Only her true love can save her. In just about all of those wonderful fairy tales we read as children there was a damsel in distress in need of rescue. In so many of them, however, the woman even needs to be rescued from death, actual or symbolic. Whether it’s Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, or even Cinderella, the young woman at the center of the story is captured or taken over by some evil witch or sinister villain. The situation in these great stories becomes seemingly absolutely hopeless for the young woman to be saved from the clutches of a wicked monster and renders it impossible for her to marry her true love. The fair maiden is tricked into biting a poisonous apple or confined to a solitude that becomes a kind of simulated death. Death or some kind of form of death like endless sleep where one never awakens places fair maidens beyond the reach of salvation. That is, just as the fairy tale seems to be doomed to end in the death of the fair maiden, somehow the trapped, poisoned, or imprisoned young lady of the story, is rescued by some great deliverer. He may be a knight in shining armor or some other virtuous young man. He kisses her or gives her a magic potion that he’s usually secured to the point of risking his life. His true love for the fair maiden drives him to find whatever is necessary to be conquered to resurrect the fair maiden. And in one sense this kind of story we loved as children brings us to what this day is all about. Only it’s not a fairy tale and it’s not just about the damsel in distress who is resurrected.
Perhaps this love story is best summarized in the Gospel from which our reading comes this Easter Morning. It is from the twentieth chapter of the Gospel of John. But first let us consider the context and message of the book as a whole.
In this magnificent Gospel, we find many women who are in need of rescue starting at the very beginning where Jesus’ first miracle is at a wedding (John 2). You may remember they ran out of wine. Significantly, the groom’s family was responsible for the wine. The reality is that the bride began to see that her new husband could not provide, which no doubt left her in doubt and desperation, a very precarious situation. The Lord came to rescue. He turned water into wine and revealed Him-self to be the Groom who never fails His bride. As such He rescued the groom and particularly the bride from a horrible catastrophe. You could say that He resurrected the marriage, which is what the Incarnation accomplishes. God had created a bride for Himself at the very the beginning. She was seduced by a false suitor and committed spiritual adultery with the Serpent. Yet the love of God as the Eternal Groom did not wane. The story of the Bible is how God continued to pursue His bride to the point of becoming Man, the Incarnation.
Importantly in John’s Gospel, we learn in the following chapter after the Wedding at Cana miracle, that Jesus Christ performs His rescues out of love. In fact the most memorable verse in all the Bible is found in this chapter: “So God love the world that He gave His only begotten Son to the end that believe in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16). Because of this emphasis on God’s great love that compels Him to rescue and resurrect His Bride, the Gospel of John has been called, “The Gospel of Love.” Simon DeGraff in his wonderful commentary Promise and Deliverance calls the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, “The resurrection of love.” We are led to this concur with this summary of John throughout the book, which culminates in the Resurrection.
Thus the remarkable Gospel continues to introduce us to how God’s love resurrects and rescues many women, who all symbolize the Lord’s Bride in one sense or another. In the same context as above, in the fourth Chapter of John there is a woman at a well whom we discover has had many failed marriages. She is unfaithful. She needs an ultimate Husband and Man who will rescue her and be faithful to her in ways that no one else has ever been. Jesus Christ reveals He knows all about her wayward life without the woman telling Him. Only God could know this information. Yet, Jesus still meets her where she is at and calls her to the true worship of the Messiah. He thus sheds light on the reality that only He is the true Messiah who can only raise her up and rescue her.
Then there is a woman caught in adultery (John 8). Her accusers bring her to Christ calling for her execution. Jesus turns it all on them when He says, “He who is without sin cast the first stone.” At that they all flee. Jesus is the only one left with her. He is her true deliverer once again. He literally saved her from death. In a sense He resurrected her. He assures the woman that He does not condemn her, but He bids her go and sin no more.
Then just a few chapters later we encounter two other women in need of a resurrection (John 11). They are sisters, Mary and Martha, who have a sick brother named Lazarus. They ask Jesus to come and heal their brother. The Lord does not reach the man in time. Lazarus dies. He is in the grave for four days before Jesus arrived, which means his flesh had begun to decay. Christ however raises Lazarus from the dead and restores his flesh. The brother is returned to the two desperate sisters. The Gospel of John crescendos with the message that Jesus Christ can and does rescue His “damsel in distress,” the Bride of God, from any predicament, even death.
But then suddenly and seemingly tragically our story of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ takes a very uncharacteristic turn. Although this is not a fairy tale, it becomes totally different from all the stories we’ve ever heard and loved about lady’s facing disaster. The stunning twist is that the rescuer, the great deliver in our story dies! Jesus Christ is betrayed, captured, tortured, falsely tried for the crime of blasphemy, and executed on a cross. All seems lost as the Lord is buried in a sealed tomb for three days.
Then unexpectedly our Gospel takes another surprising turn. Our passage from John 20 on Easter morning brings us to yet an additional woman in need of rescue with an incredible redirection of events. The woman is named Mary Magdalene. She was probably that woman who had been caught in adultery and rescued by Jesus (John 8). She had been a troubled lady of ill repute, possessed by many evil spirits. Christ extended His love and saved her for which she remained ever faithful to him. Her loyalty was symbolized on one occasion when she used her costly perfume to anoint Jesus feet, showing her submission to Him as her Lord.
Our passage for today states that she was one who first came to the empty tomb. John’s account of the Resurrection has only Mary Magdalene initially at the empty tomb. In the first verse John 20:1 when Mary discovers the tomb is empty, she assumes the body has been stolen, and goes to tell the other disciples, who also realize the grave is empty.
Mary’s love persists. She returns to the empty tomb only to meet a person whom she thinks is the gardener. Christ was buried in a garden spot, which is why there was a presumed gardener. In her grief she doesn’t recognize the Lord, a common problem of humans in agony. God is before is standing right in front of her and she doesn’t recognize Him in her grief. Kind of like us in our distresses. We often think God is not there or with us; yet, He’s right before our very blinded eyes. He’s near and ever present.
Jesus does something to reveal Himself. He calls her name. Mary remembered hearing before that same voice speak her name. She then discovers what she never expected. The rescuer has been resurrected. He had died, now He has been raised from the dead. And through His resurrection, His love raised Mary Magdalene to new heights of faith. He rescued her from every kind of evil. Now He raises her from the death of her loss. The Lord does no less with the disciples, the whole world, and now beckons us on this Easter morn to come to the same awareness that Christ is alive! He has been raised from the dead!
Yet our story is not finished. The Gospel of John even ends with an intense scene in which Jesus Christ resurrects one final person in this Gospel account. He is Peter, the disciple who had denied Christ the night He was captured. Yet Peter’s denial did not alter Christ’s love for him. And Jesus wanted Him to know. His love for Peter is so great that He has returned to the fallen leader of the disciples to raise him up and bring him back. As St. Chrysostom once wrote, “God loves us more than a father, mother, friend, or any else could love, and even more than we are able to love ourselves.” Significantly Jesus resurrects Peter by asking Him a love question three times. The question is, “Peter, do you love me.” It’s as though Jesus brings the love story to that poignant question for you and me. God wants us to respond to His resurrected love with love for Him. Peter like all of us is challenged as to whether he/we will give his life over to God’s love. He does. Now God wants us to respond in the affirmative to that same question on this morning. And so the good news this day is that we can live happily ever after in our story if we’ll respond to God’s love with love and be resurrected. May the Lord help us to have a happy ending in God’s love that comes only through He who is called, “The Resurrection and the Life.” Amen.