Posted: Sunday 1st April 2018
Easter Day 2018.
Easter Day 2018
Acts 10: 34-43 & John 20: 1-18
Rev’d Simon Buckley.
“Who do people say I am?” ……No, your Rector is not having a senior moment and forgotten who he is (though the frequency with which I walk into rooms and think “now what did I come in here for?” has increased recently!). I’m simply repeating the question Jesus put to the disciples whilst they were walking between villages in Caesarea (Mark 8. 27) “who do people say I am?”- their response to which was varied “some say Elijah, or one of the prophets, and some John the Baptist -raised from the dead”. You see there were conspiracy theorists even back then.
But today, Easter Day is a day when the penny drops as to who Jesus is for one person in particular and hopefully helps us in our response to the question: “Who do you say Jesus is?” and I’ll return to that person in a minute.
I’ve recently been reading C.S. Lewis’ book Mere Christianity which, though written in 1952 when he was an English Tutor at Oxford University and had just started writing his famous Narnia books, remains a classic of English Christian Theology. In it he says that the most foolish thing that people say about Jesus is that they accept him as a great moral teacher, but they don’t accept his claim to be God. Lewis argues that someone “who was merely a man and said the things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher….Either Jesus was, and is, the son of God or else he was a madman or worse” he adds “let us not come with any patronising nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that option open to us. He did not intend to”.
Because many people, even some who may call themselves Christians, feel more confident talking about Jesus’ goodness than they do about his divinity. And whilst within our Church school stressing Jesus’ value as a great moral teacher who exemplifies goodness, self-sacrifice and every virtue imaginable makes the person of Jesus more accessible and relevant to those of different faiths and none, if I did not proclaim who the church believes him to be ultimately would be to sell the children and the Gospel short.
Not that Jesus’ teaching, his parables, ministry of healing, critique of religious leaders and passion for the poor and marginalised etc. aren’t important. Of course, they were and are. They are, after all, the very events that frequently made people not simply marvel at what he did or said but ask “who is he?”; “This can’t just be the carpenter’s son from Nazareth surely?”, “who is he that even the weather obeys him?”. The stories about Jesus we read in the gospels are not there just to tell us about his life but, and especially in Marks’ telling of the life of Jesus, to help us answer for ourselves the questions of “who is this guy?”. [And remember we’re not called to believe those stories as true simply because they’re in the Bible – as the old Sunday school song ran “Jesus loves me this I know, because the Bible tells me so”, rather, those stories made it through into the Bible because they were known to be truthful to the person of Jesus that the early church knew].
The church began as a group of fisherman, ex-tax collectors and admiring women that had gone on a journey with him, wandering round in awe of all that he was saying and doing, people who were intrigued by the suggestions he gave as to who he might be, but then who were completely confused as to how someone who they were beginning to think might just be ‘who he said he was ‘ could talk about being arrested and killed. And yet, and yet, the event that would definitively mark Jesus out as not being simply a miracle worker, great story teller or moral teacher would be his death. St Mark’s gospel, written only thirty years after that death, records a shattering moment at the crucifixion that ‘when the centurion saw how Jesus died he said “truly this man was God’s son”’. There was something in the manner of his dying that testified to who Jesus was to this most toughened of men- more conclusively than anything miraculous or profound Jesus had said or done in his lifetime.
Whilst on Good Friday Jesus’ executioner is moved to faith, for most of the disciples the same realisation takes a little longer.
“Early on the first day of the week while it was still dark” as today’s gospel began “Mary Magdalen came to the tomb”. Darkness that was literal- it’s early in the morning, but of course in the Gospel writer John’s hand the darkness is metaphorical too, the darkness of grief and of lack of understanding; Mary goes to the tomb ‘before the dawn of faith’ if you like. Mary had been faithful to Jesus, more faithful than most of the disciples of whom only John had not deserted him as he hung dying. Mary had anointed Jesus’ feet with perfume while he was alive and now she comes to the tomb to finish the burial ceremony that had been put on hold by the Sabbath. But the tomb is empty and in her distress and confusion she runs to the others who come to see what she’s talking about. Peter and John race to the tomb, are convinced that the tomb is inexplicably empty but still don’t know quite what to make of it. But Mary stays sobbing by the tomb and it as this point we get to a remarkable detail that I hadn’t registered before.
Jesus calls Mary by name to which she responds “rabboni” – teacher. He tells her not to cling to him and instructs Mary to go and tell the chaps that he’s ascending to his father. But what has caught my attention is not that Jesus commissions a woman to tell the men that he’s been raised to new life: in the year in which we will have a woman as the Diocesan Bishop of London– recognising a woman as ‘apostle to the apostles’ has, I hope, been familiar to us all for some time. No, what I had never registered before was that having called Jesus ‘teacher’ in the garden by the empty tomb, by the time she gets to the disciples what she says is “ I have seen… the Lord”. Jesus is no longer just a great moral teacher to her, she recognises him as the Lord- the Son of God.
As the centurion came to faith as he saw how Jesus died, so Mary came to faith knowing Jesus was alive. Not just back to life as he was before, but raised to new life. His life before pointed to his father, but his new life was taking him back to him.
Jesus went on to appear to all the disciples – and we will hear those stories in the coming Sundays of the Easter Season- but amongst his followers the first for whom the penny dropped was Mary. Hers was the first domino to fall and from which all the others then came to the same understanding. As Fr Keith said at the Bible study the other week, there is a wonderfully compelling authenticity to Mary’s testimony, because it’s actually a bit of an embarrassment. In those days a woman’s testimony wouldn’t stand up in court unless validated by a man. Now in time it gets validated by more than several men, but the fact that Jesus chose Mary as the first witness to his resurrection – well let’s just say if you were making this story up then that’s the last thing you’d have done if you wanted people to believe it.
The early church, those men and women who risked everything and were willing even to die did so not for the reputation of someone who they thought was a good moral teacher, but one who they were in no doubt was nothing less than the Son of God- who was their teacher and guide because he was their Lord.
“Who do people say I am?” it is because of the reliable witness of Mary and all the other the apostles that we can say “Son of God” just as they did. Today we celebrate that this great teacher, parable teller and miracle worker was all that and more because he was the Son of God.
And if that is our faith then our understanding of ‘who Jesus is’ is transformed, and if we truly call him ‘Lord’ as Mary did then he demands more than just listening to for comforting words or moral guidance, he deserves much more. The Risen Lord who, by giving his life for us has won for us eternal life, stands with arms open still, ready to receive our response to who he is.
Christ the Lord is Risen. Alleluia!