It’s Easter morning! After the darkness and sorrow of Holy Week, the sun is finally breaking through. Jesus is alive! The forces of evil cannot win. Death is destroyed and the door to eternal life is opened.
The thing about Easter is, the English language isn’t enough to express the greatness of Jesus’ victory. So much of what people say about Easter is expressed in not-negative terms because we don’t have any other words – so we say things like INdescribable. UNforgettable. IMmeasurable.
So rather than struggling for words what I’d like to do this morning is take us back to Jerusalem (as much as is possible) to be with the disciples on that morning, to see what they saw and hear what they heard.
Jesus had died on a Friday afternoon and was buried just before Sabbath began on Friday night. He was buried in a rich man’s tomb by two of his followers, Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus the Pharisee, who up to that point had kept their discipleship secret out of fear of the temple leadership.
The next day, Saturday, the disciples gathered together in a secret place, grieving and shattered, in disbelief and on the cutting edge of despair. But in spite of it all, love didn’t die… so as soon as the Sabbath was over, at the crack of dawn, Mary Magdalene and Mary and Salome went to the tomb with spices to complete Jesus’ burial.
But when they got to the tomb the women saw the stone rolled aside and the grave standing open. Jesus’ body was gone! Shock ran through them adding to the grief as the women wondered who could have stolen his body? They look around and they see a young man, an angel according to Matthew, and he tells them Jesus had been raised and is on his way to Galilee, and go tell the disciples to meet him there.
In their grief the words don’t register.
In our Gospel reading for this morning, the apostle Mark tells us that the women were terrified and ran away… and that’s the end of Mark’s gospel. But John tells us more: he says Mary Magdalene stayed behind in the garden weeping, and she heard a man say to her: “Why are you weeping?”. Taking him for the gardener, she says, “where have you put him? Please tell me.” The voice calls her name, “Mary” – and recognition like a lightning bolt runs through her, and grief turns to unspeakable joy, as she looks up and sees Jesus, alive. Jesus gives her the same message the angel did: “tell my disciples to meet me in Galilee.”
Getting back to the gospel of Mark – something else in Mark’s account stands out. The angel’s message to the women was “go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee…” The disciples and Peter? Peter was the one who, on the night of Jesus’ arrest, denied Jesus three times. To be fair, Peter was also the only disciple with courage enough to follow Jesus to Pilate’s house that night. The rest ran away. But Peter wasn’t quite as ready for what he saw as he thought he was. And when the denials were spoken and the rooster crowed, Jesus met Peter’s eyes, and they both knew… and Peter went out and wept. And that was the last time Peter saw Jesus alive.
After Jesus’ resurrection, Peter is specifically invited to re-join the disciples, otherwise he might hesitate to go with them. But Peter is forgiven and restored through the very death and resurrection he had been afraid to face. And that’s good news for all of us… because if there’s hope for Peter there’s hope for us too. No matter who we are, and no matter what we’ve done in our lives, Jesus’ death wipes the slate clean and the power of Jesus’ resurrection opens the door to new life, for all of us. As the apostle Paul writes in I Corinthians:
“Death has been swallowed up in victory.” “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (I Cor 15:54-57)
Jesus’ victory over death is the focal point, and the turning point, of all of human history. And it’s the turning point of each of our personal histories as well. Jesus stands triumphant over the grave, inviting each one of us to forgiveness and new life and a place at the banquet table in God’s kingdom.
As N.T. Wright said recently, because of the resurrection, “the world has become a different place, full of new possibilities, previously unimagined.” And as the great Methodist hymn-writer Charles Wesley put it:
“Love’s redeeming work is done
Fought the fight, the battle won
Death in vain forbids him rise
Christ has opened paradise”
Let us give him all the glory! AMEN.
Preached at Canterbury Place, Easter Sunday, 4/5/15