Easter 17 April 2022
Isaiah 65:17-25 – Psalm 118:1-2, 19-24 – Acts 10: 34-43 – John 20:1-18
“They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.”
Alleluia, Christ is risen! He is risen indeed, Alleluia.
Is it not surprising that the passage in St John’s Gospel which speaks of the first Easter morning starts with an almost comical cartoon like scene?
Mary of Magdala, who was reeling after the death of her friend, mentor, leader a few days before, wanted a moment of peace by his tomb and had gone very early in the morning, in order not be seen. To be known as a friend of this crucified man was dangerous, so best to go unnoticed.
But upon arriving at the place of the tomb in which he had been laid, she is startled. Something is not right, the heavy stone which was supposed to block entry was open. Naturally, Mary was fearful, and she ran back to where the rest of the group were staying in order to alert them. Then ensues this furious race between Peter and John, to go and check what was going on and see for themselves. And they find it as Mary had told them. A few bandages, no body.
The text tells us that John, on entering the tomb, sees and believes. What he believes, at this point, is not the resurrection of Jesus – it is simply the testimony of Mary, a woman who might not have seen quite right.
Still, when they have ascertained the situation – there really is no body – Peter and John go away again, probably puzzled and fearful, not knowing what to do next. They go back to their group, locked up in a room, fearful of what might happen, trying to chart a new path without their leaders, trying to re-orient their lives.
But Mary stays. To grieve and weep, to collect her thoughts, to puzzle, to wonder. What did happen here? Who moved the stone? Where has Jesus’ body gone. Why another unexpected and seemingly cruel event in a week in which already so much happened, both joyful but also devastating for their group.
As she contemplates the situation, she goes into the tomb again – and there encounters two messengers, two angels, sitting amongst the bandages left behind. Perhaps a parallel here with the swaddling bands of cloth of Jesus birth.
Why did the men not see these two messengers in white is a mystery. Perhaps they were too busy trying to understand what was going on. Or their unbelief in Mary’s story had blinded them to their presence. After all, they had not come here to recollect and pray with their friend, like Mary had, but instead had rushed to check facts.
The angels speak to the woman in her grief: ‘Why are you weeping?’ – as if they might not already know the answer. Her grief, her pain, her bewilderment. Of course, none of this makes any sense.
And who is this man, now, asking her the same question?
As he says her name ‘Mary’, she recognizes him. It is Jesus, her friend, but not as she had known him before. He is both the same and yet different, and certainly no longer dead. And he tells her to go back to the men again, and tell them the next stage in the story.
And eventually, Jesus does visit his scared friends a few times; Thomas – who was not there the first time, and can’t believe it – even gets a special appearance and an invitation to touch Jesus’ crucifixion wounds, to be absolutely sure.
And all that Jesus had taught them before that week of weeks took on renewed significance. The power of love to bring good, the power of community to sustain hope, the love of God to forgive us and to make us whole.
And as we know, the story did get told. By Mary, by the disciples, by Peter and by Paul and many after them.
And instead of dying quickly, this story of a crucified Christ who rose again captured the imagination and spiritual yearnings of many and spread like wildfire.
So powerful was it in changing the status quo and the balance, in threatening the powers in authority and challenging abuses, that those who believed in this God, who were baptized and changed their lives, were fiercely persecuted in order to stamp out these subversive ideas, in order to stem the loss of control of those who thought they controlled all.
Year after year, Easter is a time of hope, a time when we reconnect with stories from our past, with stories of our people’s past, and somehow our lives are re-shaped as we walk the way of the cross with Jesus, as we watch him die a painful death, knowing that if only we had that courage of our convictions, it might be us that might be there in his place.
We live in a different place, at a different time, but this year’s holy week has been overshadowed for us by the images from Ukraine which loomed large, as we watched the passion, suffering and death of the Ukrainian people with us on this journey, trying to make sense of the powerlessness we felt while watching people who could be us die, even while we were asking our favourite brands to move out of Russia.
No more iPhones or Burger King for them, that will teach them. If they need them as much as we do, then perhaps they will stop their war – as long as we don’t have to pay more for gas. Meanwhile, ringing our hands from our place of comfort, wondering what is truth in a world where propaganda and social media have so blurred the boundaries between facts and fictions that it is hard to know whom to believe, and that goes even for our most trusted media who – even as we strive to trust them – are themselves not without their own agendas.
I have been particularly struck this year that, throughout this holy week, flashbacks of my life kept appearing in front of my eyes.
Past events, parishioners, situations, highs and lows, and all threaded through the many holy weeks I experienced since my pre-ordination days, thinking particularly of the many times when I was privileged to experience Holy Week in silence, in a convent in Wantage, almost feeling the hammering of the nails into Jesus’ hands on Good Friday as desolation and grief descended on the community.
And the joy of Easter, as we returned to our rooms in the middle of the night after the Easter celebrations, and finding that some invisible nun had put a tiny little vase with a tiny little flower by each of our doors in the guest wing. A tiny living sign of hope and renewal after a plunge into the abyss.
Jesus had died for our sin, he had been nailed to a cross because of our collective inability to face up to the bullies of the world – greedy for power – because we were fearful for our lives, because we were fearful of death.
And of course, who would not be afraid of dying?
Even Jesus, after his last joyful supper with his friends, goes to pray in the garden of Gethsemani and he is very afraid. Please, God, let this cup pass from me.
But for him, events are already in motion that cannot be stopped. Jesus will have to drink the cup to the hilt. He knows there is no other option, and because he is so sure of who he is, and of his relationship with God his father, he will not be afraid. He willingly walks to his death. And the manner of his death is so exemplary that we still talk about it today. And that it changes us today.
Standing up for love, the unconditional love of God that he had preached and taught and embodied throughout his ministry, was more important than saving his skin. Indeed, that love was worth everything, is worth everything, even giving up one’s life for it.
And that is what breaks the chains of oppression and injustice, and brings out a new world order.
The fearlessness that comes from knowing that if we do all that we can, in the context of our lives, and are even ready to die for it, then this law of love can survive, and God indeed can be glorified.
The lives of the martyrs for the past two thousand years tell us of this power to transform even through death, especially through death. Because for us, death seems so final and yet, it also offers a new beginning for those who believe.
This idea is radical, subversive, but also amazingly alive and active. God continues to call people to transcend their lives and face death in active service in the power of love, whether they even know that this is what they are doing.
It has been truly humbling to see the many Ukrainians who, having been given the choice to leave their countries, decided to stay and fight for good – putting their life literally on the line for the love of others. To hear the stories of Ukrainians and others, safe elsewhere, returning to their motherland in order to stand for love and humanity instead of a grotesque perversion of it.
We do not know yet how these events will turn, and there will doubtless be many more weeks, months or even years, of passion for Ukraine and its peoplebefore Resurrection comes.
And there are many places around the world and in our communities, where passion and Resurrection are in constant interplay, even when this has no impact on our own life and we barely even notice after the first headline.
Today is the day that gives us and all Christians around the world hope again. Hope that, even when we feel unworthy, our unworthiness has been transformed. Hope that, even when we have failed and done harm to others or ourselves, and when we have disconnected ourselves from God, God has forgiven us through the Cross and continues to love us even if we don’t really know it. Hope that, however dark the world can be at any moment, there will always be resurrection after death, love and light will prevail.
In the words of the late Archbishop Desmond Tutu: ‘Goodness is stronger than evil; Love is stronger than hate; Light is stronger than darkness; Life is stronger than death; Victory is ours through Him who loves us.’
Alleluia, Christ is risen.