was written in the late 1st century, ca. 85–95 AD—wanted questions answered, as they sat in catacombs or in hidden away places.  How tall was he?  What did he look like?  How did he pull off his miracles?  How did he defy nature that says, when you are dead, you are dead?  That early church, at the time of John’s narrative, must have longed for firsthand experiences of “having been with Jesus.”  John, one of the disciples, was as close as they should come.

But then John reminded his immediate audience, as does he us today, of another truth.  We have all been guilty of seeing, but yet not really seeing, of seeing what we want to see, guilty of attributing certain attributes to individuals and groups based on imagined or experienced encounters with someone who looks like or dresses like the individual before us.  Assumptions, both negative and positive, can be detrimental to growth and realistic outcomes.  For that reason, if this Easter narrative teaches us nothing else, it teaches us to look beyond immediate appearances.  Things are not always as they seem.

As we read this mystery novel this Easter Day, we are reminded that faith can be birthed and nurtured through the ear, as well as through the eye, through sound as well as through sight, and most importantly primarily through the heart, for it was out of her love for Jesus, that our heroine Mary Magdalene risked ridicule, rejection, ostracism, at the hands of those who thought, because they had been privileged to share the Last Supper with Jesus, they, and they alone, could lay exclusive claim to Jesus’ word of the  Good News of God who, even unto this day, in forms unimaginable, continues to care for us, the created order. And the “Case of Mary and the Missing Body” is a direct reminder from our God of creation, that God is capable of choosing the least among us as the purveyor of that Good News.

Christ insisted that Mary not cling physically to him, but to recognize him in her heart, to hear and see him in and with her heart, an invaluable and too often unrecognized sense.  As did Mary at the tomb, the disciples learned to listen to Christ calling their names: in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the uttermost part of the earth, including Somerville, Massachusetts.  Easter Day reassures us of what the psalmist has written: Each of us is a unique being, known by God before we knew ourselves.  “You, O God, are he who took me out of the womb and kept me safe upon my mother’s breast. (Ps. 22:9)

I offer one closing footnote to this mystery of the Resurrection.  At the resurrection of Lazarus, brother of Mary and Martha, when Mary responded to Jesus’ question about the resurrection, Jesus corrected her theology.  He declared to Mary, “I am the resurrection and the life.”  The resurrection is both a hope for the future, but it is also a matter of present tense.  For believers in and followers of Jesus of Nazareth, each new day is for us a day of resurrection.  Each day we are given again the opportunity to lay claim to and to show those, whom we encounter, that the image of God that is in each of us, is alive.  If we are as persistent as Mary, if we are as calm as Mary Magdalene, we will hear God’s voice, calling us by name into action.  The gardener of the universe stands just that near, saying, “It is Easter.”  I am with you, even into the end of the ages.  Alleluia! Christ is risen.  The Lord is risen, indeed! Amen