Sermon for Easter Sunday, Year C Acts 10:34-43 & John 20:1-18 April 21, 2019
Yesterday evening, we gathered at St. Paul’s in Modesto to celebrate the Great Vigil of Easter. That is a very long service that contains so many elements including the Service of Light, five scripture readings that span centuries of writings from both the Old and New Testaments, the Renewal of Baptismal Vows, and the Holy Eucharist in which we share in the feast that was ordained by Jesus himself. And finally, we are allowed to say “Alleluia!” with great enthusiasm.
I always look forward most to the Renewal of our Baptismal vows, because they state so clearly what we believe and also remind us that we can only fulfill those vows with God’s help. We cannot do it on our own. We will get to proclaim those vows ourselves in a few minutes, when we will baptize little Trey. Baptizing children—baptizing anyone—is one of the best things I get to do as a priest, and I always look forward to it. We are reminded that through baptism we bind ourselves to Jesus, becoming part of the Christian community, initiated into the Church by water and the Holy Spirit. In baptism, we are invited to die to our selves and be reborn in Christ.
Last night, the Gospel reading was from Luke, which is printed in your insert today along with the one from John that our Deacon just read. All four of the Gospel accounts about the Resurrection include women, many of whom are named. This is not a common thing. Most of us who live in this time and place take it for granted that women and men are equally entitled to feature prominently in any story or account that we read. But in the Bible, this is not typical. Women in both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament are often nameless and seldom appear as main characters who have something important to say or do. But things altered after Jesus died and rose again. Women begin to be mentioned, not only as spectators, but also as participants in new ways that included leadership in the early Church.
Our Gospel today is a good example of this change, because a woman is one of the main characters in this chapter of John. A woman is the first one to see the Risen Lord on the first day of the week, that first Easter Sunday. Even after his death, Jesus was still working to change the way his world viewed women. And it’s not just in John’s Gospel. In every one of the four Gospels, Mary Magdalene and other women are given the honor of being the first people to see that huge stone rolled away from the entrance of the tomb where Jesus had lain. Jesus honored these women by appearing to them, and gave them the task of carrying the Good News of the Resurrection to the disciples.
Tradition says that the writer of this Gospel—attributed to John—was describing himself when he used the term, “the disciple that Jesus loved.” Apparently it was not acceptable to simply use the first person when telling the stories about the disciples’ interactions with the Lord. So here we have two men, Simon Peter and John, who have been devastated by the loss of their teacher. Perhaps they are still in shock over what has happened during the past 3 days; they were certainly hiding out from the authorities, fearing that they would be the next ones to die, and not knowing what to do next. Then Mary sees the stone rolled away from the tomb, and runs to tell Peter and John that Jesus’ body is gone.
Picture these two men, worn out by grief, as they set out for the garden in which Jesus was entombed. They begin to walk slowly, puzzling over what has happened to the Lord’s body. As the reality of that news sinks in, John breaks into a run, and he can’t resist letting his readers know that he beat the older man to the tomb. Yet out of respect for Peter, he waits and lets him go in first. They check the empty tomb and head for home, still puzzling and scratching their heads about what has happened.
Then the story shifts back to Mary. First, she encounters two angelic beings in the tomb, and if that isn’t startling enough, she then meets Jesus, alive, in the flesh. But he must have been changed in some way, because at first she didn’t know who he was. It was the voice of Jesus that brought her to her senses. All he had to do was to speak her name, and instantly she knew it was the Lord. The passage ends with Jesus instructing Mary to deliver the message to the disciples. This is revolutionary! Jesus instructed Mary—not Peter or John— to be the Messenger of the Good News. In Greek, the word for messenger is “apostolos” from which we get our English word, “Apostle.” That is why Mary Magdalene is sometimes called “Christ’s first apostle.”
The Good News that was given to Mary on that first Easter Sunday was a message intended for all people. As we heard in the reading from Acts today, Peter entered the house of a Gentile, Cornelius, and preached the Good News to his entire household. Peter said to the large gathering, “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts people from every nation who fear him and do what is right.”
To our modern ears, this sounds like a logical thing to say, at least in theory. But to a devout Jew like Peter, this is a revolutionary statement. This changes everything. For generations, Jews like Peter had absorbed the message that only they were chosen as God’s people. Everyone else was excluded from the Kingdom of God. Now his attitude has changed, and he realizes that everyone is a child of God, worthy of forgiveness and salvation. What really convinced Peter that he was following the right path is that, before he could even get around to baptizing the gathered Gentiles, he witnessed the Holy Spirit coming upon them. Jesus had promised the disciples in Jerusalem that they would be baptized by the Holy Spirit, but Peter had never dreamed it would be possible for Gentiles as well as for Jews.
Remember that message when you run into people who think it’s ok to exclude others from God’s love and salvation. There is an awful lot of that going around in our world today. The message of our salvation, freely given to every one of us by Jesus is that death is no longer the end of our existence. We live on, even after death, united with God our Creator. Jesus conquered death and the grave, and has ensured our own eternal life with God, through Christ, our Saviour and Redeemer.
Now it is our turn to see the miracle of redemption happen once again, as it has for untold millions over the centuries of the Church. Because that’s what happens when we baptize a new Christian into the household of Jesus Christ. As we witness the baptism of Trey and renew our own baptismal vows, we affirm our faith that through Jesus, we are born anew to a life of God’s promise of unconditional love.