Easter Sunday 2015
Readings: Acts 10:34 – 43, John 20:1-18
“We are an Easter people and alleluia is our song”
Sisters and Brothers in Christ we are here – Easter Sunday, the Sunday of Sundays, the first day of a new creation.
I often speak about Lent as being a great pilgrimage to Easter and a pilgrimage is, of course, meant to be very different from either simply waiting for time to pass or just travelling to a destination. A pilgrimage is meant to be a journey that changes us and it has been quite a pilgrimage to Easter.
We started out some six weeks ago by going out into the wilderness with Christ to face temptation and trial and to strengthen our relationship with God by seeking to reject all that distracts us from God. And time and again throughout Lent we have been reminded to lift our eyes above our own agenda and our own concerns, in fact to die to our own concerns, and to live to God’s agenda.
And for me, and I hope for some of you, the Lent course has also played an important role in this year’s pilgrimage towards Easter. As we have looked together at the creeds of the church we have explored some tricky areas such as the nature of the trinity, the human and divine nature of Jesus, the role of the Holy Spirit and, of course, the meaning of the crucifixion, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
I hope that we are not all unchanged from the people we were at the beginning of Lent – I hope and I pray that some of us at least have deepened their walk with Christ over this time.
And then last week the real rollercoaster of Passiontide got under way on Palm Sunday – we rejoiced with the crowd as Jesus rode into Jerusalem as we looked for the coming of a new kingdom. And then the mood got more sombre as we progressed through Holy Week. On Maundy Thursday Jesus celebrated the Last Supper with his friends and told them to remember him by sharing bread and wine together and he washed his disciples feet and commanded them to love one another as he loved them. If God himself can feed us and wash our travel weary feet then how can we fail to be hospitable to one another?
Jesus and his disciples then went to pray in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus sweated blood as he prayed and wrestled with what was to come and he chided his disciples for their failure to keep awake and to pray with him for even one hour. His disciples then failed him even further – first there was the kiss of betrayal by Judas and this was followed swiftly by all the others scattering and running as Jesus was arrested and, slightly later, Peter, the rock, denying that he even knew this man Jesus. And of course all of that reminds us of our failures to pray and of all the times that we have scattered and run and even when we have denied Christ through our words or actions because the world, and perhaps sometimes even the church, makes it easier to pretend that we are not disciples of Jesus.
On Good Friday we experienced the court room drama of Jesus’ mock trial before Pontius Pilate and the spectacle of a crowd baying for blood – would it be Jesus or would it be Barabbas – You Decide! The crowd voted to release a criminal and to execute the son of God but it is us who are convicted of all the times we have allowed our better judgement and our God-given conscience to be overwhelmed by those who are most vocal around us.
Finally we experienced the ultimate horror of seeing the person that we have loved and followed and seen perform miracles and healings and who has taught us to love and to forgive all those around us, including those who are most unlike us, we see him be nailed to a cross and to die the death of a criminal amongst criminals. We saw his lifeless body cut down from the cross and laid to rest in a hastily borrowed tomb. All hope seemed lost and death seemed to have the final word.
But then this morning, or rather on that first Easter morning when all hope seemed to be lost, something amazing happened. Mary Magdalene went to the tomb of Jesus while it was still dark. Why did she go there? We can only assume that she went to mourn. Although Mary Magdalene was not one of the 12 male disciples, to whom we tend to give a special prominence, she was, in many ways, braver and more loyal to Jesus than most of the men. She, along with Mary the mother of Jesus and the unnamed beloved disciple whom we will encounter again in a moment, was brave enough and close enough to Jesus to be at the foot of the cross while he died, not caring if the Romans and the Jewish leaders saw her there, and again, on the first morning of the week, which we now call Sunday, she went back to Jesus’ tomb to mourn while the disciples kept clear.
But when she got there it was not as she expected, the tomb was open, the stone blocking the entrance had been rolled away. Imagine, if you can, how terrible it would feel to find the grave of someone we love apparently violated and their body stolen. That is something of how Mary Magdalene felt that morning and she did what most of us would probably do – she ran to tell someone:
“…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.”
Peter and the other disciple, who is probably John the author of this gospel, then, quite literally, race back to the tomb – they each look in and see the linen wrappings lying discarded. If you cast your mind to when Jesus called Lazarus out of the tomb, Lazarus came out still wrapped up in his burial cloth but something different had happened here and Jesus’ wrappings had already been removed and the body was nowhere to be seen.
When the unnamed disciple saw the discarded burial clothes we are told that he “saw and believed” and we can only presume that all the teaching that Jesus had been giving about his death and the fact that he would rise again is finally clicking into place for this disciple.
But having raced each other to the open tomb, having seen the discarded shrouds and even having “seen and believed” what did the men do next? We are told simply that the disciples “returned to their homes”, and they left Mary Magdalene standing and weeping outside the tomb. Mary must have been getting used to mourning for Jesus whilst the men had other places to be.
While Mary was crying she looked inside the tomb and saw there two angels dressed in white sitting where the body of Jesus had lain, one at the head and the other at the foot. The angels do not start the conversation with the customary “do not be afraid”, and to be fair Mary shows no sign of being afraid, but they cut right to the point:
“Woman, why are you weeping?”
Mary repeats the message she gave to the disciples almost word for word and you can almost hear her gasping through her tears:
“They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.”
But the Angels do not get a chance to respond because while she is speaking Mary perhaps hears something or someone behind her and she turns around and sees a man standing there. We are told that it is Jesus but that Mary does not recognise him – perhaps the light is behind him and his face is in shadow, perhaps Mary has been crying so much that she cannot see properly through her tears, perhaps she is still numb with shock at the events of the last few days and her brain just does not register what is going on or perhaps Jesus keeps her from recognising him until the moment is right, as happened on the road to Emmaus. In any event Mary does not recognise Jesus, and he addresses her first, repeating the words of the Angels:
“Woman, why are you weeping?” and then: “For whom are you looking?”
Thinking, or perhaps hoping, that this man may be the cemetery gardener who has moved Jesus from his borrowed tomb, Mary offers to take his body away:
“Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.”
Finally, Jesus reveals who he is simply by speaking her name, as Jesus calls us all by name, he says: “Mary!”
Mary can now see him for who he is and she cries out “Rabbouni!, Teacher!” Jesus then ordains Mary to an important role – she is to go and tell the apostles that Christ is risen and will soon be ascending to be with God the Father. Because Mary was the first to see the risen Christ and because Jesus sent her to announce the good news to the others in some traditions Mary Magdalene is known as the Apostle to the Apostles. And Mary went and announced to the disciples: “I have seen the Lord.”
What wonderful words: “I have seen the Lord.”
The powers of the world thought that they had won a victory by putting Jesus to death but he who had raised Lazarus from the grave could not be contained by death, he overcame death by dying and rising again. Death did not have the final word after all – but rather the final word is the Living Word and it is Life and Everlasting Life.
The same Jesus who died and rose again 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”