Out of all the people in Jesus’ life, it was the women who got to see the risen Christ first. Not Peter, who surely must have been immersed in guilt over his denial of Jesus two days before. Not Andrew, or Zebedee’s sons, James and John, the first disciples to be called by Jesus, who “immediately left the boat and their father, and followed him.” Not Matthew, the tax collector, whom the Gospel is named after. Not any of those whom Jesus had healed. Not any of the twelve, who were given the power of God to “cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.” Out of all of the people who had followed Jesus as he travelled throughout Galilee and healed the sick and proclaimed God’s forgiveness and love, it was two women, virtually unknown until this point in the story, who saw the risen Christ first.
Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Joseph were the first to see that the dark tomb was empty. They were the first to see the angel of light and hear the words, “He is not here; for he has been raised.” They were the first to be met by Jesus, (whose first word to them was the very anti-climactic, “Greetings!” Imagine, being greeted by someone you thought was dead and they say, “Hey!”) Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were the first to experience the “great joy” that came from seeing that the darkness did not overcome the light, that death did not have the last word, that the God of life and light and creation prevails over all things!
What a privilege, to be the first to witness Easter! It’s no wonder they fell down before him, and grabbed his feet so as to prevent him from leaving them, and worshipped. The awe and the joy! Their minds wiped clean of any lingering doubts, their hearts rescued from despair and lifted and filled with love and rejoicing! God brings new life!
But let’s not forget that these women were also the ones to see Jesus die. Out of all the people who followed Jesus, they were the ones who kept watch and saw his last breath. What strength that must have taken. And they stayed, as his body was taken down from the cross and put in the dark tomb. They stayed, in that place of darkness, when everyone else had fled. The joy and celebration they experienced at Jesus’ resurrection cannot be separated from the deep pain and grief they felt at his death.
Easter cannot be separated from Good Friday. Resurrection to new life cannot be separated from death. A few days ago, in the car, my kids asked the classic question, “Why is it called Good Friday? What was so good about it?” What is good about death? Even if it is done for the sake of others? We ask ourselves the same question, but the answer is simple: There is no glorious resurrection from the dead without death. Easter cannot be separated from Good Friday.
But maybe that’s why the women were the first to witness Easter––because they were the ones who had witnessed Jesus’ death. Their need to see him alive was the deepest. Their sacrifice was the greatest––because let’s not kid ourselves, it is a sacrifice of the self to sit beside a loved one who is dying and watch them go. And so maybe that’s why they were the first to experience the resurrection of Jesus, and, in a way, the resurrection of themselves, to a new life of hope and the finality of death. Maybe, because they were willing to sit through the darkness, God granted that they were the first ones to see that the light was not overcome.
There is no such thing as an Easter resurrection without Good Friday. There is no way for us to truly celebrate this day without also carrying the experience of death. Even here, as we celebrate and sing our hearts out with these glorious Easter hymns, as we smile and laugh and enjoy one another’s presence, as we take pride in our Easter clothes, it must be acknowledged that this is our last Easter as the congregation of St. John in this place. And the choice is before us: will we be like the disciples who fled, like Peter who denied Jesus, like the crowd who just walked away back to their regular lives? Or will we be like the women, who stayed and kept watch, and then were the first to see the resurrection?
Because inasmuch as this is our last Easter here, our death is the beginning of new life! Rather than hiding here in this building, using money from the sale of the building to keep going, so that we can continue to gather, dragging out our own inevitable end, we are going to take that more-than-a-million dollars and give it away. No matter where that money goes, it will bring new life to so many more people than are gathered here today. As we have followed Christ to our own death for the sake of others, those others will experience the resurrection life that Christ brings, and God privileges us, like the women, with being a part of that. This last of St John’s Easter Sunday service becomes the first of St. John’s true Easter life. Because we are willing to sit and endure the darkness of the tomb, the light of Christ will blaze forth in many more Easters to come!
Our joy in Easter does not mean we must deny the presence of death in the world, and this year there seem to be so many ways in which we feel that presence. Our joy in Easter comes because we know that life returns. Every year there is a Good Friday, but every year there is also an Easter Sunday. Inasmuch as we say that there can be no Easter without Good Friday, the reverse is also just as true––there can be no Good Friday without Easter! This is the source of our joy––that the truest, deepest, most lasting presence is that of the God of Easter life!
Easter is, if I might borrow from Leonard Cohen, a broken hallelujah, but that is what makes it so profound. As we see new life, we carry with us death. BUT as we see death, we carry with us new life. Easter tells us that God has ordained that new life that has the last word. The world may be broken, but hallelujah is the last word. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not, and will not, overcome it. The dark tomb is emptied. The resurrection blazes forth. Christ lives, and therefore so will we. Christ is risen! Thanks be to God, Amen!