Sermon for Easter Day - Philip Plyming

Sunday 31 March 2024

John 20:1-18

I wonder if you can recall a memorable encounter you have had in your life? It might be the day you met someone famous and you will never forget what they said or what you felt. It could be the occasion you met your partner for the first time, or sat while someone you loved breathed their last. Perhaps it was surprising or expected, but it was certainly memorable.

One of the features of John’s gospel is that it narrates individual encounters that Jesus had throughout his ministry. For all the cosmic scope of John’s gospel (‘in the beginning was the word’ etc) it also touches on the deeply personal as Jesus’ meetings with Nicodemus, the woman at the well, Lazarus, Mary and Martha are described.

Small wonder, therefore, that as John seeks to open up to his readers the world of the resurrection, he does so through the medium of an encounter, one with Mary Magdalene which speaks to the ages and to us.

It starts so bleakly, so darkly, with Mary on her way to the tomb of Jesus. The horrors of Friday were still fresh in her mind, and her world was in pieces. The man she had followed all the way from Galilee was dead and cold. Even the empty tomb does not raise her spirits. Why would it? She naturally assumes that the body has been taken. She wants to have it back, not because it will bring Jesus back, but it is all she has got.

And then, from nowhere, the encounter with Christ: personal, living and open.

A personal encounter, for it starts with a name – ‘Mary’. She cannot recognise him through her tears, but his calling of her name cuts through her sobs. She is known. She is close. She is loved. The risen Christ meets her where she is and as she is.

A living encounter, for it is not just for now. Mary seems to want to hold on to Jesus but he says she does not need to. This encounter is not just for now because Jesus is risen. He will not slip back into death but rather will ascend and reign forever. This is not a one-day encounter but one that will share the eternal life of the risen Christ.

An open encounter, for this is not just for Mary. Mary is chosen to be the first to hear her name called by the risen Jesus, but she is also commissioned to bring the news to the disciples and through them to the world. The encounter she has had will be one that is open to others.

On Easter Day we can be concerned with the evidence for the resurrection: how can we be sure it is true? Or we can ask ourselves about the cosmic impact of the resurrection: what difference does it make to the world? Both are good questions but John’s gospel invites us simply to see what Easter Day makes possible for us all, which is an encounter with the risen Lord Jesus Christ.

It is an encounter which is personal. Put simply, he calls us by name too. Simon, Charlie, Maureen, Philip. He knows our tears. He hears our questions. He see our hearts. We are not numbers. We are known to the risen Christ by name.

It is an encounter which is living. I once met the King but I don’t have an living connection with him. But the risen Jesus isn’t just for Easter, but for every day of our lives. There is a not a day when we cannot talk to, cry with, walk alongside the Lord Jesus Christ.

When I first visited Moscow in the middle of the 1990s, I visited Lenin’s Mausoleum on Red Square. Although the Soviet days were gone, it was still a place of revered silence as we filed past his chemically-preserved and dimly-lit body. As I stepped out into the bright September sunshine, I thought has striking it was that the sign of communism was a dead body, but the witness of Easter was to an empty tomb. That mausoleum was as close as I could get to Lenin, but the risen Christ walked with me as I trod across Red Square.

And it is an encounter which is open. The risen Christ was not simply for Mary and her generation. St John tells us her story not because it was something interesting that happened on Easter Day but because precisely this sort of encounter is open to all. The theologian David Ford says of John’s gospel that it is an invitation ‘to read ourselves into the presence of Jesus’ and nowhere is that more true than in this passage. We cannot see Jesus as Mary did. We cannot touch Jesus as Mary did. But we can know him and be in the presence of him just as she was.

When people ask me why I believe the resurrection is true, I say it is because I have met the risen Lord Jesus Christ. I can’t but tell what I have known of his love, of his patience, of his kindness, of his life and light.

At Durham Cathedral we pray that, inspired by our saints, Cuthbert and Bede, everyone has the opportunity to encounter God and know God’s love in Jesus Christ. There can be no better time than Easter Day to hear Jesus call us by name and walk afresh with him.

As we reaffirm our baptismal promises I pray that we will know the risen Christ calling us by name. And as we gather around the Lord’s table I pray that we will know the risen Christ meeting us in bread and wine, and feeding us with his body and blood. Because he is risen indeed. Alleluia. Amen.

The Very Revd Dr Philip Plyming