It is difficult for us this morning to feel the same feelings as the first disciples did on the morning of the resurrection: not because we do not believe in it; not because the resurrection does not fill our hearts with joy and gladness; not because it does not lead us (each time we contemplate it) into a deeper longing to serve Our Lord; nor because it does not convict us to repentance and to the changing of our ways – but because it does not surprise us anymore.
Many of us have known the good news of the resurrection for the whole of our lives, and those of us who are members of this congregation celebrate that resurrection every Sunday as we come together for worship. The resurrection challenges us, but it does not surprise us.
If you have read C.S. Lewis’ little book, “Surprised by Joy” you will know what I mean. Lewis recounts the story of his journey to faith (when he was a young man), a literal journey which took place on a Red London Bus on the way from his home to London Zoo. And he describes how thinking seriously about the Christian faith, he got on the bus as an agnostic – and in his mind on that bus something mysterious and extraordinary happened which changed his life forever – and he arrived at his destination, at London Zoo, utterly convinced of the reality of God, and of the resurrection of his Son, Christ Jesus Our Lord. Surprised by Joy.
We need to work especially hard on this Easter Day to clear our minds of the pre-conceived ideas which we bring to our Gospel reading this morning. We must put out of our mind all of the anticipation which we have felt during the forty days of Lent, and during our Holy Week observances – we must put those things which have prepared us for today, out of our minds for just a few moments, and instead focus on a young woman startled by the emptiness of a tomb.
Saint John describes for us, not a surprise of joy, but a surprise of deep horror, and bewilderment. The stone has been rolled away from the tomb, and we presume that she hesitantly looked inside, and finding nothing ran back to Simon Peter, the one who had denied Jesus, and the other disciple, whom St John describes as the one “whom Jesus loved.”
The disciples responded in horror, and ran as fast as they could to the tomb to investigate for themselves: was Mary delirious? Had she mistakenly gone to the wrong tomb? Or was it true, had someone really moved the body? It was true, the horror was real. If it wasn’t enough that Jesus, their Master, had been killed on the Cross, now they had found that his body had been stolen. All that was left was the linen which he had been wrapped in.
For the Jewish people bodies are very important: they are the vehicle for resurrection on the last day. Even today in Israel and the Palestine, Orthodox Jews will collect body parts after explosions or accidents in order for bodies to be buried whole. Jesus was dead, and without his body his death would be permanent.
The disciples went away, back to their homes to ponder these things and we presume to tell the others; and St John reminds us in his commentary that they did not yet understand that Christ was risen. That is where our Gospel reading ends today: Christ is dead and his body is missing. St Luke remembers two disciples walking from Jerusalem to Emmaus on that same day, puzzled about everything that has happened. It’s a struggle for us to really feel it, to understand what it must have been like for the disciples in that period between Our Lord’s death, and his resurrection.
After Simon Peter and the other disciple have returned home, Mary makes her way back to the tomb, weeping, and in great sorrow. Jesus had become her life, ever since he had released her from her bondage by casting demons from her: and it was all too much to bear, her Lord was dead, and his body was gone.
She was soon to be surprised a second time. As she looked into the tomb, into the sepulchre, she saw two angels where Jesus had been laid the previous evening, one where his head had been and one at the other end. And the angels knowing the good news, asked her why she was weeping; and she explained to them, that her Master’s body was missing and she did not know where to find it. And as she turned she could see through her tears the figure of a man standing by her, and supposing that he was the gardener, and that he might have moved the body, she asked him if he knew where the body was, so that she might take it away. And the man spoke, and in speaking came the greatest surprise of all.
“Mary!” She heard God’s love again, that love which she had heard, and felt, and seen in Jesus. That love so great, that it could not be bound by death, and which, (as the disciples were soon to find out), could not be destroyed by betrayals and doubts and fears. That love which is not found amongst the clothing of the dead, but in the ongoing life of the resurrected Lord, spoke to her and brought her wholeness.
And so we celebrate today, with those first disciples, and with Christians throughout the ages, the joyous surprise which was the greatest news of all. That Jesus’ words were true, that God (contrary to what some may suggest around us here in the West) had never died, and that the gate was open, through the risen Lord, for humanity – that’s you and me – to know that love and forgiveness which Jesus had talked about, and which is at the very heart of God.
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” Alleluia Christ is Risen! Let us celebrate the Feast.
Let us celebrate the Feast with the whole company of heaven, and as we prepare now to meet that God who raised Jesus from the dead, at the Holy Table, and to feed upon the risen Lord in our hearts and in our minds, let us prepare to be surprised. Surprised by the one who met with his disciples on the first Easter Sunday and transformed them from a group of mourners to the fearless of the Early Church; the one who meets with each of us, if we will call upon him in penitence and faith.
Hear again the words of another St John, St John Chrysostom, who preached his Easter Sermon celebrating the good news of the resurrection, in Constantinople, around 370 years after the resurrection of Christ, and be joyful:
Let no one grieve at his poverty,
for the universal kingdom has been revealed.
Let no one mourn that he has fallen again and again;
for forgiveness has risen from the grave.
Let no one fear death, for the Death of our Savior has set us free.
He has destroyed it by enduring it…. O death, where is thy sting?
O Hades, where is thy victory?
Christ is Risen, and you, o death, are annihilated!
Christ is Risen, and the evil ones are cast down!
Christ is Risen, and the angels rejoice!
Christ is Risen, and life is liberated!
Christ is Risen, and the tomb is emptied of its dead;
for Christ having risen from the dead, is become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep.
To Him be Glory and Power forever and ever. Amen.