Text: John 20:1-18
My wife and I have some dear friends who are ex-Episcopalians. I don’t mean any of those “continuing” or “traditional” Anglican churches. No, I mean the mainline, warts and all. From time to time they will compare the various strengths and weaknesses between The Episcopal Church and Reformed churches like ours, and they will invariably say that The Episcopal Church had prettier buildings and a more professional and well-done worship service but that the Reformed churches have the better-taught and more committed people. And the role of preaching in this always comes up. There’s really no nice way to say it—Episcopalian sermons are notoriously bad. They tend to last somewhere between 10 and 15 minutes, and they usually stick to a few motivational and sentimental points. Occasionally they’ll chase after the social-justice cause of the day, but only if its entirely and utterly free of actual risk. And yet even with that bad reputation, our friends will say that one of the best sermons they ever heard was on an Easter morning in one of these Episcopal churches. It was very short. I can quote the whole thing. It was about the Resurrection, and the priest said: “It’s all true, every last word of it. Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Hallelujah!” That was it. Short. Powerful. Biblical. It stuck in their minds.
Now, I have already gone longer than that sermon, and so I can’t match it for efficiency. But I want to tell basically the same message. The power of Easter is precisely in the fact that it’s real. It happened. It happened on this planet. And it changed everything.
Why is the resurrection of Jesus such a big deal? Sure, it’s noteworthy and unusual that a man could be raised from the dead. But why does it change the world? Well, one answer is that the Bible presents Easter as actually remaking the world. John’s gospel shows us a new creation account at the Empty Tomb, complete with a new garden and a new man and woman.
Notice the parallels to the original creation story in Genesis. We are told twice that it is the 1st Day (20:1, 19). This means, among other things, that it is the day after the seventh. We are starting anew. Saturday had been the Sabbath. Almost nothing is said about it in the gospels. But we know that it was a day of rest insofar as Jesus was dead and remained in the tomb. There was effectively no action. Thus Easter is after the end of the week. It is the beginning of a new creation week.
More than simply recasting the old creation story, we can also see that the Resurrection is the whole of New Creation summed up. All of the creation narrative is included. Think about it. It is the 1st Day. It is dark, and Jesus brings shining light. Perhaps most obvious of all, sitting right there under our nose, is the fact that John has given us a picture of a man and woman in a garden! Mary and the man she originally thinks is the gardener, Jesus, parallel Adam and Eve.
Sometimes people will ask if Mary the mother of Jesus is a “new Eve.” My answer is always “sort of, but don’t miss the bigger picture.” You see, Mary the mother of Jesus isn’t the only new Eve. In fact, she isn’t even the only Mary who is a new Eve! Here in John 20 we see Mary Magdalene as a new Eve, the woman with the man in the garden. And what is really the case, the real point, is that these women are types pointing to the true new Eve, the bride of the Lamb, the Church. All believers, when considered as a whole, are the new Eve in the new creation.
What we need to see is that Easter Sunday is Eden made new. It is an Eden that has been rescued from the Fall. The New Testament also explicitly says that Christ is a new creation. It also says that all who are in him are a new creation (Gal. 6:15,2 Cor. 5:17). And so the whole world has been remade. The whole world can be itself again.
And like Eden, Jesus is bringing us back to the world as it ought to be. He’s bringing us to a world without death. This will also be a world without sickness or sorrow because it will be a world without sin. This is what the resurrection is for.
Notice this other curious thing in John 20. Jesus says to Mary, “Don’t Cling to me!” Clinging is precisely what we would all want to do if we had been there. And clinging, literally clinging, to Jesus is what we would all want to do if He were locally present with us now. And so He left. As strange as it is, Jesus turns our direction away from Him and to the rest of the world. He wants us to “cling to Him” in faith, but He wants us to use that faith as a way to be on the move. This means that we can’t hold on to any present time where we think things are the way they are supposed to be. We cannot stay put where we are, in some safe place. We have to go forward into the world and bear witness of Jesus to that world.
We cannot hold on to the past either. We cannot just plant our feet on that first Easter morning and try to hold on. We can’t hold on to past heroes, and we shouldn’t hold on to those places where it was always better or the way things should be. We have to move forward with life, to where God would have us go.
And we also can’t hold on to past sins and guilt, even though they may seem important to us. We need to confess our sins and believe that they are forgiven. We need to give the sins of others to Jesus as well and not hold grudges. In the light of Easter, we have new priorities. We must be forward looking. Ask yourselves, what would God have you do? Where would He have you go? And know that the answer to these questions is always positive because the resurrection is a guarantee of the future. We can have hope. We can have joy. We can have confidence. We can have these things because we know the ending of our story. It has appeared to us in bodily form. Jesus is the finale.
But again, Jesus does something strange. He basically says, “I’m leaving.”
Do not cling to Me, for I have not yet ascended to My Father; but go to My brethren and say to them, “I am ascending to My Father and your Father, and to My God and your God.”
This means that, even though Christ appears to us as “being here” in the resurrection, he also says that He is going away. There’s a very important “real absence” in this. The Church lives while Christ is gone. We keep the Lord’s Supper “until He comes” (1 Cor. 11:26). Jesus did not stay on earth, and He did not promise to constantly make bodily returns. He said that He was leaving and would give the Spirit in His place. Yes, we do have the future in the present, but it is invisible and truly Spiritual. It is only attainable through faith. We will not see it. We must believe.
But this can be very hard to do. We have to bear witness of Jesus, and we have to share this message which sounds totally crazy to the world. Jesus Christ was killed for our sins, and he rose again from the dead. This man coming back from the dead saved us all and is saving the world. That’s our job. We must share this message, and we must believe that doing so, even apart from any visible confirmation, will change the world. How can we do this? We can do it because we know the end of the story.
The Present Time as Mopping-Up Operation
You won’t hear me quote Karl Barth in my sermons very often, but on the impact of the resurrection for our lives, he’s just too good to pass up. Listen to this paragraph, as he explains how the resurrection gives our present lives a future orientation:
The war is at an end— even though here and there troops are still shooting, because they have not heard anything yet about the capitulation. The game is won, even though the player can still play a few further moves. Actually he is already mated. The clock has run down, even though the pendulum still swings a few times this way and that. It is in this interim space that we are living: the old is past, behold it has all become new. The Easter message tells us that our enemies, sin, the curse and death, are beaten. Ultimately they can no longer start mischief. They still behave as though the game were not decided, the battle not fought; we must still reckon with them, but fundamentally we must cease to fear them any more. If you have heard the Easter message, you can no longer run around with a tragic face and lead the humourless existence of a man who has no hope. One thing still holds, and only this one thing is really serious, that Jesus is the Victor. A seriousness that would look back past this, like Lot’s wife, is not Christian seriousness. It may be burning behind – and truly it is burning – but we have to look, not at it, but at the other fact, that we are invited and summoned to take seriously the victory of God’s glory in this man Jesus and to be joyful in Him. Then we may live in thankfulness and not in fear. (Dogmatics In Outline, 123)
Our present experience is a mopping-up operation. The real battle is over and done. The forces of evil don’t realize it, but Jesus has won. He sits on a throne in heaven. We know the end of the story, and we win because Christ won. So be bold and proclaim Christ’s resurrection in word and deed! The Judge of Earth has come. He has won. And through the life of the Holy Spirit, we have that victory at all times. Believe this and rejoice.
Easter means newness. Let go of all of the old things that have burdened you. We are a new creation. Set your face towards the future and know that Jesus has given his promise through His actions. We are all of us justified— justified from our own sins and justified from the mocking and doubts of the world— in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. We know the end of the story. We know the verdict we will be given on the last day. “There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1). This is how we can go out and bear witness. Jesus has remade the whole world and is setting it right. This is what we believe, and this is what changes everything.
Hallelujah is the traditional response to the truth of the resurrection. It means “praise be to Yahweh.” So we must start all that we do with praise. Let praise shape you. Let praise direct all of your deeds from now on, and you will be able to put things in the right order. You praise Jesus because He has remade the whole world, and He has made you a new creation. You praise God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. You give praise because it’s all true, every last word of it.
Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Hallelujah!
Let us pray.