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Jesus, the Risen King (Jn 20:1-18)

From darkness to light. That is the theme and tone of our Gospel passage this morning. Our reading from John chapter 20 describes such a momentous transition in human history – such a significant spiritual upheaval – that it can only be compared to the difference between black and white, between darkness and light. 

Our passage begins in darkness – both literally and figuratively. Literally, because Mary Magdalen set out for the tomb of Jesus very early on the first Easter Sunday whilst it was still dark. The other gospels tell us that Mary and some other female disciples got up before sunrise, as soon as the Passover was over, to add spices to Christ’s corpse. 

Full of grief at the death of their master, they were determined to pay they final respects to Jesus and give his body some extra dignity before it decayed in the tomb. The women’s mood that morning must have been dark and sombre – I expect few words were spoken as they walked to the tomb, apart from some discussion about how the great stone at its entrance could be moved to grant them access. 

(The mood, of course, was similarly dark for Jesus’ male disciples too. Peter, John and the other nine were hiding away, in fear for their lives – anxious to avoid a similar fate at the hands of the authorities to the one that Jesus had suffered.)

For Mary and the other women the atmosphere must have got even darker when they arrived at the tomb. As we are told in verse 1, they found that the stone had already been removed from its entrance and Jesus’ body was gone. They must have feared that the body had been taken away by the authorities or stolen by thieves. Or maybe Joseph of Arimathea had had second thoughts about giving Jesus his tomb and moved him elsewhere?

Distraught, we’re told that Mary ran to find to “Simon Peter and the other disciple” (probably John) and said, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!” Understandably, Peter and John immediately rushed to the tomb, no doubt with all sorts of questions and conspiracy theories in their minds. Why had Jesus’s body not been allowed to simply rest in peace?

But from this dark moment onwards, dawn starts to break. As our passage progresses, both Peter, John and Mary come to the wonderful realisation that Jesus’ body has been raised to life, not merely moved. 

As events unfold, their grief turns to joy, their confusion to faith, their fear to hope. The light of the risen Christ comes to totally dispel their darkness.

Because in verses 3 to 16 Peter, John and Mary encounter convincing evidence that Christ had been raised. And then in verse 17, they hear compelling words from Christ himself. Compelling words confirming that a wholly new relationship with God had begun. 

Convincing evidence and compelling words. Let’s look at both in turn.

Convincing evidence that Christ had been raised 

Peter and John sprinted through the streets of Jerusalem to Jesus’ resting place.On arrival at the tomb, the breathless disciples discovered that it was lying open and empty, just as Mary had said it was. 

But it was not completely empty, was it? Because, on closer inspection, Peter and John noticed that Christ’s grave clothes remained where he had been laid. The linen that had been tightly wrapped around Jesus’ body by Joseph of Arimathea on Friday afternoon was still in its place. 

Whether the linen was lying in a pile – or, as some speculate, still laid out in the shape of a body – its presence was good evidence that Jesus’ body had not been moved by human hands. No grave robber would take the time to unwrap a body, and neither the Jewish authorities nor Joseph of Arimathea would have had any reason to unwrap Christ’s corpse if they’d moved it to another location. Only a resurrection could explain how Christ’s body had come out of the linen and left it behind. 

Confronted by this evidence, verse 8 tells us that John joined the dots – “and believed”. It was an unforgettable ‘lightbulb moment’ for him. 

Interestingly, verse 9 refers to an extra piece of evidence that John and Peter overlooked at the time, but came to appreciate at a later date. Because verse 9 states that they had not yet understood “from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.” We find the same conviction expressed in our reading from 1 Corinthians this morning too, where Paul writes that Christ “was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.”

So which Old Testament Scriptures do John and Paul have in mind? Well, the best example is found in Psalm 16 verse 10, which states that “you will not abandon me to the realm of the dead, nor will you let your holy one see decay.”That verse was actually quoted by Peter on the day of Pentecost, when he stood before the Jews of Jerusalem to publicly defend his faith in Christ’s resurrection. 

More generally, one might also point to numerous passages in the Old Testament that predict that the Messiah will reign forever. He will be a king whose rule will never end, a God-given sovereign whose life will be everlasting. The testimony of Scripture was that the Messiah would not be contained by the grave – and so it proved to be.

But the most compelling evidence for the resurrection appears in verses 14 to 16 today – when Mary sees, hears (and even takes hold of) the risen Jesus for herself. Weeping outside the tomb, Mary is not only granted a vison of two angels, but gets to meet Christ himself. Through her tears she initially mistakes him for a gardener, but her confusion is dispelled when he calls her by name. 

Turning towards him, she cries out “Rabboni!” (Teacher) and takes hold of him. Clinging to him (probably by his feet or ankles), waves of relief and joy must have swept over her. He had been lost, but was now found. He had been dead, but was now alive. He had been gone, but was now glorified! 

Compelling words that their relationship with God was renewed

Christ’s appearance to Mary was the first of many that would follow over the next forty days. Our passage from 1 Corinthians tells us that Mary was just the first of over 500 people who would witness the Risen Lord before he returned to his Father.

This return to Heaven is actually mentioned by Jesus to Mary, isn’t it? In verse 17 he says to her: “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father.’” Having down come from Heaven, God’s Son would soon be heading home and sending us his Holy Spirit in exchange.

But the most significant sentence for us is actually the one that follows. Because Jesus goes on to say: ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” Those are compelling words that assure Christ’s disciples – both then and now – that our relationship with God is renewed. Those words from the lips of Jesus are compelling proof that his saving mission had been a success – confirmation that his death on the cross had achieved its purpose. Sin had been paid for, human reconciliation with a holy God had been achieved. 

All who follow Christ – starting with Mary, Peter and John – can now consider themselves forgiven friends of God. In fact, its better than that. If we are Christians we can consider ourselves adopted children of God and siblings of our Lord Jesus Christ. Thanks to his sin-bearing sacrifice on Good Friday, we can call God ‘Father’ and address Christ as our ‘brother’ – that’s an amazing privilege for any finite creature to possess – a wonderful gift of grace on offer to every human being, by faith.


So, as I finish, I hope you agree with me that the first Easter Sunday is well-described as a transition from darkness to light. From despair to hope. From death to life.

We’ve been presented with convincing evidence that Jesus really did rise, and heard compelling words from the Lord himself that our relationship with God has been restored. Joined to Christ by faith we are forgiven our sins. Joined to Christ by faith we have become members of God’s family. Joined to Christ by faith, we have a sure and certain hope beyond the grave.

All that remains is for us to follow Mary’s example at the very end of our passage. She didn’t keep this great news to herself but rushed to tell her friends. She obeyed Christ’s command to “go” and lit the blue touch paper for the explosive growth of the church.  

Our calling is to do likewise – who can we go and tell that Christ is risen? Who can we invite along to our church? And who might we bring to our Hope Explored course this April, I wonder?