from an Easter Day sermon based on John 20.1-18,
by the Sub Dean, the Revd Dr David Cole.
While it was still dark, on that first day of the week, Mary Magdalene arrived ahead of the others. Mary Magdalene – who had herself experienced Jesus’ healing power – had been the last one at the cross, and now here she was the first one at the grave.
The early hours of the morning were dark, but Mary Magdalene’s darkness ran deeper than that. She was ‘feeling’ the darkness – that emptiness of lost hopes and dreams.
Remember, she had been with Jesus, and had witnessed the power of his ministry: his healing the sick and the lame, restoring sight to the blind, and even bringing back to life those who had been thought lost to death itself.
Along with so many others, Mary had been inspired by Jesus’ vision of the Kingdom of God – the vision of a dimension where the values of this world would be overturned. What we translate as ‘kingdom’ is really something more like an attitude of mind and heart that permeates the person of faith and results in a change of perspective, and a renewed commitment to the ways of God, and to the well-being of others.
Jesus’ followers had heard the world-transforming claims of this kingdom: “the rulers of the world lord it over their subjects – but it shall not be so with you. Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all” (Mk 10.42f), “I do not call you servants, but I have called you friends (Jn 15); “If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all and the servant of all” (Mk 9). This was a world-view like no other. It focused on forgiveness rather than blame, on love rather than hate, on true service rather than the exercise of coercive power, and on loving people into the ways of God. It was geared in favour of the poor, the marginalised, the disadvantaged, the sick, the outcast and the needy. It made no sense in Mary’s world, and it makes little more sense in today’s secular world.
For Mary and the other followers of Jesus, it was an extraordinary way of thinking and hoping. It was revolutionary, and it seemed to be touched by the very hand of God.
But now – in the darkness of that morning, it seemed to be all over. Could it all have been a big mistake? Was Jesus wrong? Was the kingdom an unrealisable dream?
Surely it couldn’t be! Along with Jesus’ other disciples, Mary had seen how the crowds had loved him and looked up to him. And she heard the criticism of the rulers and recognised in their words and actions their true hatred of him. Mary had seen the adulation of the crowd as Jesus entered the city on Palm Sunday, and she had witnessed the hostility of the crowd standing before Pilate as they cried out for Jesus to be crucified. She had stood looking up at that cross, as Jesus die. No wonder Mary felt empty and lost, and that her heart had been broken.
But was there no also some fear there? Since the Romans had finally and cruelly removed from their midst a possible insurrectionist agitator, might they not be after all Jesus’ followers, as well? Would the religious leaders who had been so angered by Jesus’ refusal to allow them to hide behind their traditional authority, be after the disciples as well? What would the future hold for those who had cast all their support behind Jesus and who had perhaps even burned bridges with their former lives?
These were dark, uncertain days indeed. The one in whom they had placed all their hope seemed to have been beaten at last, his influence removed, his voice silenced for ever.
So, despondent and with a heavy heart, Mary Magdalene trudged through the pre-dawn darkness to the tomb. But when she arrived, she discovered that the stone had been removed. She immediately thought the tomb had been robbed – a not uncommon occurrence in her world. So she ran to tell the other disciples the disturbing news. But after the two male disciples had raced to inspect the situation, confirming the emptiness of the grave site, our focus returns to Mary.
Standing outside the tomb, with tears streaming down her face, Mary looks inside, and she discovers evidence of that God’s power. She sees two angels, which is biblical code for receiving a message from God. And they ask her why she is weeping. Then, as Mary is framing her reply, Jesus suddenly appears behind her. And Mary makes her mistake.
Still in her ‘old world’ frame of mind, Mary doesn’t recognise Jesus. But then, Jesus opens the door into her new world – the world of the kingdom of God, and he comes to her with great love and gentleness.
Mary begins her journey of discovery in the dark – physically and spiritually. But her encounter with the risen Jesus propels her into the light! In John’s Gospel, the contrast between darkness and light could not be more intentional. Jesus himself is light and love, revealing the character of God to all.
The good news is not only that Jesus was raised from death, but also that the light of that goodness and love overcomes all darkness and hatred. No matter what the dark side can put up, it will always be overcome by God’s loving light as it shines through Jesus the Christ. The good news flowing from Mary Magdalene’s discovery is also that the kingdom of God is real and present. It is no imaginary or elusive vision: rather, the kingdom of God is dynamic realm – a way of life, a manner of thinking, a mode of prayer, and a method of service.
It is a realm built on relationships. When Mary recognised Jesus, she used for him the name she had always used when speaking to him: Rabboni, or Teacher.
When Jesus called her name, she responded with recognition. And the darkness is dispelled. Tears of despondency are exchanged for tears of joy. Confusion is replaced by understanding, and fear is replaced by faith.
Mary Magdalene was the first person who experienced the risen Christ. She saw the risen Christ and her belief transformed her.
The resurrection is the most amazing and wonderful event of history, while providing a glimpse of God’s glorious future. But it also has important – even crucial – implications for the present.
You will notice in our liturgy we don’t say ‘Christ has risen’ – as in the past tense. We say ‘Christ is risen’. Jesus continues to be the risen Saviour. His Holy Spirit continues to act in the world, calling us all to service – sometimes by a nudge, sometimes by a powerful force, or a call or strong tug in the right direction. Because Jesus is risen, we know that he continues to empower us for our ministry in this world.
Because Jesus is risen, the kingdom of God is alive, and that is why following his resurrection, his followers were called into usefulness. Mary told the other apostles, and they were all given the mission of going to spread the good news throughout the whole world.
Because Jesus is risen, we are called to responsibility in our life and faith.
The power of the resurrection dispels our darkness and empowers us and compels us to work for the purposes of the kingdom of God.
If Jesus hadn’t risen, the ideas behind the kingdom would still be attractive and memorable – but we could decide to either work to spread the ideas, or to just let them sit in a volume on a shelf in our library of memories.
The thing is, though, that Jesus is risen. And that means that the transformative topsy-turvy values of the kingdom are our values, and they must drive our lives. We know this because Jesus challenged his followers all the time to put kingdom values into action. “By this will other people know that you are my disciples: if you love one another” (John 13.35). There’s a challenge! The media love to report examples of interpersonal disagreements within churches: a local church, a diocese, a national church; the differing views among churches of the wider Anglican Communion have been well rehearsed in recent times. But the challenge is for each of us to remember that we witness to the veracity of the resurrection, and the truth of the kingdom by living as Jesus wants us to live: feeling and demonstrating love for each other, even when (maybe, especially when) we don’t agree about something. Loving each other is a sign of the kingdom.
“You are my friends if you do what I command you” (John 15.14). “Love one another “(John 13.34) “Don’t judge other people” (Matthew 7.1). Love God with all your heart, soul and mind, and love your fellow human beings as much as you love yourself” (Luke 10.27).
Jesus teaches us all these things – and putting them into practice brings the kingdom to be in the present.
“The rulers of the world lord it over their subjects – but it shall not be so with you” (Mark 10.42-43). Every time Christians exercise coercive authority we undermine the values of the kingdom.
“If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all and the servant of all” (Mark 10.44). Every time we believe in our own importance and try to put ourselves and our opinions first, we undermine the values of the kingdom.
Even in our prayers, Jesus teaches us to pray “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us”(Matthew 6.12). Do we forgive those who sin against us, or do we hold grudges and stubbornly continue in relational disfunction?
It matters how we live our Christian lives precisely because Christ is risen, and he calls us to share in that resurrection life – not just in theory, not in some theological or religious vacuum, but every day as individual Christians, and as a community of faith focused on Mary’s mission – the apostles’ mission – OUR mission: to spread the good news of the resurrection and to proclaim the kingdom of God to the whole world in our words and in our actions. ‘Now he bids us tell abroad how the lost may be restored, how the penitent forgiven, how we too may enter heaven’ (V 3 of the hymn ‘Christ the Lord is risen again’ by Michael Weisse, 1488-1534, as in Together in Song No 365).
It is a wonderful responsibility, built on the reality of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. To encounter the risen Christ is to renew our relationship with God, and to allow our lives and our faith, and our communities of faith – THIS community of faith – to be transformed afresh. What good news this is for us as we seek a new bishop for our diocese, and a new dean for our cathedral.
This Easter Day, and throughout this Easter seasons, may we – like Mary Magdalene and the other disciples – be filled with the power that flows from Jesus’ resurrection. May we witness through our lives and our actions the beginnings of a renewed humanity, and proclaim that light overcomes darkness, that hope overcomes despair, and that life overcomes death, because of the empty tomb.
Christ is Risen! Alleluia!