SERMON by the Revd RACHEL HAWES
Associate Rector, St Peter’s, Westhampnett
1 April 2018 – Easter Sunday
READINGS: Acts 10: 34-43
1 Corinthians 15: 1-11
John 20: 1-18
This Easter morning Christ is Risen! And we meet today in a place of grace and joy – the place of resurrection.
We have travelled an emotional and spiritual journey to come to this place, just as Jesus’ disciples did – from Palm Sunday when Jesus first entered Jerusalem to shouts of hosanna; to the last supper when the threat of death ahead came sharply into focus; then the agony of fear and prayer in the Garden; betrayal, arrest and trial; and finally, the heart of darkness itself - crucifixion and the silence of the tomb. And then nothing – nothing but shock and grief until the early hours of Easter morning. This is when the story described in our Gospel takes place - early on Sunday morning (the day after the Sabbath and the first day of the week for Jews.)
In the grey light of early dawn, Mary Magdalene comes to the tomb alone. Doubtless she has not slept. Her eyes are sore and swollen with crying. And when she gets there, a final horror awaits her: the tomb is open – there is only one practical explanation, she thinks – grave robbers have come in the night and desecrated it, removing the body. She runs to fetch two disciples, Simon Peter and the unnamed ‘Beloved Disciple’ (often taken in Christian tradition to be John). Simon Peter enters the tomb first. The linen burial cloths have been laid aside and the head wrapping is folded separately. We are not told what Simon Peter thinks (his reaction is for later), but the Beloved Disciple knows immediately what the empty tomb signals. When he sees the linen wrappings laid aside he realises that something extraordinary has happened. No grave robber would bother to unwrap a body. Suddenly he knows that no one has taken Jesus away – Jesus has left death behind. The text says simply, “he saw and believed” (v 8). This is not the work of a moment - the empty tomb does not itself create the Beloved Disciple’s faith - he had it already - he already trusted in Jesus’ words. He carries that trust with him to Easter morning. When he sees the empty tomb; his faith is confirmed – and he believes. He cannot yet know, fully, what the empty tomb implies but he knows it means that Jesus has defeated death.
The two men leave, but Mary Magdalene stays by the tomb, weeping. Mary is a faithful disciple too – she is one of the small group of women who have followed Jesus to the bitter end. She was there at the foot of the cross. She watched her beloved teacher die in agony. Why did she come to the tomb? Perhaps she remembered his words about rising again; perhaps she hoped for a miracle? More likely she never expected to see him again in life - she came, still faithful, still loving, simply to be near him in death. Through the haze of her tears, she sees a man she assumes to be the gardener. Even when he speaks to her, she does not recognise him, until he says one word – her name – and then the mist clears, her grief turns to joy and she knows him instantly. It is a moment full of poignancy and grace. Mary calls Jesus by the Aramaic name she used as his follower –– a personal form of address; an endearment: “Rabbouni” – teacher. She reaches out, and touches him. Jesus does not (as some translations suggest) tell Mary not to touch him – she has clearly already done so. He tells her not to hold on to him. Why? Because, in the deep mystery of this resurrection story, events, are not yet complete. Though, beloved and familiar, now, she recognises him, this is, nevertheless, not the Jesus Mary knew before. This is the risen Christ who returns to his Father in heaven. This Christ is part of the new order – although he is also still her Lord. In his warning not to cling, Jesus is telling her the true meaning of the resurrection message. He has not returned in the old state – he has passed into an entirely different reality. Henceforth the relationship she will have with him will be a new and life-transforming one. It will be the relationship with an ascended Lord. And this is the message Mary is to bring to the other disciples. “Go to my brothers”, Jesus tells her, “and say to them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” (14: 17). Jesus is saying that this is not an end but a new beginning. In the early hours of Easter morning Mary learns that, although Jesus will never again be with her in the old way, yet the love of God, revealed to her in the person of Jesus, during his lifetime on earth, is with her still. Jesus’ return to his Father forever changes the way God is known in the world. For the first disciples (and so for all of us who come after in faith) this is an astonishing promise – that we may know God, as Jesus knows God, and that our lives can be transformed by that.
So these disciples, after a night of weeping, came to the tomb in the early hours of Easter Morning and found that their beloved Lord had risen from the dead. Their grief turned unexpectedly to joy. In this dawn hour both the Beloved Disciple and Mary Magdalene experience the truth of Jesus’ words before his crucifixion.: “So you have pain now; but I will see you again and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.” (John 16: 22) Each of these disciples has come to this place of joy in their own way and via different routes. Neither yet fully understands their experience – for the journey of faith does not end with their visit to the tomb; the road still lies ahead - but, for now, this place of resurrection is enough.
This Easter morning, we too share in the joy of those first disciples. They experienced resurrection in that moment as something that turned death into life and sorrow in to joy. They went on to be transformed by their experience. They were changed from a group of frightened, defeated individuals into articulate people who testified boldly to their faith. I cannot imagine that this meant they never experienced fear or sorrow again – great trials lay ahead of them as we know. But the life they inhabited was a new life of joy and hope in the transforming love of God. You have only to read Acts to see this clearly.
Like the first disciples, we too come to the place of resurrection via different routes. We each have our own personal journeys and God promises each of us that we, too, can partake in the joy which overwhelmed the first disciples. Our lives too can be transformed by the resurrection experience. But, you may say, this is facile - what does resurrection mean in this life? Life throws so much pain and sorrow at us; we lose the people we love – they die and we do not see them again. We live in alarming and frightening times, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, North Korea – we are only too conscious of the cruelty and violence that threatens our world. How then can we feel joy? Perhaps it is significant these first disciples had lived through the worst of horrors - Jesus’ suffering and death - before they reached this precious moment of joy. Joy sits close to sorrow in the Christian experience - this is how we understand the world - death and resurrection are part of the fabric of things. In every age Christians have testified that, even in the worst of places, the light of Christ still glimmers and hope is still alive. God loves us and, in Christ, He came to bring us joy. Jesus said to his disciples, of his own teachings, “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.” (John 15: 11) Joy is not something we can control. It is a gift of God – it simply comes upon us. It is a part of our experience of God’s grace, running like a thread of gold through our lives. It is what we pray for in our darkest moments. We are an Easter people and we believe that what happened in the dawn of Easter morning offers us – yes - a hope beyond death (even if we do not know exactly what that will be). But more, it offers us the possibility of transforming our lives now, as God’s beloved children, into something which is full of joy and hope and which partakes of the radiance Mary encountered as the light dawned that first Easter morning – the radiance of God’s new creation.
And so we say with joy this Eastertide
‘Alleluia, Christ is risen. He is risen indeed, Alleluia’