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'He is risen indeed!'

Fr Dennis. Easter Day, 1st April, 2018

The God of the Bible is always active, always making new, always doing a new thing. It’s one of the ways God is different from idols, those things we make who don’t move, speak or o anything. By contrast, the God whose story is told in the Bible is always creating and recreating. It’s why God is surprising; in the words of the title of the Jesuit Gerard Hughes’ very popular book “The God of Surprises.” Of course, not everyone likes surprises. A quiet, dependable sure and steady life is what many desire. In that security, at least we know where we are. And anyway, even those who profess to like surprises have to acknowledge that not all surprises in life are pleasant and welcome. Some surprises come as a shock! So, recalling that part of John’s Gospel we have just heard, we might imagine how it was for Mary Magdalene. She was deeply in love with Jesus. He was the one who had given her back her life, love and dignity. She comes on the Sunday after Sabbath to his tomb. She comes in the grief that goes with serious bereavement. The one she loved is dead and buried. That is a hard enough reality to bear. How will she live without him? She finds her way to the tomb. She expects to find everything as she left it days ago. After all, there are no surprises in death. It is all so predictable and final. Except that she finds the tomb stone is rolled away. This must have been for her a deeply disturbing experience, a cruel and wounding surprise. Can he not be left in peace after all that has been done to him? She feels a knife being turned in her wound. She goes to find Peter. Her first word of witness on Easter Day is of sorrow and anger. They have moved his body! They have taken away the Lord! It’s scandalous. She speaks in sorrow and burning anger. Her message is bad news. Peter and john race to the tomb. Can this indignity be true? Mary’s testimony unfortunately is the truth. The grave is empty. Strangely the grave clothes are in their place. Are thy not needed anymore? Someone must have moved the body. It’s the obvious but bitter explanation.

The Gospel writer says that Peter, outrun by John, nevertheless goes into the tomb first. Says the Evangelist, “he that is, John, saw and believed.” Believed what? We are not told. The evangelist does tell us, however, that as yet they did not understand the Scripture that he muse rise from the dead. This possibility is not available to them. All they have is an empty tomb and there may be many reasons for that; grave robbers, a meddling gardener, who knows? So they go home. We read this story, but thus far at least, it isn’t much of as story for Easter Day. Where are the angels, and the great Allelulias? It’s what we latter-day readers expect, but the text is bleak, like it was for Mary, and like it is for many in the face of death. What a disappointment this story of Jesus has turned out to be! We are left with emptiness in several senses. We are left with a puzzle. All four gospel writers seem to respond initially in this way. The empty tomb is an essential part of the story they tell. Initially it isn’t a miracle so much as a cruel deed by unfeeling people. It’s something that needs explanation and the assumption is that the usual suspects are close at hand. So Mary stands there weeping. She looks deeper into the tomb. John says she saw two angels in white. They ask her why she is weeping. She tells them “because they have taken away my Lord and I do not know where they have laid him.” That’s reason enough for tears. She turns away to hide her grief, but in this morning of surprises she’s aware of another standing near. It must be the gardener. He asks “Why are you weeping? Who are you looking for?” Perhaps this man has the answer to her cruel puzzle. “Tell me where you have laid him” And the man says “Mary”. It is the Lord! The calling of her name is the start of Mary’s resurrection because Jesus is not dead and gone. The tomb is empty and he has come to her in his risen love and grace. Now she has a different testimony. “I have seen the Lord” is her experience and announcement to the disciples. This is how John tells the Easter Day story. It’s obvious that no one expected this, in spite of what the ancient scriptures said of God.

Easter is a surprise. It’s the good news we proclaim today. Both the approaches in John’s witness are essential. Does the empty tomb story matter? Yes, because we are not talking about something in a private otherworldly sphere of inwardness. The empty tomb matters because it speaks of the new creation, of that work God is doing with the matter he first created, how he is doing a new thing. Christians proclaim that the tomb was empty and the new resurrection body is recreated by God. Death is not the end, not even for this vulnerable creation which waits for renewal.

We can hardly imagine what this means, although scientists today speak of amny dimensions and novelists imagine parallel universes. What the gospel proclaims is that here is the work of God taking our failure, taking the love of Jesus and from it all bringing forth something new and wonderful. It’s a miracle, a work of God. Some teachers of the Faith speak of miracle as an overflowing of the love at the heart of creation. The love that was in Jesus, even unto death, is met by the endless love of God for his creation and, in the dynamic, new and wonderful things happen. Death is not the end. As we have seen, however, the empty tomb isn’t necessarily good news. It needs setting in a context. That context is God’s work from the beginning, in creation and the call of Israel, in the coming of Christ and his amazing life of suffering love, breaking the cycle of sin and violence in his sacrificial death on the cross. It’s over this Christ that God speaks the great “Yes” of resurrection. He is let loose again in the world and Mary and countless others will speak of being restored, healed, renewed by his presence. God raised Jesus from the dead. For Mary this means her grief is turned to joy as he calls her name. For Thomas it means his doubt is turned to faith as he meets the risen Lord in the company of the disciples. For Peter, who denied the Lord, resurrection means being welcomed again by the Christ and being entrusted with new and important work. John wants us understand that resurrection isn’t just something that happened to Jesus. It is God’s work for us. It means that each act of worship, each gathering at the Lord’s Table is an encounter with Christ Jesus. It means that, far from life being full of boring predictability, there  are the surprises of God who raised Jesus from the dead and is ever seeking to make all things new. It means that our death, even the decay of our planet, is not the end, not before the God of resurrection. The tomb of Jesus is empty because God is at work. So Christ comes to us, with grace, forgiveness, love and laughter.

The Lord is risen! He is risen indeed! 

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