Bishop Libby's Easter sermon

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undefinedEaster Day 8.10am Chester Cathedral 1John 4:7-12 and Mark 16:1-8

Easter Day 8.10am Chester Cathedral
1John 4:7-12 and Mark 16:1-8

‘Very early, on the first day of the week, just after sunrise they came …’.

There is something very special about Easter morning, rising, like these women - Mary of Magdala, Mary the mother of James and Salome - and returning to the story we laid down, like Jesus’ body, on Good Friday. In the footsteps of these women, many of us will have relived Holy Week and Good Friday, listening to the words of Scripture, and, in prayer and action, reengaging with the events of Jesus’ passion and crucifixion. And we have waited through Holy Saturday for this moment, when ‘very early, on the first day of the week, just after sunrise’, we come.

This story becomes our story. And we know something of the experience the women have been living through. We have all known what it is to be awake through the night waiting for the first hint of morning so we can begin the day, because anything is better than waiting any longer feeling hopeless and helpless.

We know what it is to be kept awake by grief, by pain, anxiety, guilt, by anger, disappointment, by fear. We know what is to be kept awake by love: being up all night nursing a sick child; sitting by the bedside of a loved one, holding their hand as death approaches; worrying through the dark hours about having let someone down, about what could have been done differently, about ‘if onlys’.

We know what it is when dawn is a relief. When first light means we can get on and do something. These women, perhaps after such a sleepless night, arose and got together to do what they could. They chose to demonstrate their love in tender, practical action, action that had been denied them previously by the sudden violence of Jesus’ death and the need to lay him to rest before the Sabbath started. They had known the goodness of God’s love enfleshed in Jesus, and seen that love made real in his intimacy with those whose bodies were diseased, disfigured, weighed down. And they felt it honoured Jesus, reflected his love, to find comfort in the physicality of caring for his body.

But in the cold, emerging light as they hurried towards the place where Jesus’ body had been buried it seems they worried about logistics – who would move the stone? A concern, it turned out, that was unnecessary - for they arrived to face not the broken stillness of Jesus’ lifeless body, but disturbance and disruption; to discover that all they had anticipated had been overtaken by something entirely unexpected. Their certainties were thrown into confusion. No wonder they were dumbfounded.

Their love had brought them to this place. And now the opportunity to show that love by caring for his body had gone. ‘Do not be alarmed’ they are told. I’m not sure ‘Do not be alarmed’ really does the enormity of the circumstances for these bewildered women justice. Alarm would be the very least of it I would think. Maybe this ‘young man in white’ had missed the training session on pastoral care in emergency situations. They’d had only a couple of days to process the devastation of Jesus’ death, and it was, I expect, the anticipation of necessary rituals that help to accept and accommodate such grief had kept them together. But here was information, and the evidence of their own eyes, that nothing was as they thought. ‘You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He is not here … Look, here is the place where they laid him’.

And then they receive instruction: ‘Go and say to his disciples “He is going ahead of you … you will see him, as he told you”’. But, without further explanation or comfort, instead they ran away.

‘And they said nothing to anyone for they were afraid’. Yet these were not fearful women. They had remained with Jesus when the men had dispersed at his arrest. They had been at the cross until Jesus died. They had followed to see where his body was laid. They had faced down the political and religious authorities to accompany Jesus through his passion and death and burial. These were not fearful women, but women who together were strong and compassionate and faithful and determined.

Love is a very powerful motivator. Their love had made them brave, but now it seemed there was nothing left to love. Even Jesus’ body was gone and the manifestation of love they’d intended was redundant. Love had brought these remarkable women back to the tomb that first Easter morning, but now, in the midst of their confusion, they ran and said nothing.

Except, of course, at some point they must have stopped running and told their story because it is their story we’ve heard this morning, their story that is recorded and honoured in Scripture, their story that gives account of the greatest demonstration of love ever known. ‘This is what love really is’, we heard in the letter of John, ‘not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his son … to atone for our sin’. And the story of that first Easter morning from Mary of Magdala, Mary the mother of James, and Salome, shows us the dumbfounding extent of God’s love.

‘He has been raised’ the women are told. And eventually it is that good news that filters through to them, and renews their courage. Jesus was not where they expected because he is alive, victor over death and sin, and he’s gone ahead to where he promised, to be with us always. God’s love, made flesh in Jesus of Nazareth, experienced the fear we all know and overcame it.

These women, the first to witness the empty tomb are not listed among the disciples nor named as apostles, but, in their faithful following of Jesus to the bitter end and in the fulfilment of their commission to go and tell, they are both. And without their ministry we would not know. For in their account is the news that confirms and completes the story of God’s great love made known in Jesus. Mary of Magdala, Mary the mother of James, and Salome, did tell their story, and so we know that the risen Jesus is the completion of God’s love and that ‘perfect love casts out fear’.

Let us rejoice to hear their story again this morning. Today they are the model for our Easter celebration: let us be loving and courageous in telling our stories of God’s love at work in our lives, especially perhaps when we too have known  grief or pain, anxiety or guilt, anger, disappointment or fear; and then let us, after the example of these women, embody that love in action.