[This sermon was preached last year on Easter Sunday at the beginning of the pandemic.]
I speak to you in the Name of Jesus Christ, who is the Resurrection and the Life. Amen.
‘Resurrection’ is probably the most important word in the Christian vocabulary; and by it we mean three things. Or, we speak of it in three tenses: past, future, and present.
In the past, we mean that Jesus rose from the dead with a body some 2000 years ago; in the future we mean that we too will rise from the dead in the same way on the last day; and in the present, here and now, we mean our spiritual resurrection to newness of life, a new beginning.
Past, future and present. Normally we think of those three tenses in chronological order: past, present and future. But in this case, I think, we have to switch the last two: past, future and present. That privileged final place needs to go to the present, because that’s where we are right now, today; and that’s what we need to hear about especially in this year of pandemic.
But we must begin with the past because everything else depends on this one.
First and foremost, by ‘resurrection’ we mean that 2000 years ago, on the third day after dying on a cross, Jesus rose from the dead. Not as a ghost or a spirit or a fond memory in the minds of His friends, but with a body. Dead and buried on a Friday, He got up on Sunday. But we don’t mean that He merely came back to life, or was resuscitated. His body was renewed and gloriously transformed, never to die again.
This was a real, historical event - the most important and momentous thing ever to happen in all of history. The evidence for this is based on real eyewitness testimony, which we just heard in chapter 20 of the Book of John.
John was one of Jesus’s friends and followers who had been with Him for three years prior to this point. He had witnessed the horrible events on Friday; he stood underneath the cross as Jesus breathed His last and gave up His Spirit. He witnessed the empty tomb on that first Easter morning (he’s the other disciple along with Peter in the story we just heard); and he met the risen Lord Himself the same day at evening (John 20:19).
John recorded his testimony in this book so that future generations could believe. At several points throughout, he emphasizes the fact that he was an eyewitness. He signs off by saying: This is the disciple who testifies of these things and wrote these things; and then in the very next line it says, and we know that his testimony is true (John 21:24). The ‘we’ refers to John’s followers and fellow believers - some of whom were eyewitnesses themselves, the others were not, but came to believe through hearing the testimony of the eyewitnesses whom they trusted.
And friends, that is how the good news of Easter has been handed on from generation to generation. ‘Jesus is risen, pass it on!’ From eyewitnesses to witnesses who have borne testimony to Christ throughout the ages, all the way down to you and me. On the strength of this unending testimony the Church has grown and is now spread throughout the world, so that people of all nations can praise the risen Lord, for His truth endures forever (Psalm 117).
It all started from that empty tomb outside Jerusalem some 2000 years ago. Mary Magdalene is the first to arrive, she runs and tells Peter and John, they run to the tomb. Peter looks in and pieces together the evidence: he sees the linen burial cloths lying there and the face cloth neatly folded up. We can perhaps imagine him thinking: ‘if the body was stolen, surely the grave robbers would not have taken the time to do this.’ And then John looks in, sees the same thing, and believes.
I want us to notice that John comes to believe in the resurrection even before he meets the risen Lord face-to-face. I emphasize that because even though John had this front row seat to the empty tomb, his initial experience of coming to believe was not much different than ours.
Perhaps this morning you can see yourself in Peter and John – searching, examining, piecing together the bits of evidence you’ve gathered over the course of your life. Evidence such as reading and studying the Bible, or experiencing the power of prayer, or people you’ve known who have witnessed powerfully to Christ crucified and risen in their own life and in their suffering and death.
So the first thing we mean by ‘resurrection’ is that Jesus Christ really did rise from the dead with a body some 2000 years ago and was seen by many eyewitnesses. Friends, the Christian faith stands or falls on this point. If it’s false then you should all be doing something other than reading this sermon, or maybe since you’re in isolation you have nothing else to do! But if the resurrection of Jesus is true – and it is true – then it really does change everything for us and our world.
That leads us to the second meaning of ‘resurrection,’ the future tense. Jesus rose again as the firstfruits or the firstborn from the dead (1 Cor. 15:20; Col. 1:18). That means that all those who believe in Him and belong to Him will be raised from the dead in the same way when He comes again in glory to usher in the new heaven and new earth.
In a few minutes, this is what we will confess at the end of the Apostles’ Creed when we say, I believe ‘in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.’ And I invite you to join us in that confession of faith as you’re able and as you feel comfortable so doing.
‘The resurrection of the body and the life everlasting’ - this is the wonderful news that death and the grave are no longer the end.
There’s a wonderful line from the 17th century Anglican priest and poet George Herbert that I often quote at funerals; he said, ‘Death used to be an executioner, now he’s just the gardener.’
Death used to be an executioner – grim, fearsome and cruel - taking our departed loved ones away from us, seemingly forever. We can see this represented in the huge stone that sealed the tomb of Jesus - the cold, hard finality of Death.
But now that stone has been rolled away. Jesus has defeated the power of Death. Now the worst Death can do is plant us in the ground as a seed that will spring up to new life at the resurrection in the last day. We have a sure and certain hope beyond the grave.
Ask yourself: what’s the most important thing under the sun, what do you cherish above all else? I’m sure most of us would say our loved ones. Through Jesus Christ and His victory over death, we can expect to see and embrace our departed loved ones again. Our love relationships will be restored. What a wonderful hope that is!
My question to a skeptic or a seeker would simply be: why wouldn’t you at least want that to be true? Of course you want it to be true! So you owe it to yourself to investigate the claims of the Christian faith to the full. Learn all you can about the person of Jesus; because He is risen, His character, His teachings and His work are validated forevermore, they have eternal significance.
To that end, here at St. James, Caledon East we offer a course called Christianity 101 which I’m now teaching online. Please reach out to me if you're interested.
So that’s the second meaning of ‘resurrection,’ the future tense: the grave is no longer a dark, yawning chasm, but a garden bed in which our bodies are planted as seeds that will spring up again to new and everlasting life. We no longer have to fear sickness and death (or this current plague); and we can expect to be reunited with our departed loved ones.
And we see just such a reunion in the second half of our reading from John, when Mary Magdalene meets the risen Jesus.
Mary has often been identified as a sinful woman or a prostitute, but the New Testament never actually says that directly. What we do know is that Jesus had cast out of her seven demons (Luke 8:2). Whether these afflictions manifested themselves as physical or psychological or relational turmoil, we’re not sure, though I would guess it was some combination thereof.
She received healing and newness of life from Jesus; and so in closing, I want to use the figure of Mary Magdalene to explore the third meaning of ‘resurrection,’ the present tense, our spiritual resurrection to newness of life here and now.
After Jesus healed her, she became His devoted follower and financial supporter. She was an eyewitness to His teaching, His miracles, and His horrible death on the cross. And so Mary, no doubt traumatized and deeply sorrowful, went to the tomb of Jesus while it was still dark on that first Easter day to mourn and lament.
Her tears and despair give voice to the anguish and turmoil of so many in our time and in this world in the grip of pandemic. Mary had lost all meaning, purpose, security, truth, goodness, beauty - and did not even have a corpse to honour. When she sees the stone rolled away she assumes the body has been stolen. (Resurrection from the dead was just as hard to believe back then as it is today).
She goes and tells Peter and John; and after they leave, she remains at the tomb and weeps. The first to arrive and last to leave, her presence and perseverance are rewarded: Jesus appears and calls her by name. We see so many of God’s promises so beautifully fulfilled in her:
Mary didn’t recognize the risen Lord at first. She was blinded by her tears; and that can happen to us as well, can it not? Our sadness, our sorrow over our losses, our struggles in this pandemic can make us lose perspective. Yet Mary’s tears, which initially blinded her, are the lens through which sees a new vision of the Lord.
You see, our physical eyes are clouded by tears, but the eyes of faith are often focused by the same. Friends, your tears, losses, disappointments and sorrows can also be the means through which you come to know the power and presence of the risen Lord with you.
Mary saw and embraced the risen Lord on that first Easter day. But Jesus says to her, Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. She longs for a return to the good old days, the days of comfort, familiarity and security; and don’t we long for the same thing in the midst of this pandemic?
Jesus says to Mary, in effect, ‘You will not always be able to hold me in your arms, but you can more surely hold me forever in your heart.’ And friends, the same is true for us as we continue to walk forward in the valley of the shadow of this pandemic. We may not have what we used to have in the same way, but we’ve been given something new.
One of the mercies God seems to be offering us in the midst of this pandemic is the opportunity to appreciate the gift of each new day. Our lives have slowed down and have been simplified considerably. There are fewer distractions. Though we may be anxious about the virus, our financial security and the uncertainty of the short-to-medium future, God seems to be saying to us every morning: 'Take stock of today.'
Today, simply because God has given it to us, is filled with grace. Every day presents us with a new opportunity to discover and experience more of God's love; and now we seem to have more time than ever before to contemplate, cherish and live into this great gift.
So friends, every day in this pandemic, like Peter and John let us examine the evidence of Christ’s resurrection. Like Mary Magdalene, let us seek His presence, offer Him our tears, hear His voice and receive with thanksgiving the gift of each new day.
May we all be given the eyes of faith to see our lives and all creation shining with God's love, resurrection grace and newness of life.
Friends, this is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it (Psalm 118:24). And in the words of a great poem, ‘henceforth let your souls always, make each morn an Easter day.’ Amen.
Image: Myrtle flower.
“For you shall go out in joy
and be led forth in peace;
the mountains and the hills before you
shall break forth into singing,
and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.
Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress;
instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle;
and it shall make a name for the LORD,
an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.” (Isaiah 55:12–13 ESV)