THE PROBLEM WITH PALMS - A Palm Sunday sermon
March 4 2003 by Tony W. Cartledge , John 20:1-20

I HAVE SEEN THE LORD! An Easter sermon | Tuesday, March 4, 2003

Tuesday, March 4, 2003

I HAVE SEEN THE LORD! An Easter sermon

By Tony W. Cartledge John 20:1-20


Mary had probably been up all night. In fact, I suspect she had not slept for a minute since Jesus' crucifixion. And, I suspect this was not her first visit back to the tomb where they had laid his body. Was it because she had heard, and remembered, and believed his prediction that he would rise from the dead on the third day? Or was it simply an overwhelming grief that drew her, a desire to be close to the one who had changed her life?

We have limited knowledge about Mary Magdalene. The Western church has long had a tradition that she was a reformed prostitute. This is based largely on Luke 8:2, which suggests that Jesus had cast our seven demons from her. In the ancient world, it was believed that demons caused both physical and moral sickness. Since the story of the sinful woman who anointed Jesus' feet (Luke 7:36-50) comes immediately before this reference to Mary Magdalene, many have assumed that she was a harlot who was converted and changed through meeting Jesus and experiencing his forgiveness. "Magdalene" is not Mary's last name -- it is simply a word added to explain that she is the Mary who came from the city of Magdala, which was a largely Gentile enclave near the northwestern shore of the Sea of Galilee. The city of Magdala was known as hotbed of immorality, so it did not help Mary's reputation to be known as "Mary Magdalene."

Nevertheless, we have no hard evidence to prove that Mary was ever a prostitute. She had experienced some serious problems, as indicated by the statement that "seven demons" had come out of her. That is all we need to know. Mary, like each of us, had been sinful, rebellious, confused, and lost in this world. Meeting Jesus made the difference for her, and her devotion to Christ was so complete that she stayed with him when the male disciples fled -- she came to the tomb while the other disciples hid -- she came to believe in the resurrection while the other disciples continued to doubt.

We know that Mary had followed Jesus during his travels. Along with other women such as Salome, Susanna and Joanna, the wife of Herod's steward, she helped to finance and provide for the physical needs of Jesus and the twelve (Lu. 8:2).

We know that Mary stood at the foot of the cross while others fled (John 19:25).

We know that Mary came early to the garden tomb, both to grieve and to complete the burial preparations that had been interrupted by the hasty burial just before sundown as the Sabbath approached (John 20:1).

And, we know that Mary was the very first one to proclaim the glad news that the tomb was empty -- that Jesus was risen. She said to the disciples, and she says to us: "I have seen the Lord!"

Like the disciples, we may find Mary's claim hard to believe. We are skeptical. We may take some convincing. But we do want to believe. For the most part, the disciples did not believe until they saw the Lord for themselves.

Would you also like to see the Lord?


If we would see the Lord, we must first see Jesus' cradle. It was not long ago that we celebrated Christmas. We decorated a beautiful Chrismon tree, and sang of Jesus' birth. We listened to beautiful music and looked at a baby in a manger, a crude cradle made from an animal's feeding trough.

The humility of Jesus' birth emphasizes just how far the Lord would go to show himself to us. God had revealed himself in smoke and fire and power to the mothers and fathers and children of Israel who escaped from land of Egypt. God revealed himself through the prophets to later generations who strayed from his way. God revealed himself in festivals and ceremonies like Passover, rituals designed to remind Israel of his reality. And God revealed himself in the words of the Torah to all who would read and understand

But all of these forms of revelation were incomplete. This is why the Lord chose to reveal himself in his fullness by taking on the form of a human like us, coming into the world as a newborn baby, as a growing child, as a compassionate man, as a powerful leader, a miraculous healer, a wise teacher. "The word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth." (John 1:14)

Jesus' favorite term for himself was "son of man." That was a roundabout way of describing himself as the quintessential human -- what real personhood was intended to be.

It is easy for us to get so caught up in the spiritual aspect of both Christ and Christianity that we forget the physical. Especially on days like Easter, we may think primarily of the resurrected Christ, the spiritual Christ -- but so much of Jesus' work was physical work.

It was as a human person like you or me that Jesus walked the dusty roads of Palestine from southern Judah to the northern city of Tyre, from the western coastlands, to the eastern cities of the Decapolis.

It was as a human person that Jesus lived and worked and sweated and slept. As a human he ate and drank with sinners. As a human he wept with those who wept, and laughed with those who rejoiced.

Jesus thought human thoughts and struggled with human temptations. If we would see the Lordship of Jesus, we must first see the personhood of Jesus, symbolized by his cradle. We cannot divorce the spiritual from the physical.

To do so is dangerous, because it leads us to a faith that has no impact on our daily lives. Jesus came to save the whole person, not just the spirit. Too many of us have asked Jesus to save our spiritual souls -- but we keep him at arm's length from our physical reality. We cannot appreciate Jesus the Lord of Glory until we appreciate Jesus the earthly person -- and we cannot know Jesus as spiritual savior unless we also accept him as Lord of our daily, physical lives.


One of the unfortunate things about the Christian calendar is that we celebrate Palm Sunday one Sunday, and we celebrate Easter the next Sunday, but unless we come back and have some sort of Good Friday service, we sort of skip over the cross. It's easier that way. We don't like to think of the cross. The cross hurts.

Mary had been at the cross. As painful as it was, she stood near and watched as Jesus died, adding what comfort she could by being there for him, despite the pain it caused her. She heard the hammers pound great spikes through his wrists and feet. She saw the blood flowing freely from his wounds. She felt in her own stomach the wrenching pain as Jesus was forced to push and pull on nail-fastened feet and hands as he fought for every breath. The cross was an instrument of torture, designed to kill by suffocation. Mary heard Jesus groan with agony -- and then speak compassionately to a dying thief. She saw his color change, saw the life go out of him, heard his last gasp and his last words: "Into thy hands I commend my spirit."

Mary saw him dead. And we must see him dead, if we are to truly see the Lord. We must see the extent of his love for us, the depth of his commitment to us, the seriousness of his sacrifice for us. "Greater love has no one than this, that he should lay down his life for his friends." (John 15:13)

You may be familiar with Rembrandt's masterful painting of the crucifixion. The people you expect to see in the crowd surrounding the cross are there. But over to the side, there is another tall figure looking on. It is a self-portrait of the artist, who knew that he, too, was there. We all were there, for it was for our sins that Jesus gave himself up to the cross.

We cannot appreciate how Jesus lived for us unless we appreciate how he died for us. We cannot fully experience how he continues to live in us unless we understand how he first died, that we might live through him.


But there is more, isn't there? If Jesus had only lived and taught, he would be remembered as a great man, as a prophet, but that would be all. If Jesus had only died in behalf of others, he would have become a much-admired martyr, but only for a while, before he was forgotten.

What we celebrate today is what sets Jesus apart from every other good man who has lived and taught and given of himself for others. What we celebrate today is what proves to us that Jesus really is who he claimed to be -- the Son of God, one with the Father, the Lord himself come to save his people.

Today we celebrate the glorious truth that though Jesus died, he did not remain dead. Just as he had predicted to his disciples, he arose on the third day. His cold, dead, decomposing corpse was transformed into a heavenly body, and he left the tomb behind. The grave could not hold him. Death had no power over him. Nothing could stop him. "Hallelujah!" we say. "Christ arose!"

Despite the fact that Jesus had told his disciples what was coming, no one expected it, and for a while, no one believed it.

Even Mary Magdalene, the one whose faith was perhaps most pure, did not expect to find Jesus alive. When she found the tomb empty, she assumed that his body had been stolen, and ran back to the disciples to report "They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him." (John 20:2)

When Peter and John bolted for the tomb to check her story, Mary Magdalene followed again. Peter and John saw the empty tomb, believed her report, and returned home. But Mary stayed. She still thought someone had stolen the body, and she wept deeply and loudly in her grief, for now she would not be able to pay her final respects by properly preparing his body for its long stay in the tomb. They had taken his life from her, and now they had taken his body, too!

Mary returned to the tomb, where two angels confronted her. "Woman, why are you weeping?" they asked. "Because they have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him."

Immediately, Mary turned and saw Jesus himself, but mistook him for a gardener. He asked the same question, "Woman, why are you weeping?" Thinking perhaps that he was responsible for moving the body, she said, "Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away."

Looking deep into her tear-filled eyes, Jesus said simply, "Mary." And in that one word -- in hearing the special way he called her name, "Mary," -- the woman of Magdala believed. It was Jesus himself! There was so much she wanted to say! But all she could get out was "Rabboni!"

"Rabboni" is a compound Hebrew word. John explained this word to his Greek audience by saying "which means teacher," but it means more than that. "Rab" can mean "teacher," or "master." "Rabbon" is a more intensive version of the same word. It could mean "great teacher," or "true master." The "i" added to the end is a possessive personal pronoun. It means "my." In one word, Mary declares the Lordship of Christ, and his role in her life: "My true Lord!"

She wanted to hug him, wanted to hold on to him, wanted to never let him go. But Jesus had to help her learn that his physical reappearance was only temporary. She, like the other disciples, had to learn to depend on his spiritual reality and presence in their lives. "Do not hold on to me," Jesus said, "for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brethren and say to them, I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God."

In these words to Mary, Jesus again affirmed both his commonality with humanity, and his glorious Lordship. After the cradle, after the cross, he would wear the crown. The kingdom of God had come into the world in all its fullness, and Christ would evermore rule in the hearts and minds of those who choose to be citizens of his realm.

And so Mary returned to the skeptical, frightened, upset band of followers whom Jesus called his disciples, and she said simply "I have seen the Lord!"

Still, there were some who did not believe her testimony. She must have been deluded! She had been awake too long. The stress was taking its toll on her. She was refusing to accept reality, showing her lack of maturity. But Mary stood by her belief that Jesus had risen. And then, later that day, as they continued hiding behind doors that were locked and barred, Jesus suddenly appeared in the midst of them all. Looking about at the absolute shock and outright terror on their faces, Jesus said simply "Peace to you." And he showed them the wounds in his hands and feet, and they, too, believed, and John tells us "Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord." Jesus blessed them, urged them to be open to the Holy Spirit, and sent them out to proclaim throughout the world that he was alive, and would always be alive in those who trusted him.

Truly we can say, "Hallelujah -- `praise the Lord' -- Christ arose!


Last December a Christmas tree stood tall and beautiful just over here -- a reminder of Jesus' birth, of his human life, of his coming into the world to be our Savior. It is ironic, in a way, that we celebrate Christ's birth with a tree, and that his life ended on a tree: Jesus' work is not complete until the Christmas tree becomes a cross.

Jesus' story begins at Christmas, but that is only the beginning. His story continues through a life of learning and teaching, of tears and laughter, of pain and effort, of suffering and death.

Today we celebrate Easter, the crown of Jesus' life. But we cannot appreciate Easter if we do not appreciate the cradle, and the cross. And we cannot bring joy to our Lord unless we are willing to obey his command to take up our own cross of self-denial, our own cross of service, our own cross of commitment to follow wherever he leads and give whatever he asks.

I challenge you today to renew your commitment to Christ, and your willingness to bear the cross as you live out the life He came to save, both now and eternally.

(Note: as an object lesson, I had saved the trunk of the church Christmas tree, and fashioned it into a rough cross, which was displayed on the communion table. During the invitation, members were invited to come kneel before the cross and take from a basket a chip of wood left over from the process of transforming the Christmas tree into a cross. They were then encouraged to carry the wood chip with them for a while, letting it remind them of Christ's sacrifice, and the challenge He gives to those who believe, and their willingness to "take up their cross" and follow Him daily.)

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3/4/2003 12:00:00 AM by Tony W. Cartledge , John 20:1-20 | with 0 comments
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