Jump directly to the Content
Jump directly to the Content


Home > Sermons

I Am Ascending

The Resurrection solves the problem of dying—and of living.


In September 2013, the headline on the cover of Time read: "Can Google Solve Death?" Google's CEO announced a new division of Google known as Calico, which is dedicated to health and aging issues and to solving the problem of death. The editors of Time were so bold as to ask in the article why Google, a high-tech company, would spend so many millions to deal with life's most absolute certainty: death.

That's an appropriate question all Christians should ask for Easter. Somebody has already solved the problem of dying. I can tease you, but I know the answer. Why would Google spend so many millions on the problem of dying? Because all of us recognize that if we can deal with the pain and the uncertainty and the grief of dying, it will change living. The problem is not really solving dying: the real problem being addressed is the problem of living. John 20is the premier passage on the problem of dying being answered; it's the account of Christ's resurrection.

(Read John 20:1-18)

'Me too'

Brené Brown is a social researcher who spent six years trying to discern the causes of emotional distress, so they could be measured, controlled, and predicted. Instead, at the end of that research, she had an emotional breakdown herself: saying, of course, that the physician could not heal herself. It was an acknowledgment of shame and a great statement of vulnerability. After she recognized the impact of what she had revealed during a TED talk, Brené Brown told a friend she was basically dead, believing that if it got out, it would destroy her career, her reputation. She had spoken to 500 people, but she said to her friend that maybe if only 600 or 700 people saw it on the YouTube TED channel, it would be okay. If it got further than that, though, she was dead. Well, she needn't have worried. Not 500, not 600 or 700 saw it: only 15 million people. Why did so many pay attention? Why did so many tell their friends, "You have to see this"?

Brown was actually analyzing the major cause of emotional distress, which she said was shame. As she talked about shame and began to research it, she ultimately said shame is the fear of being disconnected: the fear that says, "If you really knew about me—who I am, my failures, my difficulties, my struggles—you would disconnect from me." It is that fear of discovery that drives shame, which (according to Brown) is the greatest stressor in American life. Then she revealed—with great vulnerability—that even though she knew that, she had an emotional breakdown.

Why was she being so vulnerable? It wasn't a mistake. It was because she discovered in her research that the great antidote to shame is empathy: someone else who, with arms open wide and with humility, will say, "Me too." Someone who will say "me too" to what you're going through, what you're struggling with. Shame comes from the obvious things: feeling like you're not pretty, smart, or slim enough, not meeting others' expectations, getting laid off, having to lay people off, a marriage failing, kids falling, being abused or abusing, not meeting your own expectations, having to ask for help. All of them are essentially the same thing: the acknowledgement of, "If you knew what was really going on in my life, you would disconnect, and I can't trust you to say that. I have to deal with all of this myself unless you are able to say, 'Me too.'" Fifteen million people tuned in to just hear Brené Brown say, "Me too."

You don't actually have to go to the Internet to find people saying, "Me too." You can actually look in the Bible. The "me too" people are thick in the account of the Resurrection. After all, if you think about who is saying "me too" here, there is a clear person named Mary Magdalene. If you want to say, "It's difficult to deal with past pain, but me too, I dealt with it," you have only to look at Mary.

You know the opening words of this account: "Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb." Who is Mary Magdalene? Some of you may recall that in the Gospel of Mark, we are told she is the one out of whom Jesus cast seven demons. Now I must tell you that I don't exactly know what that means, but I don't think it's good. Somehow Satan was in control of mind, of heart, of habit, and what the consequences of that were—whether it was a clouded mind or hateful demeanor or immoral life—I don't know entirely.

But I recognize that when Luke describes Mary Magdalene in his Gospel, he not only talks about the demons. He links her to a number of women who worked with Jesus and who were part of his entourage, women who had not only had demons cast out, but who were filled with infirmities and sickness, too. Those of you who have been looking at the Book of John may recognize that John is referencing the Jewish understanding of sickness: ones who had sickness were sick because they had sinned. Remember, when they came to the man born blind, even the apostles said to Jesus, "Lord, who sinned? This man or his parents?" If someone was sick, then they must have done something wrong.

There is the obvious problem of Mary's distressful past. But against that disconnect from society—and apparently a disconnect from God—is Jesus' response to her. She has been his connection. When the previous Gospels have talked about Mary, she is in a group of women every time she is mentioned. You'll recognize some of the names like Joanna, who was the wife of Herod's main treasurer, or Susanna, a wealthy woman who used her wealth to help support Jesus' ministry. Where the Gospel writers include Susanna and Joanna, they always include Mary Magdalene—the one out of whom seven demons had been cast, the one who had the infirmities—as if to say she has been received. His arms were open to her, and she was accepted. Despite all the reasons that she could be rejected, she was received.

The disciples' disregard

The fact that Jesus is gone has to be devastating to her, because it means the disconnect could be happening again. All the evidence is there, saying that without Jesus, her past will come to haunt her again. After all, it is so wonderful that she goes to the tomb first, but remember, she runs to the disciples in verse two: "So she came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, and said, 'They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don't know where they have put him!'" Instead of running to the officials to complain, they run to the tomb to confirm her story. Is she telling the truth? Did she get it right? After all, it's only Mary Magdalene.

Some of their disregard for her may be evidenced a little bit later in the account. They see that Jesus is gone and then in verse 10, "the disciples went back to where they were staying." Did you catch it? "Went back." Who stays at the tomb? In verse 11, we read, "Now Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb." They leave her unaccompanied and uncomforted. They go home. It's just Mary. Why would they spend time helping her?

Later in the account, in verse 18, Mary goes and announces to the disciples, "I have seen the Lord!" But do you remember how they responded to this great news of the great victory of the Lord? It's in verse 19: "On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, 'Peace be with you!'" It's just Mary who has said that Jesus has risen. So instead of being filled with courage and hope, what do they do? They go lock the doors and hide. After all, who has witnessed this? Well, it's just Mary. There is total disregard for her.

Clinging to Christ

Some of you recognize what it would mean for Mary to be separated from the one who has given her acceptance, meaning, and significance. It's evidenced in all the accounts that are given to her, in which time after time she was the last one who seemed to care enough to hang around. She was the last one at the Cross, remember? The disciples are gone, except for John: to whom Jesus says, "John, take care of my mother; Mom, take care of John." And there was Mary and Mary Magdalene. When they put Jesus in the tomb, and they rolled the stone over the tomb, the disciples were all gone. Only Mary Magdalene lasts. She's still there. It's this desperate clinging: I have to be with him, he has received me, I have to be with him.

I think of it in terms of some friends of ours. They had five boys, and the mom wanted a girl, so they adopted a girl: delightful Delilah. She had multiple handicaps of body and mind, but they received her. Being the girl in the family, she was treasured by the mom, who was diagnosed with her own serious heart health problems just a few years ago. In fact, it looked as though she would not survive one night when she was taken to the hospital. While the boys grieved, Delilah was panicked: This is the one who has received me, this is the one who has taken me out of my orphan status. This is the one who has loved me despite my apparent flaws. This is the one who takes me over and over again into her heart. This is my … If I don't have her, I've got nothing.

Maybe that's why Mary is so desperate for Christ. She knows her past, and she knows how it's affecting her present, so she clings to Jesus. She is the first to go to the tomb the next morning. Then these wonderful things begin to happen.

Number one: he speaks to her. Isn't that amazing? The most cataclysmic and wonderful event of all time has just happened. The Son of God, the long-predicted Messiah, has given his life upon a cross. He has taken the penalty of our sins upon himself. Now that he has taken and paid that penalty to show that it is now done—the plan, dating from creation itself, in which the sins of humanity would be paid for—he rises from the dead. The first one he speaks to is the one others will not even listen to. He speaks to Mary. When he speaks to her, he calls her by name. He is fulfilling what he said was his role as the Good Shepherd in John 10:27: "My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me." It's really incredible. If you were hearing a speech by the President, if you were having the kings of the earth gather to talk about some great event, wouldn't you want to hear your name mentioned? "Why, Bill Smith, he gave me this wonderful information." In this most conclusive event of human history, the first one named and the first one addressed is Mary: the one out of whom seven demons had been cast, the one of infirmity, the one others will not even listen to.

In the places where they try to make a few dollars off of a scandal, you and I know Mary will be perceived as a prostitute or even a lover of Jesus. That's not in the Bible. But it doesn't really matter. You don't have to go there. Let me tell you: she is a woman with a reputation. And Jesus speaks to her.

Declaring him Lord

What's more wonderful still is she speaks to Jesus to declare who he really is. She looks to Jesus and says, "Rabboni." Now we don't really know entirely what that means. In verse 16, we learn that "[s]he turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, 'Rabboni!'"

You must understand what strangeness this is. Jesus speaks to her and says, "Why are you crying?" And she doesn't even recognize it's Jesus. There have been various explanations in history as to why that may be. Is the fact that she doesn't recognize Jesus because he now has some sort of glorified body? That he is special now in some way, in ways we can't quite explain? After all, he had been beaten and bloodied upon the Cross, and now he is appearing. Does she not recognize who this is because he is now in a glorified state, and it doesn't fit what she most recently saw? Maybe. That would be the mysterious answer: that he is glorified in some way.

But there is an obvious answer. What time of day is it? Early in the morning. Maybe it's twilight; maybe that's why she doesn't see and understand who he is. The other reason is what goes by quickly in your reading and that you may not perceive: she was weeping. Most English translations say something like that. The actual language for the word "weeping" or "crying" is that she was wailing. She is out of control with grief and panic: He is gone, they have taken him away, I can't even go to his grave anymore. She is wailing. Maybe it's this veil of tears, maybe it's this veil of emotion, maybe it's twilight when Jesus asks her why she is wailing. But for whatever reason, she doesn't see him until he says, "Mary."

It is the intimacy of his heart loving her heart that makes her see and say, "Rabboni." It's only used one other time in the Bible. Most of the time, when the word "rabbi" is used, it means "teacher." You have to recognize that in the Jewish literature, that term is the one most frequently used to refer to God in Jewish prayer. Isn't that interesting? Mary's not only the first one to be spoken to; she is the first to declare him Lord.

Sometimes we think it's great that praise bursts from the lips of children, but the first praise of the risen Lord came from the one from whom seven demons had been cast—a woman of reputation and infirmity—and Jesus said she was the first to call him Lord. Isn't that wonderful? She's the first to see, the first to hear, the first to touch, and the first to praise. What a privilege that Jesus gives to Mary.

God's messengers

Some of you who have felt past shame recognize that until there is meaning and purpose in your life from the Lord himself, you wonder if things are really right. Kathy and I received a letter from my brother, the one who is in prison. He has the mind of an eight-year-old and struggles a lot in life. But the letter we received from him yesterday had these words in it: "I've been sending some Bible verses. Verses from the Holy Bible to my nieces and nephews. It's my first time doing that. I hope they like it. And Bryan, here is one for you. 'Show us your unfailing love, Lord, and grant us your salvation. I will listen to what God the Lord says; he promises peace to his people …'"

What does it mean when God gives you a message to say to others? It means you represent God. What did Jesus say to Mary? "Go tell my brothers." Mary doesn't have a reputation, she doesn't have significance: they're not listening. But Jesus says, "Mary, I have received you so much. In my heart, I delight so much in who you are to me that you take the message." I think of my brother there in prison, with a sense that God has chosen him to tell his nieces and nephews. He doesn't have a wife, he doesn't have other family, but he feels God has chosen him to take the message of the gospel. I recognize that in doing so, he is finding it gives his life meaning. It's not just the problem of dying he's dealing with: he is dealing with the problem of living.

Where is there significance and meaning and hope and acceptance in this world? In that prison? It's in the heart of Jesus. It's evident when God says to Mary—and when God says to my brother Jeff—"Go tell somebody the hope that you have. I think enough of you to put my message in your mouth."

Peter's present shame

If the problem is past pain, Mary is there to say, "Me too." But what if the problem is present shame? Then Peter is there to say, "Me too." Peter has his own demons, doesn't he? They're in the form of three denials, not seven actual demons.

As Brené Brown was studying the sociology of this culture, she said that for women, the primary problem of shame is that they don't do everything. Women feel guilt because they don't do everything: balance all the priorities of being mother, lover, parent, caregiver, soccer mom. You can't perfectly balance all the things that have been required. But her research says that for men, the problem is they do just one thing. The one thing men do that brings them the most shame is to show weakness.

Does Peter show weakness? "Weren't you with Jesus the other night?" he is asked. "Oh no, not me," Peter says. He curses and says "no." Then what happens? The cock crows, after he had denied Jesus three times in weakness, nervelessness, and fear.

This failure of Peter's isn't over, either. Remember John 20:9? "They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead." So what happened? In 20:8, we read, "Finally the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first"—that's John—"also went inside. He saw and believed." John saw and believed. Who is not mentioned? It doesn't say Peter believed.

Instead, in verse 10, what does Peter do? He sees that Jesus is gone, and he goes home. We know he won't stay home. Ultimately, he will go to an upper room, and he will lock the door because of fear of the Jews. He is frightened and afraid. As a consequence of that weakness, even the other disciples are not willing to hear his testimony.

I know we all want to blame Thomas a little bit later because Thomas says in John 20:25, "Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe." We think, What a terrible guy Thomas was. Well, listen: Peter had seen the empty tomb, and what's Peter's great mark of belief and courage? He goes home and hides. Why wouldn't Thomas doubt? Why would I believe Peter? He says Jesus is risen, but he acts like he's not risen. He's weak, he's a coward, he's afraid. He's living up to his own lifestyle of doing what serves him. What does Jesus do for Peter? He reconnects with Peter in ways that are absolutely amazing. As you think of who Peter is—this disconnection for his present shame, and not only his passion, but his present disregard even by his peers—you have to wonder, How is Jesus reconnecting with Peter to say, "I know the worst about you and still will receive you"?

A job to do

It's actually back in the description of what happens with Mary. In verse 12, Mary sees two angels in white sitting where the body of Jesus had lain: one at the head and one at the feet. Prior to this, she has not understood herself all that is going to happen, but she has an amazing scene in front of her now. As Jesus begins to speak to her, she says, "It's him." She hears her name, and she wraps her arms around him. What does Jesus say to her? He says, "Do not hold on to me."

Different translations will translate this verse differently, and there are hard questions for us here. Some older translations will say, "Don't touch me." Some of the commentators say, "Is that because, in this glorified state, Jesus is not touchable? That there is something glorious about his body that is not to be polluted by the world?" But do you think Jesus is really worrying about being polluted by Mary? He has let her touch him before and be near to him. In just a few more days, he will talk to Thomas about touching him. What will he say to Thomas? "Go ahead, touch." It doesn't seem that touching is the problem.

Some of your translations use the word "hinder." As if Jesus is saying, "I'm late, I'm late for a very important date. I gotta go, don't hinder me—I gotta go." But the trouble is we know Jesus is going to be around for at least another 40 days before his ascension, right? It doesn't seem like he's in too big of a hurry.

Most of your translations probably use another variant, which is perhaps the best one: "Don't cling to me." When people cling, they can't fulfill their responsibilities. We talk about people being clingy, as though they're wrapped around their own self-interests. They're not able to go about what they're supposed to do. But Jesus has something for Mary to do. He says, "Go instead to my brothers and tell them, 'I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.'" She has got a job to do. He is saying, "Mary, don't just cling to me here; instead, go and say something to the disciples."

Seeing mercy

One thing she could say is simply a description of what she has seen. Mary had to stoop to look into the tomb. We know from excavations in the Holy Land what this is about: those tombs with the stones that roll. They are low, but when you get in there, it's typically a room carved out of stone, a cave-like structure. Inside there are benches where the bodies would lay. But now, Mary looks into this holy room with a bench at one end, and at the other end there is an angel, and on the bench there are the linen cloths stained with blood.

Do you remember the place called the Holy of Holies in the Old Testament? In the Holy of Holies was the Ark of the Covenant, and the Ark of the Covenant was where the laws were kept. The cherubim were seated at the head and the foot of the ark. Once a year, the priest would go in and sprinkle blood on the holy seat to make it the mercy seat, as blood would cover the law.

Now we see Mary looking into a room made holy by the resurrection of Jesus, and she sees angels at each end of the bench, and there is blood upon the bench. What we recognize is that he who took the weight of the Law is gone, and it is truly now the mercy seat. The evidence of the mercy is what would happen to the priests or anyone else who would go into the Holy of Holies at the wrong time. What would happen to them? "You're dead, brother." But Peter rushes right into this holy place and what happens to him? Has there been any mercy? There is great mercy. It's not just in what Mary can describe, but in what she can declare: "[T]ell them, 'I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and'"—whose?—"'your God.'"

It's the great reconnection. Jesus, having been risen from the dead, is now declaring that he can ascend to his Father: his Father who, at one point, turned his face away. The one who looked at him, full of the pain and the shame of the world, and said, "I cannot connect to you." But now the sin is conquered, the victory is won, the consequence of the Law put away. Jesus says, "I'm going back to my Father: we are reconnecting. But it's not just my Father. It is your Father." It's the great evidence of what Jesus would accomplish on our behalf. He would make the connection again by his resurrection, and by going to the Father, he would make things right for us, too.


I have a friend who writes a lot of things, and he even writes about his own father: a man of amazing ability and intelligence who was forced out of his homeland by Communism, came to the United States, and was forced to work in menial jobs. He hated it; he hated having so much ability to be so insignificant. So he built his own significance by demeaning his children and abusing his wife and occasionally threatening to kill them all. My friend writes that when he became a father, his sole resolve was not to be like his father. But here's the problem: we all become what we hate. If we focus too long on the object of our scorn, we become like what we hate. At some point, my friend, in examination of the difficulties in his own family, had to say, "Me too."

For my friend, I long for this. I long for a different father. But I can't provide for that: Jesus can. It's the great message of the Resurrection. Not only is the problem of dying solved, but the problem of living is solved, as well. We are made right with the Father. This is our blessing: because he rose again to make God his Father, and yours and mine forever.

Bryan Chapell is the senior pastor of Grace Presbyterian Church in Peoria, Illinois.

Related sermons

Facing Off Without Falling Apart

Seven principles for proclaiming the gospel in hostile territory.

The Agony of Victory

Through the rejection of the cross Jesus is exalted as king
Sermon Outline:


I. 'Me too'

II. The disciples' disregard

III. Clinging to Christ

IV. Declaring him Lord

V. God's messengers

VI. Peter's present shame

VII. A job to do

VIII. Seeing mercy