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'Love so amazing, so divine ...'

John 20: 1-18

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20 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.

Peter therefore went forth, and that other disciple, and came to the sepulchre.

So they ran both together: and the other disciple did outrun Peter, and came first to the sepulchre.

And he stooping down, and looking in, saw the linen clothes lying; yet went he not in.

Then cometh Simon Peter following him, and went into the sepulchre, and seeth the linen clothes lie,

And the napkin, that was about his head, not lying with the linen clothes, but wrapped together in a place 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.

10 Then the disciples went away again unto their own home.

11 But Mary stood without at the sepulchre weeping: and as she wept, she stooped down, and looked into the sepulchre,

12 And seeth two angels in white sitting, the one at the head, and the other at the feet, where the body of Jesus had lain.

13 And they say unto her, Woman, why weepest thou? She saith unto them, Because they have taken away my Lord, and I know not where they have laid him.

14 And when she had thus said, she turned herself back, and saw Jesus standing, and knew not that it was Jesus.

15 Jesus saith unto her, Woman, why weepest thou? whom seekest thou? She, supposing him to be the gardener, saith unto him, Sir, if thou have borne him hence, tell me where thou hast laid him, and I will take him away.

16 Jesus saith unto her, Mary. She turned herself, and saith unto him, Rabboni; which is to say, Master.

17 Jesus saith unto her, Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father: but go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God.

18 Mary Magdalene came and told the disciples that she had seen the Lord, and that he had spoken these things unto her.

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Isn't love amazing.  It is a constant source of astonishment to me what love is capable of achieving and enduring.  Love has the power to transcend the boundaries of space and time, and even mortality, in that we don't stop loving someone simply because they are no longer with us.  And love has the power to inspire extraordinary things in very ordinary people: acts of loyalty, and service, and self-sacrifice that go far, far beyond the normal call of duty.  But of course, by the same token, the greater the love, the greater the sense of loss when we are parted from someone we have loved very much.

There is a terrible helplessness and hopelessness about Mary Magdalene's visit to the tomb of Jesus on that first Easter morning, as our reading from John's gospel describes it.  Mary goes completely alone to the tomb; she goes in darkness; and unlike some of the other gospel accounts, in which the women go to the tomb carrying spices to anoint the body of Jesus, there is no apparent purpose to her going.  She just goes.  It is as if her grief and her loss are so deep that she simply cannot do anything else: she cannot sleep; she cannot settle to anything.  The only thing that she can think of doing is to go and be close to his dead body.  There is no logic to it - just terrible overwhelming human grief.

And so nothing prepared Mary for what she was to find when she reached the tomb - because it was open; the stone that had sealed it had been rolled away.  The crucifixion had been horrific beyond all imagining; but if that were not bad enough now, it seemed, someone had desecrated the tomb in which Jesus had been laid, and stolen his body.  Even Mary's desire to grieve alone, close to him, has been denied her.  When she summons Simon Peter and the other disciple to the scene, and they discover that the tomb is indeed empty, the two men simply go home.  After all, there is nothing more to be said or done.

But Mary stays.  Even though the situation is as hopeless and as helpless as it can possibly get, Mary stays - alone with her grief once more.  And all that she can do is weep.  She cannot see beyond her loss.  So much so that when two angels in white ask her why she is weeping, she cannot see them for what they are.  All she can say is: 'They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.'  Even when the Risen Lord himself speaks to her, saying 'Woman, why are you weeping?  Whom do you seek?', she assumes he must be the gardener.  It is an extraordinarily convincing portrait of a woman who is simply beside herself with grief.  It is only when Jesus calls her by her own name that Mary is jolted out of her despair enough to recognize that the absolutely impossible is literally staring her in the face.  Her Lord lives.  It is him.  This is real.  The grave could not hold him.

God has a strange habit of doing remarkable things with hopeless situations: transforming relationships that are so shattered, and lives that are so broken, that even the very best of human wisdom says, 'There really cannot be any point to this any more'.  And it is characteristic of God's power to transform lost lives and lost situations, that when we see it in action, we tend to experience it as gift, and more often than not as a gift that is completely unexpected.

The cross is central to the Christian faith, because it forces us to confront the worst excesses of human evil, human suffering, and human despair, and to take the reality of such horrors with profound seriousness.  Indeed, the whole point of Good Friday is its sheer, perverse pointlessness.  It confronts us with the terrifying possibility of utter meaninglessness in human life: 'My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.'

But the message of Easter is that, however deep and impenetrable that darkness and hopelessness may seem; however horrific the suffering; however absolute and final the death, that is not the end of the story.  New life can and will break through; love is, in the end, far, far stronger than death.  Those who sow in tears really will reap with songs of joy.  And we know that to be absolutely and utterly true, because Christ was raised from the dead.  Death could not hold him.

Which is why, for Mary Magdalene in the garden on that first Easter morning, and for us here today, the world is suddenly a different kind of place.  Because we know that death can no longer have the final word.

In the words of a hymn that we sang here on Good Friday:

Were the whole realm of nature mine
That were an offering far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all.

He is risen indeed!  Alleluia!

Amen

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