Sermon on Easter Sunday 2016

Sermon at Lancaster Priory

The Revd Dr Liz Horwell

For me two images blend to evoke that first Easter morning. First: the beautiful church gardens in my previous parish in Wanstead (though you could substitute a garden image of your own, where before dawn on Easter Day we would stand silently waiting for the sun to slip over the horizon to light the Paschal candle and proclaim Jesus risen.

Second: the painting by Eugene Burnard of Peter and John running to the tomb that first Easter Day – a painting depicting brilliantly the chilly half-light and somehow conveying both the despair and exhaustion and the fragile tentative hope on their faces.

So these two images evoke for me what it might have been like to be in that garden on the first Easter Day. And then I want to get into the heads of Mary and Peter and John.

Of course Mary comes to the tomb first with no clue of what she’s about to experience. She knows only that the very core of her being has been ripped out. Jesus, who had loved her and believed in her like no one else, is dead. So when she comes to the tomb, grief-stricken and distraught, and sees the stone rolled back she panics and, instead of looking inside, races to tell the others.

And then Peter and John run too, their feelings much more confused than Mary’s. Of course there’s love and grief but Peter also feels shame and fear – and the desperate need to put things right. Maybe there’s doubt too because they still haven’t yet got their heads around the fact that Jesus has been killed. They’d been sure He was the Messiah but the Messiah was meant to lead them to victory; not die at the hands of Pagans.

And so they reach the tomb and look in and see the linen cloths neatly lying there. How odd: for the most logical explanation for the missing body is grave robbers. But grave robbers wouldn’t have tidied up after themselves; wouldn’t have wasted time unwindingthe linen cloths and folding them neatly! So – what? We’re meant, I think, to connect this with what would have been a very recent memory for Peter and John – the time Jesus had brought his friend, Lazarus, back to life: because Lazarus had emerged from the tomb still struggling to untangle himself from his linen wrappings whereas here it’s as if the body has just risen up from its wrappings.

And so John puts two and two together; then Peter catches on too: maybe Jesus really has risen from the dead – not like Lazarus, who came back in his human body and will eventually die again. But maybe into a new kind of body – if that was possible! It certainly hadn’t ever happened before in the Scriptures. But the fact that Peter and John see this and simply return home and lock themselves in again suggests they still need time to process it all. They’re focused on what the religious authorities could do to them rather than what Jesus would have them do.

But Mary does stay because her only concern is for the Lord. She doesn’t care a toss what the authorities might threaten. And so she becomes the first person to see Jesus alive again – and the first to receive Christ’s commission to ‘share the good news’.

And this too is strange – because no-one wanting to persuade others of the truth of Jesus’ resurrection, would have written into the script a woman as witness! Women, like shepherds, weren’t deemed trustworthy enough to act as witnesses in the law courts. And Mary wasn’t just a woman; she was someone with a dubious past as well.

But unlike the others, Mary ‘gets it’. She knows deep in her being what Jesus tries to explain to the disciples through the foot-washing: that his compassionate unconditional agape love is the beginning and the end of his whole purpose, his life and his death. She knows it because she’s experienced it firsthand. Before she met Jesus, Mary was ostracised by society but Jesus ignores the social mores, and befriends, trusts, loves her – not in a man-woman way but still in way such that, as soon as he speaks her name, she knows without doubt that it’s him. And her heart leaps for joy! For a name spoken in love has the power to change someone; as it says in Isaiah:

“Do not be afraid, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name: you are mine.”

And to me Mary’s not just Mary. Jesus’ relationship with Mary somehow echoes the stories of the Prodigal Son, the Good Samaritan, the two debtors, the woman caught in adultery, the foot-washing and so many others. So it’s no surprise to me that Mary is the first witness, chosen as the first evangelist. For she is the exemplar not just of all that Jesus came and lived and died for, but also of all that the resurrection was about.

And I find it fascinating that for centuries people have been arguing over exactly what Mary and the other disciples witnessed: bodily resurrection or something else? But perhaps we don’t need to understand this. Certainly the gospels don’t attempt to analyse what happened. They simply tell the story and ask us to have faith – to take that same leap of faith that John took when he saw the linen wrappings ‘and believed’.

Perhaps all we need to know is that by coming through and overcoming death, Jesus offers us what St Paul calls a new creation, a new and better way of doing things. Perhapshere we can hear echoes of John’s Prologue: “In the beginning was the Word ….;” and Genesis, where ‘in the beginning’ Jesus, The Word, is co-creator.  

But in the beginning, things went wrong because of Adam; and Jesus comes to put things right. So Easter marks the end of the old and the first day of the new creation.

Perhaps then Mary calling Jesus the gardener is ironic; for the Easter Garden seems to parallel the garden of Creation; and Jesus replaces Adam as gardener, sowing new seeds within people to transform them for new ways of being, of loving.

His disciples certainly demonstrate this. Before the crucifixion they’re a motley crew, making mistakes, misunderstanding, frightened. But from that first Easter evening when Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit into them (like God breathing life into the first man, Adam) they become transformed, energised, a force to be reckoned with, spreading the gospel so that hundreds of generations later we can hear this story today.

Like Mary, too, our past probably doesn’t bear close inspection, yet Jesus calls each of us by name, redeems our past mistakes and asks us to respond by living the good news. We don’t have to wait until we die for new life. It is here and now, simply waiting for us to respond.