‘We may see what seem like small shoots in food banks and good neighbourliness; but all this is witness to the Resurrection of Jesus even in crucifixion situations’

The Bishop of Ely, the Right Reverend Stephen Conway

The Bishop of Ely, the Right Reverend Stephen Conway - Credit: Archant

Alleluia! Christ is risen. He is risen indeed. Alleluia!

Not long ago I presided at a wonderful funeral of a person of deep faith in God. One of the mourners asked whether it was alright to talk about a happy funeral because that was what he had experienced.

He said that the seeing the coffin and hearing the unfolding of the ritual of the funeral made death real, especially at the burial itself. The deceased had been a very lively person and this mourner expected all that to be gone. Somehow, though, the mourner still experienced that vitality in the way the deceased person was being spoken and prayed about.

I assured him that this is not unusual. It is Easter Day at every Christian funeral because although it may feel just like a crucifixion, there is hope.

I have found it helpful in my preparation for today. There is, of course, no eye witness account of the Resurrection in the gospels.

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The event was hidden from view. What we have to go on is the human witness to the burial of Jesus, the evidence of the empty tomb and the encounters of the disciples with the risen Lord.

What we do see and what we do not see are both important.

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The burial of Jesus is important for the Resurrection not least to show that Jesus was really dead. We can only celebrate the joy of the Resurrection because Jesus first died upon the Cross. While we might like to rush straight to the hope of new life, we have first to encounter the reality of a terrible death.

This is what makes the whole Christian story real and meaningful in a suffering world where there is often no meaning: hope against hope is justified even when people are surrounded by death, in Syria and all other troubled places.

In the midst of death we can still look for the vitality. John tells us that Nicodemus brings an extravagantly expensive amount and quality of spices with which to anoint the body of Jesus. Jesus had told him in their first encounter early in the gospel that he needed to be born again.

The death of Jesus is already making him into a disciple, even if in stages and under the cover of darkness. The presence of Nicodemus at the burial is almost literally pregnant with meaning. In the waters of the womb of the Cross and Resurrection of Jesus we are re-born.

It is no accident that Jesus is buried in a new tomb in a place of growth, a garden rather than a boneyard. There is expectancy here. It is no accident, either, that Mary Magdalene thinks that the Risen Jesus is the gardener. In Genesis 2, Adam and Eve fall into sin in the garden of Eden which they have been created to tend. Yesterday, Jesus lay in the tomb at rest, like the Father resting on the seventh day of Creation. That first Sabbath was still part of the creation. The Sabbath rest of Jesus in the tomb between death and Resurrection is part of the hidden work of growth which happens under the ground. Because Jesus has been down to hell, the promise of heaven is real. Jesus the Gardener is the New Adam who, in a garden, has done away with the ultimate power of sin and death.

The old Adam gives Eve her name and identity. The new Adam calls Mary Magdalene by name and gives her an identity as the apostle to the apostles, as the first witness to see and proclaim the New Creation open to all of us.

Yet Mary does not see it to begin with. For her, like Thomas, being told about the Resurrection of Jesus was not enough. They have to sense it for themselves – in Mary hearing her name being called and in Thomas probing the wounds.

In Mary’s case, perhaps her first lack of recognition is rooted in the fact that she does did not expect to see him. Imagine her in her grief, moving into shock as she sees that the tomb is empty and that there are angels present telling her news that she just cannot compute. But then she hears His voice; the voice she did not recognize before; the voice she did not understand until it speaks her name, and then she is free of the grief and begins to feel the great joy that we are to feel this day – and indeed through our whole lives.

I have really enjoyed Paula Gooder’s book, Journey to the Empty Tomb. I recommend it to you as Easter reading. She has helped me think afresh about Mary’s meeting with Jesus in the garden.

When Mary does not recognise Jesus at first it suggests very clearly that in the Resurrection that Jesus does not look the same. The two things which are recognisable about him are his voice and his wounds. I am conscious that we have to do all in our power to be effective witnesses to the world of what Mary saw. However, there is no way round the truth that we have to sense the Resurrection for ourselves.

The living proof of the Resurrection of Christ is my inner hearing of Jesus calling me by name and his transforming my identity as someone who then goes out looking for his new creation in the vitality and love and thirst for justice I see in other people. We may see what seem like small shoots in food banks and good neighbourliness; but all this is witness to the Resurrection of Jesus even in crucifixion situations. Jesus told Mary not to cling to his new body because that was not going to be permanently available to the disciples she represents like you and me. He does not want her to have to grieve all over again.

He will be present everywhere and forever in His Spirit and it is that Spirit who is leading us always to new life in the garden of God’s delight.

If Jesus is recognisable by his scars, perhaps it is also true that we shall be very different in our resurrection bodies, too, but still recognisably ourselves in our scars. We can so easily live Easter intellectually and believe in our heads that it is all true, but somehow not believe in our hearts that all can be forgiven and all can ultimately be healed in our lives.

Well, just think what it might be like to be recognisable by the sign of the healing of every single hurt we have ever known.

Mary Magdalene is not the only character in our gospel reading, so the men should get a look in, too. You may know that I have appointed a new Archdeacon of Cambridge called Alex Hughes. Alex ran the London Marathon last Sunday and got round in a good time and raised lots of money for charity. Our Easter Gospel has the only record of running in John’s gospel. Mary runs to tell the disciples that the body of Jesus has gone and Peter and the Beloved Disciple run together to see for themselves.

God accepts the slow pace of Nicodemus’s conversion at Jesus’s burial. We may move slowly; but God’s love is unstoppable. Now the hidden momentum of the Resurrection has burst out of the tomb and this momentum is conveyed by the disciples who are speedily on the move.

The Beloved Disciple outstrips Peter not because he is physically fitter but because he has already been chosen at the cross by Jesus. He sees and instinctively believes. But Peter is the late arrival who still is the first to go into the tomb. This is the beginning of his restoration after his betrayal of Jesus. He is the person whom the risen Jesus will meet on the beach and call by name.

Some of us have experienced the loss of loved ones to death this year and, maybe, contemplate our own passing.

Because Jesus died and rose again, death no longer has to be what defines us.

Because the tomb is empty, heaven can be full. We are invited to celebrate the infinite vitality of God. There is no stopping the momentum of God’s love and mercy towards each one of us right now.

Alleluia! Christ is risen. He is risen indeed. Alleluia!

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