Texts: John 20.1-18
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
The day after the Sabbath, two days after his execution, disciples of Jesus come to his tomb. Now, when I say disciples, you probably think I mean some of the inner twelve (or eleven, if you take Judas Iscariot out of it)- those men who are often the ones whom the Church has honoured with statues and stained glass windows.
But the four Gospels are unanimous it saying that it was women who were the first witnesses to the resurrection. John’s Gospel, which we read today, tells us that it was Mary Magdalene who went, for she wishes to mourn the death of her teacher. She gets there and discovers that the tomb open. So she goes to find Simon Peter, the chief (male!) disciple, to tell him what has happened. He and another disciple go to the site, and realise that this is a strange grave robbery, if that is what it is, for the shroud wrappings have been left behind. The other disciple immediately realises that something unusual has happened- he sees and believes. Peter takes a bit longer- he sees, but does not yet believe. Only when the risen Christ appears to him that evening will he finally believe.
Outside the tomb, Mary stands weeping. She meets who she thinks is the gardener, and asks wildly if it is him who has robbed the tomb. Can he help her? All this sounds like an authentic, first-person account by Mary of just how it happened to her. The man she thought was the gardener says her name: ‘Mary!’ And in that instant, she knows and believes: ‘Rabbouni! Teacher’. And then she is sent by Christ to tell the men among his friends what she has seen: ‘go to my brothers’, says Christ. And Mary does so, the first to take the news of Easter to the rest of the Church: ‘Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’; and she told them that he had said these things to her.’.
As one writer says of Mary, ‘Mary is the first Easter witness… She is the first to see the risen Jesus, and the first to tell others what she has seen. She is the first disciple of the risen Jesus’ (Gail R. O’Day, ‘John’ in Women’s Bible Commentary (Expanded Edition), p390). So the entire Christian faith rests on the witness of Mary, who was the first to see, to believe and to tell. Later the Church would often minimise the role of women. But at Easter it is almost as if God is saying: I am breaking all the rules. Women, usually treated as second-class citizens, are now my witnesses. They are the first ones I have chosen to bring the good news that from now on, everything has changed.
If the resurrection happened the way John tells it, then of course an awful lot has changed. In that instant, God has broken the rules of physics, biology and chemistry- for dead people don’t usually come back to life. That can be hard for us to credit, and we could be tempted to dismiss that aspect of Easter. We can be tempted to say that it’s just about new life in general, about the possibility of new life for those who believe in Christ, as if the resurrection of Christ was not an actual historical event.
But if we do that, we might miss all the implications of Easter. Not only does the physical world change at Easter- death no longer has the last word. But what we might call the moral world changes as well. A criminal, a heretic, and wandering preacher condemned by church and state, is now revealed to be the one through whom God speaks to us, and through whom God makes all things new. The one who has risen had, just a few days beforehand, and to everyone’s astonishment, washed his disciples’ feet and taught that they should all live as servants to one another. His last commandment on that night was that they should love one another. And now he is back, and the first to see and believe and to spread the word is a second-class citizen, a woman named Mary. Everything is turned upside down at Easter- and for the better!
Simon Peter was one of the first men to see the empty tomb, when Mary Magdalene went to fetch him. Peter, who had once denied knowing Jesus when he was on trial- soon became one the leaders of the early Christian community. And we meet him again in our second reading, a few years, later, when all the implications of Christ are still sinking in.
As a good Jew, Peter believes that only certain foods ought to be eaten. But just before this reading, he has had a vision, in which God told him that there are no longer clean and unclean foods- the old rules have gone. And then he finds, at his front door, a Gentile- Cornelius, the Italian captain of a Roman army regiment. He has been sent by an angel to hear whatever it is Peter wants to say to him. And Peter realises that his vision about food is also about people. Just as there are no longer clean and unclean good, so he will not become unclean, be defiled, by associating with Gentiles. And so we hear Peter speak about his new convictions: ‘I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears [God] and does what is right is acceptable to him’.
And Peter goes on to tell Cornelius the basis of this faith: God has ‘preached peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all’ Peter affirms. He describes to Cornelius Christ’s life in Israel, his good works and healings, his death on a cross, and his resurrection on the third day. For Peter, Easter changed everything. He’d started off, leaving his fishing boat to follow someone who seemed like he was going to reform and renew the Jewish faith. But after Easter, it turns out that Christ’s message is for everyone, that the Good News of peace the Jesus Christ is universal, Good News and peace for everyone in the world, without exception. Even for someone like Peter, who had once denied his Master, but has now known Christ’s forgiveness.
Peter had originally thought that the Gospel was only for some people- for Jews, or those who were prepared to act like Jews, for example, by only eating certain foods. But then he realised that God had a place for everyone. The Church always seems to live with that tension. We want to demarcate who’s in and who’s out. Which if us are entitled to grace, and who isn’t? Whom shall be called ‘Christian’, and whom shall we treat as ‘Gentiles’? By appearing first to Mary, Christ breaks down one of the most fundamental barriers in human life, the barrier between the genders.
Women, who were treated as second-class citizens in ancient times, are given the prime role in the Easter story. You would have thought that since women were the first witnesses of Easter, it would have been okay to let them be leaders, preachers and teachers in the Church. The evidence is that, at first, that did happen, but before long the men reasserted themselves. Church leadership became something for men only, who found all kinds of reasons for saying that the women were to take a second-class role.
In time, the Church forgot that radical fact that a woman was the first Christian. Mary’s sex was marginalised and silenced, and only recently have we begun to learn anew the insight that there should be no hierarchy of sexes in the Church. A few years after the resurrection, Peter struggled with the arguments of those who thought that the Gospel was for all people, and those who saw it as essentially a renewal movement inside Judaism. It took a vision from God, and a Roman soldier turning up on his doorstep, to teach him that the Gospel is Good News not just for Jews like him, but for Gentiles as well. All kinds of people were welcome in the Jesus movement, for God treats everyone on the same basis. ‘God shows no partiality’ as Peter expresses it in our text.
But we still struggle with that. We are, frankly, more comfortable with a church full of people mostly like ourselves. I remember once hearing a conversation between two church members, about someone who had joined a congregation, but who left after only a few months. One of them said, ‘But then, she didn’t really fit into our kind of congregation, did she? But the point is that the Church is supposed to be where people who don’t really fit in will find a home. For either the Gospel is for everyone or- well, what is it for?
What does Peter’s assertion that God treats everyone on the same basis, mean for us today? Christians should constantly ask themselves- do I, perhaps deep down, think there certain classes of person who really are not welcome in the Church? Do churches really make all kinds of people welcome to take a full part in all aspects of church life? Often the answer to that questions is no. In this city there are churches which will not allow women into leadership positions- as if they have forgotten that without the women at the tomb on at the first Easter, there would be no church, no Christian message to share.
The Church of Scotland, like many other Churches in Europe, is struggling to come to terms with a new reality- with the secularisation of our culture. We often think that secularisation is a bad thing- it’s society slipping away from God having any meaningful role. When Christian values like love of neighbour or peacemaking get forgotten, then of course secularisation is a bad thing. And yet much of our secularisation seems to me to be a valid protest against churches which were not allowing people to live Christ’s promise of life in all its fullness, or using religious language to discriminate against people who are different.
For many people nowadays, churches don’t seem to make all kinds of people welcome. They see how often churches are hostile, for example, to gay and lesbian people, and think, instinctively, that that cannot be Christianity as Jesus understood it (and I think they’re right!). They see how often denominations identify too closely with a particular nationality or race or social class, and think that cannot be right if Christianity- and, again they’re right.
Peter tells Cornelius ‘I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him’. That pretty comprehensively outlaws racism or favouring a particular nationality in the church. Regardless of age, race, colour, sexual orientation or social class, the Gospel is for you, the death and resurrection of Jesus matters to you. For as Peter says, ‘everyone who believes in [Christ] receives forgiveness of sins through his name’. We, who are the successors of Mary Magdalene and of Peter, the disciples of today, are to take that news to all people, without exception. We have to preach a Gospel for all people- that’s completely and radically inclusive, for otherwise it’s not really the Gospel of Jesus Christ at all.
Jesus of Nazareth promised life in all its fullness, love that crossed boundaries, God’s acceptance of everyone who seeks God. But Jesus was angered by those who made religion into petty rules, who put boundaries on God’s love, and who saw religion as a moneymaking exercise for themselves. It’s an uncomfortable fact for people like me that Jesus’ harshest words were for religious leaders. Despite his great respect for his Jewish religious heritage, the one time he really lost his temper was in Judaism’s holiest place, the temple of Jerusalem, when he turned over the tables of the money changers, and threw them out of his Father’s house, for preventing the Temple truly being a house of prayer of all nations.
For the message we have had handed down from Mary and those women at the tomb is unlike any other. Mary went to the disciples and was the first to say to anyone, ‘I have seen the Lord’. And from there it has gone across the world, across the centuries- and it is the message we still have to give to the world.
For the implication of that Easter message of Mary’s is that all the rules are changed, everything is possible, and all the barriers are down. Hope and love have triumphed, even over death itself. A God whose love breaks the barrier between life and death can break down any barrier. And so Mary says to us as well, ‘I have seen the Lord’, and now we can rejoice in this good news, and live as though we believe her, and share it with all people, inviting them to know the forgiveness and grace which Easter makes possible.
Ascription of Praise
Praised be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,
who by his great mercy
in raising Jesus Christ from the dead
has given us new birth into a living hope:
the hope of an inheritance reserved in heaven for us
which nothing can destroy or spoil or wither! Amen!
From 1 Peter 1.3-4
Biblical references from the New Revised Standard Version, unless otherwise stated
© 2015 Peter W Nimmo