BIBLE READING:  John 20:1-18

 

SERMON

Very early in the morning on that first Easter Day around 2000 years ago, Mary Magdalene went to the garden tomb alone. Why did she go? She couldn't do much by herself. She would need several men with the right lifting gear to shift the great stone closing the entrance to the tomb. And she'd need the other women to help embalm the body of Jesus. So why go alone? Perhaps, with the stress of the previous week or so, she couldn't sleep and was just wandering aimlessly, but found herself drawn like a magnet to the grave of the person she loved. 

She noticed instantly that the stone had been rolled away. Her first thought in her shock at that discovery, was to tell someone else, to share the horror and the fear. So she ran to Peter, the acknowledged leader of the band of disciples, who was with a friend, and she told them. But Mary didn't tell them exactly what she'd seen. She made an assumption, and she told the two disciples her interpretation of events: "They've taken away the Lord, and we don't know where they've put him."

Even in those days it was 'they', a sort of nameless, faceless, vague enemy.  Peter and the other disciple ran to the tomb to see for themselves. How young they all were! They ran everywhere. The gospel, from beginning to end, is a story of young people. The other disciple ran faster than Peter and got there first. He saw the grave clothes neatly folded, but he didn't go in. Perhaps he was frightened. It would take courage to walk into a tomb where you'd expect to see and smell a mangled body, especially the body of a dearly loved friend. 

But impulsive Peter had no such qualms. He went straight into the tomb, and the other disciple followed. It was this other, less impulsive, more thoughtful disciple who immediately realised the significance of the folded grave clothes. The body couldn't have been stolen. Grave robbers would have no reason to hang about either to remove the grave clothes, or to fold them if they were removed. So something very strange indeed must have happened.

None of them were expecting anything. They came, like Mary Magdalene, presumably assuming the body had been stolen. Miracles didn't enter their heads at that stage. But once they saw the linen cloths, we're told they believed, even though they'd had no idea Jesus would rise from death. When they saw those grave clothes they made a huge leap of faith - and then they went home!

It seems such a mundane thing to do, to go home! You'd have thought they might have rushed excitedly over to their friends, to break the news and discuss animatedly what it might mean. You'd have thought they might have wanted to drag other people back to the garden with them, so that they could all stand there in their astonishment and work out between them what it all meant. But they didn't. They went home!

They appear to have ignored Mary, who stayed behind, weeping. She sounds quite a solitary character in her grief. She came to the tomb alone, before it was even light, and now she stayed on weeping, when the others had gone home. And she stooped to peer into the tomb.  But something strange happened. She saw two angels in white, sitting in the exact spot where Jesus' body had lain.

 

Only a moment before, Peter and his companion had gone right into the tomb, but they hadn't seen anybody. They'd only seen the grave clothes. They hadn't noticed any angels.  Perhaps they were in too much of a rush. Perhaps people who want to see angels must be prepared to hang about, to wait around doing nothing much, but loitering. And perhaps they were too insensitive.

At any rate, they didn't seem to have much regard for Mary's feelings. Although it was Mary who brought them the news, it sounds as though she was pushed aside when they reached the tomb, for she didn't have the opportunity to look into the tomb until after they'd gone. But Mary was a sensitive soul, experiencing, and allowing herself to feel, great pain over the death of her dear friend. So Mary saw the angels.  The angels asked Mary why she was weeping, which seems an odd question. It must have been obvious why she was weeping, especially to angels. But perhaps they knew Mary needed to articulate her painful feelings as the first stage in dealing with them. 

Yet her answer too was unexpected. You'd have thought she might be weeping because Jesus, the man she loved, had been executed after a rigged trial. Or perhaps because of the shock of finding the grave empty on top of all the other traumatic events of the previous couple of days. But Mary ignored all that, and said she was weeping because: "They have taken away my Lord and I don't know where they've laid him." She was weeping because of her assumption that the body had been stolen. An assumption which was wrong.

So many tears are so often shed over assumptions, which then turn out to be entirely wrong. Assumptions about other people's thoughts or actions. Assumptions about what might happen in the future. Assumptions about other people's opinions. Breakdowns in relationships so often occur because of misunderstandings. Because someone has made a false assumption which they regard as the whole truth.  The angels didn't answer. They didn't correct Mary. They played no further role in the story. But Mary turned at this point, almost as though she sensed someone watching her. And she made another erroneous assumption. She saw a man, and assumed he was the gardener. Perhaps it's not such a surprising assumption. Two days previously Jesus had wounds so horrific he died from them. Now, he was fit and well, and walking in the garden without difficulty. Mary would surely have recognised him immediately if he'd been the same Jesus she knew and loved so well.

Even his voice must have been different. He asked Mary exactly the same question the angels had asked, and she still failed to recognise him. This time she didn't answer the question, but countered it with what was almost an accusation: "If you've taken away his body, tell me where it is, so that I can go to him."  He didn't take offence at the implication of her words, but simply spoke her name in that way he always used: "Mary!" which enabled her to recognise him.

So Jesus was clearly living in some different dimension. For his risen body was quite different from that poor, broken and lacerated body which hung from the cross.  As a result of that encounter, Mary changed. Her tears dried, her misery disappeared, and she ceased to be quite such a loner, for she went straight away to all the other disciples. This time she didn't allow them to push her out of the way. She told them her story, even though she might have expected ridicule and incredulity. She seems to have gained a remarkable new inner strength from her encounter with the risen Christ.  All encounters with the risen Christ change people, even today. Those who are miserable, change. Those who are loners, change. Those who are timid and unsure of themselves and feel they have no self-value, change. Those who think life isn't worth living, change.

This is our Easter promise. In many different ways resurrection can happen for us too. We too can receive new and vibrant life, full of hope and promise and power. And we can receive it now. All we need is an encounter with the risen Christ.