Last Sunday, as we gathered together in Avington, Phil Dykes reminded us of the importance of telling the story that is at the heart of our faith. The story which of course famously was dubbed by Hollywood – with for once no exaggeration – as ‘the greatest story ever told’. Telling the story is what we have been doing through this Holy Week: on Sunday we walked behind the donkey and waved our palms as we remembered Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem and how the crowds welcomed him with cries of ‘Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!’ (John 12.13) At compline we sat in this church [St Swithun’s] and heard some of Jesus’ teaching to his disciples and had time to ponder his Passion. On Thursday we washed each others’ feet and shared the bread and wine together as we followed his command to ‘do this in remembrance of me’. On Friday we followed the Way of the Cross and experienced something of Christ’s journey to Golgotha as the cries of the crowd turned from ‘Hosanna’ to ‘Crucify him!’ Later we sat at the foot of the cross for the Last Hour and meditated on the enormity of what Christ did for us. We then listened to the beauty of Faure’s requiem…the mass sung for the dead…as Christ laid in his tomb.
I wonder what you did yesterday? Holy Saturday is that day when nothing happens…when life seems to return to normal. For those who loved Jesus it was a day of hopes dashed…of doubt and despair…of fear and darkness. For us perhaps it is a good time to remember those who pass through Holy Saturday or live in it…those who are sick…those who are dying…those who are bereaved…We will all of us face Holy Saturday at some times in our lives…a time of waiting and not knowing…a day of in-between when the worst has happened but the sun has yet to rise.
But then eventually Saturday ends and the new day dawns. The story of Easter Day begins where Christ’s death left us…in the dark…dark as it was in the beginning before God said ‘Let there be light’ (Genesis 1.3) and brought order and life to the world. Dark as it was when Jesus declared from the cross ‘It is finished’ (John 19.30) and gave up his spirit. ‘Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark’ (John 20.1)a grieving woman sets out to visit the tomb of her Lord. But John’s gospel which was written so that people would come to believe that Jesus is the Son of God began with the promise that ‘The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it’ (John 1.5). What Mary finds when she arrives is proof of this truth…what she finds transforms her life…transforms the life of all of us if we choose to let it…for what Mary finds is an empty tomb…Christ is risen and the new creation has begun.
Contrary to popular belief, today, Easter Sunday is the most important day of the year for Christians. If it were not for Easter, no one would have dreamed of celebrating Christmas! Easter is the moment when everything changes and when a new world is born.
We get a hint of this new world in the role of Mary Magdalene. Mary was a woman…sounds obvious but it is worthy of note…and tradition has it that she was a whore before her life was transformed by Jesus’ forgiveness and love. In the ancient world, women were of very little account and certainly not the first choice as witnesses…particularly women with the unsavoury reputation that Mary Magdalene had. Yet here is Mary as the first person to see the empty tomb…the first to encounter the risen Christ…the first to see him..speak to him…touch him. Mary arrived at the tomb a weeping woman…her grief is so great that even a conversation with two angels cannot stop her tears…and then she meets Jesus…she hears him call her name…and she becomes not only the first witness to the empty tomb but the first witness of the resurrection…the first to tell others that ‘I have seen the Lord’ (John 20.18).
This woman is the apostle to the apostles who is given the task of announcing the whole new relationship that is now open to her…to them…to us. That is what is probably behind Jesus’ strange statement ‘do not hold on to me’ (John 20.17) for the relationship Mary can have with her risen Lord is fundamentally different to the one she had with the man she followed and supported all the way to the foot of the cross where she bravely stood with the other women and wept as he breathed his last. Not only is it different but she is called not to cling to him for herself but to share the news that he has risen with others.
The enormity of the new relationship on offer is in the message she is to take to the disciples: ‘go to my brothers and say to them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.”’ (John 20.17) Up to this point, the disciples have been described as Jesus’ friends…now he calls them his brothers…the resurrection of Jesus has brought a new relationship into being…because of the resurrection, Jesus’ heavenly Father becomes their heavenly Father…because of the resurrection the disciples can know God in the way that Jesus knew God…intimately…because of the resurrection, the disciples can have new life as children of God.
So given the importance of the resurrection, the centrality of it to our faith, how can we be confident that it happened? How can we believe that the story did not end with the stone being rolled in front of a borrowed tomb? After all, Mary’s initial assumption is that ‘They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.’(John 20.2)
The answer is quite simple (as so much about our faith is)…there are lots of witnesses! John records that Mary ran to find him and Simon Peter when she found the empty tomb. On their return they found the grave clothes lying in the tomb. This is significant: grave robbers tended not to bother unwrapping the body they were stealing let alone carefully folding the cloth that covered the corpse’s head. So if thieves were to blame for the disappearance, the linen wrappings would probably have be missing too. The position of the grave clothes also tell us that Jesus had not just come back to life. When Lazarus was raised from the dead he emerged from the tomb still wrapped in his grave clothes and had to be helped out. No, the grave clothes look like as though the body has just evaporated…they have collapsed like a hot air balloon…for Jesus has gone through death to new life beyond. He has not been resuscitated as Lazarus was but resurrected….he is not a figment of their imagination…a ghost or spirit…but someone who not only walks and talks, but can be touched…he breaks bread…he eats and drinks.
In the gospel reading today we heard of three witnesses…Mary, Simon Peter and John but it did not stop there. Paul writes in his first letter to the Corinthians: ‘For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to someone untimely born, he appeared also to me. (1 Corinthians 15.3-8)
The truth of what they told is not only in the extraordinary fact that the first witness was a woman – not the most credible start if you were inventing something in the ancient world – but in the fact that the lives of these early witnesses were transformed by what they saw. Mary went and told the disciples. John saw and believed. Peter – as we heard in our reading from Acts – told Cornelius and his household what he had witnessed – thus sharing the good news of the gospel with Gentiles. These and the other witnesses were people who early Christians or would be believers could go and speak to…go and ask them to describe what they saw. Perhaps the most poignant evidence though is that ultimately most of the early witnesses to the resurrection died because they refused to deny that Jesus Christ rose from the dead. I do not believe that hundreds of people would die because of something they had made up! These witnesses were faithful to Jesus’ command ‘to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead.’ (Acts 10.42) They were faithful even though it cost them their life.
What a difference a day makes! So as we come together to celebrate the risen Christ what difference will it make to us? Will we accept the new life on offer to us because he rose again? Will we accept as John did that what is needed is not knowledge about God but faith in Christ? Will we accept our identity as children of God and thank God that our relationship with him has been restored through Christ? Will we then accept his commission to tell others the good news…to love others as he has loved us? This is the gift which Easter Sunday makes possible…this is the pearl without price which we are offered…let us bow before the risen Christ and declare as Thomas did: ‘My Lord and my God!’ (John 20.28) for ‘The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it’. (John 1.5) Alleluia and Amen.