Exodus 33.12-23, John 20.1-18
The writers of the material in the Book of Exodus are obsessed with the theme of encountering God. They return to it again and again.
This shouldn’t surprise us because encountering God is what spirituality is all about. It’s the Holy Grail, if you like, which all believers are pursuing throughout this life and into the life beyond.
Here Moses is told most emphatically that a full-on encounter with God is just not possible. It’s too scary. He will go mad or die. Only a partial revelation is safe.
It’s a bit like the Greek myth of the Gorgon. Anyone who gazed upon her face was turned to stone. Even in death she retained this awesome power.
Christians know, however, that God is not like the Gorgon. We can look upon his face and yet remain alive. If anything, this encounter can enrich our lives to the point where our old life seems trivial and incomplete by comparison.
Of course, meeting God as Creator of the universe would doubtless still be immensely daunting. This face-to-face encounter with God is only made possible for us because we can look upon the face of God become human, in the person of Jesus.
This is what Mary did in the garden on Easter Day. And the first thing to say about her face-to-face encounter with the Risen Jesus is that it had a very ordinary quality. She mistook him for the gardener, more Monty Don than Lord of All.
The second thing is that it was deeply personal. Jesus spoke to her by name, ‘Mary!’ Some faiths teach that when we die we’ll be absorbed into the very being of God, and perhaps that’s true, but even if this happens we’ll still be individuals, called by name.
Preserving my individuality, making it possible to pick me out of a crowd, is the reason why my parents gave me a middle name, because in any medium sized crowd there’s always someone else called Bishop. When I started secondary school the teachers were always asking me, ‘Are you related to the Bishop in the Sixth Form?’ I don’t why this mattered to them, but it was always a conversation stopper because I wasn’t related to him.
Of course when you get into an international arena like the Internet, being called by a particular name isn’t so useful for preserving your uniqueness! A quick search for my name brought up 34½ million entries! There’s even another person with my name, who’s roughly my age, who was once a bank robber, and another who’s a professional footballer. And that’s just in England!
Moses reminded God in our reading from the Book of Exodus that he was already God’s friend and that God had been pleased with him. That’s why he felt sure that God would always go with him and grant him peace. But even so he couldn’t look on God face-to-face. He could only be permitted to get a fleeting glimpse of God’s glory.
Similarly Mary already knew Jesus before she saw him in the garden on Easter Day. They were on first-name terms. But in contrast with Moses’ experience, although he’d now been raised from death, she did get to see Jesus’ face-to-face and even to touch him.
The resurrection of Jesus became the guarantee that even beyond death personal relationship matters to God. Though he’s different, he’s still Jesus, and he still cares about Mary, and each one of us, as unique individuals with a special place in his heart.
That’s why the Methodist Church’s book about membership has the title, ‘Called by Name’. Each of us is being called by Jesus to have a one-to-one relationship with him. Even if there are 34½ million people with the same name he will still have a unique relationship with each one of us.
Finally, Mary’s relationship with Jesus was dynamic, not static. This shouldn’t surprise us. As someone has said, if it’s going to endure ‘love has to bend, adapt and grow to meet the changes in our lives that will inevitably affect our relationships.’ Marriage, children, caring for relatives who become frail or unwell, unemployment, all sorts of things can have a bearing on our relationships, and our love for one another has to cope with these challenges. We can’t pickle the way that we relate to one another in aspic.
Mary couldn’t cling to the past, to the Jesus she used to know. Nor could she go on loving him in the same way. Continuing to love Jesus meant going and doing something for him.
And that challenge applies to us, too. Loving Jesus, committing to follow him, belonging to his Church, is not something static and unchanging, a one-off decision that we look back on with justifiable satisfaction. It’s a process. It’s constantly changing. Our love for Jesus needs renewing. And it’s dynamic. It involves doing - in Mary’s case, going and telling the other disciples about him.
Of course, Peter and the disciple whom Jesus loved had only seen a static situation - an empty grave. The disciple whom Jesus loved, let’s call him his favourite disciple, chose to believe that something dynamic and life-transforming had happened, and to believe Mary’s report. As readers of the Gospel, or listeners to the story, we have to ask, ‘Can we bring ourselves to follow his example, or are we going to be doubtful and hesitant like Peter?’St Paul observed that, although we may get to look on God’s face in Jesus, even meeting God in Jesus is still a death-defying experience. The encounter forces us to die, and go on dying, to our old way of life and to rise, and go on rising, to new life in him. So, like Mary, we still meet God in Jesus at our peril. There are no free lunches.