Bishop Frank's Easter Sermon, Festal Eucharist in St Nicholas’ Cathedral Newcastle

05/04/2015

Assistant Bishop of Newcastle the Rt Revd Frank WhiteActs 10 verses 34 – 43
and John 20 verses 1 – 18

You cannot re-capture the past.

It is one of the striking messages from St John the Evangelist this Easter Sunday morning. In telling us the story of Mary Magdalene, recognised by all the gospel writers as present on that glorious morning, John is weaving through her testimony a golden thread which appears throughout the fourth gospel. Mary, faithful and persistent as ever, more than compensates for the strange and uncharacteristic behaviour of two of Jesus' close companions. Despite an empty tomb to see and its tidy linen wrappings which indicate that no grave robbers have been there, off they go to their homes. Mary Magdalene stays; perhaps in her mind still is the duty she seems to be there to perform. It was the closest family who sat by the body, keeping tearful vigil, and Mary was certainly a member of Jesus’ inner circle.

The fact that the body is not there gives us John’s first clue that the future might not simply be an extension or a repeat of the past. Then in her encounter with the One whose use of her name revives the wonderful three year story, she is discouraged from holding on to Jesus – another clue from John that something different is going on here. And perhaps too the use of the word “teacher” is a signal that Mary is trying to recapitulate the past – or so some of the great Durham theologians like Lightfoot and Barrett believe.

Mary Magdalene is the first witness to the resurrection and the one to whom Jesus discloses the way to the new life that is the heart of faith for us today. For Jesus is on His way to the Father and the place that He has filled is to be occupied for the future by the Holy Spirit. Time and again in this gospel John has reminded his hearers that unless Jesus ascends and occupies His own dwelling place with the Father the Spirit will not be poured out. Perhaps Mary was comforted in this strange encounter by the promise that Jesus had given before his crucifixion: “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you”. The resurrection is the final part of the great plan. From now on the disciples would have the most intimate and personal relationship with God; a relationship which then as now sustains Jesus’ followers with all the resources needed for God’s kingdom to come. They would receive the Spirit.

All that Jesus had done on earth; His word spoken and put into action, the scriptures known and interpreted, His love and power shared and celebrated, would now be the work of the promised Holy Spirit. The One whom Jesus had promised would be with them forever. The rich and fruitful relationship Jesus had with His disciples would now be experienced more widely than they could ever have imagined and the wisdom needed to negotiate the tricky conflicts and conundrums that face all human beings would be available in abundance. No wonder Mary ran from that encounter with the Risen Lord overflowing with joy. His ascension to the Father meant that all God’s plan could now be accomplished.

The love which restored equipped and commissioned people like doubting Thomas would continue uninterrupted; the releasing of the fear felt by the disciples after Jesus' crucifixion would be experienced by people down through all cultures and generations; the deep kindness shown to Peter, restoring to him the dignity he had lost through his denials would bring hope to all of us who falter in the journey of discipleship. And the confidence shown in the Beloved Disciple would overflow to the countless followers who have trusted that in this Man of Sorrows all ruined sinners can be reclaimed.

You cannot recapture the past, and in the light of Easter morning’s wonderful news, who would want to? Who could think that creating institutions for nostalgia was to be the work of the church when Mary’s testimony, “I have seen the Lord,” offers a road into the future? A promise for all human beings, indeed the whole of the creation, that we can find the friendship with God for which we were created.

In our first reading today Peter is at the house of the Gentile Cornelius. Here he realises the immensity of the truth which has been disclosed through the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus – “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him”. It is the message we too are invited to receive so that in our turn we go into all the world with hope and faith. We go empowered in love by the One who raised Jesus Christ from the dead. We go strengthened by the promised Holy Spirit, bestowed on us as Jesus ascends to the Father.

Hymns of praise then let us sing, unto Christ our heavenly King. Alleluia!

HAPPY EASTER!
 

 

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