Sunday, April 1, 2018

The Bride and the Bridegroom: An Easter Sermon

One of the more surprising facts about the accounts of Jesus’ resurrection recorded in the gospels—given the time and culture they were written—is the centrality and importance of the women in the story. In first century Palestine, women were not considered reliable or trustworthy witnesses. It was thought that women were easily deceived and given to fanciful delusions, and yet the gospels are unanimous in telling us that the first witnesses to the resurrection were women. 

The fact that they include this detail is strong evidence for their historical reliability. No one at that time would go out of their way to include this fact in a fabricated account. The first century theologian Origen had to defend the resurrection’s reliability against pagan critics over this very point! It was clearly a source of embarrassment for many early Christians.

Yet God is not embarrassed by his faithful daughters. He has chosen what was considered foolish by the world to shame the wise!
It is not to Peter or John that the resurrected Christ chooses first to reveal himself, it is Mary Magdalene. Jesus appoints her as the first herald of the resurrection, an apostle to the apostles. This is not a detail to be dismissed. It signals to us the radical change that Jesus’ resurrection intends to bring about.  

Bishop Tom Wright says this,
“Something has happened in the renewal of creation through the death and resurrection of Jesus which has the result, as one of its multitude spin-offs, that whereas Jesus only ever sent out men, now – now of all moments! – he sends out a woman. And though the church has often struggled- to put it mildly -  with the idea of women being called to genuine apostolic ministry, the record is clear and unambiguous.”

Who was this woman who is given so great an honor? Not much is really known about her, but she has a fairly prominent role in the gospel narratives especially in the stories of the crucifixion and resurrection, more so than many of the twelve disciples. She and the other women stayed close to the foot of the cross throughout Jesus’ crucifixion. Early on the third day they discovered the empty tomb when they brought myrrh to anoint his body.

She is often conflated with Mary of Bethany and the sinful woman who anointed Jesus’ feet, but she is almost certainly separate from both these individuals. She was probably not, as she is often depicted, a repentant prostitute although both Mark and Luke record that Jesus cast seven demons out from her!

This morning, however, I want to draw our attention to the special role she plays in the story of the resurrection as recorded by Saint John. She is a type or representative figure of Israel the bride of the messiah!

Now before you think I am going all Dan Brown-Davinci Code on you, let me say up front that I don’t think Jesus and Mary Magdalene were actually married! There really isn’t any evidence for that.

John is merely casting the story of her encounter with the risen Christ in a symbolic way that—for those who have eyes to see—has several allusions to the biblical love-poem, the Song of Solomon.

The poem--like our story from John—is set in a garden that recalls the original Garden of Eden. It tells of the romance between King Solomon and his beloved, the Shulamite woman. It has often been interpreted as an allegory about the love of God for his people, about the time when the messiah will come to take Israel as his bride and all things will be made new. 

Listen to this reading from the third chapter of Song of Solomon,

On my bed by night I sought him whom my soul loves; I sought him, but found him not.  I will rise now and go about the city, in the streets and in the squares; I will seek him whom my soul loves. I sought him, but found him not.  The watchmen found me as they went about in the city. “Have you seen him whom my soul loves?” Scarcely had I passed them when I found him whom my soul loves. I held him, and would not let him go until I had brought him into my mother's house, and into the chamber of her who conceived me.

Now let’s look at the resurrection story as John tells it. Mary rises early while it is still dark to go to Jesus’ tomb. She searches for him but cannot find him. Like the Shulamite she is desperate and distraught. She is like Israel who has waited and searched all these long years for her messiah. She feels at last she has found the one her soul loves, the one she was made for, but suddenly her honeymoon has become a nightmare. He is gone and now she can’t even find where they have laid his body.

When next we see her she is weeping by the tomb. She is found by two Angels—Angels who are often referred to as watchers—and they interrogate her.
She tells them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.”

The word that is translated here as Lord can also be translated as Husband. It is a double entendre.

When next she turns around it is Jesus standing beside her, but she supposes him to be the gardener. The symbolism here is thick. Adam was a gardener in Eden. The bridegroom in the Song of Solomon is also depicted as a gardener.

The Shulamite sings of him, “My beloved has gone down to his garden, to the beds of spices, to graze in the gardens, and to gather lilies. I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine; he grazes among the lilies.”

He likewise sings, “I came to my garden, my sister, my bride . . .I slept, but my heart was awakened.”

When the Shulamite at last found her bridegroom that had been taken from her she clung to him and would not let him go until she brought him to her mother’s house, the place where their love would at last be consummated. When Mary sees Jesus she also clings to him, but he tells her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father.”

This curious incident makes much more sense when read along side the Song of Solomon. Jesus is telling Mary that the time of the consummation of the kingdom is not yet. Before God can at last dwell with his people, his chosen bride, in the new creation he must first ascend to his father. Earlier Jesus had told his disciples, “if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.”

Until that time she has a job to do. Her bridegroom has gone off to prepare a place for her. She must go and tell his brothers about this. She must share with them the good news of what she has seen, that Christ is risen!

As God’s people, the Church, his chosen bride, we have been given a promise. Christ is risen and he will return at last take us to himself as his bride so that we can dwell with him forever in the New Heavens and the New Earth.

We are the ones who have been chosen for so great an honor, to be heralds of the resurrection. We are the ones who, like Mary, have been set free from bondage to the demonic powers of evil. 

Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish

Brothers and sisters, have you found the bridegroom of your soul? The one who you were made for! It is Christ! Today if you meet him, cling to him and do not let him go.

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