Sunday, 16 April 2017

Easter Day

at Great Brickhill 16 April 2017

Gospel John 20:1—18

Alleluia, alleluia. I am the first and the last, says the Lord, and the living one; I was dead, and behold I am alive for evermore. Alleluia.

The empty tomb
20 Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance. 2 So she came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, and said, ‘They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!’

3 So Peter and the other disciple started for the tomb. 4 Both were running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5 He bent over and looked in at the strips of linen lying there but did not go in. 6 Then Simon Peter came along behind him and went straight into the tomb. He saw the strips of linen lying there, 7 as well as the cloth that had been wrapped round Jesus’ head. The cloth was still lying in its place, separate from the linen. 8 Finally the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed. 9 (They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.) 10 Then the disciples went back to where they were staying.

11 Now Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb 12 and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot.

13 They asked her, ‘Woman, why are you crying?’

‘They have taken my Lord away,’ she said, ‘and I don’t know where they have put him.’ 14 At this, she turned round and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realise that it was Jesus.

15 He asked her, ‘Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?’

Thinking he was the gardener, she said, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.’

16 Jesus said to her, ‘Mary.’

She turned towards him and cried out in Aramaic, ‘Rabboni!’ (which means ‘Teacher’).

17 Jesus said, ‘Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.”’

18 Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: ‘I have seen the Lord!’ And she told them that he had said these things to her.



By the end of John 19, Jesus has been condemned to death, crucified, died and was buried. John 20 describes the journeys to the tomb and back—the empty tomb as it soon appears.

John the Evangelist describes 3 journeys:

1. Mary Magdalene goes to the tomb, then returns to Simon Peter and the unnamed Beloved disciple.

2. Simon Peter and the Beloved disciple go to the tomb and then return to where they are staying

3. Mary Magdalene returns to the tomb and is weeping just outside the entrance. She meets the risen Christ and is commissioned by him to bear witness to the resurrection.

On this Easter Day, the narratives are so familiar we struggle to find new insights, but this is the most important day in the church’s year and these insights, the fundamentals of our faith. So this morning I invite you to listen again to these journeys, and in your mind’s eye associate with one of the characters as the journeys unfold. How did the characters react? How would you have acted in the same circumstances? Why does John the evangelist give us these three insights into the momentous events of Easter, and not just relate to us what he believed happened from the researches he made?

So—choose yourself a character and follow along with me. The main characters are Jesus himself, Mary Magdalene, Simon Peter and the Beloved disciple.

Scene 1
This is the first journey made by Mary. Like the other journeys, it’s not just a path travelled, or even a historical event, but what happens represents a journey in the mind, a trip of faith, a dawning realisation, a sudden release of understanding.

Take Mary, for example. Early in the morning, before it is light, she walks in despair to the tomb. There’s nothing she can do except be there; she knows the tomb was sealed, and with it all hope for the future. Mary has lost everything—hope, trust, faith, friendship, love even. But when she arrives at the tomb, she sees the stone has been rolled back, but she does not enter.

“They” have rolled the stone away and stolen Christ’s body, she supposes. At this point, Mary draws no conclusion. She assumes no resurrection. She does not even witness the empty tomb, but guesses the body of Jesus has been removed. There could be many reasons, in the highly charged political atmosphere of Jerusalem over the previous few days.

Mary runs to find Simon Peter and the Beloved disciple. She reports not what she has seen, but what she thinks must have happened.

Scene 2
The men decide to verify what Mary has reported. They both run, but Peter is overtaken by the Beloved disciple who reaches the tomb first and looks in. He sees no corpse, but linen wrappings lying there. Peter then arrives breathless, and climbs straight into the tomb. He sees more of the linen, neatly arranged. Crucially, Peter discovers the tomb is empty.

Why did the Beloved disciple, like Mary, wait outside the tomb? Was it fear or panic, or perhaps a desire not to see the tomb’s contents, bringing back all the despair and grief of the crucifixion? Mary blamed enemies of Jesus, or the authorities for stealing his body. It was too early for anyone to make a leap of faith and arrive at any other explanation.

By contrast, when the Beloved disciple outran Simon Peter and looked into the tomb, he did no more than look at what he could glimpse from outside. Peter went in, but he made no leap of faith, any more than Mary had done. It was the Beloved disciple who at last entered, “saw and believed.” Presumably what he saw was the fact the tomb was empty, but more than that, he believed something miraculous had taken place.

John the evangelist makes it clear their understanding was only partial. 9 (They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead) he explains. This limited grasp is reinforced by the fact both disciples did not announce the good news to the others, but just went home.

Scene 3
We now move to the climax of the narrative, not as you might expect involving the senior disciples but Mary again, two angels, a gardener or the resurrected Jesus, and all the other disciples.

Mary makes a second visit, stands outside weeping, then takes the big step of bending down and looking in. She sees two angels who ask why she is crying. Mary repeats her first conclusion, that “they” have stolen the body. Then she turns round and sees a man, whom she assumes must be a gardener. He asks why she is crying, and Mary responds by asking whether this minor worker was party to the theft?

The climax of the three journeys follows. Mary recognises Jesus, not by his appearance but in a deeper way and because he calls her by name. The unsealed tomb has unsealed Mary’s faith, and perhaps also that of the Beloved disciple. But what of Simon Peter? If you associated with him, why do you think he was silent? Why was Peter’s understanding not unsealed? Had he still not moved on from his triple denial and doubt?

The gospel accounts of the empty tomb might be sparse (like Mark) or more extended (like John or Luke) but they are surely written in order not to cross T’s, dot I’s or tied loose ends. They are intended to evoke a response from the readers, and this is where we come in.

How do we respond? Have we skipped from the high point of Palm Sunday to this morning, without being involved in the dark despond of the events in between? Did we stand outside the empty tomb, making no attempt to fully enter, but doing no more than glimpse at what it did or did not contain?

If you were associating in this narrative with Jesus himself, remember that just as Mary wept outside the tomb, so Jesus wept outside the tomb of his friend Lazarus.

Jesus, in the garden of Gethsemane, was full of confusion and fear. At the end of Scene 3 he declares to Mary he will soon ascend back to his Father God. In the same way, having met Jesus the woman at the well leaves her fear with the water jar; Mary Magdalene leaves her fear at the empty tomb; and we can leave all our dark moments at the foot of the cross.

18 Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: ‘I have seen the Lord!’ And she told them that he had said these things to her.


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