Easter Sunday 2010 He must rise from the dead
John 20:1-18, Psalm 118, Acts, 1 Corinthians 15:9-28 St George the Martyr Holborn
Christ is risen, he is risen indeed.
Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed. Mary stood weeping. Bending to look in, she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been. They said to her, Why are you crying? They have taken my Lord away, she said. Then, turning round, she saw the Lord standing there. But she was unable to recognise that it was him. Then he said Mary! and she said, Master?
Jesus greets Mary. This scene from the Gospel of John is portrayed in the window above the altar in my Church, St Mary Stoke Newington. Since Jesus is dressed in bright gold and red, glory and passion, it is the first image that catches your eye when you come in and look down the nave. Mary has come to the tomb to anoint his body. By coming to do this last God for him, of preparing his corpse she, like all of us, can only acknowledge the power of death. But Mary is startled by this absence, and the two figures who pose the question of where Jesus is. Then the Lord calls her name and she is face to face with the living person. Until he does so, she is completely unable to see who he is. She and the disciples are looking towards the Lord, but cannot yet make him out. So are we. Christ is first not visible, and then, as concession to us, visible, yet still, by faith. They must be called by name to recognise him, and to recognise that he has mastered death and so is the master of all creation, the Lord of life.
The whole history of the people of Israel is preparation for this moment for, as Peter says in the reading from Acts, and as Saint Paul says in One Corinthians, this is all according to the Scripture. Yet all the information given to Israel is given so that we can marvel at who and what we are seeing this Easter morning. Yet we cannot comprehend but simply stand there flabbergasted, able to say just ‘Wow, wow…’, or, with the whole awe-struck company of heaven, ‘Holy, holy, holy….’. For we are getting our first glimpse of the resurrection. This view is given direct, person to person, when the Lord calls us to come out and be with him. For this resurrection of Jesus is the promise of our resurrection, the preview or the first-fruits, as Saint Paul puts it, of the real resurrection, that lies ahead for all of us.
The first thing that Mary sees is these two angels, who stand at each end of the tomb to frame the Lord for us, doing the same job as the cherubim who hover on each side of the throne of God. They tell us that Golgotha has become the Holy of Holies, so temple this tomb we are peering into is the temple in which man meets God. This claustrophobically narrow place is the straight gate through which all things come to us, and through which we must pass.
All Lent we have been moving towards this moment. Through the passion we have seen Christ being battered by the whole fury of mankind, and not hitting back, but taking it, soaking it up. On Good Friday we followed the Lord to edge of the abyss; we gave up, yet he proceeded but by the end of Friday it seemed that he had been stopped, finally come up against something more powerful than he. If the way is closed to him, he is buried and we are too. His dead body was put in the tomb in the rock. That impassive block represents life’s limits for us: we can go so far, and then we arrive at this limit and cannot get past that perimeter wall that runs around creation. The earth is a container, a kind of tomb, from which there is no way out.
Death is absolute limit, beyond which no one can go any further, that takes everything away from us. It is the implacable, ‘the last enemy’, as the apostle tells us in 1 Corinthians (15:25). Is this dead body our future too? Will this be our tomb too? Will the impassive world cover us and the whole company of mankind vanish away? For Death, this was a fight to the death, for death knew that all his power would be broken and he would die if he lost. But death had appeared to be the most powerful undeclared God, death could not hold Christ, and so incomprehensibly, death lost. Death turned out to be just a creature, that finally had to acknowledge the authority of the true God. Now before first light this Sunday morning we look and see that Christ has gone. He is not here. Now it appears that this container has not been able to hold him. The Lord has broken through the one barrier that was absolutely final. Death was the deepest and most final given, but now it is not, so everything other thing must acknowledge the Lord and give way to him. He must rise from the dead. Christ has undergone the fury of death and overcome the resistance of death. We fought Christ, we wrestled him down, we put him to death, but we could not keep him there. We were unable to make this crucifixion stick, so he has escaped us and risen. Christ has broken out. He has torn a hole in the side of the world we know. The wall that held us in is torn down. Now he is able to lead us out into the vastly bigger world that we had no previous knowledge of. Christ is the passage through. He is our way out, our passage and our Passing-over, out of Egypt, the House of Death, and into the Promised Land. This is the resurrection. The world has opened to let him through, and we may follow him into that everlasting communion. In each Eucharist the bread, representing all creation, is torn into two, to make the passage through which Christ is going to lead us. As our psalm says: Open to me the gates of righteousness, that I may enter through them and give thanks to the Lord. This is the gate of the Lord; the righteous shall enter through it. The most holy place has opened to us. On the other side is life, life in full, life properly underway at last, and there the whole company of God waits for us.
Jesus Christ is the Lord for whom no material or mortal or created thing is any barrier or impediment. All creation recognises him and parts before him as a crowd parts as the king comes through. All kings, all forces, all would-be rivals, give way as the Lord comes through. He has broken through the ceiling that held us in and re-established the traffic between heaven and earth. Now the Lord forges on and takes his people with him through all time. When, in the Eucharist , the priest holds up the loaf and says the words ‘This is my body which is for you,’ we hear Lord himself telling us that ‘this’ – all creation, every created thing, is his provision for us, and that these gifts will sustain, and become, our body. All creation will serve us as it serves him, in order that we may be his body in the world. Earth is being redeemed and renewed, and becoming a foretaste of heaven for us.
Who is this Christ who is so strangely difficult for Mary, and Peter and John, and for us, to recognise? He is man with God, and he is God with man. God is the key to man, the secret of man. Without God man is inscrutable and baffling and baffled. But where the Lord is, man comes to himself, and receives the uninterrupted life he was intended for. The Lord is our present glimpse of that future when each of us is reconciled to others and all man is reconciled to God. He is our view of that assembly, and he is that assembly, of all humankind reconciled and glorious, compressed into the compass of one single person for us. So when we see Christ with Mary Magdalene we see the future of man, the glorious future, in which man is with God. The Lord Jesus is God and man in one figure. When we worship him, we are standing before the open door of the throne room of the Lord. He waits for us through there, or since we are the ones who are constrained by our limits, it would be better to say that he waits for us out there. He calls us out of this stiflingly small place and into the vaster place of his immediate presence. And so we marvel at the Lord and so we worship him. That is what the angels are showing us, and why the disciples stand here open-mouthed, moving from bafflement to amazement, and singing Holy, holy, holy… This tomb turns out to be the throne of God, where all his company stands around the Lord. Where the Lord is, there are his people gathered around him. It the gateway which opens for us so that we can go in to that company and his presence. Our future is through there, with them and him, for we were made for undying communion with God, and with one another, in God’s glorious company.
This morning Mary Magdalene stands for all mankind. The Lord God calls her and greets her, and so man is called before God to discovers that he is God’s good friend. Having peered into the tomb Mary is called out again to meet the Lord. She finds that she has stepped out into a new world, Eden restored. Let us go with her.
Christ is risen. He is risen indeed. Alleluia