Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” So Peter went out with the other disciple, and they were going toward the tomb.
Both of them were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. And stooping to look in, he saw the linen cloths lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen cloths lying there, and the face cloth, which had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen cloths but folded up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the Scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples went back to their homes.
Yes, sisters and brothers, it is Easter!
And this reading is at the centre of our celebration today – this passage from John chapter 20, outlining what happened on that first Easter Sunday morning.
And I’m conscious of the fact that we read this particular resurrection account most years, as our church lectionary seems to schedule this particular Easter Sunday account most years, though I’m not at all sure why they have a preference for this particular resurrection account, as it is a rather bland piece of story-telling!
Forgive me if that sounds sacrilegious, and I certainly mean no disrespect to any of the authors of the New Testament, but given that this story recounts the most central miracle of the Christian Gospel – the resurrection of Christ from the dead, which is the truth upon which everything else in the Gospel stands or fall – you might be forgiven for expecting something a little more dramatic!
You’ve heard this story twice now.
Question: What is missing in this resurrection narrative?
Answer: a resurrection narrative!
There is no account of the resurrection in this narrative – no detailed description at all of Jesus’ rising from the dead. There are no chilling details about how Jesus’ body mysteriously passed through the grave-cloths, leaving them wrapped and intact. There’s not even an explanation as to how the stone was moved away from the tomb!
Something fantastic happened that Sunday morning 2000 years ago, and those who were closest to the action don’t seem to have had any more clues about it than we do, or if they did they chose not to share them!
What they did share with us instead was a great list of details about the athletic activities of the disciples!
We are told that Mary ran from the tomb, and that Peter and another disciple (presumably John) ran to the tomb, and we’re told that John was a faster runner than Peter and reached the tomb first.
Now, in truth, I’m not disinterested in the running activities of the disciples. After all, I do a lot of running myself, but in terms of celebrating the central miracle of the Christian faith, I’d sooner see these good people move to the edge of the stage (so to speak) so that we might focus on the performance of the central character, and yet that never seems to happen!
And the problem is not John’s Gospel as such, for the other Gospel stories aren’t a lot better! Luke’s version mentions a couple of extra angels walking about, but in terms of the central event itself, whereby the dead and mangled body of Jesus somehow comes back to life again … nothing!
In my mind’s eye I can imagine what it might have been like. The lifeless body of Jesus is lying on a cold slab, wrapped in bandages, when suddenly a strange orange glow starts to emanate from the body.
Cracks of thunder are heard from outside and the earth seems to vibrate as suddenly the body starts twitching, as blood starts to return to the empty veins, and the terrible holes in the body start to seal!
And as the glow grows more intense we hear a strange humming sound, and the body of Jesus seems to be passing right through the cloths and bandages! And suddenly His eyes open and He sits up, and He stands up. And the grave-clothes have somehow all been left on the table, all except for a loin-cloth He’s still wearing – at least that’s how it all works in my imagination, and I’m guessing that the Hollywood version would likewise want to keep the loincloth.
Of course this isn’t an issue for the Gospel writer because John doesn’t give us the Hollywood version of the event or the imaginary version of the event, but chooses instead to give us the true version of the event, or at least true to his experience of the event, and I do think that as you read through John’s story you do find that it has a ring of truth to it. It has the markings of a genuine story.
All the little details about who ran where and who outran who and who said what to whom on that unforgettable morning – it sounds just like the way we remember really significant events.
I still remember a host of trivial details about exactly what I was doing on the day my father died, even though that was more than eleven years ago. That’s just the way these things work.
Everyone used to say that they could always remember exactly what they were doing when they heard that Lady Di died. I don’t know if that’s still the case. I suspect that some of us are too young to remember when Lady Di died, and some of us may be getting too old to remember exactly what we were doing when Lady Di died, and some of us may have just taken too many hits to the head to remember what we were doing when Lady Di died. Even so, we do find that with the key events that change the course of our lives we remember the strangest and most inconsequential little things, just like the Gospel writer did.
I don’t know why the Apostles weren’t there when the resurrection itself took place but they didn’t try to hide the fact – they weren’t there! I don’t know where they were – sleeping perhaps? Personally, I can’t imagine they would be able to sleep! Perhaps they sat up drinking and trying to get to sleep?
I don’t know what the disciples were doing when it all took place and I don’t know what Jesus was doing in it all at that time either, as I only have what the Gospel writers have left us.
And it is a rather bland story, with people running about and lots of questions being asked and very few answers being given, but at the same time it is a very wonderful story, and I think it may be the ordinariness of it all that makes it so wonderful!
For the life and death and resurrection of Jesus didn’t take place on a movie set populated entirely by beautiful people who undergo impossible adventures on a daily basis. Jesus lived and died and rose in our world – the real world, in all its pain and failure and downright ordinariness!
And indeed it is through that ordinariness that we see all the wonders of the resurrection and the hope for a better world!
For the miracle of Easter, like the incarnation itself, is a spectacular gift that comes to us in very plain packaging.
On the surface all we see is people running about and an encounter with somebody who seemed at first to be the gardener!
But if we can push through the packaging we can see that some amazing things were happening on that first Easter morning:
- If God has somehow brought Jesus back to life, then everything Jesus said about God must be true, and conversely, the God of the Pharisees – the God of the righteous and well-to-do – is not the real God at all!
- If Jesus has risen from the dead then apparently death does not that the strangle-hold on life that we thought it did!?
- If Jesus has risen from the dead, then might is not always right! The army with the biggest battalions is not always going to be the winner. The vulnerable and the powerless will have their voices heard!
It’s all there – God’s hope for the world, wrapped in brown-paper packaging.
That’s how I find today’s Gospel reading. I find it to be a beautiful blend of the crazy spectacular and the downright ordinary, and my hope is that your experience of church this morning will be along roughly similar lines.
For what we do here together is very ordinary! I’m not saying that anything we do is particularly average, but it is ordinary nonetheless, and if you were looking in from outside, you’d have no trouble describing what we do in very ordinary terms.
We sing, we pray, we shake hands, we embrace, we break bread, we drink from a common cup, we listen, we laugh, we love and we bless.
And all these things are very ordinary human things to do, but if we can peel back the packaging we see the Spirit of God at work – comforting, forgiving, lifting up, saving.
We see the miracle of true human community. We see lives being shaped and transformed. We see bodies and relationships being healed. We see Christ!
I heard recently of a convoy of planes that was transporting some very valuable cargo, where the main transport plane was an old C-130 Hercules, much like those that the Australian Air Force started using in the 1950’s. It’s a large and sturdy aircraft with four propellers. On this occasion the old transport plane was being escorted by a group of F-15 fighter planes, each of which have twin jet-engines and are much more modern, fast and maneuverable.
Apparently to pass the hours in the air the pilots of the different aircraft were chatting to each other over their intercoms, and inevitably they started to compare their respective aircraft.
The fighter pilots didn’t hold back in extolling the virtues of their modern, maneuverable, highly computerized aircraft, but the C-130 pilot just chuckled and assured the fighter pilots that he could do things in his plane that they could only dream about!
The fighter pilots were a little dubious so the C-130 pilot told them to keep their eyes on his plane for the next few minutes, and then he went silent as the fighter pilots stared at the old transport plane, which just continued to fly along straight, doing nothing obviously different whatsoever!
After several minutes the Hercules pilot comes back on the air, “There! How was that?” The fighter pilots replied, “What are you talking about? What did you do?” And the Hercules pilot said, “Well, I got up, stretched my legs, and got a cup of coffee.”
Often the most amazing things don’t look all that spectacular at first.
Let me encourage you : look a little deeper this Easter!
First preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill on April 8, 2012. To hear the audio version of this sermon click here.