This Eastertide, we present a series of reflections on the events of Holy Week. Today's reflection is by Mthr Judith Brown, taken from a sermon at St Mary Magdalen's, Oxford.
The gospel stories of the first Easter Sunday morning and the following days have a stark simplicity about them. Although each gospel writer gives an account with a slightly different emphasis and intention, none of them dress the story up with pageantry or high dramatics. There is no attempt to cover up the fear and frailty of the disciples. Nor is there any attempt to explain what happened. Their message is essentially that of Mary, “We have seen the Lord”. As such they have a ring of authenticity about them. The account from John’s gospel is the latest to be written – probably about 90 CE, some sixty years after the events, but some of the detail suggests that an earlier tradition or account was incorporated into it. And when you come to think of it, 40 or even 60 years is possible for a serious eyewitness account, particularly of a significant event like a death or a birth—or indeed a resurrection. I certainly can remember in vivid detail events of great significance in my life 40 years ago as if they were yesterday; and I am sure those who have reached their 70s, 80s, or 90s would say the same for events of 60 years ago.
From the standpoint of today we have to accept that we shall never know “what happened” that Easter night in any sense that modern historians might say they know. The writers closest to the events did not pretend to know. All they could testify—and it was a stupendous testimony—was that they had experienced the presence of the Jesus who they knew had been judicially and most publicly murdered: they had now “seen him”—not as some apparition or disembodied spirit, but as a perfectly recognisable friend and teacher. They had experienced his continued presence and friendship, even to the point of sharing a meal with them—according to the two who had pressed a stranger to stop and eat in the late evening with them at an inn, and according to Peter and his fishing colleagues on the shore of Galilee. Only gradually did they begin to understand, assess and then preach what they had come to believe: that in some extraordinary way God had raised and so vindicated the one who had said that God was his Father, and that he was himself Light and Life, sent by the Father to draw all people into his company. This Jesus was not just another Jewish prophet done to death for challenging the national authorities, not just another miracle worker who sank from sight, not just a reformer murdered by the collusion of church and state. He did not just speak the words of God, but was the very Word of God himself. He was the embodiment, the enfleshment, of the love of God himself; and that love had triumphed over the onslaught on it of human sin. Had that first generation of Christians not “seen the Lord” in this much broader sense, we should not be here today celebrating an Easter morning in church. Their “seeing” led them to believe that the love of God in Christ was calling them into God’s presence, and was dealing with all the sin and confusion and blindness which alienated them from God and from each other.
In our celebrations and greetings on this glorious day we do not say “The Lord has risen”: but “The Lord is risen; he is risen indeed”. The point is that the raising is both in time and out of time as we know it. It is an eternal event of cosmic significance. But it is also deeply temporal and personal to each Christian as it was to those first witnesses. Just as Jesus the Christ becomes incarnate in each of his followers, so He is risen in each of us too: so this is also our Easter. As that great Anglican priest and poet, George Herbert, put it:
Rise heart; thy Lord is risen. Sing his praise
Who takes thee by the hand, that thou likewise
With him mayst rise:
The accounts of the raising of Jesus have several hallmarks which may help us “see” the risen Lord and go with him.
The appearances are not manipulated by the disciples: they were totally unexpected and unpredictable. This teaches us that Jesus cannot be conjured up, an experience of him “achieved” by our own wills and practices. He comes to his own when and as he chooses: and we can only wait and open ourselves to his presence.
Jesus comes to his disciples just where they are in whatever state they are—and some of these first disciples were very dilapidated indeed—fearful, doubting, escaping and guilty. There was Mary exhausted by the events of Friday, mourning the teacher who had probably rescued her from a life of degradation and isolation. There was the group locked in an upper room for fear of the Jewish leaders. There was Thomas, who refused to believe what his friends told him and truculently declared that he would not believe until he could see and feel the marks of crucifixion. There was Peter, who knew he had denied Jesus not once but three times—and in public. So we can believe that Jesus will come to us in whatever state we are.
Jesus surprises and disorientates. This is one of the common themes of the resurrection appearances and the disciples’ experience. Jesus is often at first not recognised and he surprises and pulls those who see him out of their pre-existing ways of seeing. Mary, for example, thinks he is the gardener and only recognises him when he speaks her name. The two disciples walking to Emmaus seem to have spent quite a while in his company as he expounded the scripture; and they only recognised him when he broke bread in front of them in the way he had before he died. So it may well be with us. We may well be confronted with Christ where we least expect to see him, and dragged out of our comfort zones in the process.
Jesus has work for those who see him. Mary has to go and tell Jesus’s male disciples what she has seen. The disciples on the road to Emmaus hurry back to the Jerusalem which they were probably escaping, to share the news of their encounter. Peter and the disciples on the lake shore are told to testify to the Lord and feed his sheep. So it will be for us. We cannot be private Christians: seeing Jesus, being raised with him, means being sent to do things for and with him – whatever our calling and role in life.
So this Eastertide, as every Eastertide—indeed, all our lives—we celebrate the raising of Jesus, his Easter and by his calling and power our own Easter, too. He is risen indeed: allelujah.