Easter Morning

A Sermon by the Rev. James P. Cooper

Mitchellville - April 20, 2003

The story of Easter morning in John's Gospel begins with the account of Mary Magdalene's arrival at the tomb before dawn on Sunday morning.

(John 20:1-18) Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene went to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb. {2} Then she ran and came to Simon Peter, and to the other disciple, whom Jesus loved, and said to them, "They have taken away the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid Him."

Instead of her intended peaceful time of reflection and mourning for a lost friend, she instead finds the tomb inexplicably open. We don't know what she suspected may have happened, but it's reasonable to guess that she was worried that their enemies, not satisfied with having Him crucified, had now come in the night to find new ways to hurt them. She ran for help, and soon came to Simon Peter and John who were, themselves, on their way to visit the tomb.

{3} Peter therefore went out, and the other disciple, and were going to the tomb. {4} So they both ran together, and the other disciple outran Peter and came to the tomb first. {5} And he, stooping down and looking in, saw the linen cloths lying there; yet he did not go in.

Traditionally it is held that "the other disciple" is John because he avoids calling himself by name throughout the gospel. In other places, such as the previous verse1, he calls himself the "disciple whom Jesus loved."

John arrives at the tomb first, but does not go in. He is able to see inside because the stone that covered the doorway has been moved to the side and as it is now dawn, there is enough light to see in. Notice how strongly the letter emphasizes that each disciple clearly saw the burial garments of Jesus left behind in the tomb, empty.

{6} Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb; and he saw the linen cloths lying there, {7} and the handkerchief that had been around His head, not lying with the linen cloths, but folded together in a place by itself.

When Simon Peter arrives, moments behind John, he does not hesitate, but goes into the tomb itself. Such impulsive behaviour is typical of Peter. It's recorded that he sees more details in the tomb, for he describes how the garments were in one place, but the linen cloth that had been on the head was in another place. Once Peter has gone in, John follows. His mind is finally catching up to the speeding events, and he understands what must have happened here. If their enemies had wanted to carry the body of Jesus away, there would have been no need or reason to remove the burial garments. But there they were. What other explanation could there be? Hear the following passage from the Arcana Coelestia:

AC 10825. It is well known in the Church that the Lord was conceived from Jehovah as the Father, so that from conception He was God, and also that He rose again with His whole body, for He left nothing in the tomb, as He also afterwards proved to the disciples when He said, See My hands and My feet, that it is I Myself; handle Me and see; for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see Me have (Luke 24:39). And although He was Man complete with flesh and bones, yet He entered through closed doors and after revealing Himself became invisible, John 20:19,26; Luke 24:31. In this respect He was different from anyone else, for everyone else's spirit rises again but not the body. When therefore He said that He was not like a spirit He was saying that He was not like everyone else. From this it is now evident that even the Human within the Lord is Divine.

Even more specific is this supporting from the Last Judgment (Post.):

87. When I spoke with [certain spirits] citing something from the Word, I perceived a reverence emanating from them. As, for example, when I said that the Lord was conceived of Jehovah, and that for that reason He called Him Father, and that it is because of that that He is the Son of God, and that therefore the Divine is in Him; moreover, that the Lord could for that reason glorify His whole body, so that the element of the body which is cast off by those who are born of human parents and decays, in His case was glorified and became Divine from the Divine in Him, and He rose with it, leaving nothing in the tomb, differently from what happens in the case of any other person. They listened attentively, and said they were surprised that they had not heard such things before.

It is precisely because these things have not been heard before, because the Christian Church could not teach what it neither knew nor understood, that the Lord had to reveal these truths about His Glorification when the time was right, when their were people who were, at last, ready to receive them.

Continuing with the gospel's account, we read:

{8} Then the other disciple, who came to the tomb first, went in also; and he saw and believed. {9} For as yet they did not know the Scripture, that He must rise again from the dead. {10} Then the disciples went away again to their own homes.

John "saw, and believed." For years, literally, Jesus had been preparing them for this moment, but they were so focussed on their own goals, their own purposes that they were not able to really understand what He had meant. For John, at this moment, the truth about the Lord's life crucifixion, and resurrection finally dawned. Then, seeing nothing else that they could do at the moment, or learn from an empty tomb, Peter and John went home. But Mary Magdalene was not satisfied so easily or quickly. In her grief and confusion, she remained at the tomb as the others left.

{11} But Mary stood outside by the tomb weeping, and as she wept she stooped down and looked into the tomb. {12} And she saw two angels in white sitting, one at the head and the other at the feet, where the body of Jesus had lain.

Moments after Peter and John leave, Mary enters the tomb herself. She sees something the other disciples did not: two angels in white garments sitting where the body of Jesus had lain. In the lesson from the Heavenly Doctrine, we read from Swedenborg's description of how the Lord allowed him to experience resuscitation himself so that he could explain the process to us and take away our fear. What's most interesting in the passage, however, is the description of two celestial angels sitting nearby, and keeping watch over the process, protecting and caring for the newly arrived spirit.

(HH 449) Then at first a communication of the pulse of the heart with the celestial kingdom was established, because that kingdom corresponds to the heart in man. Angels from that kingdom were seen, some at a distance, and two sitting near my head.

Mary's spiritual eyes were certainly opened, or she would not have been able to see the angels at all (and it is interesting to note that this was not the case for either Peter or John). We might wonder if these two angles had been there to assist the Lord in some way in His own resuscitation, and they now had a part to play in bringing some peace to Mary Magdalene.

{13} Then they said to her, "Woman, why are you weeping?" She said to them, "Because they have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid Him."

"Weeping" signifies that someone who is becoming spiritual, that is, who is beginning to lead their lives and make decisions based on rational, spiritual truth from the Word, comes to a point where they feel that their source of truth has been compromised or removed in some way (See AC 2689). Perhaps they have come into a situation that is unlike anything they have experienced before, and they feel inadequate to meet the challenges before them.

We all feel inadequate at times. We all come up against questions that we cannot answer. The angels ask Mary why she is weeping, and she says, in despair, that she has lost that thing which she loves the most, and does not know where to look for it. Of course, just like the rest of us, Mary is looking for the wrong thing! She is looking for the body of Jesus – but He is no longer there. How will she find her way? Who will guide her now?

{14} Now when she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, and did not know that it was Jesus. {15} Jesus said to her, "Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?" She, supposing Him to be the gardener, said to Him, "Sir, if You have carried Him away, tell me where You have laid Him, and I will take Him away." {16} Jesus said to her, "Mary!" She turned and said to Him, "Rabboni!" (which is to say, Teacher).

It is so comforting to have this picture drawn for us in the gospels. At the moment when she feels the most lost, devastated, is the moment when He reveals His near presence to her. The Lord is never closer than when we are fighting in temptation, and it is then that He draws near and holds us up with His own strong arm. When so doing, He is our teacher and our shepherd.

Mary, and the other disciples, have been seeking the body, the former Jesus who walked with them, teaching and healing, throughout the land. The life had become familiar, and pleasant. But now everything was changing, nothing was familiar! The temptation for Mary, as for all of us, was to cling to the old, familiar ways. But the sequence of events set in motion by the Lord's own Divine Providence had moved on, and the old ways were no longer the right ways. The Lord needed something different from Mary and the rest of the disciples from now on. Would they be up to the challenge?

{17} Jesus said to her, "Do not cling to Me, for I have not yet ascended to My Father; but go to My brethren and say to them, 'I am ascending to 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 to her.

Apocalypse Explained 899 speaks about the meaning of these passages:

AE 899 [14] As men rise again after death, therefore the Lord willed to undergo death and to rise again the third day, but to the end that He might put off everything human that He had from the mother and might put on the Divine Human; for everything human that the Lord took from the mother He rejected from Himself by temptations, and finally by death; and by putting on a Human from the Divine Itself that was in Him He glorified Himself, that is, made His Human Divine; therefore in heaven His death and burial do not mean death and burial, but the purification of His Human, and glorification. That this is so the Lord taught by this comparison with wheat falling into the earth, which must die that it may bear fruit. The same is involved in what the Lord said to Mary Magdalene: Touch Me not, for I am not yet ascended unto My Father (John 20:17). "To ascend to His Father" means the uniting of His Human with His Divine, the human from the mother being fully rejected.

We might wonder how we are supposed to respond to these profound, interior, and spiritual events. We can gain some insight into our appropriate response by seeing the various parts of this story as the way the different parts of our minds work.

Mary arrives at the tomb first, before dawn, while it is still dark. She represents the general affection for truth that we all have. It's a gift from the Lord that enables us to love news, to love to hear new things, to be interested in the world around us. But, it's "in the dark." This affection enjoys raw information, and cannot make judgments about the relative value of the things that it knows. But, it is the place where we all begin.

The Peter and John arrive. Together they represent our faith. Our affection for truth leads us to acquire knowledges about the Lord and Religion. They are interesting to us, and we enjoy gathering all the facts and sorting them out into appropriate categories and using them to neatly answer certain questions. It's a very useful foundation. Compared to the first state, there is the light of dawn to guide our thoughts, and in such a state we can even see the Lord's garments – more interior truths than we have been able to see before. We may even believe that when we see those empty garments, we know everything there is to know and go home.

But happily, the Lord is working in secret ways within our minds to take that faith and move it to the next step. If we cooperate with Him by trying to obey those truths, we begin to have real charity in our lives that is conjoined to our faith. This is signified by Mary remaining behind, continuing to look into the tomb, and now seeing the angels. When faith is brought into life, when it looks towards serving the neighbour and the Lord, it opens communication with heaven, for heaven is a place of mutual love.

Finally, then, when we begin to enter into the life of heaven while here on earth, we learn the most important lesson of all: that we must not cling to the worldly and natural ideas about the Lord and religion, but instead our thoughts must be led to "ascend into heaven."

We can study the sense of the letter all we want, and if we approach it from truth alone, all we will see is empty garments that only suggest the shape of the life that was within. But when we seek to understand the purpose of the Lord's life on earth, when we try to see with our heart as well as with our eyes and look beyond the mere factual record, we can see far more. We can see the Lord as the eternally living King of Heaven. Amen.

Hear now the Word of the Lord as it is written in …

First Lesson: John 20:1-18

Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene went to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb. {2} Then she ran and came to Simon Peter, and to the other disciple, whom Jesus loved, and said to them, "They have taken away the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid Him." {3} Peter therefore went out, and the other disciple, and were going to the tomb. {4} So they both ran together, and the other disciple outran Peter and came to the tomb first. {5} And he, stooping down and looking in, saw the linen cloths lying there; yet he did not go in. {6} Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb; and he saw the linen cloths lying there, {7} and the handkerchief that had been around His head, not lying with the linen cloths, but folded together in a place by itself. {8} Then the other disciple, who came to the tomb first, went in also; and he saw and believed. {9} For as yet they did not know the Scripture, that He must rise again from the dead. {10} Then the disciples went away again to their own homes. {11} But Mary stood outside by the tomb weeping, and as she wept she stooped down and looked into the tomb. {12} And she saw two angels in white sitting, one at the head and the other at the feet, where the body of Jesus had lain. {13} Then they said to her, "Woman, why are you weeping?" She said to them, "Because they have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid Him." {14} Now when she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, and did not know that it was Jesus. {15} Jesus said to her, "Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?" She, supposing Him to be the gardener, said to Him, "Sir, if You have carried Him away, tell me where You have laid Him, and I will take Him away." {16} Jesus said to her, "Mary!" She turned and said to Him, "Rabboni!" (which is to say, Teacher). {17} Jesus said to her, "Do not cling to Me, for I have not yet ascended to My Father; but go to My brethren and say to them, 'I am ascending to 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 to her. Amen.

Second Lesson: HH 449

As to the senses of the body I was brought into a state of insensibility, thus nearly into the state of the dying; but with the interior life and thought remaining unimpaired, in order that I might perceive and retain in the memory the things that happened to me, and that happen to those that are resuscitated from the dead. I perceived that the respiration of the body was almost wholly taken away; but the interior respiration of the spirit went on in connection with a slight and tacit respiration of the body. Then at first a communication of the pulse of the heart with the celestial kingdom was established, because that kingdom corresponds to the heart in man. Angels from that kingdom were seen, some at a distance, and two sitting near my head. Thus all my own affection was taken away although thought and perception continued. [2] I was in this state for some hours. Then the spirits that were around me withdrew, thinking that I was dead; and an aromatic odour like that of an embalmed body was perceived, for when the celestial angels are present everything pertaining to the corpse is perceived as aromatic, and when spirits perceive this they cannot approach; and in this way evil spirits are kept away from man's spirit when he is being introduced into eternal life. The angels seated at my head were silent, merely sharing their thoughts with mine; and when their thoughts are received the angels know that the spirit of man is in a state in which it can be drawn forth from the body. This sharing of their thoughts was effected by looking into my face, for in this way in heaven thoughts are shared. [3] As my thought and perception continued, that I might know and remember how resuscitation is effected, I perceived the angels first tried to ascertain what my thought was, whether it was like the thought of those who are dying, which is usually about eternal life; also that they wished to keep my mind in that thought. Afterwards I was told that the spirit of man is held in its last thought when the body expires, until it returns to the thoughts that are from its general or ruling affection in the world. Especially was I permitted to see and feel that there was a pulling and drawing forth, as it were, of the interiors of my mind, thus of my spirit, from the body; and I was told that this is from the Lord, and that the resurrection is thus effected. Amen.

Third Lesson: AE 687:18

AE 687 [18] …These things seen were representative of the Lord's glorification, and of introduction into heaven by Him; for the "stone" that was placed before the sepulchre, and that was rolled away by the angel, signifies Divine truth, thus the Word, which was closed up by the Jews, but opened by the Lord. And as a "sepulchre," and pre-eminently the sepulchre where the Lord was, signifies in the spiritual sense resurrection and also regeneration, and "angels" signify in the Word Divine truth, therefore angels were seen sitting one at the head and the other at the feet; "the angel at the head" signifying Divine truth in things first, and "the angel at the feet" Divine truth in ultimates, both proceeding from the Lord; and when Divine truth is received regeneration is effected, and there is resurrection. Amen.

Here end the lessons. Blessed are they who hear the Word of God and keep it. Amen.


1 John 19:26, John 20:2, John 21:7, John 21:20