Published by Michael Bigg on Mon, 2 Apr 2018 13:16

The text of Mike's Easter Sermon (1st April 2018). This is the extended version preached at Evening Worship.

Based on John 20:1-18


There are 3 main characters in John’s account of the resurrection (excluding Jesus). They all have something to tell us.

We start with Mary Magdalene. In her grief at Jesus death she comes to the tomb “while it is still dark” (v1). Darkness is one of John’s favourite metaphors. We might read that phrase as she came to the tomb “while she still didn’t understand”. It’s a wonderful example of faith and love that even as she mourns for Jesus, even while she doesn’t understand his death, she still wants to be near to him. There’s definitely something for us there. How often does lack of understanding or feeling God to be absent drive us away from God? Mary’s wonderful example is that being in darkness and feeling grief at God’s absence ought to drive us towards Jesus!

But note that she doesn’t go into the tomb. She just assumes that someone has taken Jesus’ body away and goes back to tell Peter and John.

 

 

Then we have the touching account of the two disciples running to the tomb. Why are they running? Do they know what has happened? My guess is that part of them is angry that someone has taken Jesus’ body from the tomb, but part of them is hoping against hope that something more has happened.

We’re told that the beloved disciple outruns Peter, sees the linen wrappings, but does not go in. Why does he hesitate at the entrance to the tomb? He’s seen those linen wrappings. He must be starting to realise that the body wasn’t simply removed. And yet he hesitates. I’m not going to speculate on why he stops at the entrance, but I invite you to reflect on your own temptation to stop at the door. Do you ever run headlong towards God, only to stop short at the final moment? Are you happy when you are in control, but find yourself hesitating when you realise that you are on the verge of having to leap into something unknown?

So along comes Peter. In his typical no-nonsense fashion he bursts straight into the tomb. He sees the wrappings that were around Jesus’ head placed neatly. He realises that no-one removing a dead body would have bothered to fold up the graveclothes.

Both disciples see this and believe. Believe in what? Do they go away from the tomb joyfully proclaiming Alleluia, Christ is Risen?! No. “Then the disciples returned to their homes” (v10). It’s reminiscent of the mysterious ending of Mark’s gospel in which none of the disciples tell anyone what has happened for they are afraid. The two disciples become witnesses to the empty tomb. They are not yet witnesses of the resurrection. They are not yet witnesses to the resurrection.

There’s a technical but important distinction there. Are you a witness to an empty tomb? Do you testify to a historical event that leads you to return to your home afterwards and nothing more? Or are you a witness to the resurrection? Do you testify to an encounter with the risen Jesus Christ which transforms your life and the life of others around you?

 

So let’s return to Mary Magdalene. We’ve already noted that she was there in the darkness. Even in her grief she remains with Jesus. But let’s notice two more things.

Firstly, she develops in the closeness of her relationship to Jesus. When she sees that the stone is rolled away she reports back that they have taken “the Lord” away and we do not know where they have laid him (v2). When she looks into the tomb she says the same thing in v13 but slightly differently. They have taken away my Lord and I do not know where they have laid him. The impersonal becomes the personal.

Secondly, her encounter with the risen Lord makes sense of the whole gospel. Right at the beginning in chapter 1 v 38, the first question Jesus asks is “Ti dzeteite?”, usually translated: “What are you looking for?” Here, with Mary, in verse 15, Jesus asks exactly the same question “Tina dzeteis” (masuline plural becomes feminine singular in Greek), translated: “Who are you looking for?” I think we’re supposed to realise that the central question for us all along is not “What do we seek?” but “Who do we seek?” Christian faith is seeking after a person, Jesus Christ, not a thing or an idea. Who are you seeking today? An encounter with a comforting and comfortable Jesus who will meet your needs or a vital and transformative knowledge of the risen Christ who sends us out?

 

Peter Rollins, the Irish philosopher-theologian has a magic trick

(A magic trick followed in which a mini chocolate egg was made to disappear only for people to discover similar eggs in their pews).

Ta dah!

Those chocolate eggs represent God, particularly as we experience the risen Jesus.

There were 3 parts to my little trick. The presence of the egg, the absence of the egg and the new presence, and this progression tells us something about the way God works.

Firstly, the presence. I showed you the egg. This is like God throughout the ages. God is constantly drawing attention to the fact that God is present. And God really is present, just as was the chocolate egg I showed you. God was present to Abraham and revealed himself to Moses in the burning bush. God was present to the prophets of Israel. God was fully present in the person of Jesus. It wasn’t a trick or a misunderstanding. Just as the egg I showed you was real, God’s presence with people was real too. No trick of the light or sleight of hand! No April Fool!

 

Then comes the absence. As surely as God is really present at times, there are also times when God disappears from view. There were times when the people of Israel cried out to God: “Where have you gone? Have you abandoned us?” (Read the Psalms!) The disciples were constantly finding that Jesus slips away for a time and they can’t find him. They fully felt the absence of God in the dark time between Good Friday and Easter morning.

Don’t both the presence and absence of God reflect our experience most of the time? There are times when we are really aware of God’s presence. Maybe in sung worship, or in nature. Maybe you experience the real presence of the risen Jesus as you receive Communion. But just as surely as there are times when we experience God’s presence, there are times when God feels far away. It is a frustrating reality that whenever we feel we have a strong hold on God we find that God has slipped through our fingers again! You aren’t mistaken to have known God’s presence – Jesus was really there. But you can’t cling on to him.

 

Exactly the same pattern appears when we look at the resurrected Christ. On the Road to Emmaus Jesus was fully there with those pilgrims, but just as they recognised him he was gone again. As we heard in John’s Gospel this morning, Jesus was there with Mary. But as she recognises him, as he calls her by name, she is told “Don’t cling to me” and she is sent off to tell the others what has happened. It was Mary who first made the risen Christ known to others.

Presumably Jesus could have let Mary cling to him and be comforted. Presumably Jesus could have stayed with the disciples on the Emmaus Road and had a slap-up meal. Presumably, the glorious and risen Christ could have stuck around and could have chosen to still be wandering around with us now, revealing God’s presence. But he didn’t, he chose to be absent again.


And so we come to the punchline of the magic trick. The big reveal. If, like Mary Magdalene, we cannot cling on to Jesus, then where is Jesus to be found in more than the most fleeting moment? In the magic trick the egg was here in my hand. Then it was gone. And then you discovered that eggs were present among you the whole time!

God is present, then God is absent, but as Christians have found down the centuries God was actually here with us the whole time.


Towards the end of Jesus’ life he gives his disciples a new commandment: That you love one another as I have loved you. Later, the beloved disciple develops this theme in the light of many years of Christian experience after the resurrection. In 1 John 4 he says: “No-one has ever seen God” (by which I understand that we only catch glimpses of God and witnessed God in the person of JEsus), but he goes on to say, “but if we love one another God abides in us”. If we love one another God abides in us.

When we love one another, the risen Christ, though absent, is fully present by the Holy Spirit. When we stop looking for God up there somewhere we find that God is right here in our midst in acts of loving service, particularly as we minister to the poorest and most vulnerable (remember, Jesus said love one another as I have loved you, when I was hungry you gave me something to drink etc.)

 

Don’t get me wrong. I hope that you genuinely encounter the Risen Christ this Easter Day, in this place, in word, worship and sacrament. But don’t be fooled into thinking that you can cling onto Jesus in this place. As the angels said, he isn’t here – he has risen! God’s presence is to be found just as much, if not more so, out there in love expressed towards those in darkness.

The British theologian Paula Gooder says: “The great divine absence is a vital ingredient in our call to mission…If Jesus were still on earth in his risen existence, we would probably leave him to it. We might stand at the edge making admiring noises but it would be hard to join in”. As Frankie told last week we are called to be pilgrims with Jesus, not observers or tourists.


Today we proclaim: “Alleluia, Christ is risen!” We use the present tense! We don’t merely acknowledge a historical truth (even though that historical event is foundational to Christian faith). Today we also proclaim a present reality. We could say “Christ was raised from the dead” and demonstrate it with all the many good reasons for believing that the historical resurrection really happened. But no, we say “Christ is risen” and demonstrate it with our lives.

 If you have encountered the Risen Christ then hear the words of Theresa of Avila: “Christ has no body now on earth but yours; no hands but yours; no feet but yours. Yours are the eyes through which the compassion of Christ must look out on the world. Yours are the feet with which He is to go about doing good. Yours are the hands with which He is to bless His people”.

You who know Jesus affirm the resurrection every time you bring the light of Christ into a dark place. You deny the resurrection every time you leave those people in darkness. You affirm that Christ is risen every time you reach out to someone in need in an act of love. You deny that Christ is risen every time you walk past on the other side.

So do not cling to Jesus in this building. Jesus is out there – he has gone ahead of us! Go out and proclaim with your love and service: “Alleluia, Christ is risen!”

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