The Very Reverend John Hall Dean of Westminster
Sunday, 8th April 2007
Acts 10: 34-43; I Corinthians 15: 19-26; John 20: 1-18
We have just listened to St John's account of the resurrection of the Lord, where the first words of the risen Jesus are, "Woman, why are you weeping?" and, "Whom are you looking for?"
To my ear, remembering them from childhood Easters, they still sound better in the Authorised Version, "Woman, why weepest thou? Whom seekest thou?"
But if we could hear them afresh, as for the first time, would they not seem a little odd? After all, these are words Jesus addresses to one of his closest associates, Mary of Magdala. She has discovered the tomb of Jesus, empty with the stone rolled away, when she visits the graveyard early that morning while it is still dark. She runs to tell two of her friends, Peter and John, that someone has taken the Lord out of the tomb. They come running. John, the younger, reaches the tomb first, but hesitates outside, until Peter, characteristically fearless and intuitive, has blundered straight into the tomb, and now, himself, follows. John, we are told, sees and believes. But oddly, you might think, the two disciples return to their separate homes, leaving Mary outside weeping.
It is then that Mary sees Jesus, standing in the garden, but fails to recognise him. She thinks he is the gardener. She hears him address her, "Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?", and still fails to recognise him, until he calls her by name, "Mary." Now she knows him, and on his instructions, goes to tell the disciples, "I have seen the Lord."
Two things are striking about this account. The first is the failure of recognition. Mary fails to recognise Jesus, although she sees him as a living and breathing human being who could be the gardener. Jesus' questions might imply that he is mystified by Mary's weeping, perhaps even that he does not know her. The second striking thought is that each of the disciples comes to his or her own separate conclusion. They do not force their view on each other. Peter and John say nothing to each other, even though John has seen and believed, but go off to their own homes. Nor does either of them say anything to Mary, though she is the one who has told them of the mystery and brought them to the garden. She must find out for herself, and come to her own conclusions.
This pattern seems to prevail through many of the gospel accounts of the Resurrection appearances, when the risen Lord suddenly comes to be with his disciples. The risen Jesus is not instantly recognisable. People must come to their own conclusions. Of course, quite quickly the news spreads, but, famously, Thomas refuses to believe when told by the other apostles that they have seen the Lord. "Unless I see for myself, I shall not believe." In the end Thomas goes further than any of them have dared, in recognising what the Resurrection means, when he says to Jesus, that evening eight days after Easter, "My Lord and my God!" "Have you believed because you have seen me?" asks Jesus. "Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believed."
So it is with us. There is evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus. The various accounts in the New Testament together give better historical attestation than there is for the invasion of Britain by Julius Caesar. But above all, the evidence is in the change of attitude of Jesus' disciples. And this we know not just from the accounts in the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles but in the very clear circumstances of the case. Around the time of Jesus' arrest and trial, the disciples betrayed Jesus or they denied him or they forsook him and fled. Only Mary his Mother and the disciple Jesus loved and a few of the women close to Jesus were left to stand beside his Cross. And yet something turned these cowardly, dejected, and miserable disciples into people who were confident and bold enough to stand up and proclaim that Jesus had been raised from the dead, even though their proclamation put their own lives at risk. Unless this had happened, there is no way in which the Church could have come into existence, and we know the Church came into existence because here we are now. This amounts to evidence, clear and strong. But it is no proof. Accepting the truth of the Easter event must be a matter of faith. We can be taught, encouraged and challenged by others. But we each have to see for ourselves and make our own response. "He saw and he believed." And then his life was changed.
Faith in the Resurrection of Jesus is potentially life-changing. It was for the disciples. Take Peter as an example, our patron saint here at the Abbey. When he was warming himself by the fire at the trial of Jesus, Peter had been challenged by the maid that he was a Galilean and must then have known Jesus. Peter, for fear that he too might suffer imprisonment or death, denied his friend. Our first reading this morning from the Acts of the Apostles showed this same man no longer craven but proclaiming aloud for all to hear, despite the inevitable risk from the Jewish and Roman authorities, that God had raised Jesus on the third day. "Everyone", he said, "who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name."
Faith in the Resurrection should be life-changing for us. St Paul spells out the meaning in his first letter to the Corinthians. The extract we heard for our second reading concluded, "The last enemy to be destroyed is death."
The life-changing significance of Easter is in conquering the power of evil, forgiveness of sins and defeat for death. St Paul said, "Where O death is your victory? Where O grave is your sting? Thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ."
The Christian faith is that those who are baptised into Christ have entered into his death, have shared his grave, and emerged with him into the glorious new life which he has this day. We have died to sin and live to righteousness. Sin and death no longer have any power over us. Our sins, however much we are ashamed of them and however damaging they have been, can be forgiven. So likewise, we can see our human death at the end of this mortal life as a gateway to the fullness of the eternal life which we are already living here and now on earth. Death is not an end, nor even an end and a beginning, as if it opened the way to a different life, or to the next in a whole series of new lives; rather death is a stage in the life with Christ that we who are baptised have begun to live already here and now. Our destiny is to live for ever with Christ in joy and glory. Already here on earth we are united with him as we receive the bread and wine of Holy Communion, the Body and Blood of Christ.
Finally, if sin and death are conquered for those who live in Christ, the power of sin and death to damage and destroy is ultimately forever and for everyone defeated. No matter what the evil, whether in the terrible conflicts in the Middle East or in the Sudan, or in violence, misunderstanding and mistrust between peoples of different faiths and nations, or the sometimes bitter cruelty of human beings to one another in communities, and on the streets and within families, or in the harsh treatment of refugees and those unjustly imprisoned, the risen Christ himself has ultimately conquered and will bring good out of these evils, hope out of despair and life out of death. All Christians, all those who live in him are called and empowered, by his Spirit, to work to fulfil his will and purpose.
Dear friends in Christ, believe and trust that our Lord Jesus Christ, who died on the Cross, has been raised to new life and now lives and reigns in glory. Believe and trust that the powers of sin and death have been conquered. Believe and trust that we enjoy here and now new life in him, who loved us and died for us and now lives for ever, even Jesus Christ our Lord.
Alleluia, Christ is risen! He is risen indeed, Alleluia!