A sermon preached at St Mary’s Iffley by Andrew McKearney on Easter Day 2023
As I’ve gone through holy week this year, I’ve been painfully aware of how everything we do is completely inadequate in the face of the enormity of what we as a church are celebrating. And that’s true at both a personal and a public level.
Personally, we may have been keeping Lent in any number of different ways. At the beginning of Holy Week or on Good Friday we may have re-doubled our efforts not to eat chocolate or to be generous in our times of prayer or with our money.
Publicly, we may have attended services here or elsewhere, on Good Friday listened to Bach’s Saint Matthew’s Passion, spent three hours with an excellent preacher, fasted, contemplated one of the many fine paintings of Western art, and sung hymns with heartfelt devotion.
These are all important things to do, but even all of them put together don’t get anywhere near matching the depths of holy week.
But we do our best, as Christians have done down the centuries. The narrative of Jesus’ last week is the first group of stories that Christians gathered together, told and re-told, sung about and celebrated.
Why? Because its depths are of God.
Here we touch the unfathomable love of God, vast and inexhaustible.
So, while we have to respond in some way, mustering as much integrity as we can, it’s as if we’re standing at the foot of a waterfall trying to catch some of the water using a thimble, while the full force of the water crashes over us.
All four gospels begin Easter day with an empty tomb. And no matter how early Mary Magdalene or any of the other women had got up and gone to the tomb, they would have found it empty.
God’s act of raising Christ from the dead is completely hidden from sight. All that Mary Magdalene, Simon Peter and the other disciple are invited to look at is an empty tomb.
That’s the first place in the Easter story that we’re invited to pause. John’s gospel devotes a whole paragraph to this part of the story, detailing lots of comings and goings and various linen wrappings and cloths in particular places, some rolled up, some not.
But don’t be distracted by those details. Just stay with the emptiness of the tomb which is as disconcerting now as it was then. There’s a totality to what’s happened that’s utterly beyond our understanding.
But it gets more bewildering – because this absence turns out not to be complete loss – not at all.
Mary mistakes the risen Christ for the gardener and accuses him:
‘Sir, if you’ve carried him away, tell me where
you’ve laid him.’
To which Christ responds simply with her name: ‘Mary!’
A few verses on and we hear of the risen Christ present this time to Thomas. Christ stands in front of him and invites him to touch his wounds, to which Thomas responds by saying: ‘My Lord and my God!’
Peter we all remember as the disciple who passionately protested his devotion to Christ:
‘Lord, I am ready to go with you, to prison
and to death!’
But Peter had then gone on to deny knowing his Lord three times – and when the cock crowed, the Lord had turned and looked at Peter. After the resurrection Peter is again looked in the eye and asked by his Lord three times:
‘Do you love me?’
Peter’s restoration by the risen Christ, the forgiveness he’s offered, enables Peter to acknowledge:
‘Lord, you know everything; you know
that I love you.’
These intensely personal encounters that Saint John gives us in his gospel are like a magnifying glass concentrating the strength of the sun onto a single point with burning intensity.
They transform a group of despondent, downcast disciples into a vibrant, joyful community of faith. Peter knows he’s forgiven; Thomas has his doubts laid to rest; Mary has her love restored.
But ‘Do not hold on to me’ Christ says to Mary. Christ can no longer be held, but is utterly free to deal with each one as they need. And this is still the case.
Even though the intensity of these encounters passes, their impact remains, because they speak of something universal – the life-changing presence of the risen Christ.
They tell of moments of recognition; of relationships restored; of denials forgiven.
They tell of doubts laid to rest; of faith rekindled by love.
They speak of a kind of life, a kind of love, a kind of unconquerable joy that is the very essence of Christ’s identity and that’s even now alive, life giving and life changing.
The waterfall is crashing over you.