Sermon: St Aidan’s, Easter Day, 27 March 2016

St.Aidan’s West Epping, 27th March 2016 (Easter Day)

“EXPERIENCING THE REALITY OF EASTER”

(Acts 10:34-43; Psalm 118; 1 Corinthians 15:19-26; John 20:1-18)

 Rev. Paul Weaver

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could go back in time and actually see the events of that first Easter morning? To see the empty tomb and the risen Jesus, and the followers of Jesus as they heard of the resurrection and then saw Jesus for themselves. Of course, two thousand years later we still haven’t worked out how to do time travel, and so we still rely on the accounts of that morning in the four Gospels.

Some people automatically dismiss the Gospels as of no historical worth, but we need to remember that they were written within a generation or two of Jesus and his ministry. And they were written by people who had seen Jesus themselves, or by authors who had spoken with people who knew Jesus. These are not ancient myths retold, but accounts of events that were still in living memory for many people.

The Gospels all present the same basic story of Easter morning: the women going to the tomb very early, the empty tomb, the angelic messengers, and then the gradual process by which more and more disciples met the risen Jesus. Each of the Gospels has its own information, and together they present a fuller picture.

But when you compare the accounts, there are some details which aren’t neat and tidy when you compare them: how many women there were, how many angels were seen, and so on. If the gospel writers were making it up to persuade people, you’d think that they would make sure that there were no rough edges, that everything would be absolutely neat and consistent.

Ultimately people have to decide for themselves whether to believe the Gospels when they insist that Jesus rose from death. Some will simply say that people don’t rise from the dead, and therefore automatically the Gospels must be false.

But Jesus’ followers were perfectly aware that people don’t rise from the dead. They weren’t expecting it to happen.

And virtually none of them were convinced by just seeing the empty tomb: only the beloved disciple apparently connected that what he was seeing was the fulfilment of Jesus’ repeated insistence that he would be executed and rise again. The empty tomb by itself didn’t persuade the rest of them that Jesus had risen: it was only when they saw Jesus for themselves that they grasped the truth that “Christ is risen: he is risen indeed.” And as they not only saw him, but talked with him and touched him and ate with him and walked with him and even ate a meal cooked by him, the resurrection became a tangible reality for them.

We weren’t there. And so we have to decide for ourselves. Did Jesus really rise? Is it just a legend, or merely a story made up by dishonest or deluded people? The Easter story cannot be proved – or disproved! We have to decide whether there is reason to believe, whether it makes sense.

In this world of course we can’t have tangible proof: we have the witness of people who knew that dead people do not rise, and then had to change their thinking. Christians are people who accept their witness. I do not believe that our faith is blind or empty or foolish. I believe that our faith makes sense. Of course it is not shared by everyone, for a whole range of good or inadequate reasons. But one basic factor we all have in common: those who do not believe were not there either.

The first witness to the resurrection is a very unexpected person. We hardly notice Mary Magdalene in the gospels until the final chapters. She had been miraculously healed by Jesus from some spiritual or psychological disturbance, and became one of a group of women who travelled around with him and his disciples. She was there at Calvary; she saw where Jesus’ body is laid; and she came first thing on Sunday morning to complete the task of doing due honour to the body of her crucified Lord.

She saw the empty tomb and there seemed only one logical explanation: someone had taken Jesus’ body. It was gone. Someone must have taken it. It seems that Mary did not consider the strange fact that the strips of linen cloth had been taken off the body and left in the tomb.

But as she lingered in the garden near the tomb, Mary was the one who was the first to meet the risen Jesus. She saw a man who asked why she was weeping, and assumed he was the gardener. But when this man replied with her name “Mary”, suddenly everything came together. “Rabboni! My great one! My teacher!” she cried out. And she seems to have grasped hold of Jesus as if she would never let him go.

But Jesus tells her: “You can’t hold on to me like that! I have not yet ascended to the father, but I will do so shortly. Soon I will no longer be physically with you and the others.” You see, we might wish we could be there at that Easter event, but Mary in her different circumstances wants to hold on to that Easter event. But she too had the limitation of space and time which is part of life in this world: what eternity is like, we will discover in God’s time, but not yet.

What a strange thing that the first actual witness to the resurrection was not Peter, not John or one of the other disciples, but a woman! And that woman was not Mary the mother of Jesus, but another Mary with a dubious past – even if she was not necessarily a prostitute, as tradition has labelled her.

Once again, a concocted story would not be constructed that way: a woman would never have been chosen as the first witness in a manufactured story at that time. Women could not even bear valid witness in a court in those days. No wonder the disciples did not quickly accept Mary’s story. They had to discover the risen Lord for themselves.

So the question comes to us. Common sense tells us that dead people don’t come to life again. We rely on uncommon sense, inspired by the Holy Spirit, and by the voice of the witnesses. Our faith is not necessarily without questions. It is not necessarily without doubts. But we believe that faith in the risen Jesus is worth holding on to.

The resurrection of Jesus assures us that his crucifixion did indeed accomplish God’s purposes: that God’s forgiveness is indeed open for all people, that we who are sinners are truly reconciled to the perfect God, that God’s kingdom welcomes all who will enter, that there is eternal hope for all who believe.

And it points us to the hope that God has for us: the hope of resurrection – not the wispy harp-strumming ghostly figures imagined by some, but bodily resurrection – as of course was the resurrection of Jesus – with what Paul describes as a new spiritual body: our restoration as complete renewed people fitted for eternity, sharing in the glorious life of God’s kingdom.

We weren’t there that first Easter morning. We rely on the witness of those who saw for themselves the risen Jesus. Right now we have lives to live as Christ’s people. But the promise is that as we trust and follow Jesus, he will walk with us here and now through the Spirit, and we will share with him in the fullness of life and love in his kingdom. Amen.

Paul Weaver