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A Sermon from
Valley Covenant Church
Eugene, Oregon
by Pastor Steve Bilynskyj

Copyright © 2015 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj

John 20:1-18
“Oh My God”
April 5, 2015 - Easter

         If they had had cell phones, the first Easter could have been lots different. When Mary first got to the tomb like she did in verse 1, she wouldn’t have had to run anywhere like in verse 2. She would have just whipped out her phone and texted, “WYWH” (Wish You Were Here), “SRA” (for Stone Rolled Away), and “SITD” (Still In The Dark). Peter and John and maybe all the rest of the disciples would have come running, and before noon the story would have been “RT” (ReTweeted) all over Jerusalem. Everybody would have been following “#emptytomb.” Then, like every other Internet phenomenon gone viral, it would have been forgotten in a couple days.

         Instead, as verse 2 tells, Mary had to carry the message herself and run back into the city to find “Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved.” That’s how John always refers to himself in this Gospel. Today he would just sign his texts “OWJL.” In any case, when she found Peter and John, Mary told them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.”

         That announcement from Mary answers a couple of skeptical questions about all this. The way John tells the Easter story is very different from Matthew, Mark and Luke. Those other three Gospels say several women went to the tomb that morning. John just has Mary Magdalene. So a doubter might think that they’re all just making it up and can’t get the facts straight. But look how she says, “we do not know where they have laid him.” John knew the other women were there. He’s just focusing on Mary.

         Another bigger problem is a contention as old as the Easter story. It’s the suggestion that the disciples just took and hid Jesus’ body and fabricated a story about Him being raised from the dead. But Mary and then Peter and John are as mystified as anybody. If they had planned a conspiracy to take away the corpse and give a false explanation, then why would John even raise the possibility that’s what happened? No, Mary’s confusion here has all the feel of reality.

         Again, if Mary had a phone she might have added “QQ,” which means “crying.” You know, two eyes with little tears running out of them. But she couldn’t text it, so we just have to hear the tears in her words, “we do not know where they have laid him!” To a Jewish person it was horrifying to desecrate a dead body, and it would be even more awful if it was someone you loved. Mary was weeping with shock and grief when she came to those two disciples.

         Peter and John reacted immediately. With phones it might have been different. Phones have all but ruined male conversation and action. I was walking through the airport two months ago and I heard a typical discussion begin between two baggage handlers about a baseball player’s batting average, one guy arguing for something like .320 and the other saying it was more like .336. They went back and forth a couple times and then one of them pulled out his phone and started thumbing it. Discussion and conversation over. Issue settled and nothing left to talk about.

         With phones, Peter and John might have just sat there, googling away for any news reports on cemetery robberies or trying to find a web cam focused on the tomb. Instead they got up and ran off to find an answer, racing each other to the tomb.

         This is John’s Gospel. His description of what he and Peter discovered at Jesus’ grave is full of detail from his own experience. He notes in verse 4 the fact that he arrived there first, but had only the courage to peek inside. Scale down your visualization of the tomb. It did not have a head-high doorway a man could walk through standing up. John bent down to see inside. When Peter arrived in verse 6 to go in, he had to stoop over, maybe even crawl into the space.

         Verse 7 gives John’s exact recollection of the arrangement of the burial linens. These were the cloths in which Jesus’ body had been wrapped. He made a point of telling us that the head cloth had been carefully folded and lay separate from the linens. This was not the work of grave robbers. If enemies or even friends of Jesus had come to snatch the corpse, they would have carried it away still wrapped. And they certainly would not have stopped to tidy up and do a neat job of folding things.

         Like Mary, Peter wanted to know where the body of Jesus had gone. The folded grave clothing only confused him. Luke’s Gospel says he saw the linen strips and “went away wondering to himself what had happened.” Maybe he would have texted “ISC” for “I’m So Confused” (I don’t know if that’s a real one or not).

         John’s slightly later entry had a different result. Verse 8 tells us he waited outside for Peter. Then it was his turn. John’s response was different, not confusion, but faith. “He saw and believed.” The connections came together. Jesus predicted He would rise again, and the empty tomb with its neatly arranged burial cloths brought it all back to John. He was the first to believe what we’re celebrating today. He is risen!

         But even John did not know what to do with his realization. He had found an answer, but he did not know what it meant. Verse 9 explains they still had not connected Jesus’ resurrection with what the Scriptures taught about the Messiah. Even believing that His Lord was alive, John did not know what to do next. So, according to verse 10, he and Peter just went home.

         What John admits next is that even though he was first to believe in the resurrection, it was Mary Magdalene who was blessed with the biggest first in this story. She was the first to see Jesus risen. She didn’t know what to do either, but verse 11 tells us she would not leave, just stood outside the tomb, still QQ, still crying. She must have followed John and Peter back and waited until their investigations were done.

         Finally, in verse 11, Mary did what the men had done. She bent down and looked in. This time there was someone there, Seated, one at the head and one at the foot of the burial shelf, were two angels dressed in white. Verse 13 tells us what they said. They asked her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” These days angels would have very cool phones and they would have texted “RUOK?”

         Mary told them exactly what she told Peter and John, except that she spoke only for herself this time, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” John doesn’t record any answer from the angels. The church father Chrysostom suggested that something changed in their manner, that they saw someone standing behind Mary outside the tomb. Maybe they pointed behind her. So in verse 14 she turned around.

         That’s the basic movement of Christian faith, to turn around from whatever wrong direction we are headed. Like the mechanical voice of our GPS has often said to me when I’ve gone the wrong way, “At the first opportunity, turn around.” Turn around away from all our doubts and from the poor directions we get sometimes from technology. Turn around to be “F2F,” face to face with the One we want to see.

         So verse 14 says, “she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus.” Then Jesus addressed her with another “RUOK?” in verse 15, “Woman, why are you weeping?” But He adds “FWRUL?”, “For whom are you looking?”

         Reading further we hear she thought He was just the gardener. She must have turned back away from Him, maybe so this stranger wouldn’t see her crying, maybe just because the gardener wasn’t as interesting as those angels in the tomb. It was definitely Jesus, but she didn’t recognize Him. Maybe it was the tears in her eyes, but it’s clear from the other gospels and even from chapter 21 of John that Jesus risen from the dead had something different about Him.

         You and I don’t always recognize Jesus when He comes to us. Maybe we’re not expecting enough, not expecting to be met “F2F,” face to face with a living Lord. Mary thought Jesus was dead. She expected a lifeless corpse, not a living man who asked why she was crying. So she tosses out the first hopeless thing she can think to say, “Sir, if you have carried him way, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” She may as well have texted “NM,” “Never mind,” and walked away.

         But Jesus spoke to her. Verse 16 says He spoke her name, “Mary.” There’s no text message, there’s no tweet, there’s no text-to-voice app that can take the place of someone you love speaking your name. He just said, “Mary!” and she heard the voice she had heard so often before, and she turned back around again.

         Jesus comes to you and me like that. He comes speaking our names, waiting for us to turn to Him, waiting for us to raise our heads from those little screens that demand our attention. Mary had to turn twice to Him on Easter before she knew who He was, before she stayed facing Jesus. You and I need to turn around over and over, before we keep our eyes completely on our Lord and address Him like Mary did, “Rabbouni,” “Teacher.” a form of the word “rabbi” which offered not just respect but affection. It was not just “teacher,” but “dear teacher.” It was “Teacher” with XOXO after it. It was used by those closest to Jesus. It may have meant even more, as I’ll say in a moment.

         Mary had the awesome privilege of being the first human being to meet Jesus after He had risen from the dead. It is a detail which in itself counts for its truth. If John or the other Gospel writers were trying to invent a miracle, they would not have put a woman in this place. Women’s testimony was worthless in a Jewish court of law. If this were simply a legend concocted years after the fact, then Peter or John would have met Jesus first. The witnesses would have been, from their POV, Point Of View, reliable males. Instead, the first one to see the risen Lord is a distraught, distracted weeping fe­male. The only reason is because it’s true.

         With that we come to what Jesus has to say to Mary in verse 17. This is the heart of it for John. This is where we hear not just the good Easter news that Christ is risen, but hear what it meant for Mary and for the disciples, and what it means for us. Verse 17 is the key to it all, but it’s also a very difficult verse to understand.

         Jesus told Mary, “Do not hold on to me.” The word He used can be translated like the King James Version mistakenly did, “Touch me not.” That makes it sound like, after all the gentle kindness He showed Mary, Jesus played the ultimate introvert and didn’t even want her to touch Him. It’s sometimes contrasted with the end of this chapter where in verse 27 Jesus invites Thomas to touch Him.

         But most translations today get it right. In them Jesus says to Mary, “Do not hold on to me,” or “Do not cling to me.” He’s saying it in a way that makes it “Stop holding on to me,” which makes us realize she was already touching Him, holding on. She had rushed to fall and cling to His feet, like Matthew tells us all the women did that morning. Jesus wasn’t telling her not to touch Him. She already was. He was telling her that their relationship was going to change. His relationship with all the disciples was changing.

         The reason for Mary not to hold on to Jesus was, “because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” What’s changing between Jesus and all of them is what changed for all of us as well, our relationship with Jesus and through Him, with God.

         Back in John 14 Jesus told the disciples that He would leave them and go to be with the Father so that from there He could send the Holy Spirit to them and to everyone who will receive Him. As long as He was on earth, in one place and one time in a human body, only those in His immediate presence could see Him, could know Him. Only a handful of people could cling like Mary did to her beloved Teacher.

         Once Jesus ascended, though, He could be present everywhere through His Spirit. Rising from the dead and then ultimately up and out of this world would make it possible for Him to be present in this world in new way, present anywhere, for anyone who believed in Him and received His Spirit. That’s what Jesus was trying to tell Mary. “Don’t hold onto me in the old way, because I’m getting ready to be with you in new way.”

         With text messaging unavailable, Jesus sent His “brothers,” the male disciples, a message through Mary. That message she carried makes her the first Christian evangelist, the first missionary, the first preacher of the Gospel. He told her to tell them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.”

         It sounds a little strange, but the good news is right there in that message. Why did Jesus say “my Father and your Father” and “my God and your God?” He said it to show that everything had just changed for the human race. He is the Son of God. He had every right to talk about “my Father” and “my God.” As several of the church fathers, including Augustine, saw, Jesus was distinguishing His relationship with God from their relationship with God, from our relationship with God. It’s as if Jesus is the natural child of the Father. Others may call God “Father,” but only in a different sense. Jesus can say “my God” naturally and freely. We can say it only by grace, by the gift Jesus died and rose to give.

         As Gregory of Nyssa explained, when Jesus rose from the dead and ascended back to God, He carried humanity with Him in His own risen body. What Jesus is telling Mary to tell the disciples is, “I am departing in order to make that true Father, from whom you were separated, to be your Father; and to make that true God from whom you rebelled to be your God.”[1]

         It’s all about the last little bit of textspeak for today, that irreverent, almost blasphemous as it sometimes used, three-letter acronym, “OMG,” “Oh My God!” You can find it plastered across the bottom of pictures of cute babies or kittens with surprised expressions. You hear it from gum-chewing teenagers as they tell each other bits of juicy gossip. In those contexts it might make you cringe. But here in the presence of the Son of God risen from the dead, it makes perfect sense. Mary, Peter, John and every follower of Jesus have been given the right to say, “OMG,” “Oh my God,” and mean it completely.

         Jesus died and rose again so that the Father and God He knew so well could be the Father and God that you and I know so well. By becoming human and then dying and rising as a human, Jesus changed human possibilities. “OMG” is not just some airheaded exclamation of amazement. It’s the glorious truth about how we can come to God now. By the grace of our Lord’s resurrection and ascension to the Father, we can be children of God, we can claim God as our own.

         Look down again at the end of the chapter verse 28 and you will see one disciple doing just what we’ve said, seeing Jesus and declaring, “My Lord and my God!” That’s what everyone who believes in Jesus is able to do, to know that we have a Father and a God, and a Lord who loves and cares for us.

         So one last time, if Mary had an iPhone this is the point when she might have grabbed it and tapped out, “OMG! Guess who I’ve seen?” But verse 18 tells us she actually went to the others and announced, “I have seen the Lord!” and told them everything Jesus said. Cell phones are fine. “OMG” is even O.K. when you believe and mean it literally, really literally literally. But the best response to Easter, to seeing Jesus, is to go and tell someone else what you know. Let them hear so that they too can say “Oh my God,” because He really is and always wants to be your God and their God, because He is risen.


         Valley Covenant Church
         Eugene/Springfield, Oregon
         Copyright © 2015 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj

[1] Quoted in Joel C. Elowsky, ed., Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: New Testament IVb John 11-21 (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2007), p. 353.

Last updated April 5, 2015