Sermon #228 St. James the Less #135 4/4/21
When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint Jesus. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.
Every year (except during COVID) on the night before Easter, 10,000 people squeeze into the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Within the walls of this one church is the hill on which Jesus was crucified, and what many have claimed to be the tomb in which his body was laid. They have since built a monument over the tomb.
The faithful gather in this place on the Easter Vigil to see the miracle of the Holy Fire. Its origins go back some 1,100 years, it was first recorded by a French monk in the year 876.
The vigil begins in the dark, as the crowd stands silently around the monumental tomb, and then enters the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem, in procession behind a long line of priests robed in black.
He then walks into the monumental tomb with unlit candles in both hands, and they have ensured that no matches are in the tomb. If the unlit candles are ever to be lit, it will have to be God who lights it.
Everyone then waits patiently. Five minutes go by, then ten, and then suddenly from an open hole in the structure you can see an arm stick out with a candle ablaze. The place erupts in cheers and celebration—it’s like when the Predators or Titans score and the place goes crazy, but times ten.
It is pure mayhem as people try to light their candle with the flame that came straight from heaven. In just a few short minutes the whole church looks as if it is on fire as 10,000 candles are lit, and church bells ring from every corner of the building.
The faithful then pour out into the cobblestone streets of Jerusalem with their candles held high. They will go into the different sections of the Holy City, sharing the light of Christ with anyone they meet.
But it doesn’t end in Jerusalem. The flame is then taken by car and plane to different countries around the world, where Christians there pass the flame around in their own communities. Within a few short hours Christians in Greece, Bulgaria, and Russia are passing the flame from door to door.
From Jerusalem it is even driven across the border into Jordan, and from there it is even taken to small Christian communities deep inside war zones like Syria and Iraq.
This is what Easter is all about. The news of Jesus’ resurrection began in Jerusalem and then like a wildfire it quickly spread throughout the world. With joy and celebration, it was shared with those who are far off and those who are near.
Compared to last year this feels more like a Holy Fire kind of Easter at this church. I was looking at a picture we took in the church last year on this day. The church was empty, there were a total of five of us here as we did the livestream.
It was still Easter, but it just felt different. The cross was partly flowered, but no children were here to add more beauty to it. There was little to celebrate as we all were still quite unsure what to do about the pandemic. Mind you, this was about the time we were all worried if we’d have enough toilet paper.
Though we are not completely out of the woods yet, even so, we are at the other end of this very dark tunnel. It feels like a resurrection of sorts for all of us, but especially this church.
It is good to be together—to joyfully celebrate the God who is making all things new through his only begotten Son. We proclaim on this day that God has not allowed Death and the Powers of darkness to have the last word.
In God’s great victory, he has not bypassed suffering and death but has gone straight through it, facing it head on, and defeating it completely.
People of Hope
Now, each generation has to face some sort of crisis and they must make a decision—will they be a people of hope amid what appears to be a hopeless situation, or will they succumb to the temptation that nothing matters and that all is lost.
Are we a people of hope, a people of the crucified and risen Jesus, or has this dire situation turned us into nihilists?
With your presence here today, you are planting your flag in the ground as a person of hope.
Paul says if we aren’t a people of hope, a people of the resurrection, then we are most to be pitied. People of the resurrection are able to trust that God is working out his good purposes even in in the most tragic of situations—we are able to proclaim that even in death there is the promise of new and abundant life.
What Paul and the early Christians believed was that Jesus opened the way into a whole new reality through his resurrection. His resurrection was the first fruits of the Kingdom of God breaking into this world, and “a sign within history of the transhistorical purpose of God” (Rutledge 492). The story that God had started, now had eternal implications for his creation.
Jesus was the Second Adam, inaugurating a new humanity, and showing us that we too are destined for resurrection.
Going to Galilee
If it wasn’t shocking enough for the women at the tomb that morning to hear that their Lord was indeed alive, it was also baffling that he intended to meet them in Galilee.
He wasn’t headed to tell off Pilate and the chief priests, he wasn’t going to walk straight into the Temple courts and show the crowds that he was back (and I’ll admit that would have been awesome).
But no, he had more important things to do. He wanted the women, the first bearers of this good news, to tell the apostles, and Peter especially (who likely thought he was all but lost after forsaking Jesus) that he would meet all of them in Galilee.
He was leaving the busyness of the city and going back to their hometown—the place where he first called them to leave their nets and boats and follow him, the place he knew best, and the place they were most comfortable. He was going to meet them at home.
I think this has profound implications for you and me today. Whether you’ve been worshipping in-person with us for the past 11 months, or this is your first time back, hopefully coming back to this place has felt like returning home.
So many of the people I talk to say this church feels homey—there is something so warm and familiar about this place, among these people. I hope this is a form of Galilee for you—the familiar place where you meet Jesus week after week among these people.
But I am also aware that Jesus was not going to meet the disciples in a synagogue in Galilee, he was going to meet them back in their homes and while they were working in their boats.
And so as much as I hope this church is like home, our “Galilee” is many times not in the church at all.
Hopefully, this past year you have been able to welcome the Risen Lord into your home and place of work in a new and more intimate way. Just because we haven’t been able to gather as a full community over this past year doesn’t mean that God hasn’t been working in your life. I have to presume that God has been doing some serious work on all of us over the past 12 months.
It’s in the routines and ordinariness of our workaday lives where Jesus wants to meet us. And so, when he first promised to meet his disciples in their home of Galilee, we can be sure he is saying the same to us.
But it is good for us to be together on a day like today. Christians were never meant to be alone—our faith is built within the context of community. Now Mark does say the women ran from the tomb shocked and told no one, I mean you would be all out of sorts too if you heard someone rose from the dead.
We must not forget that the women had no expectation that Jesus even might be alive. That was out of the question—dead people don’t just get up and walk away. They were going to the tomb to care for the body, not go looking for it. And so this news of his resurrection is so shocking and unexpected that they ran in fear.
But we know they didn’t keep their lips sealed for long. They had to process this news with the others. Only through the community could they begin to reckon what all this meant for them.
I mean the beauty of the Holy Fire in Jerusalem is that the heavenly flame pours out of that church, into the streets, and then around the world. The power of it would be lost entirely if the crowd cheered but then blew out the flame before leaving the church.
The people carrying the flame back to their Galilee, back to the communities of their friends and family—that’s what makes this an Easter story.
In the same way, the women’s hearts were set ablaze when they heard the angel’s announcement and they had to go share it with the others. And then they went with haste to their hometown to meet the Risen Lord.
Seeing you today fills me with hope, and my prayer is that you are filled with hope too. This is a fresh start for all of us—this church is experiencing a resurrection story itself as more and more of us come back together and we become whole again.
This place is buzzing with new and abundant life, and that can only come from God.
My prayer is that you and I can be like the women whose sadness, and then terror, were transformed into profound joy at the news of the resurrected and reigning Messiah who died on the cross and rose in great triumph on the third day.
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
Easter Sunday. Year B. Mark 16:1-8. The Crucifixion Fleming Rutledge. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/history/article/how-sacred-flame-spreads-across-the-world-despite-coronavirus-pandemic. Pic here.