Some of you will know that I worked in cathedrals for nearly 18 years, and this is only the second time in all those years I’ve been allowed to preach at the main service on Easter Sunday – there’s usually a Bishop, or in the case of York Minster, an Archbishop in place to do that. So today, with hardly a bishop in sight, I’m very grateful to your Rector, Anna, not only for the privilege of preaching at this service, but publicly to affirm with you that Christ is risen and that a new world has begun. And that new world begins in a special way later on in this service when Marvellous baptised – baptised, as the service will remind us, into the death and resurrection of Christ. I hope you will all take the opportunity of Marvellous’s baptism to re-affirm your own baptism at that point, to remind ourselves that we too have died and been buried with Christ, and are now risen with him to live his risen life of love in the world.
As people baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ, and being called to live his risen life in the world, we are called, like the very first disciples, to bear witness to others to the fact that Christ has risen. This is perhaps the most ancient calling the Christian has – to witness to the world to the most amazing idea: that Jesus of Nazareth, crucified as the Christ of God, has risen from the dead. Today, as then, this is not an easy message to get across.
The experience of those who bear earliest witness to the resurrection of Christ is not universally triumphant and glorious: shock and bewilderment are the more usual emotions, and we see this very clearly in our Gospel reading this morning. Mary Magdalen, a woman who had reasons to feel that she owed Jesus more than most, arrived at his tomb early in the morning accompanied, as the reading puts it, by Mary’, presumably either Mary Jesus’ mother, though you would have thought the reading would have said that, or, more likely, Mary the sister of Martha and Lazarus, and Salome. Whichever Mary it was, these three women came to the tomb to do what they could; to do the decent human thing to Jesus in death as he had done to them in life.
In Matthew’s Gospel, when the women arrive at the tomb, they experience an earthquake, find that an angel has rolled the stone away from the entrance and that the sepulchre is empty; the guards have fainted, and they are told by the Angel to go quickly and tell the disciples that he is risen from the dead. In panic and alarm they run to find Jesus’ closest friends and followers, Peter and John and the others, to tell them what they have seen. In John’s version of this story, when they hear Mary’s message, Peter and John run to the tomb; John goes in and sees the grave clothes lying there. In Matthew’s version as we’ve heard, the Marys are met by Jesus on the way and they fall at his feet to worship him. Jesus tells them to tell the other disciples to make their way to Galilee where he will meet them.
As I said, in John’s version of this story Mary Magdalen gets Peter and John to come to the tomb, which is why Mary Magdalene is sometimes called the ‘first apostle’: she was the first to announce the good news of Jesus rising from the dead. They arrive to find the stone rolled away and the tomb empty; Jesus is gone. Given the devastation of the previous two days, this is not what they expected; but the truth slowly begins to dawn on them as they remember the things that Jesus said. Perhaps in confusion, but perhaps also in hope, they leave the tomb and go home. Mary Magdalen, however, stays behind weeping outside the tomb.
Both of these accounts of the discovery of the empty tomb are dramatic in different ways, not least in Matthew with its angel with a face like lightning. In Mark’s Gospel the account of the resurrection and the empty tomb ends simply with the disciples being terrified, and the original Gospel of Mark comes to an end there; in Matthew, as we’ve seen, we do have an angel generated earthquake, and the women who have come are told by an angel that he is risen; they then have an encounter with the risen Christ himself and new instructions; in Luke we have the appearance of dazzling angels and terror and the complete disbelief of the disciples at this tale of empty tombs and angels from the women, who were, of course, and in most respects, Jesus’s most faithful followers.
The account in John ends with Mary weeping outside the tomb on her own. She then sees angels in the tomb and turns to be confronted by a man she presumes is the gardener. She wants to know where Jesus is so that she can attend to him. The man, who is Jesus, then simply says her name: ‘Mary’. And as Jesus calls her by name she recognises who he is and embraces him. Jesus then tenderly disengages and sends her to bring the news to his disciples, which she does with simple words, the most basic and original of all Christian testimonies: ‘I have seen the Lord’.
It is interesting to me that Mary didn’t recognize Jesus when she saw him. She had only seen him, as it were, a couple of days before, and she was one who had travelled with him in his ministry and was counted among his closest friends. How could she not recognize him? What had changed? None-the-less, Jesus knows who Mary is, and being called by name in this story changes everything for Mary. The anguish and sadness at his death are replaced by shock and joy as she tells the rest – ‘I have seen the Lord’. This is the simple truth we are to tell the world too: I have seen the Lord. But it’s a truth, as St Paul reminds us in his letter to the Colossians that is supposed to make a difference in our lives and not just be something interesting to know. St Paul writes that we are to strip off the old self and put on Christ and live a renewed life in the light of his resurrection from the dead; we are called in the light of this truth, to walk in a new light, in a new way. The resurrection of Christ makes all things new and we are to live as those for whom this news makes all the difference in the world.
That means something. The news we share of new life in Christ is not just a moment of joy for us, it is also meant to be good news for the whole world. The only way it will be good news for the world is if we leave the empty tomb behind and, like the disciples, move on. And as we we’ll see at Pentecost in a few weeks’ time, we are not only empowered to live that good news in the world, but we are called to make it transformative. There is no corner of our world, no aspect of life, no aspect of ourselves that stands outside the scope of God’s love for the world or outside our part in living that love in the world.
Like Mary Magdalen, and like Marvelous in a few moments, the risen Christ calls us by name too; calls us from our fear and failure and renews our lives with the depth and richness of his love, shown in his life and in his death, and made ours by the power of his spirit living in us. With awe and wonder we too can now join with Mary in testifying to the world that we have seen the Lord. Christ is risen; he is risen indeed, Alleluia.