Encounters with Jesus: Three First Opportunities
by Jack Wald | April 24th, 2011


Probably the most exclusive club in our modern world is made up of the twelve men who have walked on the moon. Only these men can step outside at night, look up at the moon, and say, “I’ve walked on that.” But out of these twelve, only one of them, Neal Armstrong, can say, “I was the first man to walk on the moon.”

Being the first to do something is memorable. Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa mountaineer Tenzing Norgay in 1953 became the first men to climb Mt. Everest. By the end of 2008 2,700 individuals had climbed Mt. Everest, but we only remember the name of the first to reach the summit.

Paul wrote in the greetings at the end of his letter to the church in Rome: (Romans 16:5)
Greet my beloved Epaenetus, who was the first convert to Christ in Asia.

I wonder if there will be a list of firsts in heaven. Who was the first person Jesus healed? Who was the first person delivered of demons by Jesus? Peter was the first, and maybe the last person to walk on water. And then to bring us to the message today, who was the first person to see the resurrected Jesus?

Last week we looked at three of the last people to hear the good news from Jesus before he died. This morning we will look at three of the first people to see the good news as Jesus broke the power of death and rose to life.

Mary – known by name

John 20:1-2, 11–16

Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb. 2 So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.”

But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb, and as she wept she stooped to look into the tomb. 12 And she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had lain, one at the head and one at the feet. 13 They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” 14 Having said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15 Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” 16 Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned and said to him in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means Teacher).

Who is Mary Magdalene? We first read about her in Luke’s gospel when he writes that Jesus was accompanied through cities and villages by his twelve disciples: (Luke 8:2–3 )
and also some women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, 3 and Joanna, the wife of Chuza, Herod’s household manager, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their means.

Mary had been healed by Jesus and became his follower. She came from a family with money because she, along with the other women mentioned who had also been healed, provided for the expenses of Jesus and his disciples as they traveled around Palestine. She followed him to Jerusalem to care for his needs and even when all the disciples fled, she followed him to the cross and was there when he died. She watched to see where he was buried and on the day of resurrection, she was among the first who went to the tomb to bring spices for Jesus’ body.

She was a devoted follower of Jesus. When Jesus healed her from the evil spirits, she had given him her heart and she was willing to sacrifice everything for him. I suspect that if it had been possible, she would have taken his place on the cross.

As she watched Jesus on the cross, suffering his terrible agony, her heart broke. She stayed home during the Sabbath when walking and working was not permitted but then, at the first possible moment, she went to the tomb with spices to anoint his body. She was in mourning and paying respect to his body. If Jesus had not resurrected, she probably would have gone to the tomb every day or every week to the end of her life to continue to honor him.

When she came to the tomb, before sunrise when it was still dark, she discovered that the tomb stone had been rolled away and the tomb was empty. She wasn’t thinking Jesus had been resurrected, she was thinking that even in death he was being dishonored. Someone had taken his body, not even allowing him to rest in peace.

She went to tell Peter and John and they ran to the tomb to see for themselves. After they left,
Mary stood weeping outside the tomb, and as she wept she stooped to look into the tomb. 12 And she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had lain, one at the head and one at the feet. 13 They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.”

Before the angels could tell her, “Look behind you,”
she turned around and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15 Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” 16 Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned and said to him in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means Teacher).

Try to put yourselves in Mary’s place. The man who saved you, delivered you from the hell of seven demons, has died. The man you were willing to follow anywhere suffered the injustice of a cruel and torturous death. What was she feeling? Grief, maybe anger, maybe bewilderment.

With all the astonishing things taking place that morning and with all the intense emotions being experienced by the followers of Jesus, Mary does not seem to be too mystified at the appearance of angels. What normally caused people to tremble in fear and fall to their knees, seemed to be taken by Mary as just one more extraordinary event on an extraordinary day. It is as if she was in an daze, with too many powerful emotions to process clearly.

The angels said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?”

“They have taken my Lord away,” she said, “and I don’t know where they have put him.”

She turned to the man standing behind her and thought he might be the gardener.

When Jesus resurrected, his body was in some way different than it had been. His followers, who saw him after he resurrected from the dead, did not know that it was him, at first. There is complete unanimity about this in all of the resurrection accounts in all four of the Gospels. This has given some conspiracists the opportunity to advance theories that Jesus did not rise from the dead but that some pretender passed himself off as Jesus. This is absurd, because not only would this person have to fool the disciples, but he would also have to walk through doors and walls and put on himself the terrible scars of crucifixion. But the point is that Jesus was not immediately recognized.

The man she supposed was the gardener spoke, using the exact same words as had the angels.
“Woman,” he said, “why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?”

I have no idea who she thought the angels were but she could deal with a gardener. This was his garden, surely he must know what had happened to the body.
“Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.”

And then:
Jesus said to her, “Mary.”
She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means Teacher).

Our names are very important to us. When you were born and given a name, your name had meaning only in that there were other people with your name. But as you grew, who you are as a person, your personality, character traits, achievements and failures all were put into your name so that when someone calls out your name, Voahinera Reineck, Ebenezer Appiah, Faith Green, Augustine Boateng, Hanitra Ranaivoson, or Isaac Martinez, your name brings up a tremendous amount of information about you. How old you are, what color hair you have, if you are married or not, if you have children, what country you have come from and so on. Those from your past know a lot more about you. When they hear your name they might remember an event that happened when you were a child. Your name carries in itself who you are.

Your name makes you an individual. It separates you from others. When I call out Youseung Shin, Youseung is separated from all others. When you hear your name you sit up and pay attention.

When someone knows our name, they begin to know who we are. When someone takes time to learn our name it makes us feel important.

Being known by name is very important to us. In prison, one of the things that is done to punish the prisoners is that they are known by a number, no longer known by their name. In an orphanage, children want to be assured that people working there know their name. We don’t want to be one of a faceless mass of humanity. We want to be known as individuals. This is especially important to us when someone we respect and look up to knows us by name.

So it is significant that Mary recognized Jesus when he called her by her name, “Mary.”

One of the more preposterous beliefs of Jews and Christians is that God knows us by name. From the outside of Christian faith, this is egotistical thinking. God, the creator of the universe, creator of billions of stars far larger than our own star; this God came to be born as a man on the third planet orbiting this little star, suffered and died for the sake of an individual creature who is less than a speck on this third planet of the little star called the sun?

This is really incredible thinking. And yet it is true. The history of God’s interaction with men and women on this planet is one in which he shows concern for individuals.

When Jesus died on the cross, he died for each one of us. Jesus saved us into a community of relationships but he saved us one by one.

When the disciples returned from their first mission trip, they were excited about all they had experienced, but Jesus told them (Luke 10:20)
“However, do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”

Jesus died for you and me by name and when we accept his gift of salvation, our name is written in the book of life. We are not anonymous creatures in a sea of humanity.

Jesus taught in John 10
The man who enters by the gate is the shepherd of his sheep.  3 The watchman opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.
He calls his own sheep by name. Not, “Come sheep,” but individually by name.

When Moses asked God for a sign, God responded:
“I will do the very thing you have asked, because I am pleased with you and I know you by name.”

Jesus called to a tax collector up in a tree trying to catch a glimpse of him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.”

Jesus called to a Pharisee on a trip to Damascus with the mission of persecuting Christians, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”

We are known by Jesus by name. We are not anonymous. On Good Friday at our service, we nailed our names to the cross that we decorated this morning with flowers. Jesus’ love, his sacrifice, was made for us because he loved us and loves us by name.

Cleopas – known in breaking of bread

Luke 24:13–35
That very day two of them were going to a village named Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, 14 and they were talking with each other about all these things that had happened. 15 While they were talking and discussing together, Jesus himself drew near and went with them. 16 But their eyes were kept from recognizing him. 17 And he said to them, “What is this conversation that you are holding with each other as you walk?” And they stood still, looking sad. 18 Then one of them, named Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?” 19 And he said to them, “What things?” And they said to him, “Concerning Jesus of Nazareth, a man who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, 20 and how our chief priests and rulers delivered him up to be condemned to death, and crucified him. 21 But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things happened. 22 Moreover, some women of our company amazed us. They were at the tomb early in the morning, 23 and when they did not find his body, they came back saying that they had even seen a vision of angels, who said that he was alive. 24 Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but him they did not see.” 25 And he said to them, “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! 26 Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” 27 And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.
28 So they drew near to the village to which they were going. He acted as if he were going farther, 29 but they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, for it is toward evening and the day is now far spent.” So he went in to stay with them. 30 When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed and broke it and gave it to them. 31 And their eyes were opened, and they recognized him. And he vanished from their sight. 32 They said to each other, “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures?” 33 And they rose that same hour and returned to Jerusalem. And they found the eleven and those who were with them gathered together, 34 saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and has appeared to Simon!” 35 Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he was known to them in the breaking of the bread.

Little is known about Cleopas, but the fact that only one of the two travelers is named indicates that he was a source for Luke in writing this gospel. Neither of these two were in the inner circle of Jesus, but their familiarity with the twelve indicates they were among the larger number of followers of Jesus.

On Easter morning, the day of resurrection, they were walking out of Jerusalem. They had heard the reports that Jesus’s body was not in the tomb and that angels had said he had risen from the dead. They knew that the disciples had gone to the tomb and seen for themselves that the tomb was empty, but they had not seen Jesus.

So with all this news, why were they walking away from Jerusalem? Why not stay where the news was happening and see what unfolds? When there is big news, it is difficult to drag me away from the television and live reports. Why did they walk away from the news? Maybe they had pressing business. Maybe they came to Jerusalem for the Passover feast but now had to go back home to their responsibilities. For what ever reason, they were walking away from Jerusalem, three days after Jesus had been crucified and the day they had heard these early morning reports.

As they walked, Jesus came up to them and joined them. As with Mary, he was not recognized. They talked. They shared with him the reports of what had happened, surprised he did not know about it. And then Jesus began his first class: Post-resurrection 101

And he said to them, “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! 26 Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” 27 And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.

As they came to the village where Cleopas and his companion were headed, they urged Jesus to stay with them and share a meal.
When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed and broke it and gave it to them. 31 And their eyes were opened, and they recognized him. And he vanished from their sight.

Mary recognized Jesus when he called her by name. Cleopas and his companion recognized Jesus when they shared a meal with him.

This was not a communion meal. This was not the first Lord’s Supper of the church. There was no wine. This was a simple meal and it was in this meal that their eyes were opened and they recognized Jesus.

Sitting down and sharing a meal together is a spiritual act. Think about meals in the Bible. When Abraham received his visitors from heaven, they shared a meal together. When God told Israel to remember their deliverance from slavery in Egypt, he told them to remember this at a meal, the Seder, which some of us celebrated last Thursday night. When God gave instructions to Israel about their tithe, 10% was to go to the priests, every three years a 10% tithe was to be given for the widows and the poor, and 10% was to be used each year to come to Jerusalem and celebrate with food and drink at the three annual festivals. Meals together were a central part of their worship. In Exodus 24 when the covenant with Israel was made, Moses offered the sacrifice, sealing the covenant with the “blood of the covenant”, and then he and the elders and Aaron and his sons went into the presence of God on the mountain where (Exodus 24:11)
they beheld God, and they ate and drank.

Is this detail, that they ate and drank in the presence of God, a significant detail? Of course it is. The sharing of the meal celebrated the fellowship between Israel and God. It was a spiritual feast.

It may not be surprising given that Jesus lived in a culture that valued hospitality, but there are ten meals Jesus shared with others recorded in the gospels. Jesus took the Passover Seder and used it to institute the sacrament of communion which is an anticipation of the wedding feast we will share together in heaven. And when Jesus resurrected, he ate in their presence to prove he was not a ghost. In John’s gospel it is recorded that he cooked breakfast for them.

It is not simply the food that is important. Going to McDonalds and taking out a sandwich and eating as you drive in the car is not particularly spiritual, nor safe. A family going into the kitchen and grabbing something to eat and then each person going back to their computer or TV to eat is not particularly spiritual.  And if the family or friends are sitting around the table, each one talking into their phone or listening to their own music, that is not particularly helpful or spiritual.

It is the community aspect of a meal that is important and it begins with the preparation of the meal. If you can, pick your vegetables from the garden. If you cannot do that, then buy the vegetables from the market. Resist buying food already prepared. Part of the spirituality of the meal is the community that is formed as you work together in the kitchen peeling the vegetables and preparing the meal. Then the whole community gathers and the food is brought out to the table and everyone sits down and shares together. Conversations flow, sometimes everyone listens to one person, other times there are three or four or more conversations going on at the same time. There is news and thoughts and laughter being shared.

This kind of meal brings us together and in this kind of meal there is a spiritual presence we are able to share. I experienced this the other night at our Passover Seder. I remember also the potluck we had in March. There was a wonderful spirit as we shared our food with each other, chatted with old friends and made new friends.

I think this is why it is important to say grace before we eat. We remember, with gratitude, that all we have, all we share, comes from God and we give him thanks. This places us with God at the table as we share together. Jesus makes himself known to us when we share together around the table. Jesus saves us and brings us into a community. When we open ourselves to that community around the table at a meal, we are blessed.

James – brought from his family into his family

1 Corinthians 15:3–8
For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 6 Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. 8 Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.

Put yourself in the place of James. Your oldest brother is smart, obedient, always seems to do the right thing. In Hebrew school he is at the top of the class. When the rabbi asks for a verse your brother always seems to know the right verse and he has an understanding of the meaning of the verse that amazes the rabbi. It must have been tough to grow up with Jesus as an older brother.

Your father, Joseph, dies and Jesus takes over the carpentry shop with you as his helper. You see Jesus hit his thumb with the hammer and cut himself with the saw, just like all carpenters do. The years pass by and then Jesus sets off and begins to heal people, deliver people from demons, teach with authority. This is not some religious figure we are talking about, this is your brother with whom you shared a bed.

A crowd begins to follow Jesus, he never comes home and you and the rest of your family get together to figure out what should be done. Mark records that Jesus came back to Capernaum to a house, probably the home of Peter, and again a gathered, so many people that they could not even eat. (Mark 3:21)
And when his family heard it, they went out to seize him, for they were saying, “He is out of his mind.”

It was clear to them that Jesus was getting carried away with himself and needed to be brought back to his senses. When Mary and her sons arrived to bring Jesus back with them, they sent to him and called him and in front of everyone there, listen to how Jesus spoke about them. (Mark 3:32-35)
And a crowd was sitting around him, and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers are outside, seeking you.” 33 And he answered them, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” 34 And looking about at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! 35 For whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother.”

This was a slap in the face, a public rejection of his family. This was humiliating to them. How they responded is not recorded in the gospels, but they could not have been very happy.

Another time, the Feast of Booths was at hand but Jesus was avoiding Judea because the Jews were trying to kill him. What did his brothers tell him? (John 7:2–5)
Now the Jews’ Feast of Booths was at hand. 3 So his brothers said to him, “Leave here and go to Judea, that your disciples also may see the works you are doing. 4 For no one works in secret if he seeks to be known openly. If you do these things, show yourself to the world.” 5 For not even his brothers believed in him.

They mocked him. They pushed him to go where it was dangerous for him to go.

Then Jesus died and his mother was there. Notice even here, that with the half-brothers of Jesus still alive and capable of taking care of their mother, he tells his disciple John, “Behold your mother” and he tells his mother, “Behold your son.”

There is not much in the gospels about the relationship between Jesus and his family, but there is enough to make it clear there were some tensions.

Jesus died and rose from the dead and appeared to his disciples and other followers, but then Paul writes in I Corinthians that he also appeared to James.

What did he say to James? Whatever he said, James was a changed man afterwards. James became the leader of the church in Jerusalem. He was called “camel-knees” because he spent so much time praying on his knees. He was respected by Jews and Christians alike.

I think it is appropriate that we don’t know what Jesus said to James when they met; some things should be kept private. Maybe when we get to heaven we will hear that story but I think this will be up to James to tell the story.

What I like about this verse from I Corinthians is that Jesus made it a point to appear to his half-brother. I doubt Jesus had a “ post-resurrection to do” list, but if he had, one of the items on the list was: appear to James. That was important for Jesus.

Why? Because Jesus wants every person to be saved and Jesus knew that James and the rest of his family would have a bigger hurdle to cross than most. His family had to accept that the brother they had lived with all their lives was really God in the flesh, Emmanuel. To believe that takes a special visitation and so Jesus appeared to James and perhaps to the rest of his family – one day I hope we will hear the full story.

What can we take away from these three stories?

From Mary we are reminded that God’s love for us is not general and abstract; it is personal and intimate. When Jesus spoke to Saul on the road to Damascus, he spoke to Saul in his heart language, Aramaic. Jesus knows you by name. Jesus will never be able to be more intimate in his love realtionship with you. The only distance there will ever be in your relationship with Jesus will come from your side. You are the one who needs to grow in faith so you open yourself more completely to Jesus and hear him call your name.

When you board an airplane, the steward welcomes you, “Bon jour” but you are not known. When you come into God’s kingdom you will be welcomed by name.

From Cleopas we are reminded that our meals together are important. They are not simply a bodily necessity, to put food in our bodies so we can live. Meals are an important part of our life as a community.

I encourage you to invite people from our church community into your home. You do not have to have an elaborate meal. The point is not to show off how well you can cook or how fancy you can set the table. We are not supposed to try to impress each other. The goal is to be together and share the meal. Jesus broke bread with Cleopas and his companion. I read that a typical meal for 1st century Palestine was cereals, gruel, olives, dates, and figs. Basic is good.

So don’t try to be fancy. Don’t kill the fatted calf. Do invite people and share. And do participate when we have our church potlucks. These are great times for us to experience the spirituality of sharing a meal together. In fact, use our potlucks as a model. When you invite people to your home, have each person bring some food to share.

From James we learn that Jesus will help us over the hurdles in our way to come to faith. In some cultures it is very easy to make the decision to follow Jesus. In other cultures it is far more difficult. In some cultures there is very minor criticism for making a decision to follow Jesus. In other cultures there is a far steeper price to be paid.

But the point is that Jesus wants us in his kingdom. Jesus wants you in his kingdom and he will do whatever necessary for you to say yes to his invitation to come and experience eternal life and peace with him. Trust Jesus’ love for yourself and for those you love. Jesus, even more than you, wants those you love to come into his kingdom, into an eternal relationship with himself.