Easter Sunday 2011
24 April 2010
Readings: Acts 10:34-43 , John 20:1-18
“Who is it that you are looking for?”
Sisters and Brothers in Christ we are here – Easter Sunday, the Sunday of Sundays, the first day of a new creation.
And on this Sunday of Sundays it gives me huge delight to welcome Amos and his family to baptism. As you no doubt know Amos is the name of one of the old testament prophets and like all prophets Amos was not afraid to speak uncomfortable truths to those in power – so parents beware when he starts speaking. But Amos wasn’t just a prophet – his full time job was actually as a shepherd so you should also expect some help around the farm when he gets a bit bigger.
In the Ancient Church Easter Sunday was the traditional day for baptism and it is easy to see why – Easter is all about God overcoming sin and death by bringing about new life and a new and transformed relationship with him through his Son and, of course, that is exactly what baptism is about too. When we are baptised we pray that the Holy Spirit will help us put to death and bury everything in us that rejects God and will bring out of the tomb of our old self a revitalised and resurrected relationship with God. Today Amos is enjoying his first Sunday as an Easter Person, a resurrected person, a person of the new covenant, and we pray that as the years go by through the guidance of his parents, God parents and through the Holy Spirit that he will come to know the resurrected Christ for himself as Lord and Saviour.
Our Gospel this morning is, of course, the discovery of the empty tomb by Mary Magdalene followed by her encounter with the mysterious gardener who she then recognises as the Risen Christ. The resurrection of Jesus is, for me at least, the single most important corner stone of the Christian faith.
Have you ever seen those person specifications in job adverts where the recruiters list a whole load of characteristics and skills they would like followed by a tick as to whether those skills are absolutely essential for the job or merely desirable? So for a young estate agent it might be: Ability to show customers appropriate houses: Mmmm, Desirable. Ability to use too much hair gel: Essential.
Well, if you wanted to create such a tick list of the Christian faith then the resurrection of Jesus, definitely fall into the Essential category. As St Paul said in 1 Corinthians 15:14 “…if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.” Without the resurrection we simply follow a preacher who was executed following an unjust trial in an harsh and unjust society. But with the resurrection we know that God is doing something new, that death does not have the final word, that the curtain between man and God is torn in two and that Jesus is not merely a good man who lived and died but that Jesus Christ is Lord. Without the resurrection everything is in vain, with the resurrection everything is transformed, including you and I.
Bearing in mind the absolute centrality of the resurrection to the Christian faith it is interesting that none of the gospels seek to describe the moment of resurrection itself – it is not that the gospel writers were wary about such stories, you have only to cast you mind back to last week to recall that at the moment of Jesus’ crucifixion there were reports of a mini-resurrection of some Holy People who went about in Jerusalem and the whole story of Lazarus being raised from the dead in his grave cloths is quite graphic. And yet, in relation to the resurrection of Jesus there is never an attempt by the gospel writers to do beyond the eye witness stories that they had. This commitment to sticking to the evidence they had and not to ‘sex up’ the story for the sake of later generations speaks to me strongly of the reliability of the gospel accounts.
So no one ever claimed to have seen Jesus rising from the dead and it is idle to speculate how a ruined and abused body, certified dead by those experts in judicial killing, a squad of Roman soldiers, came to be walking in a garden at first light.
We have witnesses to the death and we have witnesses to the risen Jesus, but we have no account of how the transformation took place.
The thing we are most curious about, the central fact of history is hidden from us. At his death, Jesus was laid like any human corpse in the secret darkness of a tomb. But in dark and hidden places God’s power is astonishingly at work. We expect new life to emerge from a womb (though it always seems miraculous), but who expects it to come from a cold grave?
THE Gospels tell us that the initial discovery was a negative one: the tomb was empty. Jesus was gone. Even the small consolation of anointing his remains was denied to his friends.
Mary Magdalene, coming to the tomb on that thwarted errand of loving service, is the first witness to this absence, and she reports it to the disciples. Peter and John have a sort of race to reach the tomb and find out what is going on.
Having seen that she told the truth, they then (according to John’s Gospel) do something that appears astonishing. They go home. They accept the extraordinary situation, and go back to their friends to ponder it. It seems that they have forgotten about the woman whose message alerted them to the news, and who not only ran to fetch them but accompanied them all the way back to the garden as well.
The next verse raises the hair on the back of my neck: “But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb.” That “but” is the hinge between the story of Peter and John’s detective work, and Mary Magdalene’s encounter with the risen Christ.
Her primary emotion is not curiosity or fear: it is the profoundly human response of grief. Her purpose is not to find out what happened, but rather to seek the one she mourns. She is drawn to the tomb by longing for her Lord. She needs to be in the place where she last saw him.
When she does look into the tomb for herself, she sees rather differently from Peter and John. Where they had spotted only the discarded grave-clothes, she sees two angels, guarding the empty space like the cherubim on the Ark of the Covenant. They speak to her: “Woman, why are you weeping?”
And she repeats to them the message she has already given to the disciples, but with a slight variation: not “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb,” but “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.”
The gratitude for her healing that caused her to follow Jesus has deepened into love and devotion. She has already shown her courageous faithfulness when Jesus was arrested. When the hand-picked disciples who had been trained for leadership deserted him, she stayed at the cross. Here she is, a myrrh-bearer at his tomb as soon as the sabbath is over. Her actions are driven by grief and longing. She is passionate and steadfast.
“They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.”
As soon as the words are out of her mouth, and before the angels can say anything more, she turns around (perhaps she hears someone behind her) , and another mysterious stranger repeats the earlier question in the same words: “Woman, why are you weeping?”
Then he asks a significant follow-up: “For whom are you looking?”
Surely her heart leaps in her at the sound of that question, so like the questions she has often heard the Lord ask: “What do you want me to do for you?” and “Who do you say that I am?”
But the moment of utter conviction comes with the calling of her name: “Mary!” and her answering joyous embrace. At the same moment as she addresses him by a deeply respectful Hebrew title, she does what no female disciple ever does with her rabbi, and throws her arms around him, or perhaps in a slightly more seemly fashion embraces his feet.
But Jesus says that this is not the time for holding onto him – there is something even more important to do and that is to get and tell others the good news that Jesus is alive – and Mary readily departs with the message that has been personally entrusted to her.
PETER and John go home as observers of an inexplicable event, to puzzle it over with the disciples, but Mary Magdalene goes home in response to an intimate encounter and a special commission. She comes to the tomb carrying a pot of myrrh to anoint a dead man, but she sets down this gift for a corpse, and carries home instead the announcement “I have seen the Lord!”
Her earlier report was of an absence, but now she can witness to a presence. And the presence that so strongly drew her has now released her into new freedom of action. She too has been transformed. A grieving woman becomes the apostle to the apostles. A band of despairing runaways begins to preach the gospel. And the witness of those first disciples has enabled countless millions to see the risen Lord at work in our lives, too.
The same Jesus who died and rose again asks us “For whom are you looking?” and calls each of us by name to recognise him and to proclaim to the world that we have seen the Lord, and he calls us to become participants in the Lord’s Supper here and to share in the power of his resurrection. That is why, when all is said and done, we are an Easter people, we are crucified to the values of the world but through that crucifixion we are resurrected with Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit, to the Glory of God the Father.
“We are an Easter people and alleluia is our song”