Vicar's Sermon - Easter Day 2018
Sat in the choir stalls of Hereford Cathedral, white surplice and ruff, an angelic aged 9, I possibly heard more sermons than most children of my age. At least I heard a message being given: but whether I understood it – or, to be honest, paid any attention – probably not. Sunday afternoon evensong. Diversions in the choir stalls included gently flicking through the pages of the Book of Common Prayer, trying (against all odds) to calculate the date of Easter according to a sum that involved Golden Numbers (what on earth are they?) listed in one of the Book of Common Prayer’s many tables. Joy unbounded. Not!
Here, back in the day in Barnard Castle, choristers who just weren’t rivetted by the learned Vicar’s exegesis of scripture could attempt the impossible feat of counting the number of angels in the East Window. I have tried it – though I should hasten to say never during any of my colleagues’ sermons! - I never get the same answer. There are so many of them that it’s hard to avoid double counting. What should be easier however is totting up the number of angels in our Easter Gospel.
Two: ‘Obvious’ you say. Except you could make a case for there being three.
John’s resurrection stories are so different in tone from the others in Matthew, Mark and Luke.
This meeting, of Jesus and Mary Magdalene is portrayed in High Victorian style in the window on the North side of the Chancel (you will see it when you come to communion). In the story it is dark. Mary’s grief is such that, having observed the Sabbath she gets up before everyone else to go to the tomb alone: it’s between 3 and 6am. According to John Jesus’ body was anointed with a kingly amount of spices by Joseph of Aramathea and Nicodemus after Pilate had granted them permission to remove it from the cross. Mary is not going to anoint Jesus. She just wants to be by the grave, as close as possible to Him. Alone she would not be able to move the gravestone even if she had wished. But even in the dark she can see that the stone has been rolled to one side: which one of us (before sunrise – the text is clear) would enter a pitch-black tomb? She ran. To Peter – still the disciple’s leader despite his public denial of Jesus. She also went to John, the beloved disciple – and this took time, because it seems that they were in different places; later they return to their own homes.
Again they run. John got to the tomb first. John lived through most of the first century and was presumably younger than Peter. He didn’t go in: again there is a reticence to confront an uncomfortable truth: perhaps they (whoever they were) had taken Jesus’ body as Mary thought? The authorities? Grave robbers? But surely wouldn’t both of these have carried Jesus away in His grave clothes: who would bother to unwrap and fold them?
Peter caught up and tried to get the measure of things. In he went to see for himself and he too notices the curiosity of the graveclothes. John joined him: he saw and believed.
There are different types of seeing in the way this story is told. Mostly the disciples and Mary, see the surface of things. But at this moment John perceives something, the word is different in Greek. Faith starts to come alive in him with this perception: There is something more going on here but he has no reference point to understand it. How could he, until the early Christian community started to ransack the scriptures and to read them through a different lens? For now, John believes exactly what? He has a faith…but it isn’t enough to change his life. It’s totally private and kept to himself.
The death of someone special shifts us all to a place where Life, (it’s purpose, its meaning) asks questions of us. Some people find that grief takes them to a ‘thin’ place where the things of God, the things of the Spirit are close. Peter, John and Mary are in that place at the graveside, by the tomb but the two men? ....verse 10 tells us that they ‘returned to their homes’. For them this ‘hint of the possibility of resurrection’ goes nowhere. They don’t tell anyone what they are thinking. Typical men! They don’t include Mary (who is stood with them) in their musings – these are all bottled up inside them – so that when they leave (and notice that they simply go, leaving Mary absolutely distraught by the tomb) their thoughts go with them to a dead end. One translator says that the phrase is literally ‘they returned ‘towards themselves’. Such faith as they have has been totally internalised and is of no help to anyone else. Maybe that it where you are with your faith? Here on Easter Sunday because you have a suspicion that there is something in this story that is lifechanging, that needs examination, but you are not sure…you don’t have the words or the categories to make sense of it all.
It was then that Mary saw the angels. Angels are ‘messengers’ - that’s what the word means. They have a message for her. Whether anyone else looking into the tomb would have seen or heard them is anyone’s guess – but God comforts Mary in her grief through these angels. She is still stuck with the idea that Jesus’ body has been stolen – can you really think of anything worse? Peter and John have been no use, they have not disabused her of this thought and so, in this truly awful grief, Jesus now comes to her.
The gardener. A reasonable thought. The sun is coming up. Everyone has celebrated Passover. People are returning to their everyday lives as the world comes alive again. The gardener has come to work in the cool of the day. ‘Let me have him. I will take him away’ she says, not knowing how she might begin to carry Jesus’ body from the tomb but needing to watch over him.
‘Mary’. Names are so important. To be called by name. To be remembered by name. To be known. Jesus speaks her name and His voice reaches to the heart of her. She turns from the tomb and sees Him, alive.
That turning, which we echo every time someone is baptised, is important. That turning with which we began our service from facing the darkness of the west towards the rising sun in the East matters. Christian people are invited each day to make that turn. Don’t seek Him in the place of the dead. Turn into the light and recognise Him amongst the living. And don’t hold Him to yourself because He must not be bound to one place, one person, one time anymore. He must ascend to His Father so that He can be with all people in all times and in all places. We misunderstand the Ascension if we think it is about Jesus going away from us. No, it enables Jesus to be with us all in a new way.
Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord.’ How many angels are there in this Gospel reading? Now there are three. For the word for her announcing is ‘angelos’ – she becomes God’s angel, His messenger for the disciples. She becomes a role model for those of us who have turned from all that would corrupt and destroy us to look for Christ’s presence in the world today.
Peter saw. John saw and believed (but kept quiet). Mary announced ‘I have seen the Lord.’ And that’s our job. To see Him in and through all things and to announce His presence. ‘He is risen.’
The above was adapted ad lib on the day to emphasise the journey of faith
Knowing that the empty tomb needs to be investigated
Looking (even entering) the tomb but seeing just the surface of things
Perceiving – as John does, the depth of what has happened
Having no context or frame of reference with which to understand ‘resurrection’ without the scriptures
Mary’s ‘turning’ from the tomb towards Christ (as we turn to Christ at Baptism)
Being called by name (each individual known by Jesus)
Learning to see Christ in all places, all times, all people
Confessing ‘He is alive’