Sermon at St James
John 20: 1-18
To listen to the recording of the sermon as you read:
Each year I’m struck by the calmness of the first Easter morning. It’s astonishing that Almighty God was so quiet and restrained on what was the most wonderful day since the creation of the world. And it was all still and quiet as Mary Magdalene approached the tomb. Her only objective and expectation was to sit there by the stone rolled across the entrance, to be as near as possible to Jesus.
But Good Friday, when Jesus gave himself absolutely to show us his unlimited love, dying for us in absolute pain on the cross, that was far from quiet: that was a rowdy day. There was a jostling, noisy holiday crowd – a few were sympathetic to what was happening to Jesus, but most were laughing and jeering. And that time God did not restrain himself: at midday there was an eclipse of the sun, and the earth was shaken by an earthquake.
But this morning, the morning of the resurrection, the most wonderful morning since the morning of the big bang, all was quiet.
I suspect that had we been in charge, it would have been quite different. We’d have engineered a dramatic demonstration, such as shooting starts while it was still dark, followed by a spectacular firework display and later a neat rearrangement of the clouds so that they spelt out, “Jesus is risen, Alleluia!” In Hebrew and Latin and Greek of course, just like the placard fastened to the cross above Jesus’ head, for all to see.
Yes, we’d show them - all those who’d treated Jesus so terribly, so cruelly. They’d beaten him up; made fun of him; had him nailed to a cross to suffer a long, lingering death. And they’d been so haughty about it all, so superior. We’d show them alright: they deserved to be made to grovel and feel guilty.
But no, that’s not how God works. In the garden at first light all was quiet; only Mary was there. When she found that the stone had been rolled away and then seen that the tomb was empty, she ran to fetch Peter and John. They came and then, having seen for themselves, they returned home, leaving Mary all alone again, weeping by the tomb.
From what the gospels tell us about Mary Magdalene, let alone later traditions, you get the impression that she loved Jesus to the extent of being in love with him. So she’s doubly distressed. All that she’d lived for had gone. Now they’d even taken away his body! You can imagine how that felt. The body of the person you loved most of all in all the world had disappeared, removed, she thought, by callous authorities.
And while she wept, Jesus came and stood near her. But she didn’t recognize him; her eyes after all were full of tears, and she had no expectation whatsoever of ever seeing him alive again. “Why are you weeping?” asked Jesus. “Who is it you are looking for?” He must be the gardener. “If it’s you, sir, who removed him, please tell me where he is now; so that I can take him away with me.” As if she could: that was love speaking. And Jesus simply said, “Mary.” “Rabboni! Teacher!” Her amazement and joy are almost tangible. And she went to throw her arms around him.
But Jesus stopped her. It was a new sort of body he had now, and Mary straightaway had to get used to his spiritual, rather than his physical, presence. All that mattered was that he was alive, the same Jesus, alive. And Mary rushed off, ran no doubt, hurrying with excitement, to tell the disciples, “I have seen the Lord!”
However familiar we are with the Easter story and its message, it seems fresh each year. It’s news, good news, today’s news: Jesus who died is alive and lives for evermore. And we can know his presence, his spiritual presence, with us in all sorts of ways, in all sorts of places and at all sorts of times; and especially in that way he so wisely and generously set up for us, when we meet together to share bread and wine in remembrance of him.
And of course that’s not all. Easter tells us that death is conquered, overcome, giving us the hope and the expectation of an eternal life, shared with those we love, in his own wonderful, glorious presence.
All these things, all this Easter joy, we can only appreciate by faith. God’s way is essentially a quiet way. He doesn’t give us dramatic, undeniable proof. He doesn’t force us into believing. He doesn’t leave us with no choice. After all, he wants us to respond to his love for us with our love for him, and force and love can never go hand in hand.
Well, today, for all the quietness of the gospel account, is a day for tremendous rejoicing. We can be as exuberant, as jolly as we wish. Forget about the Lenten fast. And if you didn’t bother to fast in Lent, forget about that too. Today is a day for feasting; it’s the best day of the year! Jesus lives! Alleluia!