All Saints Margaret Street | High Mass for Easter Day Sunday 8 April 2012

Sermon for High Mass for Easter Day Sunday 8 April 2012

Sermon preached by The Vicar, Prebendary Alan Moses

Readings: Acts 10.34-43; 1 Corinthians 15.1-11; John 21.1-18

First of all, let me thank publicly, on behalf of everyone at All Saints, Dr. Gregory Seach, the Dean of Clare College in Cambridge, who has been our Holy Week preacher. He has opened to  us the Church’s memory of the Lord’s passion and resurrection, that tradition which St. Paul speaks of handing on,  so that we might have something of the mind of Christ and see the world in his light.  He has given us much to ponder on in coming weeks and months.

This morning, we have three special people here: Lucy and Geoffrey who are to be baptised and Sophie who is to be received into the Church of England. (Lucy is not yet old enough to be embarrassed by adults. When she is and thinks that having a dad who dresses up to sing in a church choir is not at all “cool”, then send her to speak to my daughter.  Having a father who is a Vicar is much worse!)  I won’t embarrass them
further, but turn our attention to three other people who feature in the Gospel for Easter Day: Mary Magdalene, Peter and the Beloved Disciple.  

John’s Gospel was the last of the four to be written and is clearly the fruit of profound theological mediation of the meaning of Christ.  This is  theological reflection not just historical reportage.   It is associated
with a church which looked back to the “Beloved Disciple” as the source of its faith.  

Unlike the other accounts of the first Easter morning, John mentions only Mary Magdalene of the women who go to the tomb early; although notice that when she rushes back to tell Peter and the Beloved Disciple what has happened, she says, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.”   This suggests that for John she is not just an individual but a representative figure, representative of all disciples, and that the same is true of Peter and the
Beloved Disciple.  

The two disciples rush to the tomb; the Beloved Disciple outruns Peter. He reaches the tomb first, looks in and sees the linen grave clothes lying there, but he does not go in. Peter, ever the more impulsive,  arrives and goes in. He too sees the cloths lying neatly laid there  –  this has not been the work of grave robbers, who would not have tidied up after themselves or of enemies who had stolen the body, for they would not have unwrapped it.  Then the beloved disciple summons up the nerve to go it and “he saw and believed”.  We are not told what he believed, or whether he said anything to Peter about it. We are not told that Peter believed at all.  Then, rather anti-climactically, on the most
important morning in history, the pair of them just go back home. 

But Mary does not go with them. She stays to mourn.  For her, the tragedy of Good Friday has now been compounded by what seems to be the desecration of the grave and the sacrilegious theft of the body which she had seen so reverently and tenderly laid to rest by Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus after the crucifixion.

As she weeps, she looks into the tomb and sees two angels, sitting where the body of Jesus had been. They ask her why she is weeping and she replies, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.”  Not waiting for an answer she turns round and sees Jesus standing there but doesn’t recognise him. He repeats the angels’ question and asks who she is looking for. 

Mary has still not recognised him. “Supposing him to be the gardener”, she says: “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.”

Then Jesus calls her by name, as he must have often done before: “Mary”. Now the penny drops and she recognises the one who is the “Good Shepherd who knows his sheep and calls them all by name.”  She knows now that it is the one who had brought her healing, restored her in this life, given her back identity and personality, rescued her from isolation. Her reaction is very human; one we can understand if we have ever been re-united with someone we thought was lost to us. Now there was a chance of life as it had been in that wonderful time when she and others accompanied Jesus on his mission. Who would not want to hold on to that?

But things are not just as they had been, the clocks have not been turned back, Jesus is not just resuscitated, brought back from death to be the same again. He had not been instantly recognizable because things were different. 

Mary cannot prolong the moment of joyful recognition because she is given a task: she must tell the disciples what has happened and that  Jesus is going to the God who his Father and theirs; as he had told them would happen in the last discourse in the Upper Room. She who had been one of the “faithful companions of Jesus” who had accompanied him during his ministry, is now to be the “Apostle to the Apostles”, as the
Eastern Churches call her. 

John’s telling of the Easter story shows us that there are various paths to faith and that they all take time and can include some false starts. Mary, like the two disciples on the road to Emmaus in Luke who we will hear about at Evensong tonight, do not recognise until familiar word and action bring recognition.  It is one of the joys of ministry to be told, sometimes after many years, that something said in sermon or prayer, counsel or
conversation, has made a difference, made the hearer aware of God’s loving care and presence, healing and forgiveness.  The words of Jesus have their source in his communion with the Father; and if our words do too they will have the same effect.

Peter is, as ever, impulsive, rushing into the tomb to see what has happened, but it does not seem to make any difference until later. Of course this is before Jesus appears to the disciples in the Upper Room and breathes on them the Holy Spirit. It is only in the light of the Spirit that even the Beloved Disciple, so close to Jesus, so at one with him, that he sees and believes, still has to wait for the Holy Sprit before he can understand and articulate what he believes in the light of the pattern of God’s work recorded in Scripture.

When I look back on my life as a Christian, I cannot remember a time when I did not love and trust Jesus. His story and his stories were what I grew up with and hymns about him sung in childhood I still know by heart. People I knew and trusted handed this on to me. I may not have been  very obedient to his commands or active in his service, but he was always the one in whom I could trust.  But to spell out that faith, to explore its
meaning, to tell it, to live in it, means:

to stay close to the breast of Jesus in contemplation with the Beloved Disciple;

  • to hear Jesus speak
    our name and tell others of his risen life as Mary Magdalene was sent to do;
  • and live it out
    in action as Peter did, with the aid of the Spirit;

and that is the work of a lifetime.

In the epilogue to the Gospel which is Chapter 21, it is the Beloved Disciple who recognises Jesus on the lakeshore and it is Peter who leaps into the water to go to him. Then there occurs the reversal, the absolution, of that terrible three-fold denial in the high priest’s courtyard, and the commission to tend Christ’s flock. There will be those here who have known something both of Peter’s enthusiasm and of his fearful denial;
to whom Jesus has said, “Do you love me?” And in that searing interrogation have found not despair but forgiveness and hope.

There are yet more names in our Easter readings.  In the great 15th
Chapter of First Corinthians in which Paul treats of the resurrection as the
heart of the Christian faith, gives us a catalogue of witnesses to the
resurrection  –   not to the event itself, which no one witnessed  –  but
to the appearance of the risen Christ.

Paul wrote much earlier than John: First Corinthians was written only thirty years or so after Jesus.  More than that, he quotes an early Christian creed which probably goes back to within a decade or so of Jesus:

“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

Then he gives his list of witnesses, beginning with Cephas   – 
Peter-   and ending with himself, the persecutor whose own life had been revolutionised.  But so too had Peter’s, as we hear in the story of the Conversion of Cornelius and his household, which is also the Conversion
of Peter
. He is brought to understand, as Paul is on the Damascus road, “that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right in acceptable to him.”   God is not simply Lord for the Jews but for the Gentiles too.   And that is why we
are all here this morning. But whether we are little Alice at the beginning of her earthly life or nearer the end of ours, we are all still on that  pilgrimage of faith in which we are drawn deeper into the mystery of God’s love, into the risen life of Christ; to contemplate and celebrate it and share it with Christ’s brothers and sisters who are also ours.