Christ being raised from the dead dieth no more…Likewise reckon ye yourselves to be dead indeed unto sin, but alive unto God through Jesus Christ our Lord…
Jesus suffered a savage scourging and crucifixion and he died about 3:00 p.m. on a Friday. Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus wrapped his body in clean linen cloths and they wrapped his face with a sudarium, what our text calls a “napkin.” They put his body in Joseph’s new tomb which was in a garden close to Calvary. The women who loved Jesus watched all this at a short distance. While that was happening, Pilate, at the Pharisee’s request, dispatched a guard of Roman soldiers, around 16 men, to establish a chain of custody for the body of Jesus. It was the “koustodia,” the Roman Guard, that officially sealed the tomb thus establishing Caesar’s custody over the lifeless body of Christ. All that was accomplished before sunset on Friday.
“The first day of the week cometh Mary Magdalene early, when it was yet dark, unto the sepulchre, and seeth the stone taken away from the sepulchre. Then she runneth, and cometh to Simon Peter, and to the other disciple, whom Jesus loved, and saith unto them, They have taken away the Lord out of the sepulchre, and we know not where they have laid him.”
Early on the third day of his burial before sunrise, Mary Magdalene and other women went to the tomb in order to complete a proper Jewish burial. When they arrived the stone was rolled away. The Romans were gone. Mary, probably assuming that the Romans had taken the body, ran to Peter and the other disciples who were likely staying in the rented room in which Jesus, on Thursday night, had instituted the Eucharist. Peter and John ran to the tomb. John beat Peter to the tomb but he waited for Peter to enter first. Astonishingly the grave cloths were there on the stone slab where Jesus was laid. And the sudarium, the head covering was there as well, but it was rolled up neatly by itself.
“Then went in also that other disciple, which came first to the sepulchre, and he saw, and believed. For as yet they knew not the scripture, that he must rise again from the dead.”
John followed and he saw what Peter saw, namely the grave cloths just lying there and the neatly rolled up head covering and the text says, “he saw and he believed.” What did he believe? Not that Jesus had been resurrected, but rather he believed Mary’s report that someone had taken the body of Jesus. At this point the Apostles have no narrative of the resurrection. Their narrative is that Jesus is dead and someone has moved his body, just like Mary said. Peter and John returned to the other disciples leaving Mary at the tomb.
When we experience something that does not make sense, we may feel alienated by the strangeness, by the unknown, but we quickly recover by interpreting the strangeness away. We don’t permit strangeness to linger long and for many of us the sense of wonder that may be quickened by the unfamiliar is a long lost memory of childhood. The poet or the mystic may get caught up in wonder even without the lure of oddness, but most of us seldom experience the world with the blessedness of a naïve heart. The world comes our way as pre-interpreted, meaning is prepackaged and that allow us to move through life a little quicker so we can get on to things we want to do. But occasionally we experience something so weird that it defies interpretation because we don’t even have words and categories to talk about it. Such was the case with the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. It was so weird, so strange that the very newness of it disabled the disciples’ natural tendency to interpret it. In fact it took some time for the Church to know, to understand what happened on that patch of real estate in Jerusalem on the first Sunday following Jesus’ crucifixion.
Now, Mary was worn out and her last real meal was probably with Jesus – four days ago. She had seen horrific torture inflicted on Jesus. She was traumatized. Her affect is flat. She was drained, exhausted, very nearly used up. The only thing motivating her at this point is — not grief — but fining Jesus’ dead body. Mary mustered the courage to look into the tomb herself and she saw two Angles sitting there.
Now under normal circumstance if you see an angel it is traumatizing. In the Book of Revelation John sees an angel and he faints. Had Mary not been in a state of clinical shock, she would have frozen in fear and trembling. But very little of her experience was registering with her in a normal way. Be attentive to the text. This is the very picture of what we call today, as I have said, clinical shock. Even when the angels speak to her she answers flatly. What keeps her going, what literally enables her to put one foot in front of the other, is a single question: “Where is Jesus’ body?” Mary turned around as to walk away from the angles and Jesus was standing right there. She mistook him for the gardener and again begged for his dead body. The narrative that Mary is bringing to this event is not a resurrection narrative. Her’s is a narrative of death and loss that she is unable to let go of until Jesus speaks her name, “Mary.” Maybe it took a few seconds to sink in — we don’t know — but when it did she fell at his feet weeping. Without any categories to understand what was happening, without any prepackaged resurrection narrative available to her, she simply gave herself to this event and his love. No one in the world could say Mary’s name like Jesus. There are two things I want you to understand: Though Jesus was standing right in front her, at that point she did not understand, she did not have our understanding of what a resurrection is and she probably thought it was like Lazarus raising. That’s a mighty flawed understanding of the resurrection. But it was her experience of the resurrected Lord that provided her and the Church with an emerging understanding of the resurrection. Secondly, she knew one thing — unbelievable as it may be, the robust man standing in front of her was not recovering from unfathomable torture. But she also knew this was Jesus and he was full of life and he was in control. He sent her to Peter with the message that he is risen from the dead. According to Luke some of the disciples went back to the tomb after this but they did not see Jesus and they fell deeper into despair.
It was hardly Noon and the disciples were breaking up and leaving Jerusalem because it had become a dangerous place for them. Among those getting out of Jerusalem were two of Jesus’ disciple returning to their home in Emmaus. You know the story. They were utterly crushed by what had befallen Jesus. And as they walked on toward the village, Jesus began walking with them but they did not recognize him. These men have a narrative and if we listen to them we will easily learn it: “We had hoped that Jesus would restore the nation of Israel.” Please note that the resurrection has nothing to do with their story. But at the end of journey as the resurrected Lord broke bread their eyes were opened and they knew their companion to be the resurrected Christ. They turned around and as fast as they could they walked back to Jerusalem to the place where they knew they would find the other disciples. And when they arrived at the upper room they cried out “The Lord is risen indeed!” And by this time other disciples were returning to the upper room because Jesus had appeared to some of them just as he had appeared to the women. And then suddenly Jesus came and stood in the midst of them and cried out, “Peace be unto you!” And they were filled with wonderment, fear, and with great joy.
Day One began with Jesus’ morning appearance to Mary and it ended with the Church in Jerusalem gathering around Peter and the other Apostles. But as you know Thomas was inexplicably absence. The next Sunday Thomas was in Church when Jesus appeared at the celebration of the Eucharist.
Everything I have laid out here really happened and I have only skimmed the surface. The meaning for us and all creation will take all eternity to unfold. One last point: Caesar never stops trying to take custody of the Body of Christ one way or the other. But regardless of how high and mighty, how menacing, how ominous they are, Caesars are puny and they always die. You belong to Jesus and Jesus has custody of you and your body and that is for good and no one can take you from him!
Christ being raised from the dead dieth no more…Likewise reckon ye yourselves to be dead indeed unto sin, but alive unto God through Jesus Christ our Lord…
The text appointed for the sermon is taken from the Epistle: “Awake, thou that sleepest, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give thee light.”
A couple of months ago, I finished reading The Lord of the Rings to my son Phin. It had been a long time since I read this trilogy about Middle Earth, so I had forgotten some of the key parts of the story near the end. If any of you have read this fantasy series, especially out loud, you will know that the climax to the story comes, and you realize that there are still 80 pages to read. The evil in the story has been overcome, the ring destroyed, the king is crowned and sits on his throne. It seems like the story should end there, but then the hobbits (Frodo, Sam, Pippin, and Merry) have to return to the Shire, their homeland, and when they do, they find the place in a mess. The final chapters detail the scourging of the Shire, as the hobbits kick out the last remnants of evil remaining in Middle Earth. To some, these pages appear to be tacked on, as if Tolkein just loved writing so much he forgot to stop when the story stopped. But, I have come to realize how important this section is to the whole story, because it highlights the way in which evil is encountered and conquered while the final days of its reign come to an end.
I bring this up, because this week’s Gospel illuminates our struggle with the devil and his demons. While we know that Christ has conquered evil, he was resurrected from the dead and ascended to His Father, we still deal in our temporal lives with the day to day struggle with the devil and we witness evil in our world. In our Collect for this morning, we still pray: “stretch forth the right hand of thy Majesty, to be our defence against all our enemies.” And those enemies, of course, are both physical (for those Christians who face physical persecution) but also spiritual (for all of us who fight against our enemy the devil and his demons). So what is our relationship with these demons now that Christ has conquered death? Well, like the Hobbits, we are now in a unique time, in which the end has been achieved, but we still fight the forces still lingering and fleeing the present King. It is a time which the NT writers and Early Church deemed the Last Days. This morning I want to investigate this more in order to help you see what is our present fight with Satan and his demons.
All the way back in Genesis, the fight with Satan begins. And even as Satan has tricked Adam and Eve to lose their innocence and behold their own nakedness, God declares that Satan’s head will be crushed by the seed of Eve. The end has been declared even while at the same time, God declares that there will be enmity between the serpent and the seed of Eve. And indeed, there is enmity because Satan hates God’s good creation, especially those silly, fleshy creatures called humans. Satan thought he ruined all of creation when he tempted Eve, but all of his work is turned by Almighty God to greater good. Therefore, when Adam and Eve ate of that forbidden fruit, Satan rejoiced because he saw that humanity itself had been wounded.
And indeed, without Christ, man is succumbed to the wounds of the fall–wounds that are festering and kill a man in the end. Not only is our state of being in sin and death, but our struggle against the devil is weak and insufficient. We are ignorant of spiritual things, we have lost the inclination to do good, we have a disordered desire for our immediate sensual needs, and we have a weakened will to stand against the difficult temptations of the devil.
This is the description of the man whom Jesus mentions in the Gospel. He might fight off a demon for a day, clean his house so to speak, but then the demon comes back with seven companions and now his first state is worse than the first. You see, the man attempts to reform himself, but he is unable to fill his soul with the truly Good and so when the demons come back and find his house ready for more occupants, they come right on in. Man has been so wounded by the fall that he cannot help himself fight off the demons
But the story does not end there, praise be to God. There is a secret prayer of the priest at the offering of the host that says: “O God who did wonderfully create, but more wonderfully renew the dignity and nature of mankind…” God has renewed mankind through Jesus Christ. And already in Lent we have seen Jesus re-work the errors of our parents Adam and Eve. In the wilderness, Jesus renews the dignity of mankind by perfectly obeying the Will of His Father and rejecting the temptations of the devil.
This week we now see Jesus come with authority and devils flee before his presence. They scream to get away from Him. Luke records that Jesus sends out 70 disciples, and they come back amazed that the devils are subject to them just by the name of Jesus. God has come among his people and Satan with all his demons tremble at the sight. But Jesus knows that mankind needs more help than just the power over demons. And so he heads to Jerusalem and His death in order to conquer death for all of us. At the Cross, another time where Satan thinks he has triumphed, Jesus dies so that all of us may live in him. Finally, death itself has been overcome, and mankind is free from the wounds of the fall. The wounds now may heal by the power of Christ, the temptations of the devil may be overcome, and we may conquer death by entering into eternal life.
Let me be clear, we still do fight against the devil. But we fight knowing that we are fighting in victory. That victory is declared to us when we are baptized. If you look at the liturgy for baptism, you will see that we pray for God to mystically wash away sins, but then to fill the soul with the Holy Ghost. Any time there is an exorcism we cast out the evil and then fill the space with a blessing, in this case, the Holy Ghost himself. We do not, like in the Gospel passage, cast out a demon and then live it empty. No, your soul and body are filled with the Holy Ghost, the spirit of the Living God!
This is why Saint Paul, in the Epistle appointed for this morning, declares so boldly: “Now are ye light in the Lord: walk as children of light!” For Paul, there is an urgency, not because we are about to lose the fight, but because we have already won, and he desires so strongly that you and the Ephesians stay on the winning side. “And have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather reprove them; for it is a shame even to speak of those things which are done of them in secret. But all things that are reproved are made manifest by the light: for whatsoever doth make manifest is light.”
In your own personal life, you live out this conflict on a day to day basis. Your fight against personal sin may be giving up anger and bitterness, turning away from another bottle, resisting prideful thoughts that arise, or looking away from whatever is on the screen in front of you. It is a daily fight, but I want you to see that it is fought within a cosmic battle that has already been won. Seek after the light, dedicate your soul and body to Christ every morning, and remember that your life is hid with Him.
“Therefore it is said, Awake, thou that sleepest, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give thee light.”