Topic Scripture: John 20:10-18
Why does God allow war? I trust we understand that he does not cause it. Japanese bombers invading Pearl Harbor, or Hitler’s tanks invading Poland, or Saddam Hussein invading Kuwait or harboring weapons of mass destruction—these things cause war. It is a simple fact, regardless of our political views, that we would not be at war in Iraq today if Hussein had disarmed.
But why does God allow it? Our Creator has given us freedom of will, so we have the capacity to choose to love him and live by his word. And so he must allow us the capacity to choose to reject him and refuse his word. The consequences of such misused freedom are not God’s fault but ours.
But still, why does he allow such consequences? Here’s one reason: to use human crisis for spiritual purposes.
If a person escapes adolescence without faith in Christ, he typically does not turn to the Lord unless he needs him. Unless there’s a divorce, or illness, or job loss, or crisis. Unless there’s a war. During the Civil War, for instance, as many as 300,000 soldiers came to faith in Christ.
Already we’re hearing such stories from Iraq. Servicemen and women turning to faith in Jesus, sharing their faith in Jesus, standing for Jesus. In the contemporary service I showed the picture of Pfc. David Kurns, one of eight members of the 3rd Infantry Division who were baptized north of Kuwait City on March 12. They made a hole in the desert, filled it with bottled water, and used it to tell the world they trust in Jesus.
How can we redeem this crisis, this suffering, this tragedy for spiritual and eternal good? As we meet Mary Magdalene, the first to tell the world about Jesus’ resurrection, we must ask: how can we do for Jesus what Mary did for him?
So, we have today a message about personal ministry and evangelism. But we aren’t all pleased with the topic.We know the need is great: 100,000 living within three miles of our church who are not in any worship service this morning.
And we know people personally who need Jesus. Think of someone you know who is spiritually lost. Why have you not told that person about Jesus? I bet I know some of the reasons. I face them myself. So did Mary.
First: you’re unqualified. You don’t have the education, the training, the ability, the calling.
You wouldn’t see a heart attack victim in a hospital and think you could perform heart surgery unless you were qualified; you wouldn’t hear that a friend has cancer and administer radiation unless you were trained.
It’s the same with souls as bodies, isn’t it? Spiritual surgery is for spiritual surgeons. They might ask a question you can’t answer, or you might not do this properly. Best to leave evangelism and ministry to the professionals.
Well, meet one such “professional,” the first evangelist for the risen Christ. Here are her qualifications:
She’s a woman, of course. And women had no social status whatever. A female was the possession of her father until she became the possession of her husband. Making things worse, she was from Magdala, a town on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee, so she’s a Galilean. A backwoods country bumpkin in the eyes of sophisticated society. She fails socially. But things get worse.
Mary sees the same miracle as John: the grave clothes intact and folded. But she doesn’t “see and believe.” She misses the point. She has no formal education or biblical background, and so she doesn’t put the scriptures together. She fails intellectually. But things get worse still.
Luke’s Gospel gives us the only reference to Mary from Magdala before Jesus’ crucifixion when it describes her as one “from whom seven demons had come out” (Luke 8:2). A demoniac when Jesus met her.
Imagine this: a person of inferior social rank and status, with no theological training or educational background, and a former demoniac at that—the first person given responsibility for Easter. No one could be less qualified.
Unless, that is, it’s Simon Peter, the leader of the apostles who slept through Jesus’ Garden temptations, denied him three times to servants, and fled from the cross. Or perhaps Saul of Tarsus, the enraged Pharisee who murdered Christians.
Or perhaps Augustine, the immoral adulterer; or Martin Luther, the confused and troubled monk; or John Smyth and Thomas Helwys, the English outlaws who started the church called Baptist; or William Carey, the shoe cobbler shouted down by the ministerial alliance to whom he appealed for missions support; or Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German prisoner of war “silenced” by the Gestapo.
No one is less qualified than Mary, unless it’s me, a convert to Christ out of a bus ministry in Houston. Or you.
Sometimes we’re afraid to tell the world about the risen Christ, because we don’t feel qualified. And sometimes we’re just not motivated. We don’t want to pay the price.
We’re afraid of failing, or of being rejected. We’re afraid of offending the person with whom we share our faith.
Or we’re not convinced that this is really necessary. After all, our friends believe in God. They live moral lives. A loving Father wouldn’t send his children to hell—that’s just a tactic to scare people into the church. It doesn’t really matter what they believe, so long as they’re sincere. Actor Adrien Brody said it well at the Oscars: whether you believe in God or Allah, may he watch over you.
Or we’re not convinced that Christianity is really true. It’s true for us but it may not be for everyone. After all, there are lots of unanswered questions about this faith. What about contradictions in the Bible? What about science and faith issues? And what about evil and suffering—why would an all-good, all-powerful allow such evil as 9-11? Why would he allow my father’s heart disease, or your child’s cancer?
Good questions, all. Problems for anyone who is thinking of sharing Christ with someone they know. But let’s watch Mary Magdalene.
She is weeping at the empty tomb, because her Master is dead and now his body is stolen. The angels see her tears, as does the risen Lord. When she hears him call her name, she knows instantly who he is.
She clings to his crucified feet, so that he must say to her, “Do not hold on to me.” He has not yet returned to the Father—they have more time together. Instead, “Go to my brothers and tell them….” (v. 17). And she did.
When Mary encountered her living Lord, really met Jesus, heard his voice and saw his face and felt his touch, every objection melted away. Every roadblock, every hindrance is gone: “Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: ‘I have seen the Lord!'” (v. 18a).
She knows she cannot fail. No matter what they will say to her, no matter how they will reject or ridicule her, she’s no longer afraid. Success is obedience.
She knows they really need to know. If Jesus is truly resurrected, he’s different from Mohammad, or Buddha, or Confucius. He is the only Lord and God. Jesus is alive, and the world must know.
And she knows that Christianity is really true. There are intellectual, rational, speculative questions of logic, to be sure. Christianity is a relationship, and no relationship can be understood, much less proven, on rational grounds. Prove that your wife or husband loves you. Prove that your friends are really your friends. It’s not that seeing is believing—believing is seeing. She has seen Jesus, and her intellectual issues take second place to her personal experience.
Mary has met the risen Christ for herself, and knows Easter to be real. John Updike captures the moment:
Make no mistake: if He rose at all
it was as His body;
if the cells’ dissolution did not reverse, the molecules reknit,
the amino acids rekindle,
the Church will fall.
Let us not mock God with metaphor,
analogy, sidestepping transcendence;
making of the event a parable,
a sign painted in the faded credulity of earlier ages:
let us walk through the door.
She did. And she found the risen, living Lord Jesus. So can we.
Here’s the bottom line: when we love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, we must love our neighbor as ourselves. When we’re in love, we must tell the news. When we’re engaged, or married, or have a child, everyone we know hears the story. We can’t help it.
Tillie Burgin is the founder of Mission Arlington and one of my heroes in the faith. This retired missionary to Korea began a ministry some 20 years ago to reach Arlington by meeting its needs with Jesus’ love. More than 3,000 worship every Sunday in hundreds of apartment churches and have their needs met through medical clinics, furniture and benevolence centers, and dozens of ministries. Tillie works from 4 a.m. until 10 p.m. every day. Her son once asked her why. Tears filled her eyes as she said simply, “I just love him so much.”
We’re not qualified, but God makes us so. If we love Jesus, we will want to tell others about him. But what do we say? Don’t we feel unprepared for ministry and evangelism?
Jesus says to Mary: “Go instead to my brothers.” Go—don’t wait for them to find you. Go to “my brothers”—this is the first time Jesus calls them that. They failed and abandoned him, but he still loves them as brothers. Tell them that Jesus loves them.
Tell them that the Father loves them as well: his Father is their Father, his God their God. Tell them about his grace and mercy, his unconditional love. Tell them.
And she did. And after she gave them the word of the Lord, the Lord of the word appeared (vs. 19ff.). He validated all she said with his own presence and power. From Mary Magdalene to this small band of disciples the news of Easter has gone to every land, bringing billions of souls to Christ. And every one of us can trace our spiritual life back to her.
Now, who will trace theirs to you? The “Impact” card we are using during this Easter season gives each of us opportunity to do for someone else what someone did for us. To be Mary, as someone was Mary to us. They receive eternal life with God in his paradise. And we experience the joy, satisfaction, significance and fulfillment which God can only give to those who will share such love with another.
We have the best news there is. Better than peace in Iraq, glorious as that would be; better than a cure for Sudden Acute Respiratory Syndrome, needed as that is; better than a solution to AIDS and cancer and heart disease, crime and violence and war, vital as they are. We have the cure for death itself. We have the security of eternal life to offer, if only we will.
Said the poet:
Now is the shining fabric of our day
Torn open, flung apart, rent wide by love.
Never again the tight, enclosing sky,
The blue bowl or the star-illumined tent.
We are laid open to infinity,
For Easter love has burst His tomb and ours.
Now nothing shelters us from God’s desire—
Not flesh, not sky, not stars, not even sin.
Now glory waits so He can enter in.
Now does the dance begin.