Stoke Hammond 1 April 2018
Readings Isaiah 25:6—9
6 On this mountain the Lord Almighty will prepare
a feast of rich food for all peoples,
a banquet of aged wine –
the best of meats and the finest of wines.
7 On this mountain he will destroy
the shroud that enfolds all peoples,
the sheet that covers all nations;
8 he will swallow up death for ever.
The Sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears
from all faces;
he will remove his people’s disgrace
from all the earth.
The Lord has spoken.
9 In that day they will say,
‘Surely this is our God;
we trusted in him, and he saved us.
This is the Lord, we trusted in him;
let us rejoice and be glad in his salvation.’
Reading Acts 10:34—43
34 Then Peter began to speak: ‘I now realise how true it is that God does not show favouritism 35 but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right. 36 You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, announcing the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all. 37 You know what has happened throughout the province of Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John preached – 38 how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him.
39 ‘We are witnesses of everything he did in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a cross, 40 but God raised him from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen. 41 He was not seen by all the people, but by witnesses whom God had already chosen – by us who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. 42 He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead. 43 All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.’
Jesus said, ‘I am the resurrection and the life.
Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live,
and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.’
Gospel John 20:1—18 OR
The empty tomb
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.
Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene
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.
“Who is it you looking for?” That’s the question Jesus put to Mary Magdalene on her second visit to the empty tomb on Easter Day. Mary was asked several times why she was crying—Jesus was the only one who linked both questions together: “‘Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?’”
Unusually our lectionary offers us a choice of two gospel readings for today. Mark 16 differs slightly from the John passage we heard just now. Mary Magdalene comes to the tomb with two other women, bearing spices to anoint the body of Jesus. They find the heavy stone sealing the entrance to the tomb has been rolled away. A young man, dressed in white, tells them Jesus had risen again, and would meet his disciples in Galilee. Notoriously Mark’s gospel seems to end with the trembling women, who told no one of their encounter because they were afraid. The earliest manuscripts do not contain verses 9-20 as they appear in our Bible nowadays.
Let’s go through the events of Easter Day as they are reported in John 20. It’s early in the morning, the first day of the week. Mary surprisingly visits the tomb alone, presumably from outside only, having made no arrangements for the stone to be removed. She does not look in the tomb, but jumps to a wrong conclusion and runs to tell Peter that “they” have taken the body of Jesus, and “we” don’t know where they have put him. This begs the question: who are “they” and who are “we?”
Peter and James then run to the tomb and find it empty. Peter’s account of the discarded linen strips reads like an eye witness. James sees the same thing, but having seen, he believes. What he actually believes is not clear. Indeed, in the very next verse, we are told the disciples did not understand.
Whilst all this was going on, Mary Magdalene, after informing Peter, must have followed the two disciples at a walking pace. She is crying. This time, alone, she dares to look in the tomb and sees what she describes as two angels. Her assumptions are quite reasonable:
‘They have taken my Lord away,’ she said, ‘and I don’t know where they have put him.’
Mary turns to see a man standing there. He does not answer her query, but responds with one word only: “Mary.” The way he spoke her name left Mary in no doubt. This was not a garden worker, but Jesus himself. It didn’t look like him, but still she was in no doubt.
For Mary, the day had started in darkness, and now there was light. For us, the darkness of Lent is banished by the light of Christ, coming into the world, as we celebrate at Easter in the ancient words of the hymn Hail Gladsome Light.
Mary had no proof. The sound of word and gesture was enough. This morning, like every year, we ask ourselves the same question that was put to Mary Magdalene: Who is it you are looking for?’ Can we also encounter the risen Christ with one word of recognition and acceptance this Eastertide?
One word of recognition—Jesus called Mary by her name. One word—“Mary.” She responded in Aramaic with the word for “Teacher.” Those two short words sufficed to illuminate the encounter. There was, for Mary, no room for further doubt. Jesus explains his destiny “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.”
But why are we told that Jesus chides her for holding on to him? What is she holding on to? The presence of Jesus physically walking and taking with her? Her desire not to let go, not to ‘move on,’ her need for everything to stay the way it is, or her doubts about the resurrection and ascension? We don’t know, but Mary’s reaction begs a question for us—is there anything in our relationship with Christ that we are reluctant to let go of? Is there anything holding us back?
We ourselves should reflect on what John the Baptist says about the Messiah in John 1:18:
18 No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in the closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.
Mary does not hold back. She immediately brings the good news to the disciples, with the words “I have seen the Lord!” and relates to them everything that had happened, and the words he had spoken. This time she does not hide behind the first person plural—her confession is in her own words. Nor does she merely refer to the empty tomb and describe her encounter. Her confession is important to John’s gospel as a whole, and the fact Jesus appeared first to a woman—one in his outer circle but not one of the apostles—is important too.
This is an example to us of the direct testimony we are called to make. An account of our own experience of the Lord. Today is the most important day in the church’s year. What better time is there for renewing our statement of belief, and our future relationship with God in Jesus? Amen