John 20: 1-18
Easter Day and Palm Sunday are just a week apart, but so different, and so much happens in between. There are intimate moments at the beginning of these days, and there are more as Holy Week unfolds: at the home of Lazarus, Mary and Martha in Bethany, during the Last Supper and in the Garden of Gethsemane, but what most people remember are the crowds: on Palm Sunday with the procession and the palm branches, alleluias and noise and activity - as Jesus said, if the people were silent, the very stones would shout out; then later after Jesus’ arrest, the bustle and confrontation in the courtyard of the High Priest’s house, and onward to Pilate and Herod and to Calvary. The crowd was never far away, baying for blood and another crucifixion. But now, what do we find on Easter Day but at every meeting from early dawn to late this evening, we are introduced to occasions that have the action taking place in small and identifiable groups of people. Often the focus is on the one or two, Mary, or John or Peter, the two disciples on the Emmaus road, or the few disciples in the Upper Room, noting the absence of the one - Thomas. It is a contrast that we miss on Easter Day, because, thank God, we ourselves as a Church are usually together in numbers, and, after two strange Easters in 2020 and 2021, we are almost back to normal this year. But for those who are alone for Easter, it is worth recalling how Jesus come to the one or two, not revealing himself to the many.
So having laboured this contrast between the crowds and the individuals on that first Easter, let us define more closely why the Resurrection of Jesus is so important for both. Let us think of the corporate; the masses; human gatherings in their millions; and the impact of a Gospel of Resurrection - Christ’s Resurrection - not just any revival of life, but the proclamation of the miracle of God’s message of hope through his Son’s rising from death. Let us think too, of individuals, those whose lives have become in some way confined through a multitude of different reasons: sin, frailty, isolation, lack of love, incapacity, addiction, anxiety, fear, feelings of hopelessness, in fact most, if not all of us. What is the risen Christ to the many and to the few? What is the meaning of Easter for teeming masses of humanity, and what is its message for the one who looks and waits and hopes, like Mary at the tomb?
We live conscious of the many and varied threats to life today. I do not need to do anything but place the headlines of the news items of this past year before you, from climate crisis to war, from pandemic to terrorism, from political insensitivity to political control, from financial difficulty to racism, injustice, fundamentalism and the growing gap between rich and poor, many peoples and individuals are in a worse condition than they have been for some time. In the face of all of this we celebrate Easter, as the world is for many an unsafe place, not only with naturally occurring disasters, but also as a result human folly. What do we seek by way of a Christian message at Easter, the major festival of the Church year? Away from the eggs and chicks and Spring flowers and fluffy bunnies, the hype of advertisers and retailers, what is there to say of depth and meaning, in a world that avoids deep thinking, but seeks solace in fantasy, sport and celebrity, and, only too often, platitudes?
Let us consider first the context of that first Easter. Jesus had died on the Cross. He died just outside the walls a City that was itself a part of a Roman Empire, that used the power of insecurity and induced anxiety, through the fear of reprisal and the horror of crucifixion, to bring conformity and suppress free thought. Jesus was an inspiration. Crowds loved him. He performed miracles, gave new hope to the downcast, taught with authority about a God who cared and opened the hearts of those whose lives had become stone-dead with sin.
Jesus gave his life for love of men and women who had gone astray like sheep without a shepherd; he died a horrific death and when everyone thought he was gone, cut down and buried, he rose to life again. This is the greatest miracle of all. He, who was made to be nothing, is the one who gives meaning to our lives today. He still gives his life for us, no longer on a Cross, but within us. Even in the depths of despair, in the crying pain, in the desolation, Christ’s life holds our broken hearts in his. Because he rose to life he is able to meet us as he did Mary Magdalene in her tears of loss, or Saul as he strove to oppose Christ; or Stephen as he knelt and prayed for forgiveness for others.
Each year I come to choose the Gospel for the Principal service at Easter. The reading from John is always one of the choices, the other Gospel accounts of the first Easter morning are used in turn as an alternative, but the reading from John has been with Anglicans on Easter Day for a very long time, because it was the one appointed to be read for Easter Sunday in the Book of Common Prayer, well, at least the first half. The meeting of Jesus and Mary was not included - now it nearly always is. I wonder why the change? I believe it is all to do with the personal encounter. We can grasp the numbers game easily enough; the expanding Church, the excitement of the spread of the message of Jesus and his life in the new community of Christians was vital and inspirational, but the message to the heart of the individual was and is personal and we value the stories that we hear more than ever today. It is hard to grasp, a thousand dead in the onslaught of battle, but one grieving mother, or a lost child, or a frightened soldier brings the reality of the one to the tragedy of the many. Mary’s experience of the risen Christ is such that we know we are in the presence of one person’s little miracle, that is huge for them, and from the little miracle of meeting and all the hope and wonder and love and inspiration that comes with it, we expand to recognise what this means for the hundreds and the thousands and the millions whose lives are as yet untouched by this miracle of the Resurrection of Christ.
So, yes, we rejoice on Easter Day as on no other. We sing alleluia because Jesus Christ is alive. But if this day is to truly mean anything to us it must also lead us to act differently; to speak in a way that we are not just giving false hope to those who say, “What hope is there for our world today, with its multitude of problems?” Let us be clear, the Christian message of Easter gives us the right to be people of hope, in fact it demands it. Many things can go wrong and are going wrong for nations and individuals, but humanity also has its future in its own hands. The future need not be bleak. Things looked very dark for Jesus on Good Friday. But Christians are people ready and expectant of the new day; ready and expectant that out of the depths of worldwide crisis of unimaginable complexity things can, and we believe with prayer will change for the better. We greet each new day as created in love from the hand of God. We seek to live in the faith of a risen Saviour by whose very being things change; we are his eyes and ears and hands and feet; to pray and work for peace and justice, reconciliation and compassion in a world where hatred and violence need the challenge of the God of love. To make our individual inspiration and experience of the miracle of Christ’s rising count in a world and amongst other individuals who need to share this miracle. Place the love of God in people’s eyes, let them hear its effects with their ears, and experience it in their lives. That is the challenge for us all today. How we use what lies at the heart of our faith? How life lived in the consciousness of a living Christ inspires what we do and say? These questions have been vital for Christians since that first Easter, in the world of 2022, they are as vital as they have ever been. The Lord is risen indeed Alleluia. May his praise ever be on our lips and his joy in our hearts, for then there is hope re-kindled and love’s power proclaimed.