Christ Has Risen. So what?!
Reading: John 1:1-14 – Margaret Morris
The preparations we made for holy week this year were pretty darn good. Pilgrimages and pub outings; inter-faith talks and a Maundy Thursday drama to remember; a revamped plan for our Good Friday witness and some Easter Sunday celebrations which would have required a few hours of furniture moving and decorating…all these were planned with the hope that they would help us live into the story of holy week and encounter afresh the week the world was turned upside down.
Turns out, of course, that we needn’t had bothered…for our world has been turned upside down in a way in which none of us could have planned for or expected. Whether dealing with isolation or ill health, separation from loved ones or sacrifices on the frontline, all our lives have, almost overnight, changed dramatically. Speaking personally, alongside all manner of other changes, this grave new world will see me conduct 14 funerals in the two weeks either side of Easter. Some of these services have been short and hard; others have been joy-filled and uplifting; one even included ‘The Great Escape’ at the committal and a toning down of the practical jokes that the deceased had planned!…and at all of them, words of divine love and resurrection hope were spoken to those in need of comfort and strength…words that are centred upon our Easter belief that the God who gave up power, took on flesh and lived a life of love, died on a cross and rose again in a garden…which is, unsurprisingly, where we find ourselves in today’s gospel reading.
Reading: John 20:1-18 – Isobel Henson
So, Mary Magdalene – our enigmatic friend – has travelled to the tomb in darkness and on discovering that it is empty, runs back to tell Peter and ‘the disciple Jesus loved’ (believed to be either Lazarus or John, the gospel writer). These two then sprint to the tomb, see the linen and cloth that had been wrapped around Jesus now lying where his body had been and they exit stage left. It’s not exactly a triumphant picture of resurrection joy as, although the disciple Jesus loved ‘saw and believed’ (John 20:8), we are also told ‘they still did not understand from the scriptures that Jesus had to rise from the dead’ (20:9). It’s left to Mary to welcome the risen Christ into the picture. With her we encounter messengers in white before we hear the voice of Jesus ask, “Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?” After a short conversation with the person she thinks is the gardener, he says her name and Mary realizes with whom she is actually speaking. Jesus then gives her instructions – something to tell the disciples, and so she goes to share with them the words that Jesus has spoken. This is why Mary is often known as ‘the apostle to the apostles’ – the first to see and preach Christ’s resurrection, (take that you bastions of male-only clergy!); the one whose torch is passed down to us today.
Which is nice. If a little awkward. You see, as I re-read this passage in preparation for today, well…at first, I’m really honest, it appeared a little flat to me. Confusing. Unlike in the other gospel accounts, the angels give no Easter proclamation. There’s no promise of further resurrection appearances of Jesus and the words that he instructs Mary to pass on are a little baffling. I mean, just imagine Mary’s message – that first Easter sermon – which, given the suggestion elsewhere, might not have been met with immediate belief and joy –
Mary: Friends, I have seen him! He’s alive.
James: You what?
Mary: Jesus! He’s alive! The tomb was empty, wasn’t it Peter?
Peter: Well yes but…
Mary: And I spoke to the gardener…well I thought it was the gardener but then I realized it was Jesus.
John: Yeah, okay then Mary…we still see him too.
Mary: No, I mean, I really saw him!
John: Alright then…well…what did he say?
Mary: Well, he asked why I was crying and who I was looking for…
Peter: Sounds like him alright…always with the questions. What else?
Mary: Well…he said my name and told me not to hold on to him.
Mary:…and then…then he told me to come to you and give you these words…
Peter: Oh blimey. Here we go then…
Mary: He said he is ascending to his Father and your Father. His God and your God!
“I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” Those are the words that Jesus says to Mary. That is the Easter message he wants passed on. No ‘death is defeated’. No explanation of how this was foretold in scripture but a sentence on ascension. What’s happened here then? Jesus appears to be getting his festivals mixed up. He seems to be doing what most of us would like to do right now by fast-forwarding a few weeks to the ascension. We’ve barely caught our breath at the surprise of the empty tomb and sudden appearance of Christ and now he’s talking about ascension! Don’t you find this odd? I did. And I then imagined the confusion from the grieving families with whom I met this week if I had offered to them those words of Jesus as reason to hope:
“Mourn your loved ones but have hope for Christ rose from the grave and told his disciples, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father; to my God and your God’.”
What do those words actually mean to those in need of good news? What difference does Christ’s rising make to them? What difference does the resurrection or even ascension make to grieving families, to those who are ill and alone at the moment; to those who are struggling to make ends meet or who are giving their all to care for others? In short, Christ has risen. So what?! Genuinely…so what? How would you answer that if a friend asked you what difference Jesus’ death and resurrection made to their life or death, to our community or world? Why do you think Jesus’ words to Mary contained good news for all creation?
Well, I believe that the words of scripture are like us in that their true meaning is found when viewed as part of the whole and not in isolation. Just as I can only become fully me in relation to you and to the wider community, the words of scripture only reveal their true, world-transforming message when read and viewed as part of the greater, greatest story. In today’s case, it is only when we look back at the whole of the gospel according to John, when we think back to what the writer has told us of Jesus before, that the good news can be heard, understood and declared. And, like any expert storyteller, John’s woven teasers throughout his work. Take Jesus’ question to Mary, for starters –
Who is it you are looking for?
Doesn’t that strike you as a bit of an odd question for Jesus to ask? I mean, if he was, as Mary thought at the time, a gardener she didn’t know, he wouldn’t need to ask a woman why she was weeping in a place where people were killed and buried…whilst Jesus-as-Jesus would clearly have already known the answer to the question which Mary leaves unanswered. What, then, if the question was included by John as a cue that he wants the reader to pick up on?
Put it this way, do you know what words Jesus first speaks in John’s gospel? It’s back in the opening chapter when Jesus first meets those who would follow him. He asks them ‘What are you looking for?’ Now, I don’t think John dealt in coincidences. In telling us that Jesus’ first words to a friend post resurrection echoed his very first words to his disciples, John is giving us the nod that the breadcrumbs had been laid from the very start. He’s encouraging us to go back to the beginning and read the gospel afresh with resurrection eyes. Like a ray of light hitting a disco ball, Jesus’ appearance to Mary beams out a thousand other rays which illuminate everything in sight.
What of those tricky ascension words, then? What of Jesus’ instruction to Mary – ‘to go to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father; to my God and your God’? Well, here, Jesus is declaring that all he said to his disciples has been vindicated for his story has not ended early on a cross. Instead, his foreknowledge that their grief will turn to joy (16:20) is shown to be true; his promise that he is going to his Father’s house to prepare a place for us (14:3) is kept; his constant refrain for us not to be afraid can be trusted – for not even death itself will keep us from being with Christ and with God.
More than this – as if more were needed – listen to the way that Jesus phrases the words to Mary:
Go to my brothers and tell them I am ascending to my Father and your Father;
to my God and your God’.
My Father and your Father; my God and your God. Through Christ taking our flesh, dying our death and rising again, everything has changed. Jesus now sees us not as mere disciples and more even than friends. He deems us sacred siblings! He calls the doubter and denier, the tax collector and the sons of thunder his beloved brothers. For His heavenly Father is their heavenly Father. They – we – are truly children of God. Those spine-tingling words from John’s first chapter have come to pass;
In other words, Jesus’ meeting with Mary might be an odd encounter in isolation but read in context it enlightens the gospel, our faith, our world with the wonder, the truth, the hope that our true identity is as children of the living God and that not even death will change that. Just as the current crisis is helping us to see that many of our social narratives are illusory; that our judgments on the social worth of others are errant; that our lives can be stripped back to the essential elements, the simple, the still centre; Jesus’ appearance to Mary helps us to see who we truly are and where we are really going. We are not how much we earn or own. We are not how thin or handsome or pretty we are. We are not the worst of our mistakes or the labels that others give us. We are God’s children and remain so in our living and in our dying.
And there’s even more!
Just like a film in which the ending is hidden in the beginning or, perhaps more aptly, like a sunflower seed which contains the full beauty of the flower in its kernel, the full glory of the resurrected Jesus is to be found, quite literally, In The Beginning. Mary’s mistaking of Jesus as the gardener was, most likely, no mistake. This is the Gospel, after all, that begins with a quotation from Genesis. Thus, just as the first gardeners’ actions led to a separation from God in Eden, so the later gardener’s actions lead to a uniting with God as revealed in the garden of resurrection, paving the way for a return to paradise (the Greek word for walled garden!). And as if we needed further proof of the ending being contained within the beginning, Jesus’ words to Mary – his ascension to his God and our God – tell us that the Christ, the Word, was returning to the very heart of God.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God (John 1:1)
…in the resurrection and the ascension is the Word, and the Word is with God,
and the Word is God.
The one through whom all things came into being (John 1:3) is the one through whom all things are reconciled to God. This is a fancy, theological way of revealing the hope-filled, mind-blowing, world-transforming truth that all is from God and all will return to God – that at the heart of the cosmos, in the breath of every creature, at the centre of each moment, God is and can be found. That God is the Self within all selves, the Love behind all loves, the pulse of all creation!
So…yeah…maybe John’s account of Jesus’ risen appearance to Mary isn’t so bad after all! For it speaks of a world turned upside down and soaked in love. It rings out with good news of our true identity, of our hope in the life to come, of God’s presence in all things. The spoilers were there all along – the breadcrumbs that led to the very Bread of Life. The clues were right there at the start for –
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. (John 1:1-5, NRSV)
It never will. Pasg Hapus – Happy Easter to you all. Hallelujah!