Easter Sunday, 2014 – Jeremiah 31:1-6; Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24; Acts 10:34-43; John 20:1-8
There is a movie that opened last week based on a ‘true story’ about the four-year old son of a pastor who visits heaven during a high-risk operation. The boy tells of meeting Jesus and of seeing him ride a multi-coloured horse with him. In heaven the little boy meets his grandfather who had died 30 years before he was born. I trust the story will encourage many to find out more about Jesus and his purposes in the world. The Christian Church, however, has never relied on such stories as evidence of what is true about this life or the next. The gospels give us facts about what happens here on earth – in our space and time. Everything we need to know about God can be discerned from our life here and how God has entered history.
For Christians the central truth about God and about us hinges on the events of Easter and it’s to this account in our gospel text that I think we should turn to see how the players handled the evidence presented to them. Here’s the now-familiar background to Easter morning. Jesus began his adult ministry and chose his disciples to whom he spoke about his Heavenly Father and what life was all about. When they witnessed the authority of his teaching and saw the miracles they gradually came to see and to believe that he was the Messiah the Anointed One spoken about by the prophets. But whenever he spoke about his death and his resurrection a veil slipped over their minds – It was not so much a question of doubt as it was total incomprehension.
Even at one of his most dramatic miracles, the raising from the dead of Lazarus, when Jesus said, “I AM the resurrection and the life”, people weren’t able to connect the dots. Sometimes Jesus only made allusions to his death and subsequent resurrection. After driving the moneychangers out of the temple he said, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up”. You can almost see the veil of incomprehension slip over their minds. At the trial of Jesus, a witness quotes these very words back to support the charge of sedition.
The point is that nobody, not even the disciples predicted that Jesus would rise from the dead. That was not their mindset when they arrived at the tomb. Who can blame them? You can’t see clearly when you are completely deflated. Imagine an election campaign that goes spectacularly well at first. The polls predict overwhelming victory and then on election night, your team loses very, very badly and the whole election platform falls out from under your feet. Something like that might describe the disciples on Easter morning. Not a great state in which to process anything new.
They come to the tomb and encounter this evidence. There is, as you might know, some overlap in the accounts of the other gospels but the elements are basically the same. Here’s the evidence and how the disciples handle it:
1) The stone was removed from the entrance to the tomb when Mary Magdalene came very early in the morning. The assumption was that the opposition had stolen the body.
2) Two other disciples came running, looked in and saw that the body was missing – but that the bandages/linen wrappings were left behind.
3) One of these two disciple, went right into the tomb and confirmed that there were two piles of linen wrappings, much of it left in one heap. But, significantly, the veil that had been on Jesus’ head was ‘folded up’ or ‘rolled up’ quite deliberately and placed separately. The hypothesis that someone else might have broken into the tomb and stolen the body seems less likely with this evidence. Anyone involved in snatching the body away would not have the time nor the inclination to unwrap the strips of cloth and then to fold the veil and put it neatly in another place.
4) When Mary Magdalene returned, two angels were sitting where the body of Jesus would have been. Mary would have known something about this tomb because along with the other women who had been at the cross, she had brought spices and ointments to anoint and wash the body of Jesus. She knew where the body had been laid. Now it was gone. Someone must have taken the Lord away.
5) Jesus appears to Mary at the entrance to the tomb and calls her by her familiar name. He confirms what he had said many times before: that he had been sent by the Father and he would return to his Father but needed to leave instructions with his disciples. This clinches it for Mary. She is the first person to see the risen Lord. She believes and runs to tell the others. As the Orthodox Church says, Mary Magdalene becomes the apostle to the apostles.
There you have it – the evidence in the gospel of John.
Easter Sunday has many glorious dimensions – the flowers the music the feasting – but a central purpose of the day is to reflect upon the gospel evidence once again and confirm what we believe in our hearts that Jesus is truly the Son of God. Everything in a spiritual life begins here. This is the centre of our faith in the Church.
Don’t think for a minute that preachers aren’t faced with a challenge on a major feast day like this. The texts are the same and thousands of other preachers have worked and re-worked them far better than one could imagine. Nevertheless, I found some helpful advice this year from a professor who wrote, “find just one thing in the story and focus on it.”
So, I want to do that and return to the one piece of the evidence that leapt off the page for me. The veil – that had covered Jesus’ head and was now after his resurrection, neatly folded and placed aside.
There are many references to veils in Scripture. For the people of Israel, the tabernacle was the holy place where God met with Moses. It was there that God’s presence and glory rested between the outstretched wings of the cherubim fashioned atop the Ark of the Covenant. That whole room or tabernacle was marked off on all sides by a heavy curtain or veil and it kept mortals from seeing God. Had not the Lord once said to Moses, “You cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.” Only the High Priest, having been cleansed by the blood of the required sacrifice, could enter inside the veil.
When Christ the Lamb of God by the shedding of his blood on the cross, became the final and complete sacrifice on Good Friday, the heavy veil of the temple was rent from top to bottom and access was given freely to the Father and not just in one location.
We might also recall that Moses famously had to wear a veil over his head after he came down from the mountain top where he communed with God. His face shone so brightly, the people were afraid. He then covered his face with a veil whenever he went out to the people for they were afraid to look on even the reflected glory of God.
So, what might we say about that veil over the face of Jesus? Was it removed and treated in a different way from the other bandages as a deliberate statement that God’s glory was no longer to be covered? Was it now to blaze unimpeded for all time? Now the full gaze of love and the undiminished power of Jesus to restore life was to fall gloriously and abundantly upon the world and be seen by ordinary folk like you and me. Unlike the people of Israel, afraid to look on the face of Moses coming out of the presence of God, we are invited to look for the glorious face of the risen Lord and seek him everywhere – not just in the confines of a curtained-off tabernacle in a darkened space.
The veils that remain after Easter are of our own making as individuals and as a people. Jesus in his risen glory doesn’t wear one. He is waiting to be recognized personally, in our communities and indeed in all the world.
I recall reading about Anthony Bloom, the late great Orthodox Archbishop. When he was a young doctor in Paris he did not believe in God. His whole life seemed empty. He was angry and willful. So, he decided he would take a week or so to read through the gospels and if he could not prove the existence of God, he would kill himself. The strangest thing happened: as he read the gospels he was conscious of someone present in the room with him. It was Jesus, he later confirmed, quietly calling him. Anthony couldn’t see the risen Lord until the veil from his heart was removed and he heard Christ call his name.
I was walking down Broadview Ave. on Good Friday and for the first time I was able to see all of the old Don Jail, no longer obscured by the now torn-down Riverdale Hospital and the ugly extension of the jail itself. I noticed at the top of the old prison that a very large skylight had been constructed. It couldn’t have been part of the design a hundred years ago. But there it was now – allowing the sun to blaze right into the middle of the place where disordered and broken and hate-filled hearts were once confined. It had been a place for many a hanging. All that was gone! Now the building had other uses. Someone told me yesterday, they just moved the people into a larger prison at a different location. That may be true, but this place was now transformed. It has become a place of healing and comfort, with a state-of-the-art hospital on one side, where Janice and Amy in our congregation work. On the other side, scarcely 50 meters away from the former jail, the warden’s house has been turned into the first hospice for children in Toronto. Our assistant, Jonathan Turtle is the chaplain there.
That’s the power of Easter – the power of Christ to transform a whole neighbourhood.
Sometimes the reach of this Easter glory stretches over centuries. I thought about this the other day when I saw the birth announcement of the newest member of our congregation, Oskar Aadne Overland. There he was, sweetly sleeping with his blond hair brushed to the side – a perfect picture of peacefulness. He is of Norwegian descent on both his mother’s and his father’s sides. Nine hundred years ago this little fellow would have faced a life with the Viking hordes that roamed the North Sea, brutally subduing coastal communities. But in the ninth century, the gospel came with St. Anskar, who heard the risen Lord saying, “Go and declare the work of God to the nations”. He went and the entire country received the gospel. Gradually the whole of Scandinavia was changed so that today, Norway among other Scandinavian countries has humane and peace-loving characteristics built into its constitution and its laws – so great is the reach of the resurrection!
We don’t really need the evidence of near-death experiences to make sense of our lives. The Risen Christ calls one person like Mary, then another, and another, as churches are formed and the gifts of apostles and evangelists are given, and the gospel spreads to every nation and people. We all look at the same evidence of God’s activity and of God’s glory unveiled in this world. It is enough to know simply that Jesus is alive and that he inhabits his body, the Church. Let us rejoice then, dear sisters and brothers.
“On this day the Lord has acted; we will rejoice and be glad in it.” (Psalm 118)