But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb…

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Alleluia, Christ is Risen!

This year I preached for the first time on Easter day. I think it’s the first time I’ve ever thumped the pulpit!

Here is the text of my sermon on Mary Magdalene at the empty tomb (John 20:1-18). May you know the presence of the Risen Christ with you always!

Giovanni_Girolamo_Savoldo_-_Mary_Magdalene_-_Google_Art_Project

I wonder if you’re any good in a crisis? Isn’t it horrible when you get an unexpected phone call that brings bad news? Even worse when it’s a phone call that requires you to act, and act immediately. When that happens it feels like all the breath has gone out of you. First you freeze and then you think, who can I call? Who will know what to do?

Well, very early in the morning, on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene finds herself in just such a crisis. She has gone to the tomb and found it empty. Her only conclusion is that they have taken Jesus’ body somewhere else. They probably being the Roman guards on duty. So she thinks, ‘I must get Peter, he’ll know what to do’ and runs to find him. Peter comes along with John and they come with urgency running to the tomb. They look in and see that the body of Jesus has gone. And then, there is quite a devastating sentence in the gospel, devastating at least for Mary. Then the disciples returned to their homes. Mary is left by the empty tomb, all alone in her grief. She’s not content to leave like Peter and John, she’s not happy with their response to this crisis, she stays, weeping for all that has happened, perhaps weeping because Peter and John didn’t seem to have an answer. So she sits in her grief, but maybe, just maybe, in deciding to stay by the tomb, the first seed of hope is growing in her.

Did you notice in the reading that the angels that appear to Mary in the tomb do not have any effect on her. They don’t frighten her, they don’t stun her into silence. They ask Mary why she is weeping and she can only repeat the refrain ‘they have taken away my Lord’. Her grief is so overwhelming that she doesn’t even notice that they’re angels. Perhaps you have known grief or trouble as desperate as that? Such deep sorrow that you can’t connect with the things of God at all, you are just numb.

Jesus is already there with Mary in her grief, even before she knows it. Who knows how long he’s been standing there behind her. He knows what she’s going through. He’s experienced a similar deep sorrow in a different garden only three days before. Jesus is with Mary in her grief even when she doesn’t know it.

Then Mary turns around and sees someone, and like the angels, he asks the same question ‘why are you weeping? Who are you looking for?’ Mary repeats the same refrain, ‘they have taken away my Lord, they have taken away my Lord’. Mary doesn’t notice that it is Jesus, just as she didn’t notice the angels speaking to her. But Jesus recognises her. He doesn’t just recognise her, he knows her intimately, knows her troubled history more than anyone because he had freed her of seven demons. In saying her name, Jesus is reminding her how well he knows and loves her, one word, ‘Mary’ and she is jolted out of grief and into joy as she sees that it is Him.

Mary’s cry of ‘they’ve taken away my Lord’ is transformed into the joyful message ‘I have seen the Lord’! Mary becomes the first apostle, the apostle to the apostles, the one sent to the others to proclaim that Jesus is alive!

Mary’s story is also our story. When we are going through hard times, Jesus is with us, even when we don’t notice, even when we can’t feel it, Jesus is standing behind us, with us, patiently waiting for us to tell him what’s happened. Jesus knows pain, Isaiah describes God’s servant as a man of grief, acquainted with suffering. Because Jesus not only suffered and died but rose again, defeating death, he is always and especially present with us in times of sorrow, in the dark times of our lives.

When we baptise people we give them a special candle that has been lit from our beautiful Easter Candle – this light which is to us the light of the Risen Jesus. I always say to the families as I give them the candle that this means that Jesus will always be a light shining in that child’s life and most especially during those times that are the darkest. A candle shines most brightly, of course, in the dark. The Risen Christ is with us always.

Have you ever noticed that we always use the present tense when we talk about the resurrection? We say Jesus is risen, not Jesus has risen, because Jesus is alive, he is in the present, he is alive and with us now.

Not only is Mary’s story, our story, but Jesus’ story becomes our story. Our lives now reflect the pattern of Christ, we travel through the abandonment of Good Friday, the silence of Holy Saturday but our destination is always Easter Sunday and resurrection, new life, transformation. Because God raised Jesus from the dead, so too will we be raised! Paul writes to the Romans that the same spirit that raised Jesus from the dead is alive in each of you! So we, like Mary can say ‘I have seen the Lord!’ Alleluia!


Image attribution: Girolamo Savoldo [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. On the Sunday morning after the Crucifixion, Mary Magdalene visited the tomb of Jesus, but found it empty. The story is recounted in the New Testament (John 20), and Mary Magdalene is here identified by the pot of ointment with which she anointed Christ’s body, and by the glimpse of her traditional red dress beneath a silver-grey cloak. She was the first person to see Christ after the Resurrection. Several other versions of this composition by Savoldo are known. The landscape background appears to represent Venice and its lagoon.

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Peace be with you – Jesus first words to his friends at Easter

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Alleluia Christ is Risen!

Again Jesus said, ‘Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.’ And with that he breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.

John 20:21-22

How amazing that Jesus’ first words to his friends who abandoned him were “Peace be with you”. Then he gave them the gift of the Spirit by breathing on them.

I can’t put this transformation better than CS Lewis:

A very blessed easter to you.

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Michael Price – Easter – a beautiful meditative piece of music

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I first heard this track on BBC 6 Music during Lent and although I was slightly irritated that a piece entitled ‘Easter’ was being played in Lent I couldn’t help but be captivated by it. This track was inspired by the composer hearing church bells ringing out on Easter Sunday (I can’t remember in which country, but not in the UK). It is beautiful, enjoy:

Alleluia, He is Risen!

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Happy Easter!

But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet.  They said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping?’ She said to them, ‘They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.’  When she had said this, she turned round and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus.  Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?’ Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.’  Jesus said to her, ‘Mary!’ She turned and said to him in Hebrew, ‘Rabbouni!’ (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, ‘Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.”’  Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

– John 20: 11-18

Death, where is your sting?

Easter Sermon – John 20:19-31 – “Peace be with you, as the Father has sent me, so I send you”

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I preached what will be my last sermon on my placement at the wonderful St Aidan’s in Leeds today. Here is the text below.

If you don’t want to read the whole sermon here is the gist of the sermon in about 10 seconds:

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John 20:19-31

God’s story is our story. We have been blessed with the Bible, God’s story of his interaction with his beloved creation. The stories we read in the gospels are our story. In Holy Week I tried to help us to step into God’s story as we looked at the stories of some of the lesser characters in Mark’s gospel. Now we have come to the Easter season and we walk in the most astonishing and delightful part of the story of God’s dealings with his people. So let us again seek to step into this story. What might Jesus have to say to us?

The disciples in our gospel reading today are hiding. They are hiding from fear of the Jews. Are they hiding from God like Adam and Eve did in the Garden of Eden? Perhaps they are, in a way. What was the last thing they did before the arrest of Jesus? They fled and denied knowing Christ, even though each of them had said they would be willing to die for Jesus. They are still not willing to die for Jesus. They are hiding and they are terrified. They know Jesus is dead. They know that his body has gone from the tomb but they have no understanding as to what this might mean. I think they believe what Mary first tells them, that the body has been taken away and they don’t know where they have put him. Mary has since told them that she has seen the Lord but this just makes no sense to them. It is into this context that the Risen Christ appears to the disciples. What is the first thing Jesus says to the disciples? Does he say ‘Where were you?’ or ‘You abandoned me?’ No. He says, astonishingly, ‘peace be with you’. Then John gives us what I think must be one of the greatest understatements in scripture, he writes: ‘then they were glad when they saw the Lord’. Of course there is the absolute delight in seeing Jesus risen from the dead but I think the rejoicing happens partly because in saying ‘peace be with you’ Jesus is saying ‘I forgive you, you thought you were no longer my friends but you are still my friends and I say peace be with you’.

He says ‘peace be with you’ again. Then he does something else astonishing, he says ‘I send you’. This is a group of frightened men hiding in a locked room who don’t even understand what has happened to Jesus. In that state, he tells them that he is sending them. There is no sense that they need to pass some kind of test first before they get sent out: they’re ready now. Jesus says ‘as the father has sent me so I send you’. It almost sounds like ‘get up, take up your mat and walk’.

Then we get another hint from Genesis, Jesus does something really weird. He breathes on them. Has anyone breathed on you before? If they have I’m sure you don’t remember it as a pleasant experience.

How does God bring Adam to life when he is created from clay? He breathes on him. Only the Creator God can give life to something that is dead.

In a sense, the disciples in that locked room are dead and lifeless, they are dead in their denial of Jesus, their sins, in the way they have let God down. Jesus breathes on them and says ‘receive the Holy Spirit’. Unfortunately in English it is hard to make the connection but in both Greek and Hebrew the word for God’s spirit can also mean breath or wind. The Hebrew word for spirit is ‘ruach’ – it even sounds like a breath as you say it. So Jesus, the one who until very recently was dead, breathes life, the Holy Spirit back into the weak disciples. As Paul writes in the letter to the Ephesians ‘even though we were dead because of our sins, he gave us life when he raised Christ from the dead’ (Eph 2:5). In receiving this forgiving power of the Holy Spirit the disciples are then to do the same, to forgive others in that power.

Jesus knows exactly what we need. He knew what the disciples needed to hear and see and touch. In this first appearance in the locked room he shows the disciples his hands and his side, to show them he is not a ghost but real and can be touched. Thomas isn’t there and so he is afraid that the disciples have just been seeing things, that they’ve had some kind of hallucination. He makes the perfectly reasonable statement that he wants to touch Jesus in the very spot where the nails went in. He has to be sure it’s the same Jesus: that he’s not a ghost and neither is he just a man that looks like Jesus.

These are the same questions I have. Surely they were just seeing things, the mind when going through grief can do strange things. Surely it was just wishful thinking? Or maybe a man did come into the room but it was just some bloke that looked rather a lot like Jesus? It can’t actually be that man we lived with for 3 years and saw brutally killed.

Caravaggio - The Incredulity of Saint Thomas

Jesus, when he appears to them all again it is again in a closed room (interestingly not locked, but still closed, there is still some doubt there) and again, the first thing he says to them is ‘peace be with you’. In doing this he is saying ‘I meant it you know, I really do forgive you, you really are still my friends, peace be with you’. Then he immediately knows what Thomas needs and offers him the chance to touch the place where the nails were in his hands and feel where the lance pierced his side. Jesus is happy to show him how real he is. This is enough for Thomas, we don’t even know if he takes Jesus up on the offer to put his finger in his wounds, he simply makes the first full profession of faith in the divinity of Christ in the Gospel and says ‘my Lord and my God’. Jesus knows what we need. He knows we need something tangible to let us know that God is real. Something we can touch. So he gave us Holy Communion. A reminder each week that Jesus is real. We can touch and taste and receive him in the bread and the wine. Just when you were worried that God felt like an imaginary friend, we are reminded, week by week that he is real.

Jesus speaks directly to you at the end of this encounter. If this were a movie rather than a book, this would be the part where Jesus’ head turns from Thomas and looks directly at you down the camera lens and says ‘blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe’. That is you. That is me. Jesus steps out of this story we are reading directly into our lives. His story is our story. Our story is his story. He comes to us in our fearful, dead, inadequate, failing state and says ‘peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you, Receive the Holy Spirit, you are blessed because you believe in me.’

Let us pray:

Do you feel afraid?

Jesus says ‘peace be with you’

Do you feel you’ve let God down?

Jesus says ‘peace be with you’

Do you hear God calling you?

Jesus says ‘I am sending you’

Do you feel empty or inadequate?

Jesus says ‘receive the Holy Spirit’

Have you been shutting God out of your life?

Jesus says ‘peace be with you’

Do you want to know that Jesus is real?

Jesus says ‘touch, taste and receive me in the bread and the wine’

Do you believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God?

Jesus says ‘blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe’.

Amen.

 

Listen to the full sermon as it was recorded today at St Aidan’s:

Alleluia! Christ is Risen! – jump for joy with these springboks!

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Happy Easter! I’m just jumping with joy at the Good News of the Resurrection! Do head over to Online Praise for a unique online Easter service which I have coordinated with friends. Otherwise, enjoy these Springboks jumping for Easter joy!

Springboks Jumping for Joy – BBC Africa – perfect for Easter Sunday services!

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Perfect for Easter Sunday – Love is come again like wheat that springeth green.

“We still don’t know exactly why they do this. The simplest answer is that they’re dancing for joy” – David Attenborough on the Springboks’ ‘pronking’.