This is the sermon I preached at the early morning open-air Eucharist at St Germans on Easter Day 2013, and at the Eucharist with welcoming of members by transfer at Burraton later the same morning. The Gospel reading on each occasion was John 20.1-18.
I almost invariably write my sermons on a Friday afternoon, and this week was no different. Except that, at the same time, it was, of course, very different. It was Good Friday.
Normally I’ve spent the morning out and about visiting people, or I’ve spent time doing paperwork or putting finishing touches to the coming Sunday’s worship. This week I had spent the morning conducting two reflective services meditating on Jesus’ death, services both of which finished with words including: “Christ has died.”
On Friday, as I regularly, though not necessarily frequently, do, I took myself down to the Inn on the Shore at Downderry to write my sermons – I like seeing the sea as I write. It was busier than it often seems – folk of all kinds sat eating, drinking and talking. I wonder, on that other Friday, the one 2000 years ago, whether the tavernas and market squares would have been additionally busy, with folk talking about events on the rubbish dump outside the city wall.
It was in that somewhat odd environment, of life’s bustle continuing about me as thought there was nothing special about it, just as that first Good Friday seemed another execution amongst many, that I turned my mind to the experience of Mary, Simon Peter and John that first Easter morning.
I wonder: can we imagine what Mary Magdalene felt when she arrived at the tomb only to discover that the stone has been rolled away. Her reaction, in John’s Gospel at least, is instantaneous. Without looking in she concludes that the only reason it can have been moved is that someone has taken Jesus’ body away so she runs and seeks out Jesus’ two best friends, who escort her back. For us, two thousand years removed and with two thousand years of tradition and theology to explain what is going on, can we grasp Mary’s utter distress in that moment?
Imagine, imagine that your closest friend has died and having seen him buried you revisit the grave just a couple of days later to see the grave dug up, the coffin open – imagine your distress in that moment!
Peter and John then play their parts in this garden scene. They look inside, John staying at the door, Simon Peter entering the tomb. This allows them to see the linen, meaning that if Jesus has been taken he has been taken away naked – a picture which might, in turn, strike us as unusual, macabre, or even humorous. In that moment what Peter and John see is a link to all Jesus has been teaching them. For them the answer becomes, it seems, an intellectual exercise: Jesus is no longer here, but the linen is: ergo he has risen as he has shown us the scripture says he would. Is it possible that for us it sometimes seems that way too?
Yet Mary is left outside weeping. For some reason Peter and John leave her there, inconsolable in her grief and distress. Only at this point, possibly puzzled by what the other two have seen that could have caused them to head off again, she looks in the tomb. And for Mary there is no intellectual exercise, no missing linen to help make a connection. Instead, she sees two angels, two folk dressed in white, who speak to her and ask why she is crying. Even in the presence of angels she does not see but continues in her grief – “they have taken my Lord away and I don’t know where they’ve put him.”
And then, as she turns, she meets the gardener, who asks the same question. Still she doesn’t recognise the risen Christ and tells him that she needs to know where Jesus is so that she can take care of his body.
And then Jesus calls her by name! For Mary the resurrection is not intellectual but personal – she recognises the reality of the resurrection not from the presence of linen, or the presence of angels, but through the calling of her name. And her grief is turned to unbounded joy – Jesus’ words suggest she tried to physically hug him – would you not do so if you met someone who you wholeheartedly believed dead – who you had witnessed die a long and gruesome death?
And that joy of Mary on that first Easter can be our joy too. For the outcome of Easter, of Christ’s resurrection, is that Jesus calls our name too. He calls us to different things, and often we may need the help of others to recognise what it is that Jesus, that God, is calling us to – but the joy of the call, the joy of the reality that Jesus is wanting us, personally, to recognise him, is undeniable.
And Mary’s response is the same as that which should be ours when the resurrected Christ calls our name. Mary said to him “Rabbuni” – which means Master. The term reminds us of Jesus’ words used in the Maundy Thursday service: “You call me Master and Lord, and rightly; so I am. If I, then, the Lord and Master, have washed your feet, you must wash each other’s feet. I have given you and example so that you may copy what I have done for you.” For just as Jesus came to serve, so we too are called to serve, to mirror in our lives the life and work of our Master, Jesus the risen Christ.
Sometimes we can get caught up intellectualising the work of Christ. Intellectual consideration of our faith is ok, necessary even – it is not an accident we ask student ministers to undertake theological study, or that some of us go on to do further, deeper study, and we have the example of John and Simon Peter there in this morning’s Easter story. But we must never lose the fact that our faith must, as John and Charles Wesley were called to remind us, be of the heart as well as the head.
The very real joy of the first Easter is a very real joy open to us as well, as we open ourselves to hear Jesus call our name, just as he called Mary’s all those years ago. Some of us here will undoubtedly have heard it already, it may well be the reason we’re here. Some though may still be as Mary was, searching for the body, just waiting for Christ to call us by name. When we hear the call it is undoubtedly different for each of us, yet it will be accompanied by the true joy that Mary felt that morning. And there are yet many out there, out in the world, who are yet to hear it.
And when our name is called we are called upon to respond as Mary responded – by recognising the voice of our Rabbuni and in so doing seeking to love and serve our Risen Christ with all our mind, and with all our soul, and with all our heart.
Christ is risen indeed, and through his resurrection he calls us to live his risen life with him – a life of love, a life of joy, an eternal life in which death is not the end! Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!