All one! A sermon for 14 April 2013

Old High St Stephen’s, Inverness
Sunday 14 April 2013: Year C, The Third Sunday of Easter

SERMON
Texts: Galatians 3.23-29
John 20.1-18

All one!
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Easter is not just one Sunday of the year. For there is a sense that every Sunday, for Christians, is the day of Resurrection. We know from the Gospel accounts that Jesus was crucified on a Friday, and that after being buried he lay in the grave over the Jewish Sabbath (our Saturday). On the third day, after the Sabbath, he rose again. And that’s why, at a very early stage, the followers of Jesus began to meet for worship, not on the Sabbath, but the day after- the day of resurrection, our Sunday- which the early Christians called ‘The Lord’s Day’. Every Sunday is Easter Sunday.

And that allows me, today, to stray from the Lectionary readings and go back to the Easter story. On Easter Sunday, 2 weeks ago, we heard Luke’s account of the resurrection of Jesus. Today we heard John’s account of the resurrection. It’s not surprising, which you think about it, that the different Gospels tell the story of Jesus rising from the dead in different ways. It was, after all, an unexpected development, to say the least. Yet there are a few things which are common to each account in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. For a start, they are at one in saying that the grave was empty and that Jesus was alive.

Here’s something else the different Gospel accounts have in common. In Mark’s Gospel (the earliest of the Gospels), the story of that resurrection morning begins:

After the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices to go and anoint the body of Jesus. Very early on Sunday morning, at sunrise, they went to the tomb.

Matthew’s account begins:

After the Sabbath, as Sunday morning was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb.

Luke starts the story like this:

Very early on Sunday morning the women went to the tomb, carrying the spices they had prepared. They found the stone rolled away from the entrance to the tomb

And as we heard from John this morning:

Early on Sunday morning, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been taken away from the entrance.

In each version of the story, the first people to the tomb early on that morning after the Sabbath were women. It was the women who were left to grieve at the foot of the cross when the rest of the disciples fled at Jesus’ crucifixion. And now his women followers go to tend to his body in death (as they think) and find that the body is gone.

John’s Gospel concentrates on Mary Magdalene’s role. She arrives to find the stone away from the entrance to the tomb, and rushes off to find some other disciples to report what has happened. But she does not yet know fully what has happened yet. ‘They have taken the Lord from the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!’ she cries. This is the only explanation she can think of, at this point. Peter, and the other disciple who the Gospel calls ‘the beloved disciple’, go to see what has happened. They see the physical evidence- the empty tomb, the wrapped up grave clothes. Peter, it seems, can make nothing of it. The other disciple, we are told ‘saw and believed’; yet the Gospel tells us that ‘They still did not understand the scripture which said that he must rise from death’ as if the Beloved Disciple believed without quite knowing what he believed yet. He is willing to believe that God has done something incredible here. But his is perhaps a faith still seeking understanding- he still hasn’t quite grasped all that is going on. I suspect that most of us have moment like that in our Christian life- when we believe, but without quite knowing why. Soon he will know more- but knowing is not the same as believing. Perhaps knowing comes after believing?

Peter and the Beloved Disciple stay silent now. Mary, meantime, is outside the tomb. She’s crying- and no wonder. She has seen her teacher- this man who had been so kind to her, on whom she had place her hopes- cruelly executed. And now, as she comes to visit his tomb, it seems his last resting place has been desecrated- the stone moved away, the grave clothes lying empty, the body gone- surely stolen? And in her grief, Mary has a vision of angels.

One asks her, ‘Woman, why are you crying’; and Mary gives the answer she had earlier given the disciples- or almost: ‘They have taken my Lord away, and I do not know where they have put him!’ The answers she gives the angel are more personal than the ones she gave to Peter and the Beloved Disciple earlier: she talks about ‘my Lord’ instead of ‘the Lord’; ‘I don’t know where they have put him’ instead of ‘we don’t know’. It’s as if, in this dialogue with angels, she’s trying to make sense of a deeply upsetting experience, in the hope she might get an answer from God.

And then she turns from the tomb and sees Jesus without recognising him. Again, she hears questions, ‘Why are you crying? Who are you looking for?’ Again, Mary tries to rationalise the situation- thinking he is the cemetery gardener, she asks the stranger where the body is. But then he says her name: ‘Mary’, and she knows it’s Jesus.

But here Jesus says a strange thing: ‘Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet gone back up to the Father’. Perhaps Mary had tried to embrace him- but why does he say this? I think it’s because Jesus was telling Mary that she could not hold on to Jesus for herself. Instead, she is to go and tell what has happened: ‘But go to my brothers and tell them I am returning to him who is my Father and their Father, my God and their God’. The risen Christ tells Mary not to hold on to him, but to go, and tell the men. How often do we hold on to image of Christ, ideas about God, doctrines and dogmas which seem very important- when what we should be doing is going to tell others about what has happened, about the risen Christ who is alive and doing unexpected things in the world?

So Mary goes, and tells the disciples the news of the risen Christ. Mary Magdalene becomes the first to announce the news of the resurrection of Jesus. She is the first to preach Easter. And that is what’s in all four Gospels- that it was the women who were the first to announce the resurrection. Right at the beginning of the story of the Church, women are the witnesses. In some ways, this is very strange. For in ancient times, women were second-class citizens. Women could not be witnesses- in a court case, their testimony stood for nothing. Indeed, Luke admits that, at first, when the male apostles heard the report of the women, they ‘thought that what the women said was nonsense, and they did not believe them’ (Luke 24.11). They might not have believed at first anyway- but in that culture, the fact that it was women who were telling this story made it all the more unbelievable. The only reason I can think of that Gospels says that the women were first with the news is that it must have been the case. Everyone knew that the women were the first witnesses- there was no denying that awkward fact.

When St Paul writes to the Church at Corinth about the resurrection (in the passage I spoke about on Easter Sunday), he says that the risen Christ ‘appeared to Peter and then to all twelve apostles’ (1 Corinthians 15.4-5) and to other witnesses. Paul does not mention the women witnesses. Perhaps this is already the beginning of the trend which would see women excluded from leadership in the Church. In other parts of this letter, Paul will say that women should wear head coverings in Church (11.3-10), and that ‘the women should keep quiet in the meetings’ and ought not to speak in Church (14.34-35). Paul seems to be saying that in a sense, women are to be seen as no.2 to men in the Church. It’s a confusing argument; and an exasperated Paul says at one point, ‘But if anyone wants to argue about it, all I have to say is that neither we nor the churches of God have any other custom in worship’ (11.16).

But as a matter of fact, this is a bit disingenuous. In other letters, Paul mentions women, such as Prisca and Phoebe, who had leading roles in the Church. And even in 1 Corinthians, he seems at one point to accept that women lead worship (11.5). So why, today, in this Church, do we ignore these command of St Paul’s? How come we have women leading in worship, and even come to Church with no hats? It’s because we recognise that these few verses are not the whole story.

Despite the marginalization of women from leadership in the Church very early on, it’s a fact that the new law of love which Jesus had brought into the world made things better for women. In the Gospels, we read of how Jesus had treated women differently- even the centuries of Church tradition have not entirely smother the memory of the important roles women played in Jesus ministry and in the earliest days of the Church. Indeed, we have rediscovered, in recent generations, the fact that if we properly understand the Gospel, we are not to treat anyone as second class on account of their sex.

I think Paul really knew that as well. To the Galatians, he wrote, ‘through faith… all of you are God’s children in union with Christ Jesus’. And then he thought about some of the most important categories people put themselves into in those days. Gender, of course, is the primary category- whether we’re male or female. And within the Church back in Paul’s day, there was a lot of debate about whether being of Jewish origin, or being of non-Jewish- Gentile- birth, was important or not. And perhaps the most important distinction in the Roman world- after gender- was that between slaves and free men and women- and Christianity attracted both slaves and free. Human beings might make such categories, said Paul, but now I tell you that these distinction matter not in God’s eyes. He writes, ‘there is no difference between Jews and Gentiles, between slaves and free people, between men and women; you are all one in union with Christ Jesus’.

No-one now thinks that it is permissible for Christians to tolerate slavery (although it was tolerated until the nineteenth century in the Church in Britain, until people like Wilberforce realised that it made a mockery of the Gospel). And no-one now would say that because a person is born Jewish should make any difference to Church membership (although German Protestants did so in the 1930s and 1940s, something of which they had to repent later). And yet there are still Christians- even entire denominations- who want to argue that women should be barred from leadership roles in the Church, that women ought not to be clergy or elders or whatever. Women are to be second-class citizens in the Church, so they say. They argue their point, either from selective readings of the Bible or, as Paul put it in his last-ditch attempt to close the argument with the Corinthians, because ‘the churches of God [do not] have any other custom’. But these are theologically weak arguments. And now that women have stopped wearing hats to Church (except for weddings!); and now that they are preaching and teaching and leading in the Church (just as they can lead in the wider society), we feel there is no going back. At last, we are making the most of the talents of 50% of the Church’s membership- and the Church and the cause of Christ is stronger and better for it. Who would try to reverse that? But I think some people are trying to reverse it.

Very soon, a report on human sexuality will published for our Church’s General Assembly to consider in May. I will be attending the Assembly, along with one of our elders, David Smillie. We will not be arguing about the status of Jew or Gentile or slave and free, or even about men and women in the Church; but about the status of gay and straight people. Not whether women or slaves or Gentiles are second-class within the Church, but about whether gay Christians are second-class within the Church. I have come to believe that the arguments against not giving gay and lesbian Christians a full role in the Church are the same kind of arguments which are used against allowing women to have a full role in the life of the Church. It’s a few selected Bible verses, taken overt-literally, and without reference to the cultural context from which they come; and also a worry because about what other churches might think (Paul’s old last ditch argument: that ‘neither we nor the churches of God have any other custom’). But they are weak arguments. If, on this basis, someone thinks that women should be second-class citizens in the Church, then they will inevitable think that gay and lesbians ought also to be second-class. And I think that many of those who argue against the full participation of gay and lesbian Christians in the Church also want to take us back to the days when women had to be silent in Church, because they think that not just gay and lesbian people, but women too, are actually second-class Christians.

So our Church, at this General Assembly, will once again have to decide whether we really think that the categories we might put people in are less important than our union with Christ. I would misquote St Paul if I claimed that he’d written that ‘there is no difference between Jews and Gentiles, between slaves and free people, between men and women, between gay and straight; you are all one in union with Christ Jesus’. But I think that’s the gist of it for us today. We are all one in union with Christ Jesus; true, but we are also so diverse. But then the world is diverse. So please pray for David, and for me, and for our Church of Scotland, and all the churches of Christ, as we continue to grapple with these issues.

On the first Easter morning, something so remarkable happened that it took a while for the implications to sink in. The Beloved Disciple saw, and believed, though he did not yet fully understand. And then Jesus chose the women to be his first witnesses. And Mary too, at first, was confused. She had to learn that she could not hold on to her beloved Teacher, to keep him to herself as if nothing new had happened. Instead, she was to go and tell the good news to the men, and to the world. We cannot hold on to Christ. He is at work in ways we can’t dream of. But the good news it that he is alive, and that is good news- for all people!

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 Good News Bible
© 2013 Peter W Nimmo