Church of England Diocese in Europe

Sermon in Ankara for Easter Day (4th April 2021) - The Revd Patrick Irwin

Christ is risen! This is the central claim of Christian faith and this is our greatest festival. Today we have heard John’s account of that first Easter Day. Listening to and participating in the reading of the Passion on Palm Sunday or Good Friday we may have been struck by how dramatic is the story of Christ’s arrest, trial and execution. The same applies to the narrative of Easter. We may think of today’s reading as a play with three distinctive acts.

In the first act the drama opens with a solitary figure walking through the darkness. Mary Magdalene has overcome her fear in order to tend to the body of her teacher and friend. There are variations in the four Gospel accounts of the Resurrection, but all agree on the day, the first day of the week, what we call Sunday, and that it is Mary Magdalene who is the first to go to the tomb. When Mary finds that the stone has been moved she jumps to the conclusion that someone has entered the tomb and stolen the body. We are not told whether she entered the tomb herself. She may well have been so shocked by her discovery that she ran back immediately to tell Peter what she believed had happened.

The second act describes what happened to Peter and the disciple “whom Jesus loved”, traditionally identified as John the Evangelist himself. Like Mary they run. They need to get to the tomb as quickly as possible in order to find out what has happened. The unnamed disciple, whom we will call John, gets to the tomb first. Perhaps he was younger than Peter! 

John looks into the tomb and discovers that the cloths are still there. He waits for Peter to arrive and, as the senior of the Apostles, to go in first. Both disciples see the same thing, namely that the linen wrappings are lying in the tomb with the head cloth lying separately. Yet they see the same thing differently. Peter merely observes the facts, while the more reflective John realises that these facts suggest that Jesus’ body has not been stolen but has risen miraculously. His faith helps him to interpret what he sees, but the Evangelist points out that that neither disciple yet understands the scripture that Christ must rise from the dead. The second act ends with the two disciples going home. There are no shouts of joy, no celebration. The emptiness of the tomb does not seem yet to have made a difference.

In Act Three we return to Mary. She is standing weeping outside the tomb. It would seem that neither Peter nor John have offered her any words of comfort or encouragement. She now bends down to look into the tomb. She does not find an empty tomb. The body of Jesus is not there, but there are two angels in white. When they ask her why she is weeping, she repeats her interpretation of the situation, that Jesus’ body has been stolen.

Mary is asked the same question by a man whom she takes to be the gardener and her reply indicates that she still thinks that Jesus’ body has been stolen. Two elements in the account remind us of the beginning of John’s Gospel, reminding us that we are to see the resurrection not as the end of the story, but as a new beginning.

In the beginning of John’s Gospel Jesus first words are those addressed to the disciples of John the Baptist. “What are you looking for?” Now Jesus asks Mary, “Whom are you looking for?” This is the beginning of a new story, and it is a question that the Risen Jesus asks of all of us. What are we looking for? Whom are we looking for? When Jesus called Mary by name she recognised him. We may recall Jesus’ description of sheep recognising the voice of their shepherd, who calls them by name. So too Jesus calls every one of us by name. When John’s disciples answer him he says, “Come and see”, an invitation that the risen Christ extends to all his followers and to all who wonder who he is.

The second reminder of the beginning of John’s Gospel is the darkness. In John’s account of the resurrection Mary comes to the tomb while it is yet dark. In the prologue to his Gospel John wrote of Christ, the Word made flesh, as a light shining in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. Here in the meeting of Christ with Mary in the darkness of the early morning we are reminded that the Risen Christ is a light shining in the darkness, symbolised by the Easter Candle in our church. Mary took Jesus to be the gardener, a natural enough mistake in a garden, but at a deeper level, and John the evangelist enjoys such deeper levels, Christ is indeed the gardener, planting afresh the garden of creation as he brings new life into being.

The Third Act ends with Jesus sending Mary out of the garden rejoicing. She is sent to tell the disciples the Good News that Jesus is risen, that the darkness has not overcome the Word made flesh who lived among us, but that Christ has triumphed over death. So the three acts of this drama of Easter morning draw to a close with Mary sharing the Good News with the disciples. All acts close with a departure from the empty tomb. First Mary had fled in shock and apprehension. Then Peter and John left after seeing something but without understanding. Finally Mary leaves rejoicing that she has seen the Lord. The key to Mary’s change of heart lies in her meeting with Jesus. This personal encounter has done more than any empty tomb or fallen grave clothes could do. For it is in the person of the Risen Jesus, he who knows us by name and calls us to follow him, that we see the full joy of Easter.

Christ has risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life. It is this Risen Jesus, in whom we see God’s love for us revealed triumphantly in human form, that we celebrate today and every day. Mary had the privilege of a human encounter with Jesus. We meet him in Word and Sacrament, and we may be sure that he is with us now, understanding our hopes and concerns, sharing our sorrows, and enjoying our celebration as we proclaim afresh “Christ is risen!” “He is risen indeed!”