John 20 1-18
Some time ago I was involved in an Easter Day service where all the lights in the church were turned out. It was early in the morning. Some of the priests, and some of the congregation, had hand bells and drums at the ready. Then, at a certain point in the service, these people started making an extraordinary noise and I can remember a particular priest, fired up, ringing a bell and shouting, 'he is risen, he is risen, he is risen.' This priest became so passionate about their witness that they hurt their hand because of the zeal with which they were ringing the bell. 'He is risen, he is risen, he is risen.'
Yes, but. He is risen. But has he risen to me? Has he risen to you? Imagine a deep, non-believer, a hard, tough, intelligent atheist coming into that church service I describe. And, honestly, I am not knocking it, really, it had a passion and a power, but do imagine this tough-minded atheist coming into that church and hearing that priest, wielding that bell and shouting, 'he is risen, he is risen, he is risen.' What would they think? Would they believe it? I don't think so. I don't think they would believe it at all.
You see here is a problem. In some mysterious way, faith is personal. I don't mean faith is simply personal. That would be crude. But at its core faith is intimately personal. God does not love us, or meet us, at a distance, at a remove. Faith cannot be sustained by hearsay or rumour and it certainly can't be sustained by somebody else's zealous passion, although somebody's depth of faith can, of course, lead us towards that personal encounter with God.
Mary Magdalene's faith is rooted in her experience. 'Mary stood weeping outside the tomb.' She 'turns round and sees Jesus standing there but she does not know that it is Jesus.' Remember that turn, faith is built on turns of the heart, and it is also built on that precious 'not knowing' that God is standing right before you. You are drawn intimately into mysteries but you do not have a full grasp or understanding of the mysteries you are being drawn into.
Now the core of Mary's faith is her personal knowledge and love of Christ. Christ in this moment, God in this moment, is absolutely present to her. Listen, this is a love story. 'Jesus said to her, 'Mary!' She turned (there is the second turn of the heart) and said to him in Hebrew, 'Rabbouni!' (which means Teacher). Christ is risen and Mary knows Christ is risen because Christ is uniquely present to her. God calls her by her name. And she says, teacher. She is listening with the whole of who she is.
Let's pause. Let's step back to our friend ringing their bell, 'he is risen, he is risen.' The danger for the church is this: the danger for the church is we build a faith that is not built on people's personal experience of God. What I mean by a faith built on experience is a faith where people sense at a deep, intuitive level that God is uniquely present to them, that God's love and life and presence are right here now. If faith does not operate on this personal level it becomes a faith that looks back, desperately, yearningly, conservatively, at a past where once, apparently, Christ returned and was met by Mary and later the disciples. This looking-back faith can only be, at some level, a faith of rumour and hearsay and stories handed down and enthusiastic priests making a lot of noise on Easter day while the atheist, and perhaps even the sympathetic believer, feel an alienation from the reality of God that others so enthusiastically proclaim.
'Jesus said to her (Mary), 'Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father.' Notice the reality of Mary's faith. This is a living faith because it is a living mystery. Jesus tells her that she cannot 'hold on to him'. She cannot comprehend or clutch at the mystery of the living God. And, I suggest, this is true of faith that seeks personal experience of the living God; because the more you seek for the living God the more you begin to understand that you cannot ever begin to hold onto this mystery. Christ cannot be dwindled down to human size and placed as one more thing in the world. But, on another level, Mary still knows the reality of the living God she has encountered, she knows it at a level which is deeper than words. 'Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, 'I have seen the Lord.' Now there is spiritual knowledge. She says, I have seen the Lord. She is not ringing a bell or beating a drum. She is sharing the fruits of personal experience.
Do not get me wrong. I am not saying for one moment that personal experience of God is easy, or straightforward. I am not saying that we need to leave this church and have visions of the risen Christ. No, never. That can be one more form of dangerous nonsense. I think I am saying this. Personal experience of God is possible and open to each of us.
When we say Christ is risen we need to seek the living God. We should not settle for second best in our relationship with God. The church needs to proclaim the resurrection based upon our present experience of God's living presence among us today, not simply on stories from the past, although scripture in fact is always bringing us back to now rather than to then. But if our faith is about then rather than now it will wither and die.
With Christ, with the resurrection, and with the early church, people discovered that God was uniquely and luminously present to them in a way that had a new, transformative impact upon who they were and how they lived. This is the living revelation we have received but this living revelation has to be lived by us. That Christ, in his full humanity, appeared in his full divinity and spoke into the depths of our human experience and made us realise ourselves as divine, as well as human, beings.
This is not, in the end, a sermon that wishes to ring bells loudly, in the end that perhaps becomes one more trick of the salesperson pushing a brand that perhaps they do not themselves fully believe in. But what I do wish to say is go and search for the living God, the God who knows and loves you with that intimacy and knowledge which Jesus reveals to Mary. What we need, more than anything, is personal experience of the living God, and by this I do not mean strange visions, thunderclaps, ringing bells or clashing symbols. In the resurrection God became uniquely and intimately present to humanity, which means that God is present to each of you here and now. To discover that reality of God's presence can take time and discipline. It is worth making time to meet with God in the depths of your solitude. It is worth making time to meet with God in the depths of prayer. Meeting with a mystery deeper and richer than anything you could simply hear about in church. Experiencing God rather than thinking about God. This is not a matter of drama but it is a matter of a personal journey into a deeper awareness of divine presence.
I commend to you times of stillness and silence, times when you can let go of the surge of your thoughts and the drama of your emotions, times of silence, of space, so God can speak to you with such tenderness and knowledge and love. It can take time to grow in the knowledge of the living God, the living mystery beyond time and death, but it is open to us all. And the more we sense God in prayer the more we can meet with God in the world, even though we will not always recognise God's face.
It is a matter of trusting the reality of God's presence, as real and present as God was to Mary on that first Easter day. So that we might say, with Mary, I have seen the Lord.
Reverend Ben Brown
17th April 2022