John 20:1-18 Easter Day Sermon

“Thud!” is the sound made at sundown last Friday, as the stone was rolled across the entrance to Christ’s tomb. At sunrise, come Easter Sunday, there is another sound: a rolling noise as, by the power of God, the stone is take away – to let dawn’s early light penetrate the darkness within.

Easter’s sound is the sound the universe makes when two things are occupying the same space and something has to give. And something did. Humanity was due a grand correction. Several things were in opposition: hate and love; sin and righteousness; brokenness and wholeness. Jesus Christ had been put to death, but God raised Him. Something tremendous had happened. But look, as the rays of the morning sun shone over Jerusalem, Mary ran from the tomb, still convinced her Lord is dead. She wasn’t thinking about resurrection, but rather of grave robbers: “They’ve taken Jesus out of the tomb and we don’t know where they have laid him.” (v.2). The question lingered in the morning air, as indeed it has throughout history. Is the resurrection fact, or fiction? On Easter Day Christians celebrate the culmination of God’s salvation plan: the forgiveness of sin, victory over death and the hope of eternal life. On the other hand, shops pile their shelves high with chocolate Easter bunnies. To say that the world is a little crazy is an understatement! From the moment of His resurrection Jesus’ followers were transformed from being scared and reserved. The empty tomb was crucial in convincing them that Jesus was alive!

 

On hearing what Mary had to say, Peter and John, anticipating, but not understanding, their Master’s fulfilment of his self-proclaimed prophecies, ran to the tomb. Not the wrong one – but the right one! And John gets there first. Not because he had a greater desire to see the miracle, but simply because he was younger and ran faster. But he doesn’t go into the burial place. He goes a step further than Mary did though, and stands at the entrance, peering in to look – and with each glance more is revealed:- The strip of linen (v.5); the burial cloth itself (v.7), undisturbed – and in the shape in which it had been round the body; and then the gem is verse 8, when the disciple is able to “see and believe.”

 

We’re not talking about a ghost story here. And it’s not just about believing because Scripture tells us to expect it (which is what is meant by verse 9) – rather it’s having faith in the cosmic event. It’s not about new life springing up after winter sleep, it’s much, much more. God acting in such a way, causing upheaval in the universe – that we’re celebrating revolution. And it isn’t finished yet! Resurrection transforms lives. It left worn out and spiritually defeated people gasping. Old ways of thinking were destroyed. They found themselves swept along into an ocean of new and exciting experiences. And since that first Easter, there are millions of people, throughout history, who say their lives have been changed through faith in someone who was dead, but who now is even more powerful than death. Resurrection threatens much that we hold dear. And fearing change sometimes we strengthen our defences. There’s a doubting Thomas within all of us. Before becoming a Christian, I rubbished the whole resurrection: of course the disciples went to the wrong tomb; obviously they hid the body.

 

For too long I had a boulder in the way. A heart of stone which could not be moved by my own efforts and I resisted any commitment to Christianity. But then there came a day when I no longer wanted to be defined by the stones that go “thud” in my life. There is a greater reality. We’re made in God’s image and there’s a built-in desire to be in relationship with Him. Thanks to free will – there by the grace of God go I – as He is the One who hears our prayers and the One who rolls our stones away. And I say to you this Easter morning that having discovered the Good News that: “Jesus isn’t here. He is risen!” – leads to an understanding that there is greater depth to life which leads us away from death, fills us with a sense of wonder and sends us on a new journey filled with reverent joy. That’s what comes from “seeing and believing” and “blessed are we”, even more than doubting Thomas, “who have not seen -and yet have believed.”

 

William Sangster, the great Methodist preacher who helped guide Londoners through the horrors of the Blitz in WWII, fell ill to a disease that progressively paralyzed his body, and eventually his vocal cords. On the Easter just before he died, he managed to scribble this short note to his daughter: How terrible to wake up on Easter and have no voice to shout, “He is Risen!” Far worse, to have a voice and not want to shout.

 

“Woman, why are you crying?” said the angels dressed in white and sitting where the body of Jesus had been. (vs.12-13). “Woman, why are you crying?” Jesus asked Mary. “Who is it that you are looking for?” (vs.15). Her grieving was interrupted because Jesus stood before her. She didn’t recognise Him. She was certainly not expecting to see Him. After all, death is the end and there’s no changing that. But Jesus has changed death forever with resurrection! And the joy of Mary when she heard Jesus calling her name stands out. In the gospel, she turns and clings to Him. He’s alive! Jesus is alive! Life has risen from the dead! That’s what Mary saw and believed. The Easter experience is for every age and for every person. Yet, despite our celebrations, the reality is that many will miss out on the true meaning of this wonderful festival, because they haven’t experienced the reality of the risen Lord. Some are disinterested, others preoccupied, some are cynical and can’t see the evidence they require and some have never been told about Jesus in a way they can understand.

 

Some days it’s hard to see with the eyes of faith. That’s why we need the Lord’s Supper. In the bread and wine, we discover anew Mary’s good news: “I have seen the Lord!” (v.18). Like her, we discover new purpose and new possibility. Like her we move from weeping to witnessing. When we eat the bread and drink the cup we share the victory feast of our God! Jesus said: “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me will never die.” (Jn.11:25). In raising Jesus from the dead, God broke the bondage of evil and nothing can separate us from His love in Christ. And so we are set free for life! Set free to imagine the world in a whole new way. That’s why today is a day to celebrate.
It vitalises the oppressed and disillusioned for the same power that rolled away the stone is the power available for us for living
as well as for dying. In the words of John Donne, “Death – be not proud, thou hast died.”

 

Christ has risen. Hallelujah – there is hope! But only with our hearts can we feel the miracle of God’s love.

 

Let us pray…

Eternal God, on this Easter Day, give us a renewed vision of the hope that you have given to each of us and let us know that we do not walk in this world alone, we do not carry these burdens by ourselves, and that you love us enough to give us care and comfort, for we pray in the name of the resurrected Christ. AMEN.

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