Sermon by Rev Sydney Maitland for Sunday 1 April 2018.
In the vestry there is a photograph of a priest. He is my grandfather who died some 5 years before I was born. He was also called Sydney and I very much look forward to meeting him when the time comes.
But I know him only by reputation and not with any particular personal familiarity. In that sense he is a stranger to me.
We cannot know those who are dead except as we remember them, or as others may speak of them. Yet all our lessons are about people who have known Jesus, not just in the past or by reputation but in the present.
In the Gospel we are told of Mary Magdalene’s personal encounter with Jesus. It was definitely the same Jesus whom she had known, and yet there was more to Him.
He was able to appear at will, and even to appear without being recognized. But when He spoke her name, Mary was immediately able to recognize him and indeed wanted to cling to Him.
And so Jesus had to tell her that He now had things to do and people to see and that she must not try to hold Him back. She must release Him and learn to know Him as the Jesus who had died and yet had risen again. There would be new dimensions to who He was and what He was going to do.
But one thing was common to all three lessons: Mary, Paul and the apostles were all to put the word around that Jesus had come back from the dead and was very much alive. They were not to keep it a secret for Jesus was indeed there to be known in the present.
Indeed, Mary was the first of the evangelists and even when others were likely to dismiss her story she must maintain it for it was true.
Then there were Peter and John, who had heard Mary’s first plea of distress over the empty tomb. At that point she had not seen Jesus so they ran to investigate. Peter might have been the first into the tomb, but John was the first of them all to believe. John came to a personal faith before Jesus had even appeared to Mary Magdalene.
John, the beloved disciple who had been next to Jesus at the Last Supper, and who had managed to gain access to Jesus’ trial before Annas. John who had been at the foot of the cross and to whom Jesus had entrusted the care of His mother – he was the first of all people to believe in Jesus, and to do so before he had even seen Him.
John was the first to know Jesus as the resurrected Lord, and it is interesting that Jesus had told Mary to tell the other disciples, especially Peter. Peter was probably still traumatized by his repeated denial of Jesus, and would need special encouragement.
But for John the truth was there, living and breathing, coming and going, knowing and being known and in his heart, John was the first to know Jesus risen from the dead.
Then we are told that Jesus appeared to some 500 followers, outwith the band of disciples. And they also came to see Him and in that time when it was so important that the story be told, they also would be able to add their personal confirmation to the 11 disciples’ stories.
Finally, we are told that He appeared to Paul, who at that moment was busy persecuting the church. By this time Jesus had ascended to heaven and yet He was still able to appear to and make Himself known to anyone He wished. And yes, Paul was also changed forever.
The real point of these lessons is that to know Jesus in the resurrection is to know Him personally.
There is no other way to know Him except through that personal encounter. It is one thing to know about Him and to read books or attend church services. But it is another to know Him personally.
But imagine a doctor who has qualified but never practiced. He may have read the books, done the laboratory work and passed the exams, but without attending to patients then he or she is not practicing. And going into a hospital or local clinic will not make that person a doctor until he or she starts examining and treating patients.
Equally to go into a garage does not make us into a mechanic. And so with the church: without knowing Jesus Christ personally then we will never be able to live the Christian hope or be lit up with the Christian faith, no matter how many books we read or services we attend.
But Jesus stressed again and again in His resurrection appearances that the story must be told and others must have the opportunity to come to know Him. The church was never intended to be solely engaged in its own life or administration. It was always to be there to proclaim that Jesus was alive and that death could not hold Him, let alone claim Him.
For some to tell the story will be a challenge – for Mary is was definitely one. But it was a task that Jesus had entrusted to her because He was confident that she could do it.
And what was true for her is definitely true for us. He is alive!