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 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.
Not long after I arrived at the first church I served, I learned of an elderly member who
was homebound and interested in conversation. Her strength was waning but she was not
in pain. She remained curious about the world and open to new relationships. We had a
handful of lovely visits, and then one evening her family called to let me know that she
had died peacefully, surrounded by three generations of those she loved.
They asked if I would come, and then told me this story when I arrived: A few minutes
after Frances died, her young great-grandson climbed up on the bed, leaned down to look
Margaret LaMotte Torrence, UPC, Easter 2019 2
closely into her face, and then turned to the rest of the family and said matter-of-factly,
“She’s not in there any more.”
“She’s not in there any more.” It is as good a way to make sense of death as any I know.
The little boy described a void. Gathered around a loved one’s cooling body, what we
feel is absence.
Mary Magdalene must have carried such an absence in her heart as she approached Jesus’
tomb in the darkness of Easter morning. According to John’s account, she had been one
of four women to witness his crucifixion. And when she saw in the half-light that the
stone had been moved from in front of his tomb, what made her turn and run was not
some intimation of resurrection but the fear that grave robbers had desecrated his tomb
and carried his body away.
According to the gospel writers, Easter begins in fear and confusion—which sometimes
makes me wonder why we welcome Easter so boldly: with trumpets and lilies, all the
colors of the rainbow—and such confident assertions about the nature of life and death.
The gospel accounts are not nearly so simple. It will take time for the church to find its
way to such practices, such formulations.
For his part, John goes to great lengths to show that each of the three figures arriving at
the empty grave in the half-light notices something different, and each comes to a distinct
conclusion about what it must mean. In the end, two of them turn and just go home. The
only one who is there to encounter Jesus as the day dawns is the one who is willing to
stay in that place of confusion, to keep asking her question even when it blinds her, to
continue searching for her Lord through her tears.
There’s no reason to expect that it would be different for any of us. Christian Educator
Debie Thomas puts it this way: “We come to the empty tomb as ourselves, for good or for
ill. We don’t shed our baggage ahead of time; it barges in with us and shapes our
perceptions and conclusions. What matters, then, is encountering the risen Jesus in the
particulars of our own messy lives. What matters is finding in the empty tomb the hope
we need for our own struggles, losses, traumas, and disappointments. Whatever
universal claims we make as Christians must begin in the rich, fertile ground of our own
hearts, our own stories. Whatever acclamations we cry out on Easter Sunday must begin
with a willingness to linger in the garden, desolate and alone, listening for the sounds of
our own names, spoken in love. For our testimonies to ring true, they must originate in
radical, intimate encounter.”i
This passage turns, of course, when Mary hears her name in the particular cadence of
Jesus’ voice. The sound breaches her despair, allowing her to respond with her own cry
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of recognition: not Rabbi, but Rabbouni. It’s a first-person, possessive form, “My
teacher,” laying joyful claim to the relationship they have shared. But Jesus does not let
her linger in the moment. He insists that she cannot keep holding on to the way things
used to be. Mary must let go of who he has been to her in order to experience the new life
he now wants to share.
Friends, it takes great trust not to cling to the shape of the love we have known in the
past. Those of you living through this interim season have skin in that game. It takes
courage to imagine resurrection.
Former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams puts it this way:
“There is a clinging to Jesus that shows itself in that longing to be utterly sure of our
rightness. We want him where we can see him and manage him, so that we know exactly
where to turn to be told that everything is all right and that he is on our side. We do it in
religious conflicts, we do it in moral debates, and we do it in politics. We want to stand
still and be reassured, rather than moving faithfully with Jesus along a path into new life
whose turnings we don’t know in advance….Perhaps when Jesus tells us not to cling to
him one of the many things he says is, “Do not use me…. Don’t cling; follow. Take the
next step, putting your feet in the gap I have cleared, conscious of how you may make
mistakes, but trusting that I can restore you and lead you further.”ii [emphasis mine]
One of the central claims of this passage is that Jesus’ resurrection makes possible a new
form of intimacy with our creator. That’s why the message that Mary carries to the
disciples is so profound. This is the first time in John’s gospel—here in the second-to-last
chapter—that Jesus refers to God not only as “my God and my Father” but as “your God
and your father.” Going forward, Jesus will be present with his friends in community, as
they love and serve the world for which he died. In speaking to Mary, Jesus says to all of
us hearing her story that it will be incumbent upon each of us to breathe in the courage he
offers, and then say where it is that we have sensed God moving in the shadows.
When talking about the resurrection, we often fixate on the question of what really
happened to Jesus—but none of the gospel writers attempts to describe his resurrection—
the Bible seems much more interested in what really happened to his followers.
As the reality of Easter unfolded in their lives, the disciples’ fear and confusion gave way
to courage and initiative—something set them free. Liberation from fear—and the
discovery of joy in the midst of heart-breaking loss—those continue to be the most
powerful signs of resurrection I know.
Margaret LaMotte Torrence, UPC, Easter 2019 4
To follow Jesus is to open our hearts to a life we will not control. We will see it all
around us, on the most ordinary days. And so I want to tell you an ordinary story.
It must have been in 1996 or 97 that I met Eric, shortly before I came to work as a student
intern at the church he served as an elder. Lee and I were fond of him from the start, but
we did not know to hope that in a few years’ time, he would be family in every sense of
the word. He would marry my older sister. They would meet a few years later at my
Their wedding, when it came, was a fabulous homespun affair that lasted more than a
week: a Sunday morning service at that little New Jersey church, then a 2nd gathering
days later at Kathy’s Quaker meeting in North Carolina. At both of those celebrations
there was a small table set aside on which there was a single photograph of a beautiful
young woman in her early 20s—Eric’s only sibling, his sister Emily. Emily had died
years earlier in a mountain climbing accident. I never knew Emily, but I am still haunted
by a story Eric once told about her.
When Emily was in college she worked at a camp for people with profound disabilities.
Part of her job was to bathe the campers. She was so moved by the vulnerability that this
required of them that she thought it only right that she be equally exposed. In recognition
of their common humanity, when it came time to bathe her companions, she would shed
her own clothes, too.
I’m aware that this story that does not fit our categories of propriety, good boundaries,
critical distance. But it reminds me of one who took off his robe in order to wash the feet
of his friends, saying to them in the process. “Unless I wash you, you have no share with
me.” It reminds me of one who left behind his grave-clothes for our sake.
As Eric prepared to marry my sister, Kathy, he said to me, “I thought I’d never have a
sister again. But here you are.” Friends, God keeps giving us to each other in the most
surprising ways, opening our hearts to new life we could not have imagined even as we
wait for the redeeming of all things.
When Jesus entrusted his message to Mary Magdalene, he asked her to share it with his
brothers. He dared to claim those scattered, confused, fearful followers as his family. He
does the same for us.
Beloved of God, Christ is risen. He is risen indeed.
And we need to tell that story with our very lives.
Margaret LaMotte Torrence, UPC, Easter 2019 5
i Debie Thomas, https://www.journeywithjesus.net/essays/2172-i-have-seen-the-lord
ii as quoted by Frances Taylor Gench, Encounters with Jesus, studies in the Gospel of
John, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007, 132.