Sermon from Easter Sunday - John 20 : 1-18
We have come through six weeks of lent, and now, at last, it is our day to celebrate. This is our day to celebrate an awesome mystery of our faith, the awesome mystery that is central to our outlook on the world. With the women and the men on whom the stunning truth began to dawn that day, we boldly proclaim: Jesus was crucified, but now he is risen!
Like them –we may not be able to understand it. Like them - we may not actually be able to believe it. But like them, we can be shaken and amazed at the sheer possibility of it all. For if it is true, then we can be sure that there is far more to the world than meets the eye, and the consequences of that are enough to keep us wondering for at least a lifetime. If it is true, then God cannot be controlled, not by the limits of our imaginations, not even by religion. He cannot be defined by a belief system, not even one tested and refined through history as ours is. He will play by his own rules and do his own things in this world, even if at times he has to overcome us to do it.
If it is true then we have no excuse to stay the way we are, to let our world remain the same, to give up on humanity, or to walk away from its problems; because we have been shown that anything is possible. If it is true, we must let go of our deep abiding cynicism, our belief that evil will always succeed in the end, our despair for the future, and give ourselves over to a fierce and powerful hope. If it is true, we can be shaken and amazed at the sheer possibility of it all. I stand here this morning to bear witness to the fact that I believe that it is true, and I believe in all the possibilities that it brings.
There didn’t seem to be many possibilities for Mary that morning. We are told that she had watched the life drain from Jesus on the cross, that she sat across for the tomb as his body was sealed inside, and then, in the half darkness of the early morning, that she stood crying outside the same tomb, shocked and confused by the loss even of his body. In her grief, in her despair, she could see no good possibilities at all, only the fears and the hurts that gripped her and trapped her as tightly as Christ’s body had been sealed in the tomb.
I suppose all of us can relate to the feeling of being trapped. Sometimes we feel locked in by our past, by something we did wrong, by some failure that killed our dreams, or something someone did to us so that we have become perpetual victims. Sometimes we are locked in by feelings we don't even understand, by anger, hatred, rage, or a relentless sadness. Sometimes we are locked in by addictions we can't control and habits we can't break. Or we can feel locked in by our circumstances: stuck in a job we don’t enjoy, imprisoned in a family where there is little love, or trapped in a body showing increasing evidence of mortality. I'm sure we all feel trapped, locked in, at times. Yet - if we live in a world in which the power of resurrection is present, what could possibly be too strong to overcome?
As we look at the tomb of Jesus we discover a fascinating irony. Jesus is free; the ones who are locked in now, are the disciples. They are locked in because of their grief, their disappointment, their fear. Their dreams are dead, and it is too soon to dream a new dream or even to imagine that there could be good dreams ever again. Who can dare to hope when standing in the shadow of such bitter disappointment?
While the men hide themselves away, it is only the women who quietly set out as early as possible, getting on with doing what little they can. When Mary found the stone rolled away she runs to tell the others the bad news: "They have taken the Lord from the tomb, and we do not know where they have put him". (John 20:13b) She can imagine no other possibility. How could she? Peter and the other disciple race to the tomb. They too find it empty, only the remains of what once had been. The other disciple, we're told, sees and believes, but it's not clear precisely what he believes. For incredibly, after seeing the empty tomb, these two disciples simply go back home, back to the room where they are again hiding in fear and despair, - still locked in.
It is Mary who doesn’t go back. She hangs on, unable to leave the scene. She is weeping. And she is still weeping when she realises that is not alone as a man’s voice says, "Woman, why are you crying?" (John 20:15a) Mary doesn't pay much attention. She is so locked into her grief that not even the angels can move her. She repeats her litany of despair, "They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have put him". Then Mary turns, not realising that this is the real turning point in more ways than one. In doing so, she is turning from despair to hope, from past to future. She turns, and someone is there. She thinks he is a gardener, and she is right. It is Jesus, planter and keeper of the new garden of Eden, of the new creation where every tomb is shaken empty and every door thrown open.
"Woman, why are you crying?" he asks her. “Who is it that you are looking for?" Poor Mary, weeping and hopeless, trapped in her grief, doesn't even see what is all around her, she doesn’t notice the dawn of a new creation. Or perhaps she cannot allow herself to see it for it is all too powerful, too big, too much. Maybe she is more comfortable with the old ways the world than this new and terrifying possibility; that her life, her world, her universe, might really be alive and saturated with the powerful presence of God. Thus the angels and Jesus confront her - confront us - with this question, not once but twice: Why are you crying? As if God were dead? As if Christ were not with you? As if there were no hope? Why are you crying?
It's a dangerous, frightening power we come to celebrate today. It means we can't nail Jesus down, that we can’t domesticate God into the routine of church life like some kind of well-trained house pet. It means that while we get comfortable in our excuses about what we can't do and accustomed to failure and locked in to our grief. Jesus is walking around, tapping us on the shoulder, calling us by name to say, "why are you crying, moaning, worrying! What lies ahead doesn't have to be like what came before.” Christ is risen, there is nothing that cannot change.
So, we do well to tremble with awe and hesitate at the door of the empty tomb today. Faith in the resurrection is a dangerous thing. It changes everything. The power of God poses great danger to our plans and excuses. The resurrection squashes all our selfish quests for personal glory and our foolish attempts to define or understand God. We just can't control what this wild and loving God might do. And if we will step boldly through the doors that open before us, break out of those prisons which we have allowed to hold us, we might become one of those people through whom God changes the whole world.
Christ is risen and everything is possible.