A Sermon for Easter Sunday - John 20:1-18
Nikolai Ivanovich Bukharin was a very powerful man in the early days of the Soviet Union. He took part in the Bolshevik Revolution, was editor of Pravda, and was a full member of the Politburo. His works on economics and political science are still read today.
In 1930 he addressed a huge audience in Kiev on the subject of atheism. It was a very powerful address in which he hurled both argument and insult against his main target, Christianity.
One hour later he was finished and asked the stunned audience if there were any questions. For a while there was absolute silence. But then one solitary man stood up. He looked round at the nervous crowd, and suddenly shouted out the ancient Easter greeting of the Russian Orthodox Church: ‘Christ is risen!’ The crowd rose to its feet and roared out the response: ‘He is risen indeed!’
For 2000 years human arrogance and unbelief have conspired time and again to convince us that Jesus is no more. And for 2000 years they’ve failed. Despite the increasing secularization of our society, there are more people today who not only believe Jesus is alive but are convinced he is a living presence in their lives, than at any other time in history. The world’s first atheistic state, the Soviet Union,one of the most repressive regimes in history used every means at its disposal to destroy faith in Christ, but only succeeded in driving it underground, from where it burst into bloom again when the Soviet state crumbled. To them, as to us, there is no doubt; Christ is risen.
The first person to realize that something had happened, that Easter morning, was Mary Magdalene, who went with some other women to Jesus’ tomb with spices to anoint his body. She was horrified to find that the huge stone used to block the entrance to the tomb had been rolled away. So, she ran back to where the other disciples were and told them that someone had stolen Jesus’ body.
Peter and John then ran to the tomb. John arrived first and what he saw was so amazing that it remained fixed in his memory until the end of his life. He expected to see nothing, or at least to see the grave clothes, which were like a long winding bandage, scattered because of the body being taken out. But what he saw was the grave clothes still in place, still wrapped, but lying flat because there was no body inside, as though the body had just evaporated through them. And in his own words he said that ‘he saw and believed.’
Suddenly everything became clear. All the things that Jesus had tried to tell them about his impending crucifixion and resurrection – things he couldn’t, or wouldn’t comprehend before - were, in a moment of illumination, made clear. Jesus was risen from the dead; victor over death - the last great enemy. And so it was that John became the first person to believe that Jesus was risen from the dead.
Meanwhile, Mary Magdalene, broken hearted, remained outside the tomb after Peter and John had left. Not only was she one of the first people to visit Jesus’ tomb, but she’d also been the last person to leave his Cross the Friday before.
Mary was a woman whose love for Jesus knew no bounds. The Gospels tell us Jesus had cast seven demons out of her. Tradition has it that she had been a great sinner whom Jesus had transformed and made pure, releasing her from all those things that had tormented her.
As she stood there weeping, she became aware of a man whom she thought must have been the gardener. For centuries scholars have pondered why it was she didn’t recognize him. It may have been because her eyes were full of tears and she was facing away from him. But it also raises the question of the nature of Jesus’ resurrected body. Clearly it was different from his mortal body, but in what way?
The scriptural accounts of our Lord’s risen body, though sparse, seem to indicate that it was in some sense like his natural body and in some sense quite different. There were times when he was immediately recognized and others when he was not - like when he met the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. It also appears that his risen body was no longer subject to the limitations of this physical life.
But more than this, the Apostle Paul says that our final destiny is to be raised incorruptible with a spiritual body ‘like his glorious body.’What all this means exactly is beyond our understanding because it’s dealing with a dimension of reality outside of our world of time and space. But it may help explain why Mary initially failed to recognize the one she loved so dearly.
So, assuming he was the gardener, she asked him if he had taken Jesus’ body – clearly the thought that Jesus might be risen had never entered her mind. Then, when he replied by simply saying her name, she suddenly realized it was Jesus. And so it was that Mary Magdalene became the first person to see the risen Christ.
I think there’s a special significance in the fact that John was the first person to believe Jesus was risen and Mary was the first person to see him risen. Though all the disciples loved Jesus, John seemed to have an even deeper love, and Mary, the woman who had been forgiven so much, also loved him with a particular intensity. In the two of them we see one of the great principles of the spiritual life. It is to those who love much, rather than those who know much, that Jesus makes his presence known.
The Apostle Paul, who for part of his life had been consumed by bitter hatred for Jesus and his followers, was a different case. It was not love that made him aware of the risen Christ; it was a divine intervention; a revelation from God. But it had the same effect. It produced an intensity of love that caused him to say that his greatest desire was “To know Christ and the power of his resurrection.”
I suspect that there are no words that better describe our aspirations this Easter than those: ‘To know Christ and the power of his resurrection.’Of all the things we most aspire to the greatest is to know the reality of Christ’s living presence in our lives. To live the abundant life Jesus said he’d come to give.
But I suspect many of us find it difficult to feel that way. We look out at our world and find ourselves filled with an uneasy sense of foreboding. The increasing secularization of our society, the fear of an international holocaust, ecological catastrophe and financial meltdown threaten to bring an end to our era of peace and prosperity. We wonder what sort of world we are leaving to our grandchildren.
For some of us the gloom comes from things much closer to home. Family heartaches and anxiety over loved ones may have taken the joy out of life. Fears - whether real or imagined - about our own physical and mental condition may be making us dread what lies ahead. These are the realities of life, especially as we grow older.
But I remember once hearing a friend describe his life experience in these words: Disappointed? – often! Discouraged? – sometimes! Defeated? – Never! That’s what Easter should and can mean to us. We face disappointments; we get discouraged; we find ourselves down and depressed - but we are never defeated. Our lives so often mirror the drama of that first Easter. We have our Fridays when it seems that even God has forgotten us; but Resurrection Sunday always comes, and we live again because Christ lives within us.
And so, I want to urge you this Easter to ponder those words of the apostle Paul about ‘knowing him and the power of his resurrection.’ In the original Greek that word meant to know by experience – not just by intellect. It is that deeper, unshakable conviction that in life and in death and beyond death the presence of the Risen Lord is always with us, even to the end of the age.
To do this often means going back to first principles. The Christian life is a life of faith. The Bible teaches us that we are both ‘saved by faith’ and we ‘live by faith.’ Unfortunately, that is often forgotten today, and many Christians base their sense of the power of his resurrection not so much on faith as on their emotions – which are enormously fickle and can change with the weather.
But the essence of faith is believing even when you don’t see anything or feel anything; but you believe and trust because deep down inside, you know it’s true.
I remember some words I saw inscribed on the wall of the Protestant chapel at the Dachau concentration camp – words that had been scratched on a cell wall by some long-forgotten inmate. ‘I believe in the sun even when it is not shining. I believe in love, even when there’s no one there. And I believe in God, even when he is silent.’
I also remember seeing the memorial in Lisbon to the great navigator Vasco de Gama, the first European to venture beyond the European coast. In those days no European had ventured beyond the southernmost point of Africa, which was known as the Cape of Storms. But then, in the sixteenth century, de Gama sailed around it and found beyond the raging storms a great calm sea, and beyond that the fabled shores of India. And so, they changed its name from the Cape of Stormsto the Cape of Good Hope.
For most of human history death has been the cape of storms on which all hopes of life are wrecked. But for people of faith it is our cape of good hope. Jesus told his disciples: ‘Trust in me, I go to prepare a place for you.’He turned their cape of storms into a cape of good hope, and he still does for us, so that we also may say: Disappointed? Often! Discouraged? Sometimes! Defeated? Never!