Sunday, April 5, 2015

April 5, 2015

Rev. John Watts

Nampa First UMC



Luke 23:55 – 24:11

The seventh in a series of eight.


We ended last week with the last words Jesus spoke from the cross.  “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!”  The same verse says that “having said this, he breathed his last” (Luke 23:46).  He was dead.  Thirty-three years old.  His story was over.  So it seemed.

There is a curious verse that follows.  “And all his acquaintances and the women who had followed him from Galilee stood at a distance and saw these things” (23:49).  There is no mention of his disciples.  They were hiding.  They were afraid.  They figured they might be next.  There were just these unidentified “acquaintances” and also “the women who had followed him from Galilee.”  Who were these women?

It gets more curious as we read on.  Here’s the first verse we read today:  “The women who had come with him from Galilee followed” (23:55)  The same women.  Again, we are given no names.  We wonder who they are.  It’s like it’s written this way intentionally to tease us.  To make us want to know.  We ask ourselves, to paraphrase that famous line from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, “Who are those gals??”

We’ve been reading the Gospel of Luke in preparation for Easter.  Those who have been reading carefully might remember this. It’s at the beginning of chapter 8.

Soon afterward [Jesus] went on through cities and villages, preaching and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God.  And the twelve were with him, and also some women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities:  Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Chuza, Herod’s steward, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their means.

These are the women who were at the cross.  These are the women who were still there as Jesus’ lifeless body was taken from the cross and placed in the tomb.  Jesus had twelve disciples, all men.  Less well known but just as true, Jesus also had an unknown number of female disciples.  Three are named here but we are told there were “many others”.  And we are also told it was the women who paid the bills.  It was the women who “provided for them out of their means”.  Judas was the treasurer but these women were the ones who made sure there was money in the treasury.  If the women had their way, one of them might have taken the treasurer’s job.  They might have been able to tell Jesus that Judas was not one of his better choices.

I wonder if you realize how unusual it is that Jesus would have female “disciples”.  I put “disciples” in quotation marks because I know the gender of the twelve official disciples is important to many. But clearly there were these women who were following Jesus and not just twelve men.  Women were among the nobodies who mattered to Jesus.

We’ve been compiling a long list of nobodies these last few weeks:  night shift shepherds, those with leprosy, those possessed by demons, prostitutes, prodigals, those who were lying forgotten on the sides of roads, thieves being crucified.  But on this Easter Sunday we add to the list a general category that for people living when Jesus lived may have been considered the lowest of the low.  Women.

Perhaps you have heard of the old Jewish prayer, “Blessed art thou, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who hast not made me a woman.”  It gets worse.  Josephus, the Jewish historian and contemporary of Jesus said this:  “The woman is in all things inferior to the man.”  Rabbi Eliezer who also lived back then said, “Let the law be burned rather than entrusted to a woman.”

There wasn’t much women’s liberation going on when Jesus lived.  There was none.  Women had their place.  It wasn’t in dealing with the things of God.  That was man’s work.  No rabbi would ever remotely consider the possibility of having female disciples.  No rabbi, that is, except Jesus.

There were women at the cross.  There were women at the tomb.  “The women who had followed him from Galilee.”  The men were hiding.  It was now up to these nobodies to properly care for the body.  There were customs and traditions to follow.  The scripture mentions spices and ointments.  The problem was it was Friday and the sun was about to set.  There was no time to complete their task before Sabbath began.  The Sabbath would continue until sunset on Saturday.  But then the problem would be no light to see what they were doing.  So they returned early Sunday morning.

When they reached their destination something wasn’t right.  The stone sealing the tomb had been rolled away.  That was strange.  They were concerned that they were going to have to get help to move that stone, but now it had been done for them.  They look in the tomb.  The body is gone.  What could this mean?  What were their emotions at that moment?  Luke condenses it into a single word.  “Perplexed.”

Then they noticed they had company.  It wasn’t just women at the tomb any longer.  “Behold, two men stood by them in dazzling apparel.”  Except they weren’t exactly men.  They were angels.   Messengers from God.  The women were no longer just perplexed.  “They were frightened and bowed their faces to the ground.”  The angels spoke.   They asked a question.  “Why do you seek the living among the dead?”

I wonder how long it took these women to figure out what that question really meant.  Jesus was not dead.  Jesus was alive!  He had risen just as he said that he would!

This was big news!  The men would want to know.  The “real” disciples.  So we’re told these women left the empty tomb, they found where the disciples were hiding, and they told them this glorious. amazing, wonderful news that was far too good to keep to themselves.

The response?  It fits every worst stereotype of male chauvinism.  “These words seemed to them an idle tale and they did not believe them” (24:11)   After all it was women who told them this.  You consider the source.  You don’t trust women.  Even if they told you something that could be true, you still wouldn’t take their word for it.  You’d check it out for yourself.  But they had just told you something that couldn’t possibly be true.  I’ll bet they laughed out loud when they heard it.  That’s a good one!  You don’t take women seriously.  You just thank God you aren’t one.

Finally we are given the names of these idle tale tellers.  At least three of them.  We’re told there were others.  But the three named are Mary Magdalene and Joanna and Mary the mother of James.  It’s interesting to compare this list with the list we looked at earlier from chapter 8.  Both lists say there were others not named.  Two of the three names are on both lists.  One is Joanna.  The other is Mary Magdalene.   We know very little about Joanna.  We know a little more about Mary Magdalene.

It’s probably good to begin with who she is not.  She is not Mary the sister of Martha and Lazarus.  She is not the unnamed woman we met earlier in this series who emptied the flask of expensive ointment over the feet of Jesus and who is often assumed to be a prostitute.  And she is not Jesus’ wife, in spite of what you may have read in a Dan Brown novel.

Magdalene was not her last name.  It just tells us where she was from.  She was from Magdala, a town on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee.  It’s a reasonable assumption she had no husband and she had no children.  If she had a husband, she would have been called, “Mary, wife of . . . ”   If she had children, she would have been called, “Mary, mother of . . . ”  Instead she was just, “Mary from Magdala”.  So we can be pretty sure she was alone in the world.

Luke tells us why that may have been.  She had seven demons.  We talked about demons earlier in this series.  In fact, we talked about a man who had so many they were called “legion”.  Mary just had seven.  Demons were often used to explain physical or mental disorders that couldn’t be explained in any other way.  You could suffer from depression or bipolar disorder or some other psychological problem that could be diagnosed and treated today, but back then people would just say you had a demon.  Or if it’s really bad, seven demons.

What can we conclude about Mary Magdalene from this?  She was probably recognized as someone who just wasn’t quite right.  Therefore, who would want to marry her?  Who would want to have children with her?  Who would want to be her friend?  We might call her, “Mary the rejected one”.  Or, “Mary the nobody”.

Jesus set her free from those demons.  Jesus lifted her up to her rightful status as a beloved daughter of God.  And this nobody became a follower of Jesus.  So much so that she is mentioned 14 times in the Bible.  She was one of the women watching when Jesus died and when he was buried and she was one of the women first to discover the empty tomb.  First to realize that Jesus rose from the dead just as he said he would.

The resurrection of Jesus Christ changes everything.  Until you know, as Mary knew, that this really happened, the puzzle of life remains a puzzle.  The resurrection of Jesus Christ is the missing piece that, once found, completes the puzzle.  Once found it makes life no longer a puzzle.  Life now makes sense.  As we sing in that Bill and Gloria Gaither hymn, “Life is worth the living just because He lives.”

For one thing, the resurrection vindicates everything Jesus said and did.  If he had died an innocent 33-year-old man and stayed dead, do you really think anyone would be talking about him today?  There might be mention of him in history textbooks, the kind that are heavy, with those thin pages and that small print.  Josephus, that great historian we mentioned earlier who didn’t think much of women, might or might not have included his name in his books.  But do you really think he would have disciples still today?  His disciples, male and female, could not have been much more than a hundred while he lived.  Today they number in the billions.  This never would have happened if Jesus didn’t rise from the dead.

Second, the resurrection vindicates the identity of Jesus.  He was recognized by others as the Son of God while he lived.  There are several verses where he identifies himself as the Son of God.  If he had taken this back when Pilate and Herod interrogated him, his life might have been spared.  He didn’t.  He couldn’t.  He knew who he was.  Now we all know.  Anyone who accepts the resurrection of Jesus Christ has to know that he was who he said he was.  He is who he says he is.  Paul tells us that Jesus is now “designated Son of God in power . . . by his resurrection from the dead” (Romans 1:4).

Third, the resurrection changes how we face death.  Again the Apostle Paul:  “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.  But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead” (I Corinthians 15:19-20).

The older we get the more conscious we become of the fact that the life we know on this earth is going to come to an end some day.  Most of us get a generous number of years to live.  Most all of us get more than Jesus got.  But the older we get the faster time moves.

Our daughter Heather’s 24th birthday fell on a Sunday this year.  After church that day I was talking to Rachel and Mike Fabbi.  She was holding their 18-month-old baby, Sedona.  Heather was that size once!  How could it be that all those years have already passed?  Where has the time gone?

We can get morbid on this subject.  We’re all dying.  One day we’re all going to be dead.  Not the most pleasant thing to think about.  But the resurrection changes our perspective totally!  We have something to look forward to that is beyond this life.

I love the way C.S. Lewis ends his Narnia series.  It’s a strange ending.  It ends with death.  But it’s also a happy ending.  Because it ends with the life that is ours after death.   Here’s the way he put it:

And for us this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after.  But for them it was only the beginning of the real story.  All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page; now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story, which no one on earth has read; which goes on forever; in which every chapter is better than the one before.  (The Last Battle, page 184)

We truly do have a lot to look forward to!  Because Jesus rose from the dead.  And Mary Magdalene was among the first to realize this.  Or was she the very first?

Every one of the gospels tells the story of Jesus a little differently.  There are details in the Easter story that are not quite the same in all four.  It’s kind of like four eye witnesses to some event.  They each saw what happened but they saw it in different ways and they remember different things.  It’s actually remarkable how similar these four gospels are, the Easter story included.

There’s a detail found only in John’s gospel that has to do with Mary Magdalene.  John tells us that she not only met angels at the empty tomb.  She also met Jesus.  She was weeping.  She thought someone had stolen her Lord’s body.  Someone spoke to her.  “Why are you weeping?”  She thought it was the gardener.  She accused him of moving the body.  And Jesus only had to say one word.  “Mary.”  That’s all it took.  She knew it was him.  She knew he was risen from the dead.  The first one to know (John 20:11-18).

Almost as shocking as the news itself is the identity of the one who first learned the news.  A woman.  And not just any woman.  A woman who was an outcast and who knew rejection all her life.

It was shocking that Jesus included her as one of his followers to begin with.  It was much more shocking that she was the first to learn the greatest good news ever.  And that she was the first to share it with the disciples.  It “seemed to them an idle tale”.  It wasn’t.  It was the truth.  The truth of Easter.  The truth that changes everything.

It vindicates what Jesus said and who Jesus was.   It gives us hope for life after this life.  And one more thing.  It reminds us that nobody is a nobody to God.  Not Mary Magdalene.  Not you.  Not me.  Not anyone who will cross your path this week.  It reminds us to treat people that way.  Beginning with yourself.  Be good to yourself.  And be good to all those you meet.  Jesus told us this and Jesus showed us this.  As we do it to the least of these we are doing it to Him.

God this is a big, big day.  And this day brings us face to face with a big, big claim.  That Jesus “was crucified, dead, and buried [and] the third day he rose from the dead.”  The women who first came face to face with this were perplexed.  The men who first were told dismissed it as an idle tale.  So we know you understand when we struggle with Easter.  But God, we also read in scripture how doubt gave way to faith.  Faith that changed everything.  Changed lives.  Changed institutions.  A world turned upside down.  Give us that faith, O God.  That Easter faith.  Make us your Easter people who live fully, joyfully, faithfully in this life and who look forward to the life that is to come.  In Jesus’ name,  Amen.