The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead
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Easter Day Eucharist      1st April 2018
Acts 10.34-43; Mark 16.1-8
Jan Rushton

Sermon for Easter Day 2018

Readings:  Acts 10.34-43;  Mark 16.1-8

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

Today, Easter, day of great celebration! As we have journeyed with Jesus in his suffering and Passion through Lent, in the power of the Holy Spirit we have strengthened our determination to follow his way of love - as we have disciplined ourselves that we might grow in grace, so today we celebrate the extraordinary reality of resurrection - new life, abundant life which is the fruit of Jesus’ labours and in which we are invited to participate!  Alleluia indeed!  The defeat of the cross has become the triumph of life and our children and families have shown this in our beautiful cross of wild flowers they created yesterday morning!  Christ is risen!  Alleluia!

Yet that first Easter Day, did Jesus’ friends know - experience, the triumph and the glory? The joy of the resurrection? Certainly not according to the account we have just heard from Mark. The earliest of the gospels, and indeed, written in a rough Greek, Mark’s gospel is earthy and realistic. Led by Mary Magdalene, the little group of women who have gone to the tomb to prepare Jesus’ body in death, are as terrified to find the tomb open as they had been that they might not have the strength to gain entry. Jesus’ body is gone, a young man instructs them: He is raised from death! Go tell this news to Peter!  Jesus is going ahead of you to Galilee where he will await you - just as he told you! What happens!  Mark tells us they ran petrified - and told no one anything! If Jesus’ crucifixion has been a matter of terror and confusion for his followers, then in Mark’s gospel, so is his resurrection! This rather unsatisfactory ending has been added to - twice! First just a couple of sentences recording that the women briefly ‘tell those around Peter’ what they found and then a longer ending recounting the whole story once again, where, as in John’s gospel, Mary Magdalene, goes alone to the tomb in the early morning and meets with Jesus himself and as in John’s gospel, the men will not believe her story. In Matthew’s gospel Mary and her friend, another Mary, meet with Jesus, but never get to deliver his message - at least we are not told they do. In Luke the disciples refuse to believe the terrified women met by angels and Peter dashes off to see the empty tomb for himself.

The accounts of the appearances of the risen Christ do not come to us as a coherent story and we need not be concerned if we too,wrestle with what actually happened on that first Easter morning. What we do know is that something extraordinary did happenbecause Jesus’ disciples are transformed, transformed from the terrified accomplices of an executed man, their own lives in danger, to bold witnesses to Jesus and his teaching and we know this because we too, are here this morning! We come to rejoice that no tomb can contain the risen Christ! Tragedy is not the end of the story! God is always preparing, placing before us, the possibilities of new life!

Of course events in life are rarely this simple or immediate.  Life is messy, we make mistakes, sometimes with devastating consequences for ourselves and for others which we cannot undo. It will mostly, take time and perseverance to allow those shoots of new life to appear and to grow. Oftentimes resurrection will feel a long way away.  Life is not fair. Eventually all the gospels record in some way that it is Mary Magdalene whom the risen Jesus appoints to be his witness, to tell his disciples of the resurrection. They also record a refusal by those same disciples and the early Church to acknowledge her as such at the end of the sixth century Pope Gregory the Great designated the Magdalene a redeemed but dubious woman of the night a label she has carried for fifteen hundred years, reversed by the Catholic Church only in 1969. Two years ago Pope Francis dramatically gave her a major feast day, the 22nd of June, recognising her as apostle and saint, equal with all the apostles! This Easter Mary has become the heroine of a film dedicated to righting the denigration directed at her.

Modern scholarly research is now developing new thinking around an identity accorded Mary in the Middle Ages. Jesus was fond of nicknames!  Peter the Rock, James and John the Sons of Thunder, Thomas the Twin - and, Mary ‘strong tower’. For that is what the word ‘magdala’ means in Aramaic - a nickname also given by Herod the Great to his favourite wife. Luke tells us Mary the Magdalene, Mary the ‘strong tower’, was one of the wealthy women who supported Jesus’ itinerant ministry. He goes on to tell us of  ‘Mary, sister of Martha’ who sat at Jesus’ feet’, Jesus declaring that her discipleship shall not be taken from her. For discipleship is ‘to sit at the master’s feet’- as the Twelve sit at the Master’s feet an exceptional circumstance for a woman.

John tells us this Mary, sister of Martha and Lazarus, is from Bethany, and goes on to tell the story of her anointing of Jesus with costly perfume, anointing in preparation for all that lies ahead. However, while Mary Magdalene is present at both the cross and the resurrection, Mary of Bethany who anoints Jesus is never mentioned. Curiously, we do not find them both named in the same lists of Jesus’ followers.   Both are described in the gospels as having a strong and close relationship with Jesus. Is it not a strong possibility then, that Magdalene, ‘strong tower’, is Jesus’ nickname for Mary of Bethany?  That they are in fact, the same person? A recognition and change of perception which is surely ‘resurrection’ for Mary Magdalene - and for women!

Names matter.  Symbolic actions matter! In a moment we are going to baptise our latest new member of the Church here in Hampstead, it is with great pleasure Thomas that we welcome you into our family of those who follow Jesus and of course, Eve, who receives her first Communion today! In baptism we receive an outward symbol of the assurance that we are held tightly in God’s love. We receive the assurance that no matter the mistakes we make - as we surely all do, there is no place we can end up where Jesus is not beside us, holding out to us, the possibility and hope of resurrection, restoration, new life alleluia! Christ is risen!  He is risen indeed!  Alleluia!

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