St. Chad's Anglican Church
March 27, 2016 (Easter) Acts10:34-43 1Cor.15:19-26 Jn.20:1-18
Let us pray: God of love and might, your raised your beloved Son from death to give us life renewed. May we, like Mary Magdalene, Peter and John, embrace this holy mystery anew, and eventually become faithful witness of this good news, joyously sharing your deep love with all for whom Christ died, rose and lives forever and ever, Amen.
Happy Easter! Chocolate eggs and bunnies aside, Easter for us believers has a lot more in store – new life overcoming death brings hope, joy, peace . . . and everything is enfolded by love. We cannot force ourselves to acknowledge such Easter connotations, if we have not embraced such truth as reality, like Mary Magdalene, Peter and John had, as revealed in this Easter Sunday’s readings.
I would say the most revealing insight comes to us with Mary’s experience. We just heard how the Gospel Reading started, in the following words: ‘early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. So she . . . went to tell Peter and [John] . . . : ‘They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.’ To that beginning, we can compare it with how the Gospel Reading ended, in the following words: ‘Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’, and she told them that he had said . . . to her [to go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’
As we note the contrast from our mental pictures on Mary Magdalene’s emotional states before and after her encounter with the risen Christ, the ‘pre-encounter’ picture gives us the view of Mary going to the tomb at the earliest possible moment after the day of Sabbath (i.e. when it was still dark) and was shocked and dismayed to find that the tomb stone had been removed from the tomb.
This must have brought back to her mind how not too long ago after the death of her beloved brother Lazarus, Jesus ordered to have the tomb stone rolled away from the tomb so that Jesus could call Lazarus out from the tomb after Lazarus’ body had been lying there for four days. That memory of having people rolled the stone away must have stuck in Mary’s mind, as Martha objected to Jesus’ order by saying, ‘Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.’ So now it’s not hard for Mary to associate that former memory on ‘Lazarus’ tomb stone being taken away’ with ‘how she found Jesus’ tomb stone taken away’, and her response was: someone must have removed the tomb stone to take Jesus’ body away. In fact, that’s how she related her finding to Peter and John as she said: ‘They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they had laid him.’ She didn’t expect Jesus’ resurrection, and hence all along she got stuck with the idea that Jesus’ body had been stolen. She felt helpless, and so she went to Peter and John to see if they could do something about it. This rushing back and forth of Mary between the tomb and the finding of the other disciples must have further drained her energy. Yes, Peter and John did come but they said nothing to her after seeing the empty tomb. That’s frustrating, to say the least. Although the sky probably would have turned a lot brighter as the saga continued to unfold that way, Mary wouldn’t have noticed the emerging light. Instead, she finally burst into tears and wept outside the tomb after Peter and John returned to their homes.
We can understand, and sympathize with her, can’t we? She had already lost her master, her best friend and savior of her brother two days ago (to the cruel cross at Golgotha). She couldn’t keep vigil for him outside the tomb upon sunset of that cruel Friday because of the Sabbath reality. So she went to the tomb on early Sunday morning in an attempt to complete what she couldn’t do on Saturday, only to be further shocked and disappointed when embraced by the empty tomb. No help came forth from Peter and John, the two probable candidates for leadership among the disciples after Jesus’ death. She had exhausted all her avenues for hope. In fact she became so hopeless that she was unable to heed the angels’ hint for her when they asked her ‘why she was weeping’. Rather, she just gave the angels an answer showing her misconception that someone had taken away Jesus’ body. Yet even that answer was quite revealing: there she said: ‘They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.’ Yes, Mary Magdalene had lost not only her hopes of keeping vigilance in prayer and grieving for the death of Jesus at his tomb, her hopelessness all the more rose from her loss of her ‘Lord’, someone whom she had posed all her submission, trust and reliance upon. No wonder her entire being was shattered and could no longer be congruent in perception and responses. She couldn’t even recognize her risen Lord when she saw Jesus standing there, supposing him to be the gardener instead.
In a way, Mary was undergoing death – not so much physically, but rather emotionally and spiritually, affecting her proper cognition, responses and her faith. There, Mary underwent resurrection upon encountering the risen Christ, in a dramatic way. When I say dramatic, I don’t mean the dramatic physical rising from death which Mary’s brother Lazarus had undergone not too long ago, when Jesus called him to come out from the tomb. I also don’t mean the purely metaphorical way, like the younger son in Jesus’ Parable of the Prodigal Son when the father referred to the son’s return as ‘he is once lost but now he is found, he is once dead but now he is alive’. Instead, I am referring to Mary’s dying out of total loss of hope and hence loss of orientation in life, substantially curtailing her ability to live actively as she used to be and do when she had Jesus by her side.
Now let’s take a look on how Mary rose from her ‘death’ upon seeing the resurrected Christ. As we had noted, she could not recognize Jesus upon seeing him standing there right in front of her, until Jesus said to her, ‘Mary!’ That calling her by name woke her up from her ‘death’, just like Jesus’ saying to Lazarus in the tomb: ‘Lazarus, come out!’ Like the dead man Lazarus coming out from the tomb, even with strips of grave cloth binding his hands and feet, Mary Magdalene rose from her emotional and spiritual unconsciousness by immediately turning around and responded to Jesus saying, ‘Robbouni’. There, as we had taken a look not too long ago, Jesus said to her: ‘Do not hold on to me . . . But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’ And here we saw how the Mary risen from her death (out of emotional and spiritual exhaustion) picked up her life restored to live out again her faith in, and commitment to, Jesus (her teacher, friend and Lord) in action as we heard from the Gospel Reading: ‘Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’ and she told them that he had said these things to her.’ Isn’t that like her brother Lazarus, after being raised from death by Jesus, gave a dinner for Jesus at his home, when Martha served, and Lazarus was at the table with Jesus, and Mary anointed Jesus with costly perfume?
Yes, joy-filled renewed life as hope has been re-picked up and with light overriding darkness, is what resurrection entails. Mary Magdalene had very deep experience on the day of resurrection of Christ. And she passed that joyous and hope-filled good news on to those who also deeply cared about Christ’s resurrection – that Christ’s resurrection has overcome death, that God’s love through Christ has overcome the bondage of sin, even sin for killing the Holy One who has never sinned. That’s what Easter can be for us too.
And Mary Magdalene was not the only one who had risen from death that Easter Day. The apostle John, who went to see the empty tomb upon the prompting of Mary also experienced resurrection. The Gospel Reading today gave a very succinct description of it: ‘[John] went in, and he saw and believed. For as yet they did not understand the scripture, that [Jesus] must rise from the dead. Then [he] returned to his home’ We heard this from the Gospel Reading today as John’s testimony of his belief immediately of Jesus’ resurrection despite they could not grasp such truth from the scripture before John saw the empty tomb. Loving Jesus deeply, John started to perceive the profound truth on Jesus’ saying: ‘I am Resurrection and I am life’ upon his seeing the risen Christ in form of the empty tomb. John’s spiritual dullness was transformed into his ‘new, resurrected life’.
Whilst Peter could not grasp it on the spot like John did, from our First Reading today we saw clearly that Peter also (like John) rose from his prior death (as signified by his fear, remorse and hopelessness upon seeing Jesus’ death on the cross) - we saw his new life in Christ as he eloquently preached that truth to the Gentiles in Cornelius’ home, a water-shed moment and new break-through in the early church when sharing of the good news of God’s love and forgiveness through Christ was then limited to the Jews. Yet that’s exactly the Easter good news is about – as articulated by Peter: ‘[the risen Christ] commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.’
And that’s also what Easter can be for us in our contemporary world – in more than one way we enter death, whether consciously or unconsciously, whether by choice or being forced by circumstances. We have seen examples of Mary Magdalene, John and Peter. There are ample other examples throughout the 2,000 years of church history, including ours. The commonality of these life examples is that upon encountering the risen Christ (once again in various different modes of life encounters), life got transformed and rejuvenated to let eyes see, to open minds to understand, and to activate motivation and action to love and share, so that we can see new, resurrected lives filled with joy, peace and hope. That’s Easter for all.
Just a recent little life example. It's a patient’s post-stroke story. ‘Death’ of certain parts of his body befell him, obviously not by choice, with inevitable frustrations, sadness etc. Then new life sprouted, partly from him upon rehab, but all the more from people around him – friends in his church (newly merged one) discarding the ‘we’ and ‘them’ mentality, and next generation in his family emerging from self-absorption to care more for each other instead of letting dad forever be the ‘care-giver’ . . . It’s not perfect new life, but I know it’s the patient’s ‘death’ that led them to look for the risen Christ in their midst, thus the ‘resurrection and life anew’. That’s how we can keep singing the Easter ‘Alleluia’ even in face of death!