Summit Presbyterian Church
March 27, 2016 - Easter Sunday
Isaiah 65: 17-25; Luke 23:50-24:12
A Living Hope
I’d like to begin this morning by talking about Mary Magdalene. I know she’s not the main character in the Easter story. She’s neither Lord nor Savior, and it’s not her resurrection we’re celebrating. But she is one of the first witnesses. In the gospel of John she’s the first to see the risen Christ, and in Luke she’s among the women who find the tomb empty, hear the angelic pronouncement, and run to tell the others. Mark and Matthew also place her at the tomb and among the first to bring the news.
All we know of Mary comes from the gospels. They don’t say much, and they don’t agree in all ways, but we know one thing for sure: she wasn’t a prostitute — at least none of the gospels even hint at that. That legend may have started when early Christians got the stories of New Testament women mixed up. It also may have begun as a kind of character smear - not necessarily intentional- that undermined her reputation as an early disciple and leader. After all, you didn’t want other women getting ideas! We know from her name that she probably came from the town of Magdala, and Luke gives two other details. She was one of the women from Galilee who followed Jesus and provided for him out of her resources. And Jesus had driven seven demons out of her.
Seven demons is a lot of demons (if they’re your personal demons). It’s not as much as a legion — that’s what the Geresene demoniac had, if you remember that story. He lived naked among the tombs, chained and shackled, except when the demons were feeling especially feisty and drove him into the wild. But he was an exception: most people who were troubled by demons had just one. And one demon could do a lot of damage: make you mute. Throw you into a fire. Seven demons would have been life-threatening and life-wrecking. Now, we don’t believe in demons the way ancient peoples did. If we met Mary Magdalene before Jesus healed her we might have said she had schizophrenia, or a severe case of epilepsy, or some other painful and debilitating illness. So when Jesus drove out those seven demons it’s no wonder she stayed close. It’s no wonder she provided for him out of her resources. She would have been grateful. She would have wanted others to be healed, and she also would have wanted protection. What if the demons tried to return? So when Jesus was arrested and crucified and laid in the tomb, Mary would not only have grieved a friend and the life-changing healing love she knew in him. She would have been frightened. Had Beelzebub, the ruler of the demons, won after all? It must have seemed that way when she saw the Roman soldiers leading Jesus away. It must have seemed that way when she heard the cries of the crucified men on Golgatha. With Beelzebub rising, would the demons take her prisoner again? As she rested on that Sabbath day, did she anxiously watch for them creeping out from the corners or slipping under her door?
But frightened or no, she and the other women had one more thing to do. They had seen where Jesus was laid; they had prepared spices and ointments. They would touch him one last time. They would wash and anoint the body. When they saw the stone rolled away, and the body missing, they didn’t know what to make of it. Had it been moved or stolen? But then two men in dazzling clothes - the uniform of divine messengers - told them that Jesus was alive. He had risen! Didn’t they remember what he said? And then they did remember: Jesus had told them he would be killed, but then rise again . . . . they just hadn’t been able to get their head around it. They still couldn’t, really: they had yet to meet the Risen Christ, to eat with him, to see him ascend into heaven and then to receive the power of the Holy Spirit. But the empty tomb and the angelic visitation was enough to give them hope. If he was alive, it wasn’t over. Beelzebub hadn’t won. How relieved, how grateful Mary must have been! If Christ was alive, surely the demons could be kept at bay. She, too would live. And so she ran to tell the others.
I wonder if God chose Mary Magdalene as one of the first witnesses because she knew what was at stake. Mary had up close and personal experience with the demonic. She didn’t just watch demons from a distance or hear about their work. She knew them intimately. She knew how very destructive they were. So she would get immediately what miraculous good news it was that they had not overcome the Lord. She would truly understand what miraculous good news it was that Christ had risen. So what if the disciples thought she was telling an idle tale! It wouldn’t stop her. She would tell everyone the news. Christ is alive! Her hope was alive, too.
And so Mary testifies to us, through the living word of Scripture, that Christ is alive. For that living hope is for us, also. Because demons have not left the scene. In fact, they are very busy. Taking possession of folks through drugs or alcohol. Tearing apart marriages. Finding their way into young men or women who should be going to school, learning a trade or spending time with their children but who are instead making bombs or shooting guns. Demons are worming their way into congressional debates where climate change is denied, women are belittled, and peoples are threatened with carpet bombing. Demons are working the levers and greasing the wheels of systems we call racism or fascism or communism. Demons are doing their best to plant in all of us a sense of despair, so we’ll throw up our hands and hand over the goods.
But Christ is Risen! Life won over death! God is more powerful than Beelzebub, love is more powerful than hate. God is doing a new thing, even if the new creation hasn’t come in all its fullness and there’s still a battle ahead. We have the right one on our side: the risen Christ is working through us, in the Holy Spirit. Mending relationships, healing the wounded, teaching us truth. Planting in us compassion for those who are lost or in need. Giving us a yearning for justice and peace, so that one day all who plant vineyards shall eat their fruit and all who build houses will inhabit them. So that one day no one will labor in vain, or bear children for calamity. So that one day even the wolf and the lamb shall feed together, and no one shall hurt or destroy on God’s holy mountain. We’re not likely to see that day in the 10 or 40 or even 60 mortal years we each have before us. But that’s not our timeline. Our timeline is the eternal life promised in the resurrection. And as we wait and work for that day, signs of that new creation all around us, signs that Christ, indeed has risen: when our loved ones recover from illness or emerge from depression or stay sober. When children - and adults - are baptized. When nations sign peace agreements. When refugees are welcomed. When new inventions bring well-being and prosperity. When slaves are freed and rights are won.
I’m going to end by reading the last verse of our final hymn — because sometimes when we’re singing it’s hard to also listen:
Christ is risen!
Earth and heaven nevermore shall be the same.
Break the bread of new creation, where the world is still in pain.
Tell its grim, demonic chorus: “Christ is risen! Get you gone!
God the first and last is with us. Sing Hosanna, everyone!