April 7, 2021

Easter Day Sermon

A Sermon preached by Jazz Wilson-Gray on Easter Sunday

John 20:1-18

So we come to a very fantastic part of the Christian story. After Jesus’s painful death by crucifixion, John records that Joseph, one of Jesus’s disciples, receives permission to take away the body. Alongside the Pharisee Nicodemus, they bind Jesus in linen cloths and spices, placing him in a new tomb within a garden.

That was two nights ago. Now comes the dawn.

Mary Magdalene arrives at the tomb where Jesus was laid, only to find it empty. She alerts the disciples, and they too see the empty tomb, and the linen cloths in which Jesus was wrapped, ‘folded up in a place by itself’. The other disciples leave, puzzled, but Mary remains, weeping over the tomb.

She peers inside the tomb, and there sees two angels sitting where Jesus’s body had lain. When they ask her who she is looking for, she replies ‘They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him’.  Having said this, she turns around…and there stands Jesus before her, asking ‘Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?’. However, Mary does not recognise him as Jesus. Instead, she takes him to be the gardener, insisting ‘Sir, if you carried him away, tell me where you have laid him.’

There is something comic and innocent about this scene. In the depths of Mary’s mournfulness, she cannot find the one of whom she weeps. And, thinking she has had a chance encounter with a gardener, furthermore believes that the gardener would know something about why Jesus’s tomb is empty, not to mention why there might be two angels hanging out inside. It could be the start – or the end – of a play not unlike The Comedy of Errors.

But it is not altogether without significance that Mary mistakes Jesus for a gardener, nor that his tomb was set within a garden. After all, this story began avery long time ago, in a garden not so far, far away: The Garden of Eden. That
garden was a place where sin, and death through sin, came into the world through Adam. And here, in a garden, is where Jesus triumphs over sin and death. To call him a gardener is also apropos: at the beginning of John’s Gospel, we are told that Jesus was with God in the beginning, and that all things were made through him (John 1:1-3). Perhaps, then, we can see Jesus as a gardener: The Gardener of Eden.

I wonder how many times in life we feel we are not seen for who we truly are. We are mistaken for a version of ourselves we do not recognise, and endlessly pigeon-holed into being this person we know ourselves not to be. And yet it is so easy to live down to people’s low expectations of us. How hard it is to be recognised truly for who we are.

And yet, it is at this point in the story that Jesus addressed Mary, speaking her name. Jesus does recognise us for who we truly are, even when we do not recognise him. Neither are you overlooked or anonymous; you are not just another drop in the ocean. You are a prized possession of God’s, and he cherishes you to such an extent that not a single hair on your head is left uncounted. As John says elsewhere, ‘The sheep hear his voice, as he calls his own sheep by name and,leads them out…the sheep follow him, for they know his voice’ (John 10:3). And so it turns out for Mary, as she suddenly recognises that the man before her is Jesus.

Hawk-eyed readers of this story will then notice something odd: in verse 16, after Jesus speaks Mary’s name, it says Mary ‘turned and said to him ‘Rabboni!’, which is a formal way of saying ‘teacher’. Just two verses ago Mary had already turned tonJesus, although at that point she thought he was the gardener. And here we are now with Mary turning again to Jesus. Did she spin 360 degrees? No – this turning is not an outward, physical turning, but rather an inward turning. The man who was the gardener she now sees as Jesus. A moment ago he was a stranger, but now
not only does Jesus recognise Mary; Mary recognises Jesus.

Some of you may be familiar with an especially well-known image by Jastrow


What kind of animal do you think is depicted on this image? The extraordinary feature about Jastrow’s duck/rabbit image is that, although it can be seen as a duck or as a rabbit, the image itself never changes. Compare this with other experiences you have in life. For example, you may see a painting at the Tate Britain to which you pay little regard or, perhaps, find ugly. Then, maybe myears go by and you return to view this same painting and see value and meaning everywhere: you now find this same painting beautiful. What changed?

Or: has there ever been a genre of music you absolute hated? Maybe grime and hip hop just isn’t the one for you. Or maybe you heard the choir of St Mary’s sing and you thought: not exactly Kings is it? [In fact, maybe that’s why you’re attending the 08:30 service]. But then, someone might share with you why they enjoy the music, the history of the composers or the genre itself, how it has affected them…and then, as if in a flash, it all makes sense to you. What you could not recognise or enjoy before, you now connect to and can anchor to it a sense of meaning, of value.

There are many such experiences in life we could compare this to. The 20th Century Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein called this ‘seeing an aspect’. The picture of the duck/rabbit is always static – it never changes. But how we see it can change: we can see the same image as a duck, or as a rabbit. Sometimes, through great attention and concentration, we can cause ourselves to see another aspect to a thing or an experience, but ultimately whether we see that aspect is down to something beyond our efforts alone – one might call it ‘grace’.

So, what is it that makes the Christian see Jesus as the Redeemer of the world? What makes anyone consider the details of the Easter story and believe any of it? None of us are in a position to travel back in time and verify these accounts. We cannot meet the man, see his trial and crucifixion, see him wrapped in linen and lain in a tomb, see him rise and emerge, see or touch his hands and side like the disciples. No – here we are, 2000 years into the future, and the space between Jesus of Nazareth and the 21st Century human being is thick from the fog of time. How can we recognise Jesus as our Saviour?

In order to answer that question, I may need you to understand that I am a philosopher, and unfortunately philosophers are silly people who engage in all sorts of silly thought-experiments. But hang with me for a moment while I walk you through this one:

How do we recognise other human beings as human beings? How is it that we can look at a human face and see not just an assortment of skin and bones, but a person too? After all, they could just be mere automatons: objects that look like us but are not really human. And yet, for most of us, when we see another human being we see them as human – like us, with hopes, fears and purposes, with valuable lives, as valuable as our own.

Simone Weil, the 20th Century French mystic, comments that ‘Belief in the existence of other human beings as such is love’ (Gravity and Grace, 56); in other words, to see another human being as human is itself an act of love. Indeed, not seeing other human beings as people can have devastating results: people being kept as slaves, people being held in concentration camps, people made to engage in dehumanising activities. The reason we still manage to look at one
another and see a person in the face of our neighbours, in the face of strangers, and even sometimes in the face of those who have hurt us, we might say: is love.

This kind of aspect-seeing almost forces itself upon us, as though we had no choice. Which is part of the point: reason doesn’t come into it. And just as we do not reason to conjecture grounds upon which someone else is human (or, at least, we shouldn’t), we do not reason to establish whether Jesus is really the Redeemer of the world. If he is our Saviour, and we see him as such, it is because of love. And as St Paul reminds us, ‘Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things’ (1 Corinthians 13:7). Although love is not easy, we can – like Mary Magdalene – come to recognise Jesus, this man who was crucified and rose again, as the Redeemer of the world. And as he makes the way for us to communewith God, may we enter into that communion with joy: freedom at last, redeemed at last, knowing fully, even as we are fully known. Amen.

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