David Barton’s Easter Morning Sermon: John 20:1-18
When I went to university as a student I studied in a theological department that many people regarded with suspicion. Its star lecturer had been John Robinson, who went on to become Bishop of Woolwich and to write that explosive little book Honest To God. The more orthodox worried that we were taught to question the reliability of our basic texts. Someone I knew was so bothered about it that he gave me a book called Who moved the stone? by Frank Martin. It claimed to have “Saved the faith of Millions”. I think he hoped it might save mine. I can’t remember much about it, except that it did not do a lot for me. I remember a kind of law court approach to the last days of Jesus life. Proceeding from fact to fact until the case is made out. A sort of: QED Jesus rose from the dead.
Well, that I would want to affirm. But then and now I don’t think you can prove it that way. These stories of the resurrection are so frequently ambiguous, and contradictory. In this story Jesus tells Mary not to touch him. A little later Jesus invites Thomas to do just that, to touch him. Jesus is sometimes recognised, sometimes not. As far as evidence goes it seems ragged, bewildering.
But “bewildering” is the point. The problem for the Gospel writers was that they describe something that burst the bounds of language. They struggle to be truthful, to be grounded in what happened, yet it is literally beyond telling. Easter is a matter of Faith. Attempts to make it courtroom fact are flawed and misleading. So, thank goodness, story is the way the writers choose to tell us this of this event. Story probes deeply into truth, points us to the unsayable, and yet leaves us free to discover the truth for ourselves. And it is also about particularity and exactness: actual people doing actual things, going to anoint a body, shocked at an empty tomb.
The accounts we have just read begin there. Mary goes early to the tomb, and finds it empty, the stone rolled away. Shocked, she goes to find Peter and John, and the three return together. Peter goes in quickly to find it as Mary has said. John, more cautious, goes in carefully. Between them they point us to look at the detail.
They see the grave clothes lying undisturbed, and the linen cloth that had covered Jesus head, rolled up in a place by itself. Now that is not just incidental detail. It is a crucial clue. The Greek word for the “rolled cloth”, is the same word that is used in the Greek version of the Book of Genesis for the cloth that Moses used when he came down from the mountain, with the Tables of the Law. His face shone with the brightness of God’s presence, and people were blinded by it. So Moses covered his face with a cloth when he spoke to the people, but when he went to talk with God, face to face, he would roll it up and leave it behind.
The implication is clear: if Jesus is not here, he is with God. This is what the disciple John sees and believes. But the narrative moves on. Peter and John go back to the city, understanding only part of the story, and we stay with Mary.
Peering through her tears, Mary sees two angels, one at the head and one at the feet where Jesus’ body has been. It is an echo of the carved angels who guarded the Mercy Seat, the symbolic throne of God at the heart of the Temple. That was the place of the presence of God, and always an empty space. (The carved angels round the Aumbry on the south side of the altar are another echo of this scene) But Mary sees not an image, she sees a reality. It is a mind blowing glimpse of the immensity of God: the unspeakable mystery at the heart of everything. The empty tomb has become the Holy of Holies. Jesus is indeed with God. Which means that all that he taught and was in himself, is Truth, indeed The Truth. He was quite simply right, and those who opposed him were wrong, and his message has ultimate significance.
But still the narrative moves on. When Mary has seen the angels, John says that she turns, (note that) and sees someone she takes to be a gardener. John does several things here. Partly he wants us to know that Jesus is, always, just beyond our recognition. Present always in the ordinary. But, just for a moment he puts us in the garden of Eden, where the gardener was Adam. This is a new start, a new Eden, and indeed Jesus is truly the new Adam. Mary is not wrong.
And then Jesus speaks Mary’s name. This is the voice she knows and recognises. But it is also the voice of one who has passed through trial, and cruelty and unimaginable pain, and yet it is the voice of forgiveness and love. And John says for a second time, Mary turns. We know she has already turned from the tomb to see Jesus. If she turned again, she would have her back to him, and that cannot be. What John wants us to see here is an inner turn, a total reversal of all her understanding: it is no longer death she faces, but life. And life beyond her and our imagining because it is the life of God. In a sudden moment of time Mary knows this, deeply and inwardly – knows the living truth of Jesus deep in herself. So, of course, she is not to cling to Jesus, because he is gifted to her, within her.
This is Resurrection. It is not about the resuscitation of a dead body, though it is about a powerful awareness of presence. It is above all the gift of life to each of us, a new kind of life, the life that exists on the far side of death and hell, and destruction and falling apart, and despair. Memory is healed. A new beginning is possible, a beginning that has no end because it is rooted in the living Jesus. And Jesus is not a historical memory, a prisoner of the past, whose life can be neatly tied up and put away in history books. The Jesus who gives us this life is quite simply alive – free – available to all. Totally present in the vast domain of God.
This is the message Mary carries to us and all the other disciples. And the passage ends with her doing just that. And in an age when women could not give evidence in a Law Court because they were unreliable, it was a startling choice as the first apostle. But then, the world turns upside down at this moment.
Of course none of that is proof, in the sense that we can understand the words, think clearly, and then admit a conclusion. But there is I think a proof, if we are prepared to meet two conditions. The first is that we must be ready to be bowled over by mystery. We need to see the limitations of our thinking minds and be knocked off our feet by a truth so deep we can barely find words for it.
And then I think we have to be ready to be fools of love. It is not that we have to be saints, in fact we probably have a strong sense of our own failure. But proof does come when we are prepared to see sacrificial love as the highest of all values. Struggling with that, however poor our performance, then we know. That inner turn of Mary makes sense.
And resurrection, lets be very clear, belongs not in the pious confines of the church or the church community. It is in the homes and streets and neighbourhoods where we live, where Jesus is alive and at large in the world.
The Easter moment I cherished this year was in a news report about the Central African Republic. It is a place where Christians and Muslims have always lived side by side in peace. But Islamist insurgents from a neighbouring state came in and killed large numbers of Christians. In return, disaffected men, claiming to be Christian, began a slaughter of Muslims. The Christian Church has responded by opening its churches and compounds to all Muslims, offering sanctuary and shelter – a brave thing to do. But that clearly cannot go on. Forces of law and order are few and far between. So the Archbishop, side by side with the Chief Imam, two people who now clearly see each other as brothers in faith, travel, unarmed, around the country, seeking out the armed groups, endeavouring to persuade them to lay down their weapons. Its dangerous, their lives are at risk, they are frequently ignored and laughed at, but they do not give up. It is foolish, but it is exactly the risky love and unexpected, generous forgiveness that is the mark of resurrection.
The world turns on people like that. People who are prepared, at cost, to resist our darker natures, and stand against the tide of events for the sake of peace and forgiveness. That is the call of Easter to every one of us. We could remake our world if we answered it.