Concerned with the quantity of church growth and the quality of church life confronts us on every hand. We are barraged at conferences with speakers who can tell us how to get it done. Denominational periodicals quantify the principles of church growth, giving charts and graphs and the subtle sophistications of the interface of church dynamics. Books, pamphlets, CDs, and DVDs all tell us how to get into the fields that are ready for harvest. Somehow in the unplanned providence of God, this past week I saw a film on church growth, I went to a conference that dealt with church growth, I read a magazine that dealt with church growth. I heard people say how churches grow. From all of these, I learned something. But I must say in the midst of all of them I also missed something.
There is more to the matter of quality and quantity of church life than merely the descriptive evidences of how it is done. Churches in our land are doing everything right "by the book," and yet many of them are like the patient in the midst of the most contemporary hospital with the best facilities and highly trained doctors and still dying. Why is this? The early, primitive, ancient Christian church exploded into the Roman world because of one reality. They knew that every time they met in their midst there was the presence of another, intensely, visibly, who had left an empty tomb in Jerusalem. That's the secret of church growth. Everything else was against that early church.
Numerically they were a staggering minority. Financially their friends and their enemies said they were a group of impoverished slaves. Politically they were spied on and harassed, and culturally they had to seek to spread the Christian message in the pollution of the senile debauchery of an aging emperor Tiberius and the perversion of a young Caligula. We have everything for us that they had against us in that regard. Numerically we are at least on the books a majority. Politically, we are protected. Culturally, in Texas standards are puritanical compared to ancient Rome even today. Yet, having everything they did, we seem to lack the one thing they did have and that is a burning, vivid sense that when we come together we are in the presence of an unseen other, one who has conquered death and brought life and immortality to life.
Our hearts crave that we might know that presence. In this passage there may be a clue to it in the first one to whom the risen Christ appeared. Ten or eleven times according to the New Testament our Lord appeared after his resurrection during the 40 days before his final visible ascension. One would have expected that he might first have appeared to Mary his mother on the basis of physical ties, or one would suspect that he would first have appeared to Peter or to John on the basis of apostolic ties or the ties of fraternal service together. He didn't.
The first appearance of the risen Christ was reserved for Mary of Magdala, a small and undistinguished village in the northwest portion of the vast shore of the Sea of Galilee, seven miles southwest of Capernaum. Mary had no great theological insights. In fact, this passage presents her as rather dense and opaque at first. Mary did nothing heroic in the rest of the New Testament to our knowledge. Yet in the appearance of the risen Lord to Mary, we see the first burning of that flame that would come to conquer the Roman Empire. We need to know why the Lord would appear first to her. We need it desperately and we need it immediately, and we need it personally if we're to be the kind of people that will once again explode into our world with impact, quantitatively and qualitatively for the gospel.
Mary's love for Jesus
What are the keys in this passage? First of all, resurrection reality is for those who love him most. Unlike Peter and John, who for whatever reason left the empty tomb on that first Easter morning, Mary the Magdalene stayed. Perhaps she feared that to be away from the one who cast out from her seven demons would bring her life back under the sway of demonic forces. More than that, those who know the resurrection reality are consumed with interest in his person, Mary weeps outside the tomb. The Greek word is that word used of the weeping at the tomb of Lazarus, a loud and demonstrative grief. Only one week before, thousands shouted their hosannas in a momentary thrill at the coming Christ. Now a week later the only sound heard is the muffled weeping of one who waits outside of his tomb. There is nothing to commend Mary as the first recipient of knowledge of the risen Christ, the first one to see him other than this, that with a simple, ceaseless, not to be denied passion, she would stay by his person even though she thought him to be dead and his body to have been stolen.
The impact of this passage to me is the penetrating question that absorbs my thought, Do we so stand by his person in life, knowing him to live, as she did, thinking him to be dead? The weeping of Mary was not any ordinary weeping. The Jews were very punctilious about the observance of burial customs and they abhorred any indignity to the body of the deceased. She thinks that his body has been stolen, perhaps to be paraded through the streets of Jerusalem as evidence that he was not the Son of God. She had seen him suffer dishonor in his life, so she, if no one else, will stand by to see that he is honored in death. How this sears my soul to think that she would stand there to see that he was honored in death, I have to ask myself if I am as consumed with his person to honor him knowing that he lives.
Such love as hers does not calculate difficulties. Seeing the one whom she supposes to be the gardener, she says, "Sir, if you have borne him hence, tell me where thou hast laid him and I will take him away." The Greek word translated borne him hence is a word which refers to removing a burden that is heavy. Mary did not calculate what it would cost her to stand by the person of her Lord whom she thought to be dead. How will this frail woman carry the dead weight of the body of a mature man? She didn't ask how. Where in that murky and misty darkness of the garden tomb will she take him? She did not ask where. When under the peering insight of Jewish spies and Roman soldiers will she so steal him away? She did not ask when.
It is just at that point in our lives when we become calculating that the reality of the resurrection begins to turn away from us. It's just to that extent that we have already drawn lines beyond which we will not cross. That the presence of another even though unseen but intensely real begins to dissipate in our lives. To loyalties partially given, resurrection is partially revealed; but to those who are less calculating, the resurrection presence of Christ is more intensely revealed. Mary knew resurrection realities because she was imbued with a love that did not calculate. If you and I might learn whatever it is to stand in the morning from our sleeping at night, with our lives a tabula rasa, a blank tablet to say, "Lord, we might go to bed at night more assured of the presence of the unseen other one who has conquered death and brought immortality to life."
Mary saw Jesus as Lord
Most revealing in this passage is her attitude toward the lordship of Christ. This word compels me every time she says it: "They've taken away my Lord." It's that Greek word kyrios which is used in John in reference to the lordship of Jesus Christ, Son of God. The word of absolute authority. She's come to embalm his body with the final preparation for death, but she calls him, "my Lord," even in death. She says in fact what many of us are reluctant to say with integrity and light. She's come there to look at his stiff and unrelaxed body in that Palestinian sepulcher but she calls him, "my Lord." She'd known the sparkle of his eyes in Galilee. Now she comes to look at those lusterless eyes closed in death, but nevertheless they are the eyes of her Lord. She's known words of life from those lips now waxen and sealed in death, but they're the lips of her Lord. One more time in the ears that she thinks cannot hear she will give words of devotion to her Lord. Compelling and arresting and convicting to me is the loyalty to the person of our Lord, of this one who thought him to be dead. We stand where she could not stand with 2,000 years of church history, apostolic witness, the presence of the Holy Spirit in our life which she did not yet know, and are we willing to stand by him in life as she stood by, thinking he was dead?
There's even more than this. She was so obsessed with him that she would not even be satisfied with religious experience unless it was him. We read here, she looks stooping down into the tomb and sees two angels. We see they are dressed in white. It's the same word used in the Greek transfiguration of those garments that were shining like lightning. In the synoptic accounts of the women who went to the tomb, they are all terrified when they see the angelic visitors, but not Mary. If they do not tell her where her Lord is, she has nothing to give them. In fact, amazingly, she turns her back upon them and she is not afraid of them, for "perfect love casts out fear." If Mary had one thing, it was perfect love for her Lord Jesus Christ. She would not be satisfied with religious experience, even seeing angels, even the miracle of the apparition of heaven if she did not find her Lord.
What a word this is for us. Those of us who want the quick fix in a religious sense, seeking immediate spiritual experience and thrills, who's topping what where, rather than a ceaseless, single minded devotion until we know his presence. Even though unseen, burning around us in resurrection power. She would not even seek religious experience if that experience did not lead her to him. If we have this same passion to seek him, even above experience and even above the momentary thrill that parades often in the name of evangelical faith, then we would know the reality of his resurrection presence in life and in church. If we would say, "I will seek him whether I see miracles or not; I will seek him when elated and I will seek him when I'm depressed; I will seek him when I see him, I'll seek him when sometimes my anchor only holds within the veil and darkness hides his face, I'll seek him." If you and I could be so possessed with a likeminded obsession and single mindedness to seek him, we'd know his unseen but real presence.
He caused Mary to be the first one to witness his resurrection. The thing that distinguishes Mary is not her theology, not her heroism, not her intellect, it is that she was the first to that tomb, and when others left she stayed. Because of that she was the first to see him, and became the first one to bring message that he is risen. In the simplicity of heart and faith I would commend to you that this is the way we know the presence of that unseen other, not through penetrating theological insight, not through studied activity, but through more than anything else a love to his person that in simplicity will seek or be satisfied with nothing else until in prayer and in praise it has come to know him and to find him. Because of that, we find that resurrection reality is a word of personal comfort from him. For those who so stand by him, there is a dimension of spiritual experience that others will not see. Even as she talks to angels, she becomes aware of the presence of another. That same awareness that you and I have had in times of spiritual commitment and unusual devotion, when it was as if we could turn and see him. But that's what she did, she turned and indeed she saw him.
Mary and the Gardner
At first it seems to be a case of mistaken identity. She, supposing him to be the gardener. The gardener indeed. Biblical revelation opens with the Lord God walking in the cool of day in a garden with unfallen humanity. The story of the Christ and his resurrection closes with the Son of the Lord God walking again in the garden in the cool of day with fallen humanity now redeemed. As he was the gardener. But in a sense she didn't understand. The gardener, indeed the One without whom not anything was made that was made, the One by whose word all things hold together, and the One who in creation as vice regent of his Father had planted the cedars of Lebanon. The gardener indeed, but in a way she didn't know.
His first word to Mary, the one who stayed by him and was distinguished by nothing else other than a passion for his personal presence, is a word of comfort: "Why are you crying?" It's not a question of information, it is a solicitous and caring word of comfort. These are the first recorded words of the risen Christ. His wounds still gaped in pain. Yet they're a word of comfort for her. The agonizer has become the comforter.
It's interesting to think what he might have said the moment he came from that tomb. He could have made a great theological statement, sounded like Paul the apostle. He didn't make a theological statement of what had happened. He turned to comfort one whose soul passion was his person. If I had to take a choice between hearing theological statements and knowing the burning, unseen presence of the Lord who so spoke, I'd take the latter any day. You might think he would come with a personal word of sorrow, "Why did they all leave me? Why did they all fall into their own shadows and only John stood with me?" There wasn't that word. There was a word of comfort, not of recrimination. One might think that he would have spoken a political word. But he didn't. One might think that he would have spoken a word of bitterness about a world that had crucified him. His first words were words of personal comfort.
Let me assure you, if you are not the recipient of words of personal comfort and encouragement from him at the very first, then you are missing what it's about. He does not want us to be some kind of Stoics or Spartans who go out with our teeth gritted to serve him while we do not sense his presence. Before he gave them one word of instruction, before he gave them his commission, before he gave them his Spirit, he gave them himself in personal encouragement and comfort. All too often we are content with dwelling in Jerusalem and knowing the parameters of Zion without seeing the face of the King. Unless we see the face of the King, the geography of Jerusalem and of Zion mean very little and ultimately become frustrating.
He further gives her the comfort of personal recognition. Verse 16 is perhaps the greatest recognition scene in world literature. She did not recognize him when he addressed her generally as woman. Now he says one word—Mary—and she turns around from looking into the void of the tomb to face him, and because of his word addressing her name, she knows him. It's possible to say a name in many ways. One can call a name in vehement sarcasm, one can call a name in virulent anger, but one can also so say a name that it brings back all memories. If I could say that one word like he said it that morning I would not have to preach a sermon. For all of the evenings in Galilee with the One who freed her from the demonic darkness were in that one name. All of the sunrises of liberty that she'd known since she met him were in that one name. She remembered when he had said, "I call my sheep by name and they hear me and they know me."
Some of you know what that means. For him to call you personally, in personal address. You say, "Pastor, you mean audibly?" No, I mean louder than that. In the very midst of your soul, to know that address of the One who said to Mary, "Fear not, why are you weeping?" Let me assure you that the Christian life is vapid, void, pallid, and anemic unless we know in our heart of hearts those times when he calls us by name and so comforts and so encourages us. She had searched for him among disciples, among angels, among the one whom she supposed to be the gardener. But she found him when he called her by name. The prophet Isaiah, who said so much about him not knowing him, also said, "Fear not, I have redeemed you, I have called you by name." No one comes to know Christ in truth until they experience what Mary experienced when he calls us by name. His personal recognition of us should result in a personal confession from us. For turning to him, she says, "Rabboni."
There are some who understand this to be an inadequate partial confession on her lips, as if she said, Rabbi. But I understand along with some scholars that in the Targum, the Aramaic paraphrase of the Rabbi's, this very word, Rabboni, was used only of an address to God in prayer. I wonder if John who opened his book with a great theological statement, "In the beginning was the Word and the Word was God," does not close his book by that same confession coming from the mouth of a redeemed fallen woman, and a doubting Apostle Thomas who says, "My Lord and my God." That which John affirmed in the beginning comes as the confession of redeemed hearts at the end. He is the Christ who first wants to comfort you and call you by name before you do anything for him.
And as the semester of academic regimen begins for some of you, as a new year of Christian service begins for others of us, we should keep that in mind, that there will never be that life-changing impact about us unless we can know that he has called us by name and comforted us. Defining resurrection reality is his definite and permanent presence.
Mary clings to Jesus
Mary falls to her knees and she clings to him. That little phrase, "Don't touch me," has caused a great deal of problem because in the next few verses he tells Thomas to do exactly that. But the translation as the scholars say correctly is, "Stop clinging on to me." It is a prohibition to cease what she'd already begun to do, stop holding on to me. He was her life and she's not going to let him go. He'd become her breath and the very impulse of her nerve, and she won't let him go.
Do you know why? I think I do because on Thursday night he'd given them some ringing promises. On the way to the Garden of Gethsemane he told them, "I will not leave you orphans," and now she finds that indeed he kept his promise. He'd promised them, "I will come to you," and he'd done so. He'd told them after a while the world will see me not but you will see me, and Mary figures that that is what she is now experiencing. He had told her, "Your heart will rejoice and no one will take your joy from you." She holds on to him so that no one can take that joy from her. But he's got a word for her, and that is that this isolated appearance outside the tomb is not what he had in mind. For in the Gospel of John when the Christ ascends, the blessed comfort, the Spirit of God comes.
This is where your story and my story intersects the story of Mary. Sometimes we play the game of Galilee: Oh, if I could just go back there and walk around where he walked then I might get into it. But this is precisely what he's telling Mary: Beginning with you and from now on my presence will not be one to which you have to cling physically, eyes will not have to strain through the murky darkness in the garden morning for I am coming to you in an impact and with a reality that you will not know. Shortly he will breath on them in the Upper Room and say, "Receive ye the Holy Spirit," and they will know that the Lord who was with them was now within them, and Mary will know that the Lord who had freed her from demons has now freed her from his physical presence, that she might know him in a dimension that she'd never known before. She was not at more of an advantage at that point than you and I are with the Lord who said, "Lo, I am with you just like that always, to the end of the age."
If he were here today he might tell some of us, "Stop holding onto me, stop holding on to the mere facts of my life as if they were ancient history. Stop holding on to the geography of the Holy Land as if knowing those details alone will bring my presence to you." Surprisingly enough, he might even say, "Stop listlessly and lustrously reading the words of Scripture if you are not willing to see me within them. Stop holding on to me in any sense other than the fact that I am the risen Lord present with you, if you have a passion to stand by my person."
I began this message by talking about church growth. I've read the charts, the graphs, the statistics, and the guides, but I know one thing. I know how people would be backed up north, south, east, and west, and there would be a traffic jam at every church. How the jaded and seeded people of this city would fairly well push our walls down to get into our midst. That would be if pastor, staff, and people could somehow come to that single minded ceaseless passion. That regardless of what else is done, we're going to seek him. Seeking in prayer and devotion, praise and service until in our lives, like that early church, we know the explosive presence of the unseen but very real resurrected One. Then we would not be able to go to them as quickly as they would try to get to us.
Dr. Joel C. Gregory is Director of the Kyle Lake Center for Effective Preaching, holder of the George W. Truett Endowed Chair of Preaching and Evangelism at Baylor's Truett Seminary, and the founder of Joel Gregory Ministries.