Acts 10.34-43 Colossians 3.1-4 John 20.1-17
Many years ago, I was at a Confirmation service at Easter-tide with the then Bishop of reading, Stephen Cottrell (now Bishop of Chelmsford) and he asked us all the question: what were Jesus’ first words after he had risen from the dead? Thankfully, this was a rhetorical question, but I remember glancing round at my illustrious colleagues and wondering if it was also a trick question. Well, it was and it wasn’t. The answer is, Woman, why are you weeping? What we didn’t know was that our bishop was using us as a sort of unofficial focus group for his next book, which was to be The Things He Said, an excellent – and very readable – study of the words of the Risen Lord.
For the purist, of course, the answer isn’t strictly true, because it does depend on which gospel you read – but that aside, and given that most of us are more familiar with the John account because we hear it proclaimed on Easter morning, with the gospel of the year (in this case, St Matthew) read at the Easter Vigil, then we can safely say that these were indeed the first words spoken by Christ after the Resurrection – woman, why are you weeping?
John’s resurrection account focuses on the disciples, Peter and John himself, running to the tomb in the early morning, John outstripping Peter and then faltering at the entrance. We are told that Peter goes in and finds the linen wrappings neatly folded, but we are told nothing of his reaction. John, however, following him in, sees and believes. Yet neither of them understood that scripture that he must rise from the dead, so they go home. Mary, on the other hand, overcome with grief, stays behind weeping, her mind fixed only on finding Jesus’ body, to such an extent that she fails to recognise the two angels, even when they address her – They have taken away my Lord and I do not know where they have laid him. Nor, indeed, does she see Our Lord himself, supposing him to be the gardener. It is only when the Gardener calls her by name that the tears of grief turn to tears of joy. Confronted by Christ’s resurrected body, she rushes to embrace him, to keep him with her for ever.
But that isn’t part of the plan. Christ, now fully alive, can’t ever be tied to earth again – his human life ended on the cross of Calvary, his divine life is revealed in his risen, transformed body. This is the fulfilment of God’s plan, all is now accomplished – and Mary, the apostle to the apostles, has a job to do in the new order of things – to give a simple clear message to Christ’ brothers: I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.
So in that wonderful story, we are all raised with Christ, as St Paul tells us in our reading this morning, to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.
So many or Christ’s resurrection appearance begin with a question, not just why are you weeping, but what are you looking for? What were you discussing? Was it not necessary for the son of Man to die? Have you believed because you have seen me? They are questions being asked of all of us in our discipleship. And as disciples, followers of Christ, called by name through baptism in this sophisticated, scientific and technological twenty-first century, we are commanded to preach the Risen Christ, to ponder these questions in our heart, that we may be witnesses. Stephen Cottrell says in his book that Mary sees in Christ the magnetic attraction of great and puzzling beauty; the sort of beauty that takes us beyond ourselves. And beyond ourselves is where we need to go, in all this glorious mystery, if we are to be worthy witnesses of these things in the present generation.
Rowan Williams describes the Resurrection as the decisive central moment around which the whole history of the world turns in a new direction. And it isn’t enough for us, like Peter and John on that first Easter morning, to look at the empty tomb, believe it without understanding, and go home. We have to be open, like Mary Magdalene, to the disturbing and surprising presence of Our Lord Jesus Christ and seek to embrace him, not to limit him to the earth by coming up with ingenious resurrection theories featuring body-snatching or induced comas, but to take the message of the ascending Christ out into the darkened world, to set our minds on the things that are above, not on the things that are on earth, to use St Paul’s words.
St Peter, addressing the Gentiles in the house of Cornelius in our first reading from the Book of Acts, details Christ’s place in the order of things, the one of whom the prophets testified. Those who were with him in those life-changing years of his ministry also witnessed him risen; they ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. And all the resurrection stories speak of whim doing mundane things – breakfast on the sea-shore, walking to Emmaus, taking sustenance, bearing the marks and the scars of crucifixion, whilst at the same time unrecognisable, different in some way from how he was before. So from this we assume that his physical body is changed, transformed, so that he is recognised not by sight but by what he does – calling by name, breaking bread, landing a miraculous catch of fish and so on – triggers which lead to a deeper understanding in the hearts and minds of the disciples.
It is this transformed Christ, risen, ascended and glorified, that we proclaim, and the proclamation begins in that Easter Garden. For the transformation is not just Jesus, it is all of us. Humanity through the death and resurrection of Jesus enters into a new relationship with God for all time, and it is up to us to reveal to the world this gospel of faith, hope and love as people of the Resurrection, Easter people, living in a world which has so often lost its was and calling it to account; not to punish, for that is not God’s way, but to show the more excellent way, the way of love.
And throughout the history of the world, we have countless examples of Christians doing just that, of standing up for the poor and the disadvantaged of the world because all humanity is precious in God’s eyes and we have all been vindicated and reconciled through the cross, as Peter tells us everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness through his name. evil and oppressive regimes come and go; the rulers who clashed with Our Lord, the Pharisees, Herod’s dynasty, the Roman empire – all these have long since faded into the past. And wherever corruption raises its ugly head, Christianity has been – and continues to be – a thorn in the flesh with its message of peace and reconciliation, as Peter tells us, you know the message he sent to the peoples of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ – he is Lord of all.
It is the Lord of all who we give thanks for and celebrate on this most joyful of all days. In the last week, we have experienced the rollercoaster of all human emotions, and rightly so, because only by probing the depths of human despair can we hope to answer the question Why are you weeping? And in all our God-given humanity, we can touch the divine and set our hearts on higher things, that we might of out from here in trust and in confidence, with Mary’s words on our lips, I have seen the Lord. Amen.