Sunday, April 12, 2009

Easter Sermon 2009

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! +

One of the beautiful things about St John's account of the Resurrection is the fact that he bothers to note details which, while not terribly important in terms of the great events occurring, give us a subtle insight into the humanity of those involved. We see this in other parts of his Gospel as well. For example, when the woman caught in adultery is brought before him, Jesus, John tells us, bends down and draws on the ground with his finger. We are not told what he writes, it doesn't matter, especially since part of the reason he does this is to avoid taking part in the deliberate public exposure and shaming of the sinful woman.

Similarly, here in today's passage we are given an insight into the (apparently irrelevant) relative fitness and exuberance of Ss John and Peter. They run to the tomb together in panic after St Mary Magdalene runs to tell them that the tomb is empty, Jesus' body being, as she thought, stolen or removed for some other reason. But St John, quite possibly being the younger, fitter man, gets to the tomb's entrance first. However, while St Peter, the lumbering fisherman, is left behind at first, it is he who bravely (or heedlessly) “takes the plunge” and dares to look inside. We are even told how much each could see from their vantage points. St John sees the linen cloths, St Peter sees both these and the napkin that had been wrapped around the wounded Head.

It is incidental details like these that C.S. Lewis said argued for these records coming from a genuine eyewitness. He noted that this kind of writing was simply not an element of fiction of that period. Such a realistic genre in story-making had to wait almost to the Twentieth Century and the rise of the novel. [This stylistic consistency is one reason I believe the account at the beginning of chapter 8 really does have a Johannine source.]

Now, it is only after seeing the empty tomb, the chief Apostle having made very sure indeed that it was indeed empty, that “the penny drops”. The Jerusalem Bible translates the relevant verse: “Till this moment they had failed to understand the teaching of Scripture, that he must rise from the dead.” All the things Jesus had said about rising from the dead (and how this was what the Messianic prophecies of the ancient prophets had meant) had seemed to them yet more mysterious parables, perhaps, not to be taken literally. After all, how could the promised King and victorious Deliverer really have to die in the first place? And, though they had seen Jesus raise others from the dead, how could he raise Himself while dead? It is amusing but sad to note that, if the disciples had tried to understand their Lord's predictions of Crucifixion and Resurrection before the unthinkable actually happened, they would have no doubt interpreted them non-literally, perhaps as predictions that his teaching would be initially rejected, but then triumph. In other words, the same kind of pallid interpretation one finds among some modern “theologians” who have lost faith.

However, in their shock, the Apostles leave for home without communicating to St Mary Magdalene their apprehension of the Resurrection. And so we come to the passage immediately after that read earlier today, which I will now read. 'Meanwhile Mary remained standing near the tomb, weeping aloud. She did not enter the tomb, but as she wept she stooped and looked in, and saw two angels clothed in white raiment, sitting one at the head and one at the feet where the body of Jesus had been. They spoke to her. “Why are you weeping?” they asked. “Because,” she replied, “they have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have put him.” While she was speaking, she turned round and saw Jesus standing there, but did not recognize Him. “Why are you weeping?” He asked; “who are you looking for?” She, supposing that He was the gardener, replied, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him and I will remove him.” “Mary!” said Jesus. She turned to Him. “Rabboni!” she cried in Hebrew: the word means ‘Teacher!’'

Mary, then, was still convinced the body had been taken. Overcome with grief and confusion, eyes full of tears, she does not recognise the angels or Jesus. She is lost in the inward gaze of despair. And yet, it is impossible not to smile when we know that her gut-wrenching sorrow is about to turn into utter joy, and we hear the almost disbelieving question of both the angels and the Lord, “Woman, why are you weeping?” It is as if to say, “Dear lady, here you are at the dawn of a New Creation and the birth of the Victory of God and his People, and you have not yet seen the glory. Heavenly reality is breaking in around you and you have not realised it. You are weeping for no reason, child. Look at me, dear one, and see!” I cannot but think that the angels and Jesus were also smiling in mingled pity and anticipation of the recognition about to occur.

And so the Lord Jesus dispels her despair and enables her to accept and believe the the Resurrection-promise and power. Before this she had been so enveloped with the mist of hopelessness, she had been “missing the big picture”. How often can this be true of Christians even today? Fearful of the prevalence of evil and lacking trust in God's providence and plan, we can sink into the doldrums and miss the glory. We can be blind to “big picture”, too.

What is that “big picture”? We find it in the Epistle: “If however you have risen with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, enthroned at God’s right hand ... When Christ appears — He is our true Life — then you also will appear with Him in glory.” And earlier in the same letter to the Colossians (1.17-23): “He is the Head of His Body, the Church. He is the Beginning, the Firstborn from among the dead, in order that He Himself may in all things occupy the foremost place. For it was the Father’s gracious will that the whole of the divine perfections should dwell in Him. And God purposed through Him to reconcile the universe to Himself, making peace through His blood, which was shed upon the Cross — to reconcile to Himself through Him, I say, things on earth and things in Heaven. And you, estranged as you once were and even hostile in your minds, amidst your evil deeds, He has now, in His human body, reconciled to God by His death, to bring you, holy and faultless and irreproachable, into His presence; if, indeed, you are still firmly holding to faith as your foundation, without ever shifting from your hope that rests on the Good News that you have heard”. In the context of this over-riding reality, it does make sense for St Paul to exhort us in another place (Philippians 4.4): “Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say, Rejoice!”

Is there any bad news, then? Yes, but only if we refuse to trust the light manifested in Christ, and the Lordship over Life He demonstrated. For then we would close ourselves off to God, grace and glory. Our faith must thus abound in Resurrection-hope, with eyes open to the Victory already won, other wise it will become a weakened thing, forlorn, forgetful and fearful.

But the Good News is very good indeed. If we acknowledge the full truth of the Cross (spoken of before in the Colossian reading), our lives will be built on solid, everlasting Rock. What is the full truth of the Cross? That it was needed due to our sin, and has power to save from that sin. That it must be taken up by us, but that we do so in Christ, taking his yoke upon us and finding rest. Why does this symbol of suffering and death have such life-giving power? Because of its emptiness, if I may be so bold to say it. Christ is no longer on it. He is risen. He overcame it. It is a spoil of battle, so to speak. It is not His mere death that saves, nor just his life, but His Life out of Death. +

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