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.
It is Easter Day, and here we gather, along with so many other people around the globe, to celebrate that fundamental event which gives birth to the Christian faith – namely, the resurrection of Jesus.
I’ve been celebrating the resurrection of Jesus like this every year at this time for as long as I can remember, so I guess I sort of take for granted that it is an appropriate thing to do this time of year. I’m conscious though that it might not be immediately obvious to everybody in our world why we so passionately celebrate the fact that this man, Jesus, didn’t die (or at least didn’t stay dead).
‘So what?’ Some people may say. So what indeed!
I heard that in Japan some confectionary maker tried to capitalise on the Easter season by bringing out chocolate crucifixes, complete with a chocolate Jesus that you could bite into. I don’t know whether he went the whole hog and put cherry ripe on the inside, but either way he clearly missed the point.
But what is the point? I don’t think it’s immediately obvious to the outsider, and certainly the earliest accounts that we have of the resurrection event don’t help us to make a lot of sense of it.
If we take the account I read this morning from John’s Gospel, it doesn’t tell us a lot about the resurrection. It doesn’t tell us how it happened. It certainly doesn’t even tell us why it happened! It just tells us what two of the disciples did – how they ran all the way from their homes to the tomb, how they went in to the grave area and found the clothes lying about in neat piles, and how they then went home, leaving Mary there by herself for some strange reason!
This early resurrection account has often bothered me. Why doesn’t it tell us more? Why is it so focused on trivial details about who out-ran who and where the various bits of cloth were found to be lying. And then it occurred to me this year, as I read through it once again. It occurred to me why this resurrection narrative is so unspectacular and filled with odd details. It’s because what we are reading here was originally a performance!
If you read the end of John’s Gospel, you get quite a clear picture of how they put this book together. It wasn’t written by John (the ‘beloved disciple’) himself, but by his disciples – a small, loyal group of supporters that formed around him, and worshipped and ministered with him through his later years.
John, we believe, was the only one of the twelve disciples that did not meet a brutal and untimely death. John indeed apparently lived to a great age, and in his declining years, when he was riddled with arthritis, it was said that they used to carry him around to meetings and sit him on the floor, where he used to say no more than, ‘love one another, love one another’.
And it wasn’t until after John died that his disciples put together a collection of all the stories that he’d told them over the years, and no doubt one of the most often-told stories in the bunch must have been his experience on that Easter morning.
“Tell us again exactly how it happened, Father John”, you can see the little ones in that early Christian community prompting him.
“Well”, says John, “it all started when we heard a banging on the door, and found Mary standing there, breathless, and telling Peter and myself that the Lord’s body had disappeared!
So Peter and I didn’t even finish our breakfast. We started running towards the tomb. If we’d thought harder about it first, we might have gone and got ourselves some transport, but we didn’t’ think too hard about it. We just started running. And I was a better runner than Peter in those days, and I out-ran him. And I got to the tomb first, but I didn’t go in.”
“Why didn’t you go in, Father?”
“Well, to tell you the truth I was a little scared. From the outside of the tomb I could see that there was no body in there, but I couldn’t tell if there might not have been some thugs hiding in the shadows. But then Peter caught up and, typical of him, he just rushed straight in.
And then I went in. I stooped down, as the entrance-way was quite low, and sure enough there was no one in there, apart from Peter and myself. And there were the graveclothes, and the cloth that had been on Jesus head, it wasn’t with the other graveclothes. It was folded up and sitting over there by itself. And I knew at that point that something wonderful had happened!”
I’m guessing that John performed that story maybe thousand times. I’m guessing that the reason the account in John’s Gospel contains so many odd details is because it reflects exactly the story as John used to tell it – complete with the details about how he was a better runner than Peter.
I’m guessing that these details about the running and about the graveclothes were so clearly remembered by the authors because they’d heard them so many times. And I’m guessing that John remembered these details so clearly because this event turned out to be the most defining moment of his life!
Isn’t it funny how we remember the details of defining moments?
If you know me at all, you know that my memory is shocking. I have trouble remembering what I was doing yesterday, but I can remember with absolute clarity the moment when I first kissed Ange. I can remember all sorts of odd details about the moment when Veronica first called me‘dad’. And I could recount to you the time, the place, and all sorts of trivial facts about the night when I first met Christ in a real way, at the age of 18.
Defining moments stay emblazoned on our minds, and the events of that first Easter morning were a defining moment for John. He remembered every banal detail, and he passed the story on, complete with the details.
And those who heard the story remembered the story and many of the details. For this story, which came to define the life of John, likewise came to be a defining story for them too!
Why is this story of the resurrection so significant, not only for John but for so many of us? Because, to put it most simply, it confirms to us, in a way in which no other event in history confirms to us, that miracles do happen, and that there is always reason to hope!
I had the privilege of listening to Jim Wallis during the week – a great American preacher and peace activist. And he said, “the choice today is not between left and right or between a religious and secular state, but between cynicism and hope!”
Cynicism is almost a national sport in this country! We expect our politicians to be dishonest. We know that the banks and major corporations are out there to screw us. Maybe we assume too that our partners are going to cheat on us sooner or later because … ‘well, that’s just the way men are!’
And so it’s natural for us to stand back and say, “well, what am I supposed to do about it?” and so excuse ourselves from doing anything. We say, “nothing I do or say is ever going to make a difference anyway”, and so give ourselves a reason not to make a difference.
We say, “Why should I waste my resources, pouring my time and energy into people who are not going to change, into programs that are never going to change anything for the long-term, because they confront the power-brokers who control this world. Who am I to think that I could make a difference?”
But … if the resurrection of Jesus took place, then miracles really do happen.
If the resurrection of Jesus really happened then even the seeming certainties of life and death turn out to be not so certain!
If the resurrection of Jesus took place, there’s really no place for cynicism! For if things like this really happen in our world, then anything is possible, and cynicism must give way to hope!
We’ve got some real challenges facing us here as a church at the moment. Most of them are funding challenges of course, and it would be easy to feel cynical about that, because we are always struggling with funding.
We’ve got enough money to keep our youth centre going now for not much more than another month. How do I feel about that? Frankly, full of hope!
And now ‘The Sly Fox’ has come forward and offered to hold a fundraiser for us – scheduled just before the money runs out. It‘s one of our major gay pubs, and probably not one that I would have taken the initiative to approach.
And it would be easy to be cynical about all of that of course, saying, ‘Oh Dave, do you really expect to bring the Spirit of God into that place?’ But the truth is that the Spirit of God got in ahead of us there a long time ago! The Spirit of God has been working with these people for ages. Some of us might have kept them at an arms length, but the Spirit of God hasn’t! And so I approach that forthcoming event full of anticipation and hope!
Another of our Lord’s most recent initiatives has been to bring to us this small band of athletes from Sierra Leone, looking for asylum. And again, it would be easy to by cynical about that, especially if you’ve had any serious dealings with the Immigration Department! And yet, if the Spirit of Him who raised our Lord Jesus from the dead is at work in us … what do we have to fear?
And I’m very conscious of the fact that so many of us here bring with us so much baggage from the past. So many of us here have stories of pain that have shaped who we are and that continue plague us day to day. But I can tell you that if Jesus was truly raised from the dead, the future … looks good!
This is our story – the Easter story. It is a story that we tell over and over again as it has been passed on to us by those who likewise retold it over and over again in generations past, because it is a story of hope for our world.
If Jesus has been raised from the dead, then anything and everything is possible, and some things are certain: Evil will not triumph in this world, Death will not have the final say, and His Kingdom will come!
Live in hope, sisters and brothers. Expect the unexpected. Don’t fall victim to the grip of cynicism, but know that the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead is at work in us to will and to work His good purpose!
For Christ is risen. He is risen indeed! Miracles do happen! Live in hope!
First preached by Father Dave Smith at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill.