Sermon for Easter Day – Procession, Blessing of the Easter Garden & High Mass Sunday 27 March 2016
Sermon preached by the Vicar, Prebendary Alan Moses
Readings: Acts 10.34-43; Psalm 118; 1 Corinthians 15.19-26; John 20.1-18
“They have taken away my Lord and I know not where they have laid him,”
There is an Easter tradition that, after all the solemnity of Holy Week, preachers should include something in their sermon to make people laugh. Those of you who have been with us this last week know that Bishop Jack’s sermons have made us laugh as well as think and pray. We thank him for all those things and for being with us.
Mary Magdalene’s words, “They have taken away my Lord and I know not where they have laid him,” in today’s gospel may not seem funny at all, but I cannot hear them without a smile. They bring to mind another Holy Week preacher here, Canon James Robertson. On Good Friday, he had given three addresses in the hour between noon and one. Then he left the pulpit for the Liturgy of the Passion, during which he would preach again.
But, when he got back to the pulpit, the sermon he had left there was nowhere to be seen. Fr. James was one of those priests who over long ministries have become so soaked in scripture that they know swathes of it off by heart. That, and what a former colleague of his called, “a mind like a razor,” meant he could conjure up an apt quotation in an instant. So, turning to the sanctuary,
re-cycling Mary’s words, he said: “They have taken away my sermon and I know not where they have laid it.”
The server who had put the book with the readings for the service in the pulpit and tidied it away, rushed to retrieve it. (Even in the best-ordered of churches, things go wrong. God allows this to happen, I suspect, because it reminds us that we are not perfect!)
Now Easter preachers are not after-dinner, or even pre-Lord’s Supper speakers, brought in to tickle your ears with amusing anecdotes, so I’d better get on with the sermon.
‘Early in the morning, while it was still dark.’ St. John does not waste words in his Gospel. He never uses one with only a single meaning, if it can have two. So, he is not just telling what time of day it was. Darkness and light, the conflict between them and the evil and good they represent, is one of the great themes of his gospel. As we hear at Christmas: ‘In him was life and the light was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.’
Mary Magdalene and others Jesus had drawn into his circle had found their lives transformed, given new purpose and hope. She had been healed of what we would now call mental illness; something baffling and frightening, isolating and stigmatizing enough in our own day; let alone then.
But with the death of Jesus, that new life seemed to have been snuffed out, buried with him in a cold, dark tomb. Darkness had overcome the light; evil had overcome good; hate had driven out love. Hope had been extinguished and they have been plunged into the darkness of despair.
The darkness of evil and sin has been much in evidence these past days:
- In Brussels, in Syria and Iraq, with the bombs and the ever-increasing viciousness of those who murder and enslave in the name of God
- Not far from Brussels, on Maundy Thursday, the International Court of Human Rights in the Hague delivered its verdict on the Bosnian Serb leader Radavan Karadsycz – guilty of crimes against humanity: genocide and persecution; the ethnic cleansing, and wholesale murder and rape carried out at his orders.
Years ago, while that horror was unfolding in Sarajevo and Srebenica, I had to preach at Magdalene College, Oxford on the feast of its patron saint. I likened Mary Magdalene, mourning for Jesus, finding his tomb empty, to those Bosnian women on our television screens who had lost husbands, fathers and sons, and who did not know what had happened to their bodies. Terrorist regimes, seeking to conceal the evidence of their crimes, cruelly deny people even the right to bury their dead.
There was nothing hidden or covered-up about crucifixion. It was a public display of power, calculated to inflict not just pain and fear but shame and dishonour, and to instill fear in all who witnessed it. Its victims would be given no decent burial: their bodies would be left on crosses to rot and be picked clean by birds, or dumped on the city rubbish heap.
So, the burial of Jesus was unusual. The religious leaders wanted him out of the way in death as in life; tidied away before the Sabbath. So Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, fearful and secret disciples of Jesus, find their courage and emerge to claim his body. With Mary Magdalene and other women who had accompanied and supported Jesus during his ministry, and had stayed at the cross when most of the male disciples had fled, they gave him as decent a burial as the short time before the Sabbath allowed. The women plan to return to complete the work and to mourn.
So as soon as the Sabbath is over, John tells us, Mary comes to the tomb. Expecting nothing good, she finds even worse: the stone rolled away, the tomb empty, the body gone. What can have happened? Had the chief priests had the body taken, lest it and the burial place become a focus for protest at a time of high political tension? Whatever the explanation, the discovery is shocking. This desecration adds to the sense of loss.
Mary rushes back to tell the disciples the awful news. Peter and the Beloved Disciple rush to the scene. The beloved disciple gets there first but does not go in. Peter, ever the impulsive one, does. He sees the folded grave clothes; all too neat and tidy to have been a robbery. The Beloved Disciple then looks in and we are told that he believed. We are not told what he believed – only that ‘as yet they did not understand the scripture that he must rise from the dead.’ Then, in a bit of an anti-climax, they go off home.
But Mary stays, to do what she had set out to do in the first place, to mourn. Perhaps still in shock, in turmoil of mind and spirit, uncertain of what to think or do, she looks into the tomb and sees the two angels who say to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom do you seek?”
She replies, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” She does not seem to wait for an answer but turning sees another figure standing there. It is Jesus but she fails to recognize him. He asks her the same question: “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom do you seek?” There is something rather comical too about her thinking he must be the gardener – but the risen Jesus is not always immediately recognized.
Recognition comes when he speaks her name. Earlier in the Gospel, Jesus had spoken of himself as the Good Shepherd who knows his disciples by name: “…the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.” Now he calls Mary by her name and leads her out of darkness into light; from despair to hope.
She who had come to mourn, not just him who had transformed her life, but that life lost, finds both him and that life again. She finds herself turned around again, given a mission: not to lament and weep but to be the first witness of the resurrection; to tell the good news.
This is more than a turning back of the clock to the way things had been. It is something totally new; something which will transform not only her life, but that of Peter, who will discover with Cornelius the Roman centurion, that “God shows no partiality;” and that of Paul the persecutor, zealously policing the boundaries of the true faith, who is taught the same lesson on the road to Damascus. The risen Lord turns them around too. From now on, all their energy and gifts will be devoted to the service of the one who has overcome death not only in himself but for all people and for all time.
This risen Lord breaks down the death-dealing barriers we erect against others. That is something the Karadsycs and terrorists waging their holy wars cannot grasp.
It is something the Archbishop of Canterbury, speaking on Good Friday sees: “The nature of hatred is that it is infectious. Terror wins when it causes others to fear or hate. On Good Friday terror and oppression are met by love, with Jesus praying for the forgiveness of those who caused his death. Christians, considering the Cross, see God crucified because of human cruelty and sin.”
It is something Pope Francis, washing the feet of women and prisoners and refugees, Muslims and Hindus alongside Christians, rather than just male priests, on Maundy Thursday gets.
May we see it too, so that, like Mary Magdalene, we might not just mourn the world’s sorrows and lament its cruelties, but be bearers and doers of the good news, of the love that overcomes death and casts out fear; so that those who weep now might laugh.