St. Mary the Virgin Anglican Church, Canon Claude Schroeder
Well, let me begin this morning wishing you all a very Happy Easter, in fact the very happiest of Easters!
Given the current circumstances, that probably comes across as something of a provocation. I mean, how can I wish you a happy Easter when all the things that we associate with the celebration of Easter, Easter flower arrangements and Easter music, a sense of new life associated with the coming to life of the earth again at springtime, Easter brunch with family and friends, and the delight and joy of children hunting for Easter eggs, has been taken from us? And we find ourselves plunged into this nightmare of a pandemic that has enshrounded the world in blanket of sickness, death, fear and anxiety and that has left many of us wondering, if, how, and when we are ever going to recover from this?
We have been reminded that, notwithstanding our powerful technologies, “the world’s ultimate reality is death, and none of the secular (goals and aims) in which men still put their hope can have any force against the simple statement of Tolstoy: ‘And after a stupid life there shall come a stupid death.’ For as long as we live after the fashion of this world, as long, in other words, as we make our life an end in itself, no meaning and no goal can stand, for they are dissolved in death. (1)
Happy Easter? How can we be happy at a time like this? Like so many other things, shouldn’t we maybe have postponed Easter to a later date, when things have taken a turn for the better?
The current situation has forced us to confront the question, like never before, “What on earth do we Christians think we are doing celebrating Easter? What is there to celebrate?”
That answer should be should obvious, but, sad to say, it isn’t.
What has brought us together today, even though we physically, are having to “ keep our distance” is to celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. It’s why the traditional Christian greeting is not, “Happy Easter!” But rather, “Christ is Risen!” to which we reply, “He is Risen indeed, Alleluia!”
Knowing what we celebrate, however, still leaves open the question, “Why we celebrate, and how we might properly celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.”
Again, the answer should be obvious, but sad, to say, it isn’t.
This last week I was in Calgary to officiate at the funeral of my 58 year old sister in law, who 10 years ago was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Before the service began, I accompanied my brother into the room at the funeral home where the casket had been opened for my brother to identify the body of his wife. Before we went in the funeral director addressed us a quiet voice, “ I just need to warn you there has been some discoloration….”
I thought to myself, “No kidding.” It had been a week since she had died, and since there was no official viewing, there had been no prettying up the body with make-up.
I was shocked at the sight. In fact, I hardly recognized her.
Funeral homes are strange places, and a strange place for a Christian to have a funeral. On the one hand, the funeral home embodies a message of the quiet acceptance of death as something natural. But since nobody actually lives there, since there are no bedrooms, play rooms, library, study, etc., the funeral home conveys the message of the absence of death in life. How different from the old days when the deceased person was laid out in the home where they had lived, and you came to visit them there, where they had lived and died. And the funeral itself was held in the same place where that person had been baptized and where for the last 50 years they had joined together with you on weekly basis to celebrate the Eucharist.
What’s more since the funeral home was located in a commercial zone surrounded by shopping mall, and car dealerships, and a car wash, it conveyed the message that death is simply another life circumstance requiring the service of a professional, who is there to help you get through this ‘difficult time’ for a small, or maybe not so small, fee. They will even plant a tree for you in living memory of your loved one, again by way of reminder, that as Disney put it, death is just a part of the ‘circle of life.”
My brother’s comment on the whole set up, was apt, “This is so inhuman.”
But here comes the Christian minister, who, in The Order for The Burial of Dead in “The Book of Common Prayer”, announces at the beginning of the service, “ I am the Resurrection and the Life, saith the Lord,: he that believeth in me though he were dead, he shall he live, ; and whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die! “(John 11, 24,26)
Many people, hearing this, will take these words intended as a reassurance that there is fact “life after death.” But as we see in our Gospel reading this morning, when it comes to the Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, reassurance of life after death, isn’t really the point.
The key that unlocks for us the meaning of Christ’s Resurrection is found in the instructions which Jesus gave to Mary, where in the moment she finally recognized Him, Jesus says to her,
“Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to my Father, and your Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” John tells us that Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, ‘ I have seen the Lord’; and she told them that he had said these things to her.” (John 20.17,18)
In the tradition of the Church, Mary Magdalene is known as “The Apostle to the Apostles.” As we read elsewhere, it was to the Apostles, St. Peter, St. James, St. John, and all rest, and later, St Paul, that Christ gave the commission to go out into all the world, and preach the Gospel to all nations. But how did the apostles first hear the message, and from whom did they hear it? It was when Jesus sent Mary Magdalene to preach the Gospel to them!
The Good News that Mary brought to the apostles was not the good news of life after death. It was the Good News a new relationship between Himself and those who believe in Him, that Jesus has established through His Resurrection. Any account of our Christian faith that does include a direct personal relationship of love and trust between ourselves and the Lord Jesus must be regarded as insufficient. (2) Jesus is not simply, “Lord and Savior.” He is “my Lord”, and “my Savior”, and “The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Galatians 2.20).
But this relationship that Jesus established with us through the Resurrection, as personal and direct as it is, won’t be quite the same as the relationship the disciples enjoyed with Jesus as He walked this earth. It will be of a different order. And this is why Jesus says to Mary, “ Do not hold on to me!” The grammar of this sentence is a present continuous, better translated, “Do not keep holding on to me!” Mary must relinquish the old relationship which she once had with Jesus, where He was physically, and tangibly present to her, and in order to enter into a new relation with Him through the Spirit.
Earlier in the Gospel of John Jesus spoke of his “going to the Father”, ( John 16.28) of being “lifted up,” ( John 12.32), and here of “ascending to the Father.” What in our church calendar we celebrate as three separate and distinct events, His Passion, His Resurrection, and Ascension, in John’s Gospel, are described as different aspects of a single event. Both Jesus’ Passion and His Resurrection are moments in “His Ascension,” which is only completed when the Spirit is given to those who belong to Jesus. Then those who belong to Jesus are made sons and daughters of God and will live in a relationship of love and obedience to Jesus which nothing can destroy.
In the Church when in faith we gather in His Name, and open up the Scriptures that speak of Him, and gather around the Table that He has prepared for us, and through the Spirit that He has given us, we seek His face through prayer, He comes to us. And He comes to us to share His life with us, which is a life of self-offering love that is beyond the reach of death, because it has been given to us in death and through death.
And so Resurrection, in the first instance, is not so much about the promise of ‘life after death’, as it is the promise of the continuing experience of a real and personal communion with Jesus Christ while we are still in this life, and yet headed for the grave. Resurrection, which is the gift of life in communion with God beyond the grave, has now drawn near to us in the person of Jesus Christ. Here Resurrection is no longer just an idea. It has a living face and a name, Jesus, that we can place our faith and trust in. (3)
If by His Passion, Resurrection, and Ascension Jesus establishes a new, living relationship between us and Himself, He also establishes a new and living relationship between us and God. Throughout John’s Gospel, Jesus had always spoken of “my Father,” and “going to the Father.” Now, he speaks not only of “my Father,” but here for the first time of “your Father.” The Resurrection, the relationship which Jesus knew and enjoyed with God, which was His by nature, has become the relationship which we know and enjoy with God, by grace. God has now become “ our Father in heaven…” and we are His beloved children.
And finally, if by His Passion, Resurrection, and Ascension Jesus has established a new, and living relationship between ourselves and Him, and between ourselves and God, He also has established a new and loving relationship between each other.
Jesus tells Mary, “ Go and tell my brothers! ” If God is “our Father”, and Jesus our “older brother”, then we have become forgiven brothers and sisters to one another in the family of God. This is what we celebrate in Holy Baptism. This is where our love of God gets directed to those who belong to Jesus, just as it is directed to Jesus Himself. We love Him in one another, and in so doing bear witness to the Resurrection.
One of the things that I have observed these last few weeks in the church is a renewed outpouring of love and prayer in our midst, as we have become more mindful of one another, and our relationships with one another.
It makes me wonder, in this time of CO-VID , where all of us, in different ways, and to differing extents, have, in union with Jesus, “been brought low into the dust of death” (Psalm 22. 15), whether in the hands of God, this might be for us a time of great renewal of the faith, the hope and the love that is ours through the Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. Death, for the Christian is not something that awaits us, rather it something that is already behind us. As St. Paul reminds us today concerning baptism, “we died” (Colossians 3.3), we surrendered unconditionally the self sufficiency of our life, and “our life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is our life is revealed, then we also will be revealed with him in glory.”( Colossians 3.3,4)
Alleluia! Christ is Risen!
He is Risen Indeed, Alleluia!
(1) Alexander Schmemmann, For the Life of the World (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1998), p. 74
(2) Lesslie Newbiggin, The Light Has Come (Eedermans, 1982), p. 265
(3) Newbiggin, p.142.
(4) Rudolf Bultmann, quoted in Newbiggin, p.266.