Old High St Stephen’s, Inverness
Sunday 20 April 2014: Year A, Easter Day
“I have seen the Lord”
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
In our very materialist world, it is a cliché that ‘seeing is believing’. We kid ourselves that we get to know things by seeing them. For a long time, science worked that way- you did an experiment, and if you could see what happened, then you had discovered a new scientific truth. In fact a lot of science involves things we can never see- like tiny particles, or planets which no telescope could ever see- but that doesn’t mean that the tiny particles or distant planets don’t exist. Scientists can work out that they are there, without every actually seeing them.
But the seeing is believing myth persists in our visual culture. And it can skew our vision, if we are not careful. During the last few days we’ve seen lots of TV pictures of the tragic ferry disaster in South Korea. But it happened it had not happened off the coast of a country with a very well-developed modern media and where almost everyone, it seems, possess a smartphone, there may well have been far less coverage. Similar disasters happen in places where there are far less TV crews and video phone owners, and as a result we don’t hear- or see- much about them. It is almost as if we don’t think something is important if it can’t be made into a TV news story.
There is hardly any ‘seeing is believing’ in the Easter story. None of us were around to see anything, and yet we- try- to believe. We remember Thomas, the apostle who would not believe, because he had not seen the risen Christ. Eventually, confronted with the reality of the risen Christ, Thomas confesses faith: ‘My Lord and my God’. But Jesus replies, ‘Do you believe because you see me? How happy are those who believe without seeing me!’ (John 21.24-29)- words addressed to us, generations on, who were not there, but who have to believe without seeing.
But even for those who were there, the first Easter seems to have been confusing- an emotional roller coaster of rumour, shock and disbelief as it took a while for the reality to sink in. It’s very hard to work out the sequence of events from the four Gospel accounts of the resurrection- and some people use that as evidence that it was all made up. But perhaps all that confusion simply reflects what went on. This was an unexpected, life changing (and world-changing) event which took place. No wonder there were confusions and contradictions as people tried to retell the story afterwards.
Just on its own, John’s version of the story is complex and even confused (or, at least, confusing). People have trouble seeing, or, if they do see, understanding what they see. Let’s think about the three people whom the Gospel story tells us go to the tomb. And as we think about each of them, ask yourself- which one do I identify with?
Mary arrives first, according to the Gospel writer, when it’s still dark- but the darkness is, perhaps, as is often the case in John’s Gospel, a symbolic darkness. It’s Mary’s mind which is still in darkness. She sees that the stone has been moved from the tomb entrance, but she doesn’t see what it means. She see, and comes to the wrong conclusion. Assuming that the grave has been robbed, she runs to Simon Peter and the another chief disciple (probably John) to report what she’s seen, and what she thinks it means: “They have taken the Lord from the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!”
How often to we see, but jump to wrong conclusions. A few weeks ago, something happened to me which hasn’t happened to me for a while, but which happens to us all at some point. And I suspect its something which happens clergy, or others who have to deal with many different people in the course of their work, like doctors or lawyers or teachers. Out in the street I spotted someone whom I knew I- but as soon as I opened my mouth, I realised from the puzzled expression on the person’s face that I had got the wrong person. I had seen someone who like my friend- I had seen, but jumped to the wrong conclusions.
The rolled-away stone was a sign that Christ has risen. Often people see signs of Christ, but misunderstand. The church is the sign of Christ in the world today. But people often see the church and fail to see Christ. They see a building, or an institution. They see something they dismiss because it’s wishy-washy, or, at the other extreme, judgmental. They se a social club, or a dark force interfering with politics. They think we are all about telling people how to live, when in fact we are really about setting people free and giving people hope. Like Mary, seeing the stone rolled away, they see something different, discomfiting- but too often, they don’t see is the risen Christ.
Mary was grieving when she went to the tomb of Christ. Her grief must have turned to something worse when she thought the body had been stolen. There are lots of grieving and pained people out there, but sadly, too often they jump to the conclusion that the church is not a place they can find any hope. Yet that dimly-perceived disturbed tomb was, in fact, the first sign that there is, indeed, hope for humanity. Mary looks for answers by going to some of Jesus’ other disciples for help and advice. God grant that when we are asked to help people in grief, we will be able to point them to the risen Christ, and so give them hope!
Peter, accompanied by another of the chief disciples (probably John), now runs to the tomb (there is a lot of running about in this story). The other disciples arrives first, but doesn’t go in, although he sees the abandoned grave-clothes. Peter- impetuous, no-nonsense Simon Peter- goes straight into the cave. He seems not to quite understand what’s happened either. His friend then climbs into the cave- the Gospel tell us, ‘he saw and believed’. And yet the Gospel writer then adds- referring to both men- ‘They still did not understand the scripture which said that he must rise from death’. So the other disciple believes, but without, quite, understanding.
Can you identify with Peter, bold Peter, who jumps into the tomb for a better look? That, I suspect, would not be the first reaction of most of us encountering an empty tomb. We need more of Peter’s boldness- the boldness which leads him, later, to preach sermons like the one we heard in our reading from Acts. Peter speaks of his friend whom ‘they put… to death by nailing him to a cross. But God raised him from death three days’. This crucified and risen Christ has changed the world: he judges all people, Jews and Gentiles alike, and forgives sin.
One of the things which people assume when they come across the church is that it is a religion like any other. And very often, we give that impression. We marry and bury people, and hold services of worship, and like many other religions we have special beliefs. Yet religions are often the means by which people find an identity, and belong in a group. Often, we assume that people will have a certain religion because they belong to a certain race or nation. But Jesus’ resurrection has blown that out of the window, says Peter, speaking to an audience which included both Jews like him, but also Gentiles and foreigners: ‘God treats everyone on the same basis. Those who fear him and do what is right are acceptable to him, no matter what race they belong to’. Christ’s resurrection is a source of hope for all people everywhere, no matter who they are. Can we, like Peter, be bold in proclaiming that Christ is unique, and that he offers hope unlike anyone else?
The other disciple- whom I think is, in fact, the disciple John- arrives at the tomb after Peter. He lingers on the edge, just looking in as Peter plunged inside. Can you identify with him? Perhaps you’re the sort who like to consider things a bit beforehand. This is a more thoughtful man. He sees the evidence, but he has to think about it a bit first of all.
There are always going to be people who are never going to be converted instantly, by a Billy Graham-type rally which appeals to their emotions. Many of us want to think it through first. We are not all Peters, ready to jump in with both feet. Many of us want to stay outside a bit longer, think it through, work out what the implications are. And that’s fine, because some of us are just made that way. Disciples come in different shapes and sizes- different personalities respond to the risen Christ in different ways. We need the bold, impetuous Peters, but also the thoughtful, hesitating Johns. And this disciple who hung back, is described as ‘the one whom Jesus loved’- Jesus had a soft spot for this cautious thinker! Yet eventually John goes in, and something happens, as he stands in the cave and looks at the abandoned grave clothes: ‘he saw and believed’. So, for John, at least, is it a case of ‘seeing is believing’? Not quite- for the Gospel writer then adds: ‘They still did not understand the scripture which said that he must rise from death’.
Are you a bit like that: you believe without understanding? If so, you are not alone! For most of us, we do not come to faith entirely by working it all out. There are clever people who do try to do that, to prove, philosophically, that the claims of Christianity are true. Not many of them manage to come to faith that way- and few of us could believe if it was a matter of merely intellectual assent. No, we believe for all kinds of reasons- because of the influence of friends and family, because we’re inspired by the Bible, or the music and liturgy of the church, because we want to be involved in the good things the church does- Christian Aid, foodbanks, helping the homeless, and much else. And it’s afterwards, once we’ve plucked up the courage to go in, that we start to find that our faith is reasonable, we start to think it out. John, and Peter, had not yet understood as the stood in that empty grave-cave. Nothing new there, though, for they had left their homes and their work to follow him, yet despite not fully understanding him. A theologian once spoke of ‘faith seeking understanding’ (Fides quaerens intellectum: St Anselm). Faith comes first, and understanding afterwards.
Mary who saw, but misunderstood. Peter, who plunged boldly in, and John, who hung back for a while. And then the two men , believing but not understanding. Perhaps you can identify with one of them- or maybe there is a bit of their experience in all of us. But at this stage, let us take up the tale again, as the Gospel tells it: ‘Then the disciples when back home’. Why, we do not know. But for some reason, and rather unchivalrously, you might think, the two men went home, and left Mary Magadalene alone.
It so happens today that we have women reading the Easter story to our congregation: Catherine Kelly reads for us at St Stephen’s, and Shirley Gold at Old High. And that’s a rather lovely coincidence, for our Gospel reading- John’s telling of the resurrection- features a woman- Mary Magadelene- prominently. The four Gospels are united in telling us that the first witnesses to the resurrection, the ones who found the tomb empty, were women. In a male-dominated society, the first people to tell the good news of Easter were women. It took a
But at this point in the story, Mary, left alone outside the tomb, is still crying. And then she has this strange set of experiences. Firstly, she meets angels, to whom she pours out her grief: ‘They have taken my Lord away , and I do not know where they have taken him’. In the midst of all our Easter joyousness, these are heartbreaking words. The men seem to have worked something out, but Mary, who has seen her Lord so cruelly put to death, is still having her grief compounded by the though that someone, senselessly, cruelly, has stolen his body.
Then, she meets someone who asks why she is crying, and who it is she is looking for. Now there is a moment almost of comedy. Mary sees the gardener, but does not recognise him. Have you perhaps had someone speak to you, try to help, and did not recognise that it was Christ who was trying to help you? I wonder how often we meet Jesus, as he tries to help us, yet we do not realise it is him. We see, but they do not recognise.
Desperate for a solution to the mystery, she asks him: ‘Did you take the body of Jesus away? Where did you put him? Let me go and bring him back’. And then Jesus- for that it is he- simply says his name. And she realises who it is: Rabboni, my Teacher. She knew him, recognised him, because in the midst of her grief and despair and confusion, Christ spoke her name. She wants to hold onto him, but the risen Christ is not to be held on to. Instead, she is to go and tell others that the Lord is risen indeed. And so Mary becomes the first to tell others, ‘I have seen the Lord’. The men have not yet reached that stage- but Mary, she has seen clearly at last, and knows it is her risen Lord whom she has met.
We are here today because, in the confusion of the first Easter, Peter and the disciple whom Jesus loved, and above all, Mary Magdalene- the first to tell others, ‘I have seen the Loes’- eventually came to understand that Christ was back from the dead. That message has been proclaimed in different ways since. And it has been heard by people who were in the dark, or who saw dimly and took a while to understand, or who jumped in boldly first without much understanding- and by those who simply heard Christ speak their name, and who knew that they had seen the Lord. What the resurrection means to each of us will vary, according to our personalities and our situation. But if you make me describe it in one word, that words has to be hope. Despite betrayal, power-politics, cruelty, suffering and death, the love of Christ is not snuffed out. And when we know betrayal, power-politics, cruelty, suffering and death, not only do we know that Christ is there with us, but that there is hope for something better- for he is risen. Mary Magdalene has seen the Lord- and that has changed the world!
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
© 2014 Peter W Nimmo