This coming Sunday, in churches all over Christendom, worshippers will hear the gospel story of Doubting Thomas. The story of Doubting Thomas is prescribed gospel reading every year for the Sunday after Easter. I’ve never understood why Thomas should hold such a prominent place in our lectionary: I mean, as the stories have been handed down to us, when the chips were down, and Jesus could have used their support, Thomas and the guys deserted Jesus; they left him alone and spread out across the city to hide from the Romans and the religious authorities. According to the anonymous-gospel-story-tellers, it was the two Marys, together with the other women who had financially supported Jesus’ ministry, and who stuck by him to the bitter end. Also according to the anonymous-gospel-story-teller, we know as John, it was Mary, the one they call Magdala who brought back the news that Jesus was not dead, but had risen. Despite the fact that Mary Magdalene was the one chosen to be the Apostle to the Apostles, (the word apostle comes from the Greek for “the one sent”) our lectionary quickly moves on from the empty tomb to the upper room so that we can all once again explore the story of good old, doubting Thomas.
So here, let me honour Mary the Apostle to the Apostles with this my imaginary account of Mary’s story. Remember the power of our imaginations to breathe life into what appears to all the world to be dead.
Shalom. I greet you in the name of our risen Christ. My name is Mary. You may know me as Mary Magdalene. I am not from around here. I come from a good family in Magdala. Magdala is a wealthy city on the Sea of Galilee, just south of Capernaum. My family made a lot of money in the fishing industry in Magdala. While I was growing up I lacked nothing. But I was not happy. I was sick. I would sit around the house moping and complaining and make everyone miserable. I was so distraught. Often I was so upset that I pulled out my own hair.
Sometimes I would be so excited that people couldn’t stop me from talking. I ran up all sorts of bills in the market place which my parents had to pay. I was always cooking up some mad scheme or other. I would rant and rave at the slightest provocation. From time to time I would become ill and stay in bed for weeks on end. I knew something was terribly wrong and nothing seemed to ease my anxieties. I was a prisoner inside my own mind. Then I met Jesus. He was teaching outside of the synagogue. At first, I just stood back in the crowd and listened as he spoke about a new world which God intended to create. It would be a world where the sick are healed and prisoners are set free. I wanted to taste this freedom which Jesus spoke about. I wanted to ask him so many questions. But the crowd pressed in upon him demanding that he tell them more and I was pushed farther away from him. In despair, I turned to leave.
Then Jesus called my name, “Mary”. Above the shouts of the crowd, I heard it as plain as day. And then again, “Mary”. The crowd hushed and once again, Jesus called my name, “Mary”. I turned around and looked into his face and I knew that I could not turn away from his call. He wanted me. “Rabbi”, I said, because I knew that he would be my teacher.
In the weeks that followed Jesus taught me many things. Day by day he drove away the demons that haunted me. Jesus healed me, he set me free and I followed him. I used the money that I received from my family to help to provide for the needs of his followers. There were other women who helped with the expenses like Joanna, Martha and Susanna. We travelled from town to town as he proclaimed God’s love and mercy to all. Jesus healed so many people.
What days those were. If only we hadn’t gone to Jerusalem. We warned him not to go, but each day he spoke about what lay ahead of him. Even the men were beginning to doubt the wisdom of going to Jerusalem. But Jesus just became more and more insistent that we travel to Jerusalem.
If only Jesus had not become so popular with the people. If only he had kept a low profile. But it was impossible. The people of Jerusalem greeted him with such enthusiasm that the religious leaders had to take notice. And then there was that awful scene in the Temple where Jesus lost his temper. Soon even the Romans would not be able to ignore his presence. There was nothing we could do but stand by him.
We stood at Jesus’ side as he preached against the priests and the elders. We drew our courage from one another. Joanna knew the city well and her connections in Herod’s court gave her the confidence to follow Jesus. Salome’s two sons were committed to Jesus and her presence helped us to bear up. The other Mary was my solid companion. We stood side by side on that horrible day after they had arrested Jesus. We stood together in the crowd outside of the cells and waited. We women waited and eventually Jesus was led out in chains. We women walked in procession behind him. We followed him through the gates of the city. The same gates through which he had entered triumphantly just a few days before. But as we left the city the crowd jeered. We women followed Jesus out of the city, we made that horrible journey with him.
The men, fearing arrest had escaped to safety. But we women, followed Jesus. We women were not alone, we were joined by other women who had been won over by Jesus in Jerusalem. They cried bitter tears. Jesus was so touched that he stopped and spoke to them. “Daughters of Jerusalem” he said, “do not cry for me.” But their tears could not be stopped. Jesus said again, “Do not cry for me, but if you must cry, cry for yourselves, and cry for your children. There are terrible days lying ahead, and people will wish they had never been born. If this is what they do to me, then what will they do to others after me?”
On and on up the hill we went. We women from Galilee and Jerusalem walking and weeping together. Jesus staggered on ahead of us. I do not remember them nailing him to the cross. I could not bear to watch. I buried my head in Salome’s breast and I wept.
At some point, Salome stirred me from my own grief and pointed to Mary. I had been so caught up in my own pain that I had not noticed that she was with us. She just stared up at her son and there were no tears just a terrible mask of horror. We tried to take her away, but she would not be moved. So, we stood by her and watched as life slipped away from her son. My beloved Jesus.
Finally before dusk Jesus died and they took down his body. Joseph and Nicodemus helped us wrap his body in cloth. The Sabbath was approaching and so we laid him in a nearby tomb. There was no time to anoint his body before sunset so Joseph and Nicodemus sealed the entrance of the tomb with a stone.
The others left because it was getting dark. But Mary and I stayed. We just sat there staring at the tomb. Eventually stirred by the cold we returned to the city.
I do not remember much about the next day. It passed in a blur. Joanna and Susanna prepared the spices and ointments which Nicodemous had brought. I woke very early on Sunday morning before the sun came up. While it was still dark, I made my way back to the tomb. In the dim light I could scarcely make out that the stone had been rolled away from the entrance to the tomb. I ran back to the city and told Peter and one of the others that they had take Jesus out of the tomb and that I did not know where they had laid him. They ran back ahead of me and found the tomb empty. Then they went back to the city. I could not tear myself away from the tomb. Slowly I gathered up the courage to look inside and there I saw two angels in white sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying. They asked me why I was weeping and I explained that they had taken my beloved Jesus away and I did not know where they had laid him. When I turned around I saw a man whom I assumed must be the gardener. He too asked me why I was crying.
I thought perhaps he might know were the body was. So I pulled myself together and I said, “If you have carried Jesus away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will go to him”. He said to me, “Mary”. All at once I knew. He called my name, and I knew. I heard his voice and I knew. And just like before, I turned toward him and I cried, “Rabbi!”.
I wanted to hold him forever. But gently he disentangled himself. “Don’t hold on to me, let me ascend to God first.” It was then that I saw his wounds. He sent me back to tell the others. He told me to tell them that he was going into God. So I went back to the others and I told them that I had seen Jesus and I told them what Jesus told me.
When I went to that tomb so many years ago, I was distraught. Everything I believed in had been shattered. But in this life you do what you have to do. And so I went to the tomb without hope, without expectation. I went merely to do what needed to be done. I went to the tomb to perform one final act of devotion to a lost cause. I suspect that some of you may go to your sanctuaries simply because it needs to be done. There are many people in the world who see your presence in church as an act of devotion to a lost cause.For so many people in the world, the church is dead. “Why do you seek the living among the dead?” The world has long since given up on the church. The church has been sealed up in the tombs of her cathedrals and chapels. Why do you seek the living among the dead?
Perhaps this is a foolish question. Perhaps we aren’t seeking the living at all. Perhaps we go to churches seeking the same old God we have been worshipping for years, and our mothers and fathers before us, and their mothers and fathers before them. Perhaps we seek the living among the dead because we know that a God who is alive would terrify us. A God who is alive might challenge us, surprise us, even change us, and that may be the last thing we want. And so, we go to churches seeking the same old God. But let me warn you, anything that is exactly the same today as it was years ago is by definition dead, and that includes God.
Perhaps that is why so many people come to church not expecting much. We can come to church merely to do what is required, to preform the necessary rituals. We can come prepared to honour a tradition that used to be alive, but is long since dead. Or we can come to grieve what we have lost, to remember our past. Then we can leave, and go back to our lives.
The stone is rolled away. The tomb is empty. So, why do you seek the living among the dead? The empty tomb is not enough to make us believe. Peter himself went to the empty tomb and looked inside. Then all he did afterwards was go home, wondering what had happened. The empty tomb was not enough then and it is not enough now. The empty tomb, by itself is not good news. It cannot make us believe. The empty tomb cannot change the world. It is not enough. It is not enough because it only tells us where Jesus is not. Christ is not among the dead. The empty tomb tells us nothing about where we will meet our living God.
The tomb is empty. You can go on wondering just what happened. The world can go on as usual. But what if all that I have told you is true. What if Christ is alive? What if death doesn’t have the final word? Our God is alive. And whether we like it or not, what is alive is constantly changing. Our living God will not stay the same. Our God is alive and in our midst. Our living God challenges us to live.
On that cold grey morning so long ago, after I realized what had happened. I remembered all that Jesus had told us. There is so much more that I could tell you. Our risen Christ sent me back to tell the others that Christ was going on ahead of them. Christ wanted us to follow. Christ wants you to follow. Christ is alive. Christ has gone on ahead of you. Christ has gone into the world to heal and make whole all that God has created.
Christ wants you to follow. Christ is Risen! Christ is Risen indeed! Alleluia! The tomb is empty. Do not seek the living among the dead! Let Christ be risen in you!