I wonder if you’ve ever had the experience of being so shocked or distressed by the illness or misfortune of a friend that you didn’t know what to do or how to express your sympathy? If so, of course, you are hardly alone. Time and time again I have had people say to me, ‘as soon as I got sick, my friends all vanished .... when my wife was dying, people stayed away because they didn’t know what to say to us. I wish they had realised we just wanted them to tell us they cared – even if they didn’t have the right words.’ Our culture doesn’t prepare us very well for life’s difficult passages, and we find other people’s suffering confronting or even fearful. In our Western society we’re better at being upbeat, we admire youth and competence and success, and we are not very comfortable being reminded of our own mortality.
Of course, Holy Week rubs our noses in it. Jesus, surrounded by angels and animals and kings at his birth, miraculously curing the sick and bedazzling us with his stories of God’s upside-down reign where even outsiders get the best seats and the well-to-do get their come-uppance – Jesus is supposed to be our safety net, our guarantee that we are right with God and that everything will work our alright in the end, that we are not limited by our failures or our lovelessness, and that in God’s scheme of things we are created for eternal life. Jesus is supposed to be the ultimate can-do kinda guy, and when he is arrested and tortured and crucified as a public spectacle by the brutal Roman governor, it’s not just the worlds of his closest disciples that come crashing down – for many Christians even today Holy Week is confronting, we find it difficult to keep watch with Jesus in Gethsemene on Holy Thursday, impossible to stand at the foot of the cross on Good Friday. It disturbs us. Wake us up on Easter morning when the bunny rolls away the stone.
This morning we find ourselves with the women – the ones who don’t even make the official lists of disciples, but who do follow Jesus through the fearful and confronting events of his final days, who follow him as he carries his cross and who wait with him as he dies. The male disciples have all fled, denied knowing him, hidden themselves behind locked doors. Even today, as the wild rumours that Jesus has been seen alive begin to swirl, Peter, who has promised undying loyalty, will announce to his brothers that he is giving up, going home, going fishing. Back to Galilee, back to the life he left to follow Jesus. It’s left to the women, the ones whose love for Jesus seems to have been more intimate, less competitive, to do the final things that women have always done for those they love – to lay out the body, to wash it and dress it decently – the things they have been prevented from doing over the Sabbath. And so they come to the tomb in the first light of dawn.
It is no accident, then, that the women who waited with the dying Jesus become the first to see him risen, the first apostles of the Christian Gospel. The Greek word, apostolos, which means ‘one who is sent’, comes from the first words Jesus speaks to them when they encounter him in the gloom of the garden before sunrise. After telling Mary of Magdala and the other Mary, perhaps Mary the mother of James or Mary the wife of Clopas not to be afraid, Jesus sends them to proclaim the good news that he is alive. In the technical language that soon began to develop, an apostle was one who didn’t have to rely on the testimony of anybody else because they had been with Jesus in his earthly ministry, and they had witnessed the risen Jesus for themselves. The Marys, then, are the apostles to the apostles, the witnesses not only of Jesus’ ministry but of his suffering and death, and the first witnesses of the resurrection.
There seems to be something here about God’s sense of humour, as well as God’s sense of justice which is usually pretty opposite to human ideas of these things – because in the ancient world the testimony of women was held as virtually worthless. The Marys, in fact, represent that thread of hope that runs through the Scriptures like gold: God's trust of the small ones, the ones on the margins, the ones without voice, who become the witnesses of God’s creative love.
But here’s the thing – according to the alternative reading for today, John’s version of the encounter in the garden, when Mary first sees Jesus she doesn’t recognise him. When he tells the story of Jesus appearing to the disciples on the shore of Lake Galilee John again notes that they didn’t recognise him at first. Luke makes the same point when the risen Jesus appears to the disciples on the road to Emmaus. There’s something different about the risen Jesus. He does some things he didn't do before, like appear in locked rooms. This is the same Jesus; the gospels make that very clear. But something has changed, something that's hard to pinpoint, but that's so profound that at times even Jesus' friends don't recognise him.
New life, resurrection life, is like that. Things change – and for us too, the mark of whether we have received the gift of resurrection life, whether or not we have begun to participate in the resurrection life of Jesus, is that things start to change.
First, our understanding of power changes. The risen Jesus hasn't become the fearful angel of vengeance that some of his followers wanted him to be before his death, and some still want him to be now. The one who came among them as a servant still works among them by serving: the risen Lord cooks breakfast for his friends. In fact, the post-resurrection stories show us consistently that the way his friends finally come to recognise him because the risen Jesus does the same things he has always done, calling them by name, breaking bread, breathing peace. When we recognise Christ's new life, we also start to notice how new life is happening to us, as well. We finally understand that Jesus' habit of hobnobbing with sinners and ne’er-do-wells, and his habit of eating with all and sundry wasn't just false humility or a way of annoying the heck out of the Pharisees: it was the way God's power is always revealed and the world's redemption always takes place.
Our vision changes. When we realise that the risen Christ is actually offering a new sort of life to us as well, we start to see Christ's presence everywhere -- in Creation and the creativity that is God's gift, in the eyes of children and old people, in the heart of an enemy. In injustices and wounds, we see opportunities to participate in the risen Christ's healing and redemption of the world.
And our heart changes. The more we take in Christ's new life, the more we experience the compassion of God. We learn to see others as people God loves and has given gifts we need to be the Body of Christ in the world. And as we learn to love those whom we saw as unlovable, we begin to realise what it has cost God to love us.
The women, I think, get this straight away. The men, who during the past week have been unable to endure the weakness and vulnerability of God, are going to take a little longer. Easter requires us to rethink our stereotypes, to get used to thinking in smaller, more humble and persistent terms, and reminds us that God characteristically works through what the world dismisses as being of no account. Easter reminds us of the need for solidarity with those who suffer in our own community, and in our world, and reminds us that God’s humility is stronger than human injustice and oppression.
Easter also re-orients us toward the future. To be Christian is to be a person who trusts in the future promises of God, trusts that the One who transforms hopelessness and death into life and hope is also able to bring new life from the tragedies and contradictions that overwhelm us – that flood and earthquake and tsunami don’t get the last word, that war and oppression do not ultimately have the power to determine the course of human history, and that human over-consumption and heedless exploitation of the earth’s resources matter less in the end than the intention of the One who created all things in love that all creation will be brought to a joyful fulfilment. Easter makes us, as Christians, prisoners of hope.
Most of all, however, Easter brings us face to face with the forgiveness that is the hallmark of resurrection life. Forgiveness as the first priority of the risen Christ, whose knowledge of our inconsistency and our self-centredness does not condemn us but creates a new future where we couldn’t see one. ‘Go’, he says to the women. ‘Find them wherever they are hiding, and tell them that when they come back to themselves – when they’ve run all the way back to Galilee, to the beginning, I’ll be there ahead of them.
And then we can begin.’