During Lent 2015 the folks at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights spent some time looking at people who turned – and re-turned – to Jesus during the course of his ministry. One of the people who did that time and time again was Mary of Magdala. Our first service on Easter Sunday included a reading from Matthew 28:1-10.
If everything goes as planned, sometime after four p.m. tomorrow afternoon, Francisco Liriano will throw the first pitch of the 2015 Pirate season. It would seem as though thoughts of resurrection and hope are not limited to theological themes this week.
As I think about tomorrow’s game, I am struck by the notion that there are two kinds of ball players in the world. Some of you come in from the field and know exactly where we are in the batting order. Many of these folks not only remember the order, but are happy to issue a report as to how previous batters have fared against the current pitcher. And others of us, perhaps more focused on defense, strategy, or how good a burrito would taste right now, come to the bench and say, “Who’s up?” We have forgotten where we stand in the order.
Ever since my grandfather took me to a game in Connie Mack stadium nearly fifty years ago, baseball has been magical for me. I love it because it’s good to listen to on the radio, and it’s better in person. I appreciate how it is a wonderful blend of individual and team competition, and I love to see how choreographed it can be, such as when there are two men on base and the batter lays down a bunt. It is poetry.
And beyond the mechanics, there is a cerebral element. How will the manager construct his batting order? Speed up top and power in the middle, usually. Ask people down below to be smart, and don’t embarrass themselves or the team.
One by one, the procession of teammates goes out to stand at the plate and share in the common goal of advancing the runners and achieving victory. And I have noticed that there are two types of batters in a lineup. Some folks are chomping at the bit, and saying “whoo-hoo! I get to hit! Come on now, let me at ‘em.” And others are sitting in the on-deck circle silently pleading, “please, God, not me, not now, no with two outs and a man on third…”
Believe it or not, that’s the question that came to mind as I pondered this morning’s scripture.
I know – believe you me, I know – that it’s dangerous to compare the arc of history and the message of salvation to a game. But bear with me on this, because I think that Matthew 28 reveals a significant shift in God’s dealings with humanity – and that has implications for us.
Think about it: for thousands of years, God’s promise was an idea. Every now and then, one of the prophets would pipe up and say, “Hey, don’t forget – God is moving. Things are going to happen. I’m not sure exactly how or when or where, but stay tuned. This will be big. Really big.”
The prophets – God’s leadoff men, if you will, set the table, and then the heavy hitters come up. When the time is right, the angels appear. Angel, from the Greek word angelos, means messenger, and these messengers show up in droves. Zechariah, Mary, Joseph, the shepherds all receive visitations with some real specificity. You will have a son. You will give him this name. You will find him here, wearing this. Who’s up? Well, mostly it’s Gabriel, it would seem. God had a message, and he sent messengers.
And then, about thirty years later, Jesus begins his ministry and we quickly discover that he not only has a message, he is the message. For three years, Jesus works to transform human history and experience by raising up a small group of followers. The most prominent of these, of course, are the twelve apostles. Apostolos, meaning “one who is sent”. It is fairly obvious to even a casual reader of the Gospels that Jesus is preparing the twelve for something. To follow my baseball analogy, for much of the Gospels, Jesus is “up” now, and they are “on deck”.
And then the unthinkable happens. He is betrayed by one of the twelve. There is an unjust trial, a cruel execution, and a hasty burial. In a twist, the Apostles are not sent anywhere. Instead, they scatter and hide.
But God is not through. Jesus is not through. We heard this morning about the ways that God has turned this unthinkable tragedy into an even more unthinkable victory. The next phase is set to begin.
How will it begin? Are we going to see Gabriel, Michael, or one of the other angels again? Not really.
When God started the whole Jesus thing, there were angels everywhere: in the Temple, in Joseph’s dreams, in Mary’s home, in the fields around Bethlehem. That’s the way that God chose to get the news out then.
Now, when the best news ever is unleashed, it comes in the quiet corner of a graveyard at dawn. And not only that, but the news comes to a woman who, if ever there was a person to say this, is saying, “Please God, not me. Not me. Not me…”
The best news in the history of news is entrusted to a woman named Mary from the town of Magdala. We don’t know a great deal about her, although Luke tells us that at one point Jesus drove not one or two, but seven demons out of her. It is difficult for any of us to imagine what that life would be like – a life filled with uncertainty and shame. Mary evidently connected with Jesus fairly early in his ministry and after having experienced the transformation of his presence, she became totally devoted to him.
He treated her with love and respect and encouragement, while most of her peers no doubt continued to remember her as she had been. You’ve been in high school – you know how long people remember (“you know, Mary, the woman who used to be… the chick who always had… You know, Mary?”).
When the Apostles all scattered, Mary was unable to leave his side. Even as he hung on the cross, she could not see herself anywhere else. After all he had done for her she only wanted to show a little respect. She was, as Frederick Buechner says, “one of the women who was there in the background when he was being crucified – she had more guts than most – and she was also one of the ones who was there when they put what was left of him into the tomb.” The least she could do was to make sure he got a decent burial, and so she arrives at the tomb at first light that Sunday morning.
When she arrives, however, she runs into an angel. Unlike the previous angels in the gospels, though, this one is not telling her something that God is going to do. He simply instructs her to get back to the disciples and tell them to make their way to Galilee, where they will meet the Lord. Not long after that, she runs into Jesus himself, who demonstrates the truth of the angel’s message of resurrection and reminds her to send the apostles to meet up with him.
This is far and away the most incredible bit of news that anyone, anywhere, has ever heard, and to whom is it entrusted? Her. That one. Mary of Magdala receives the promises of Jesus: I can be found. I will be seen.
The only way this makes sense for me is for Mary to be crying out, saying, “No, Lord! Not me. Send Peter. Send John. Don’t make me carry this news. What if I blow it?”
“Don’t worry, Mary. I will give them their job. Right now, it’s your turn. You are up, Mary.”
Listen, if the resurrection is a fairy tale, then we’re just wasting our time.
If the resurrection is an allegory or a myth, then maybe it’s a harmless enough way to spend a few moments before breakfast.
If the resurrection is merely history – an event that happened once upon a time, a specific occasion in a particular place, then maybe someone ought to put up a plaque or historical marker.
But I believe that the resurrection is better and truer than any of that. I believe that the message still holds. I believe that the Message is still operative in our world.
God, in Christ, is moving in and through the world to bring sight where vision fails, to build up what has been torn down, and to heal what is wounded.
Jesus Christ, God’s own messenger and Message, said, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brethren to go to Galilee, and there they will see me.”
That is not yesterday’s news. Jesus is, in all of the most important ways, still visible. Apostles, like Mary and the twelve are still, in every significant way, being sent. Do you know this?
Are you aware of someone who needs to have vision restored, hope re-planted, sin forgiven, oppression lifted, enslavement ended?
Go and look for them. And show them Jesus.
The angels are not going to do it. Nor can Mary, Peter, John, Paul, Priscilla, or Aquila.
It’s you and me. Come on, church. You’re up. The world needs to see Jesus. Can we show him here and now? Can we be his body in this time and this place?
The Lord IS risen. He is risen indeed!
 Peculiar Treasures: A Biblical Who’s Who (Harper & Row, 1979), p. 102.