Easter Vigil: Don’t Be Afraid, Come and See

Tonight is my favourite service of the year – the Easter Vigil. I love this service because it has all the elements that I love. It starts outside and in the dark with the lighting of the Paschal candle before processing into the church, the Exultant is sung, baptism vows are renewed and the first Eucharist is celebrated. Tonight I have been invited to preach.

St Thomas – Easter Vigil

Romans 6:3-11
Matthew 28:1-10

Risen Christ,
for whom no door is locked, no entrance barred:
open the doors of our hearts,
that we may seek the good of others
and walk the joyful road of sacrifice and peace,
to the praise of God the Father. Amen

I took the time this week to read and re-read the four gospel accounts of the first Easter Day. There are of course many similarities and many differences given the differing perspectives each of the writers had on this one event. I don’t think these differences diminish one over another but gives a richness, a fullness to the whole story.

I tend to like the mention of the women bringing perfume and spices in Mark and Luke. My younger sister on hearing one of these accounts at Sunday School, asked our Mum if she would please put perfume and spices on my sister’s body when she died. This was quite profound for a five-year-old: when she died, not if she died.

With all their differences there are things common to them accounts. One of these is that each gospel tells of something completely unexpected. Despite his teaching, Jesus’ followers had no expectation that he would rise from the dead. The resurrection came as a wonderful surprise!

My hope is that we have not lost the surprise of the resurrection. Yes we have the benefit of hindsight and we know how the story ends but this came mean that we lose the expectation, the surprise.

When was the last time you were genuinely surprised by something that blew away your expectations? Can we, for a few minutes, place ourselves in the story tonight? Try to forget that we know the ending?

There are three common elements in the four gospel accounts: the empty tomb, the announcement of the resurrection to the women, and the meeting of the disciples with the risen Jesus.

The empty tomb is found as the first day of the week was dawning, very early, while it is still dark; darkness signifies confusion and lack of understanding. Matthew does not make mention of the perfume and spices; the women would not have been able to see very much in the darkness and the guards wouldn’t have let them anyway.

For Matthew, the only reason the Marys were there was to see the tomb. They were there. They had seen the condition of Jesus’ body as they were at the cross until the end. I’m not sure if they wanted to see the body again, that would have been a horrible sight. Yet they were still willing to go, just to be there. How ready are we to go to in darkness and confusion, when things don’t make sense? When the job that is at hand is pretty horrible?

I don’t want to dampen the festive mood too much but neither do I want to gloss over the events of that first Easter morning. The sun rose that day as it has every day since but that isn’t to say that it was all Easter bonnets and bunnies.

I remember watching Cardinal Luis Tagle, he is the Archbishop of Manilla and the president of Caritas (the largest charity in the world) be interviewed; he is a very smiley and jovial man. He was asked about this and he commented, ‘as a people, it is true that for me and many Filipinos that we smile and laugh a lot because we cry a lot. People who have suffered know who to smile.’

In a few verses, the Marys leave the tomb quickly with fear and great joy. They went to the tomb to do one thing that they had expected and planned to do yet came away totally differently. They had to cry a lot before the joy came.

We will get to the joy but not quite yet!

I think that I have always pictured that first Easter morning as a fairly calm affair. The sun rose, the tomb was empty. I want it to be a calm affair – help my nerves Lord. No earthquakes and be-dazzled angels looking like lighting. I do like this angel though as he rolled back to stone and gets to the point. He also has two very important messages for the Marys.

The first one is: ‘Do not be afraid, I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified.

What are you afraid of?
What is it the keeps you awake in the middle of the night?

I am afraid of being forgotten, left behind or left out. I was on a ride along shift with Thames Valley Police emergency response Team 5 last night. I had been working on one of the computers when I realised the crew that had been assigned to look after me weren’t in the report room anymore. My first thought was, they forgot me.

Just as I am thinking this thought, another officer came to tell me that the crew had gone down to the wash bay and I was to meet them there in 5 minutes. Still convinced that I was to be left behind, I grabbed my hi-vis and went outside to the cars. The crew were washing the car and had decided to hoover it as well as they had ‘their vicar’ riding with them. Not only had I not been forgotten, special attention was being paid to make sure that I was not forgotten!

We get so convinced sometimes that we know! And so often we don’t. In the Romans reading, Paul talks of having the old self crucified with him so that sin might be destroyed; and we can be free. I think that I still have some of the old self still be crucified.

The angel knew exactly what the Marys were looking for. He knew their fears, their confusion and doubt. They get addressed! By showing up at the tomb, despite their feelings and their fears, the Marys have these very things addressed.

There is a lesson in this for those of us who have real fears. Bring them in the dark to God so he can reveal his light. He knows. You aren’t hiding anything from him. For some of us, we need to face up to our fears, get up close to them and see them for what they are. Sometimes they are nothing but by getting a closer look we can see that for ourselves.

Here’s the other thing, you don’t just have to take his word for it. The angel invites the Marys to ‘Come, see the place where he lay.’ The stone was rolled away, they could see for themselves that Jesus was not there. In my relatively trivial example of the police last night, I was not only told but was shown that I was not forgotten or about to be left behind.

Come and see that the Lord is good.

The Marys come to see and then they had to go with the message for the disciples that Jesus was going ahead of them to Galilee and will meet them there. Obedient to the instructions with fear and great joy they go.
Suddenly Jesus met them.

Suddenly! No expectation from the Marys, Jesus is there in front of them. Taking hold of his feet, without shame or reservation. Jesus wasn’t a ghost or an illusion – the resurrection body was real. Jesus knows the fear that his sudden appearing would have provoked. He welcomes them, the Mary’s knew who it was and worshipped him.

All four gospel accounts start in both literal and metaphorical darkness, in confusion, fear and no expectations of the resurrection. Each account ends with the proclamation that the Risen Jesus is indeed light and life.

We mirror this in the first Easter Eucharist we are about to celebrate tonight. We began in darkness, in fear. The fears that we have are known to God if no one else. We are invited in the Eucharist to exchange our fears, our slavery to that fear with light and life. We are invited to come, see the place where he lay; eat and drink in remembrance of what Jesus has done for us, and then go and tell so we too might walk in the newness of life.

Easter Sunday: Restored, Redeemed & Released

Christ is Risen! Alleluia! I can’t stop saying that this morning! This morning’s sermon is of course focused on the empty tomb of Jesus and how 4 people encounter the Risen Christ: Mary Magdalene, John the Beloved Disciple, Peter and James the brother of Jesus.

Easter Sunday – 01/04/18

Isaiah 25:6-9, 1 Corinthians 15:1-11

John 20:1-18

Risen Christ,
for whom no door is locked, no entrance barred:
open the doors of our hearts,
that we may seek the good of others
and walk the joyful road of sacrifice and peace,
to the praise of God the Father. Amen

I recently heard about a Curate who was asked to preach on his first Easter Sunday in the Parish. He got into the pulpit, announced that ‘Jesus is Risen. There is nothing more to say.’ And promptly sat back down. While tempting as that may seem – I do have more to say than that.

Jesus is Risen. That is the message of today.

But for Jesus to rise we have to endure the pain of Good Friday, the longing of Easter Saturday to finally get to the joy of Easter Sunday. I know this – and you probably do too. I have talked to a few people this week who would prefer to skip over Good Friday and its focus on Jesus’ death and death more widely. But this doesn’t make it easier!

But first we have to face to the tomb. This morning we will look at the life changing encounters of 4 people with the Risen Jesus. If you have heard this story a thousand times – I urge you to approach the tomb with fresh eyes and ears this morning.

If we believe that on the cross of Good Friday Jesus took on all our sin, shame, fear, anxiety, doubt, loneliness, grief, disappointment – everything that is wrong, and it died with him – then what does the empty tomb of Easter Sunday look like for us?


In the other Gospel accounts there are a variety of Marys and other women at the tomb that first day; but Mary Magdalene is named in all of them. Mary had gotten to know Jesus and the disciples – as she has been with them. Mary Magdalene was also at the cross and on the first Easter morning she is at the tomb.

Mary goes to the tomb when it was still dark. Darkness in John’s Gospel was his way of indicating confusion, misunderstanding and unbelief. Mary has seen all that has happened in the last few days; yet she doesn’t understand it and she is emotionally overwhelmed.

So overwhelmed that she doesn’t get all the way to the tomb the first time. When she saw that the tomb was open her automatic assumption was that Jesus’ body had been stolen. Then she runs to get Peter and John. Mary is fragile – her grief must have been immense. Her emotional fragility keeps her back.


Then we have John, the disciple whom Jesus loved – also the disciple that wrote this account! Tells us twice that he got to the tomb before Peter. But John stops short too – he hesitates. John does get further than Mary – he at least looks in the tomb even though he doesn’t go in.

John’s struggle is deep disappointment. John was loyal, faithful and obedient to the end – only male disciple left at the foot of the cross. All that loyalty, all that faithful service – all for nothing. Maybe John couldn’t face one more disappointment. Maybe John got as far as he could – but not one more step.

Maybe like John you keep praying, serving, doing the stuff but maybe there are not as many victories as you would like. Not willing to risk any more disappointment with life, with people.


In keeping with his personality – Peter runs right into the tomb. Got there second but the first one in. Peter goes further than Mary and John. Peter is spurred on by guilt and shame. Peter – on his run – is hoping that it is all true – he needs one more chance, needs to be redeemed and start again.

Peter loved Jesus – but when it really really mattered Peter failed Jesus in his denial. We all have had Peter moments. Guilt and shame is exhausting to carry around.


You might not have been expecting him! This James is the half-brother of Jesus; the first born of Joseph and Mary. He is not listed in John’s Gospel but Paul includes him as one whom Jesus appeared to.

Jesus appeared to those people who really needed to see Him the most. Mary was emotionally wrecked, John was disappointed; Peter had denied Jesus.

Why James? In the recent Bible Study on the Book of James that some of us participated in and this question was addressed. Jesus’ biological family do not come across particularly well in the Gospels – they don’t believe Him, they are embarrassed by Him; they try to stop Him from doing what he was sent to do.

Anyone with complicated family dynamics will understand this!

James is an unbeliever – a mocking, scorning unbelieving brother of Jesus. Imagine what it might have been like growing up with Jesus? James didn’t get it – despite having grown up with Jesus, seeing first-hand what he was doing. He missed it completely.

So Mary comes to the tomb emotionally fragile and not understanding; John arrives with deep disappointment and Peter gets there spurred on by guilt and shame looking for a fresh start. James – we are not sure when James encounters his Risen brother Jesus. There is no record in the Bible – I think this means that this meeting was private, personal.

Then they all encounter the Risen Jesus. They all go away from their encounters changed, believing. This is how we should come away from encountering the Risen Jesus.

Let’s look at how they went away…


Mary goes back to the tomb a second time after she gets Peter and John. She is still weeping; still not understanding. She finally looks in the tomb. So disturbed is she that the 2 angels don’t even seem to phase her. Everyone else that encounters angels in the NT react with fear! Even Mary and Joseph. Not Mary Magdalene.

Mary is so distressed that she doesn’t even recognise Jesus when he appears to her – He is the one she is looking for! Until He says her name – Mary! Then it all clicks. She heard the voice of the good shepherd who laid down his life for the sheep, who knows and calls them by name.

Mary has not been abandoned. Jesus is alive. But she still doesn’t fully understand because she is looking for the body and calls Jesus ‘rabbouni’ – teacher. Jesus is more than that. So he sends her away with the gift of new sight – being able to see the old with the new. Jesus then sends her back to the disciples to explain to them what has happened.

Jesus is more than we think he is. I think sometimes we need a fresh look at Jesus. We can reduce him down to fit our understanding; we can begin to believe in a Jesus of our own making – who likes and hates the same things that we do.


John enters the tomb after Peter – but he was the first one there – don’t forget. John was the first one to see the burial linen and the first one to believe.

John’s encounter with the Risen Jesus is to believe in Jesus’ resurrection, believe that a new creation had begun and believe that the world had turned a corner. The placement of the grave clothes for John was all the proof he needed. Why is this important?

If you remember from the story of the raising of Lazarus, he needed someone to untie him; a bit like a mummy and needs to be unbound. Lazarus comes back into a world and would die again. When Jesus came out of the tomb – his strips of linen remain on the bench where he was laid as though his body passed through.

Jesus has gone on through death into a new world, a new creation, a new beyond where death had been defeated and life in fullness could begin at last.  This meant that John could leave his disappointment behind – all that he had done – all the loyalty, faithfulness – was all for something, someone.


While Peter’s ‘big’ encounter with the Risen Jesus happens on the beach a little while on from today – Peter’s restoration, redemption starts today. He needed the tomb to be empty – for Jesus to have been raised as he said he would be.

Peter comes away from the tomb and it is a new day, a fresh start for him. He could leave his guilt and shame behind.


Then he meets Jesus, his brother in those first few days or weeks after the resurrection. James came to realise who Jesus was. Maybe he felt like a fraud, ashamed he didn’t get it sooner. Missed what was in front of his face for all those years.  We like James can miss it too – what has been in front of us all along. We get overly familiar or under-impressed or don’t think it applied to us.

Jesus shows us that the power of the resurrection trumps the power of the past if we’re willing to let it. (Beth Moore). In his meeting with Jesus, James is freed from his past.

So Mary gets to the tomb overwhelmed by grief and emotion, looking for the dead body. She encounters Jesus – goes away knowing that she has not been abandoned and with a new understanding of who Jesus is that she now needs to tell the others about. Jesus is more than enough!

John came disappointed and let down and goes away believing in the Resurrection and who Jesus is. Everything that he had done had meant something, been worth it.

Peter came in burdened with shame and guilt and goes away with a fresh start. In the Acts reading today – we see what Peter went on and did with his fresh start. He told people about Jesus with power and purpose and persuasion. He did it for the rest of his life and was eventually crucified for it – on a cross.

James meets is brother and is freed from the past. His life is on a new course – James remains in Jerusalem, becomes the Bishop and leads the new church there. James would go on to have a huge influence on the church.

The empty tomb proved once and for all that death has been defeated – there is hope beyond the grave. There is Risen life with Jesus for us all.

Whatever condition you find yourself in at the tomb this morning – an encounter with Jesus can change you, heal you, restore, redeem and release you. This is what today is about.