The Lord is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!
There’s one part of the Easter narrative in the Gospel of John that doesn’t seem to fit; it doesn’t quite end how we would expect. Mary Magdalene had gone out very early on that Sunday morning to grieve at Jesus’ tomb. Mary was one Jesus had cast seven demons out of. She wanted to be where his body was, to remember the teacher who had called her out of darkness, and to struggle to comprehend how it could be that the darkness had overcome him.
When she came upon the garden tomb, she discovered that its stone covering had been rolled back. “Grave robbers!” she thought. Bolting in terror that they might still be lurking about, she ran and awoke two of the disciples with the alarming news: “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb!” Perhaps they could still pick up the trail and find where the body had been taken.
John outran Peter to the tomb, but Peter was the first to go in. When Mary arrived, she could see them emerging from the tomb–Peter with a look of puzzlement, John wearing a curious smile. But rather than starting to search the garden, they simply walked away, saying nothing to her. Now what? They had abandoned Jesus when He was arrested; why should she expect them to risk their necks to track down His corpse now? Alone and powerless, deprived even of the chance to mourn properly, angry at the useless disciples, she broke down and cried.
Before going home she decided to take a final look into the tomb. Through teary eyes she could hardly believe what she saw: two angels seated where Jesus' body had been. They asked her why she was crying, and she told them the reason, all the while wondering if she was dreaming, or if, under the stress of the moment, her mind was just playing tricks on her.
Then in the changing light, she turned around and saw a man. “The gardener!” she thought. He began to ask her questions, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Perhaps he knew something. In grief and hope she blurted out, “Sir, if you have carried Him away, tell me where you have laid Him, and I will get Him.” But He answered, to her astonishment, only by speaking her name. “Mary.” Her eyes flashed with sudden recognition. The sheep hear the Shepherd’s voice, and He calls them each by name. She answered, now with tears of joy, “My Teacher!” Jesus was alive!
Now here’s the strange part. How is this account to end? In a movie you would expect an embrace and smiles and laughter as they walk off together–a sort of happily-ever-after finish. Instead, Jesus says quite abruptly, “Do not cling to me.” Even Mary, the first witness of the Risen Lord, is denied the satisfaction of being able to keep holding on to Him. And here’s why:
Things are not the same now. This is not just a going back to the good old days before the horrors of Good Friday. Easter is not a cancelling of the reality of the crucifixion, as though Jesus had just turned back time. Jesus' apparent snub of Mary indicates that there is no going back. Everything has been changed. Time has actually been turned forward. Through His death and resurrection, Jesus is bringing about something altogether better and new, for Mary and for all people.
Easter is not the undoing of Good Friday; it is the victory of Good Friday. It’s not as if the bad guys were winning when Jesus died, but now He gets the last laugh. This is a vindication here, but the Resurrection reveals that even already on the cross, when Jesus cried out, “It is finished” and breathed His last, He had won. The world was redeemed. Salvation was accomplished. Satan was routed. Death was undone. Today, we simply get to see that triumph manifested in glory and celebrate it.
There may be something about today’s service that seems particularly odd to you for an Easter celebration. Here we are, observing the Lord’s resurrection, rejoicing in it, singing about it. And yet, what was it that led the procession today? The cross of Jesus. What was it that was held high while the Easter Gospel was read? The cross of Jesus. What is it that is the center and focus of your attention over the altar? The crucified body of Jesus. What’s up with that? Shouldn’t we leave the cross behind now? Jesus is alive!
Fellow believers, if you remember anything from this morning, remember this: Easter is the victory of the cross, not the undoing of it. We dare never say to ourselves, “Whew, I’m glad that we can move past all that suffering and death stuff of Lent. What a downer! Time for something a little more upbeat.” Such thinking totally misses the point of Easter. Just as the crosses now have their black veils removed, Easter unveils the meaning of the cross. Jesus’ resurrection shows us why Good Friday really is good. It reveals that Jesus really did pay for the sins of the world. For the wages of sin is death, but Jesus is alive; and so the wages are paid. Sin is no more; the gift of the cross is life forevermore! Jesus’ resurrection means that His cross really did crush the power of the grave. Jesus really is the Son of God. His words and promises are true. Death and the devil have no claim over you any more. You are forgiven; you are free. You are alive in Christ eternally. Easter shows you that it’s all for real.
The resurrection demonstrates to all the world that when the jaws of death laid hold of Christ, He ripped those jaws apart and broke them in pieces. When the grave swallowed Jesus up, He was its poison pill. When Satan bruised Jesus’ heel, Jesus in turn crushed the devil’s vile head. Calvary was not an unfortunate setback on the way to victory; it is the victory. The cross is our sign of triumph.
The one who rose triumphant on Easter remains the crucified One. That’s why it is written that we preach Christ crucified. He reveals Himself to the twelve by showing them His wounds; His hands and side are marked by scars. It is the Lamb who was slain who has begun His reign. It’s not as if Jesus just hit the rewind button on Easter and went back to the time before His suffering. No, Jesus’ suffering and death moves us forward to something altogether new and better. It is the only way through to the new creation.
So hear the Easter Gospel clearly: The way to heaven and to resurrection life is through the cross of Jesus alone. That is good news, the best of news. But it is bad news for your old Adam. For it means that only by dying with Jesus will you be raised to everlasting life. Only by crucifying your flesh with its sinful passions and desires will you know real life and joy in Christ. The way of Good Friday and Easter is the way of repentance and faith.
That way was begun for you in your baptism. We spoke of it last evening at the Vigil. “Do you not know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death?” In one sense you’ve already died. The worst part of death is over for you in Jesus. In Baptism was begun a life a drowning your old sinful nature, so that the new life of Christ might emerge and arise in you to live before God in righteousness and purity forever. “We were therefore buried with Him through baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.” Like Peter and John, we too must enter the tomb of Jesus and come out new, changed. That is the baptismal pattern given to us: burial and resurrection, dying to ourselves, rising in Christ to love; repenting and believing.
Finally, our baptism will come to its fulfillment in our literal, physical dying and rising in Christ. For it is written, “if we have been united with Him like this in His death, we will certainly also be united with Him in His resurrection.” Jesus died; and so will we. But Jesus conquered death and rose to life immortal; and so will we in Him. We will share in His glory with new bodies that are no longer subject to the sickness and pain and deterioration and death that we now endure. Jesus said, “I am the Resurrection and the Life. He who believes in Me will live, even though he dies. And whoever lives and believes in Me will never die.” Jesus is our head; and we who believe and are baptized are members of His body. Where the head goes, the body will follow. Jesus rises on Easter; you and I will surely follow on the Last Day. In the resurrection of Christ as the crucified One, we see that our suffering too will have its end in life with God.
That is your great comfort and joy this day. The crucified One lives. And He says to you, “Behold, I make all things new!” He took your death to be His death, so that His life would be your life. You will shine with the brightness of His righteousness in your own resurrected bodies because He passed through the valley of the shadow of death with you. The Church is never about going back to the “good old days,” as Mary Magdalene learned, but going forward to the new day, the eternal and unending day of life with Christ in the new creation. Mary could not hold on to Christ in the old way. But in this age of the resurrection, the Church throughout the world is given to hold on to Jesus in a new way, in the Sacrament of the Altar. Here especially, Good Friday and Easter come together as one for us. It is the body and blood of Christ that was sacrificed on the cross that we receive. And yet it is the living, risen body and blood of Jesus that is now given into our mouths and into our bodies, the sure guarantee of our own bodily victory over death. The risen Jesus is among us still, giving us forgiveness and new life.
God grant you faith to see as Mary’s eyes were opened to see, and to seek the risen Lord here in His words and His supper each and every week–why would you want to miss it!? For the day is fast approaching when your faith will be turned to literal, glorious sight, when you will behold Jesus returning in resurrected majesty.
The Lord is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!
✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠
(With thanks to the Rev. Dr. Rick Stuckwisch for a sermon of his on how the resurrection is the victory of the cross, which is borrowed from here; as well as a Christian Century article on Mary Magdalene and the resurrection for which I can no longer find the reference)