Sermon: First Apostle

Worshipers at Church of the Holy Cross on Easter Sunday

April 21, 2019
Easter Sunday

John 20:1-18

by Eric Anderson

Let me see if I can get you to step back in time a few hours. Actually, I’d like you to step back a couple thousand years, but let’s start with a couple hours. Well, more like four. Or five.

Are you willing to go back five hours with me?

As difficult as it is, in the bright light of an Easter mid-morning, with the children already on the journey from sugar energy to sugar exhaustion, I’d like you to step back before the brightness, before even the dawn. Send your imagination or your memory (if you were awake that early) back to before sunrise.

Remember that still place, remember that shadowy place, remember that intimate and somewhat intimidating place.

That’s the time Mary Magdalene made her way to Jesus’ tomb.

John didn’t say why she went so early. John didn’t say why she went at all, leaving us to guess for the last nineteen centuries or so. It seems likely she went to the tomb to grieve, following the path that generations of mourners had taken before her and that generations of mourners have followed since. We want to be at that place, Mary wanted to be, where those we loved now rest.

Perhaps her grief made her restless, and she went to the tomb because if she couldn’t sleep she might as well be there. Perhaps she was wary of the powerful people who had had Jesus executed, and the soldiers at their command. Perhaps she went when it was dark to stay out of their sight. Perhaps the shadows matched her mood.

Remember that still place. Remember that shadowy place. Remember that intimate and somewhat intimidating place.

“While it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed.”

How many of you are surprised to hear this? How many of you are surprised to hear that the stone had been removed?

My predecessors have taught you well. You know how this story goes. You come to the tomb each Easter with Mary and the open entrance comes as no surprise. You expect it.

As Debie Thomas writes, “Though the past two thousand years have honed and codifed our Easter acclamations, what we know from the Gospels is that the original disciples stumbled around in the half-light on that third day after Jesus’s crucifixion, confused and afraid. Was it an angel, sitting in that unlit tomb? Were those shadows in the corner really grave clothes? That quiet stranger lingering outside — was he a gardener? Or someone else? Why did he look vaguely familiar? 

“‘Early in the morning, while it was still dark…’ That’s where Easter really begins. It begins in darkness. It begins with fear, bewilderment, pain, and a profound loss of certainty.”

So send your imagination back a bit more. Remember coming to the grave of someone you’ve mourned. Remember looking at the headstone, or the urn, or the memorial plaque in the mausoleum. Now imagine that it was open or disturbed. Imagine the shock. Imagine the anger. Imagine the grief.

You might run as fast as Mary did, run to find someone to come see, come share your distress, come comfort your anguish.

Now, see if you can step back those two thousand years and appreciate some of the chaos of that morning. Light might just be breaking as Mary went searching for the place that Simon Peter and this other disciple were staying. I wonder if she knew where to go, or if she had to find someone else and ask them. Imagine getting lost on the somewhat unfamiliar streets of the city. Imagine wondering if someone would stop her, a woman alone at daybreak, to ask what she was doing or worse.

Imagine watching the two men set off on a footrace. Imagine running along behind, ignored – which is, I’m afraid what men have tended to do around women for a long, long time. Imagine watching them mill about the tomb opening, looking at things and not actually finding anything out. Imagine watching them walk away.

Imagine that you’re alone again with your grief, and your exhaustion, and your tears, and your rage, and your fear.

Now you’re ready to become an apostle.

Wait, what?

No, I’m not kidding, and no, I haven’t gone delirious through excessive consumption of Easter chocolate. That comes later.

And in truth, there’s another step or two coming, but let’s linger here for just a moment longer:

When you’re frantic but your frenzy has nothing to do.

When you’re exhausted but your adrenalin is running so high you’re shaking.

When you’re certain that what has happened is awful but the one thing you don’t know is what has happened.

When you’ve lost the one who loves you best and now you’ve lost that one again and forever.

When you can’t see for tears, and you can’t get a straight answer from anybody, and all anyone wants to know is: Why are you crying?

Now you’re ready to become an apostle.

Listen. Listen. Because someone is calling your name.

I know you can’t see for the tears but the sound of your name opens your eyes, metaphorically at least. Someone is calling your name. It’s chaos all over again, because everything you knew to be true is suddenly false.

Your frenzy now has a person to embrace.

Your body can shake with the release of relief.

Your certainty has collapsed but your new certainty is wonder.

The one you lost, the one you lost again, is found beyond imagining.

Nobody asks you why you’re crying, because these are tears of joy.

You were ready to become an apostle. Now you have the message of an apostle. Now you know the substance of the good news.

For Mary Magdalene, the substance of the good news was the literal substance of the risen body of Jesus. When I read those words, “Do not hold on to me,” I understand them to mean something like, “You need to let go of me now. I’ve got some other things to do.” Even in the first century, with its strict codes about the conduct of men and women, I cannot imagine Mary Magdalene recognizing the risen Jesus and not throwing her arms around him and holding on until he gently told her it was time to let go.

For Mary, the substance of the good news was the literal substance of the risen Christ.

For you, the substance of the good news may be different: related to the resurrection of Jesus, but it is likely to be unique to you. What brings you here this morning? Is it the story? Is it the shared sense of joy? Is there some spiritual breath of fresh air? What did you find, when did you find it, what brings you back?

What gives you meaning in each passing day? What gives you strength when you have hit the wall of weariness? What fills you with joy?

What makes you believe in the power of life?

That’s the substance of your good news in the risen Christ. That sense of freedom, or that sense of belonging, or that inhalation of joy, or that ringing sense of wonder. That’s the substance of your good news.

In your uncertainty, you were ready to become an apostle. In the unexpected discovery of resurrection, you found the substance of your good news message. There’s one more step coming.


Jesus told Mary to go tell the others what had happened. He gave her a commission.

And she fulfilled it. “Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord,’ and she told them that he had said these things to her.”

Mary Magdalene was the first apostle.

The wise listen to the words of unexpected apostles, whether they be women or men, dark-skinned or light, experienced or learning, wealthy or poor. The wise listen.

The wise just might listen to you.

Mary Magdalene made her journey into the fear and uncertainty of Easter morning. She wept her way through its anguish and kept searching for the One she sought. As Matthew Henry wrote, “Those are likely to seek and find that seek with affection, that seek in tears.”

I do not assume that you’ve followed Mary Magdalene’s journey in the same way. You may still be in that place of tearful seeking. You may still seek with affection, and have not yet found. If that is where you are, take heart. The one thing I am confident of in the life of faith is that those who seek the love of God will find it.

You may also be in that place of embracing the love and joy of God, of having grasped the resurrection in your own heart, of having found the loving One you’ve sought. If you are still held in that precious place, then you have my blessing. Rejoice in the arms of Christ while you may.

But. If you were waiting for a commission: here it is. Go tell your brothers. Go tell your sisters. Go tell everyone of the blessing you have found. Go tell them not to change them, but to reassure them. Go tell them not to condemn them, but to lift them. Go tell them not to challenge them, but to bless them.

Tell them what you have seen, and heard, and felt, and embraced. Tell them of your resurrection hope.

For someone, that makes you a first apostle.


Listen to the Recorded Sermon

First Apostle

If this sermon deviates from the prepared text (and it does), it remains true that for somebody, you will be the first apostle.

The photo of a congregation full of apostles is by Eric Anderson.

Categories Sermons | Tags: , , | Posted on April 21, 2019

Social Networks: RSS Facebook Twitter Google Stumble Upon Digg Reddit

Leave a Reply

close window

Service Times & Directions

Sunday School Classes

Sunday 8:45 am

Sunday Worship Service

Sunday 10:00 am

Adult Bible Study

Monday 6:30 pm, Wednesday 9:00 am

(International Young Adults Association)
Bible Study

Wednesday 7:30 pm

The Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga

(The Rev. Tevita) Sunday 1:00 pm Wednesday 7:00 pm (Sanctuary)

The United Church of Christ, Pohnpei - Hilo

(The Rev. Ichiro) Sunday 10:00 am (Bdg. of Faith)

The Samoan Church

(The Rev. Sunia) Sunday 4:00 pm (Sanctuary)

440 W. Lanikaula Street
Hilo, HI 96720
(808) 935-1283