The First Day of the Week
John 20:1-18, Guildford Cathedral, Easter 2015
It was early on the first day of the week, writes St. John, that Mary Magdalene set off to pay her last respects at the tomb of Jesus, only to find that the stone at the entrance to the tomb had been rolled away. Mary was one of a small group of women who had followed Jesus around Galilee, along with the 12 male disciples: so it’s hardly surprising that her first reaction was to run and find Peter and his cousin John, and to
blurt out what she believed to be the bad news of the first Easter morning: ‘They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him!’ Sorrow upon sorrow. Indignity upon indignity. Her Lord cruelly tried, brutally mocked, savagely beaten, nailed to a cross and left to die; and now they didn’t even have the respect to leave the body alone!
And so to scene 2: and it was a little later on the first day of the week that Peter and John ran to the tomb, competitive as ever, and that Peter barged his way into that place where angels feared to tread. The tomb was empty, except for the sheets that had been wrapped around the body of Jesus, and the napkin that had been wrapped around his head.
Peter, it seems, didn’t know what to make of it at all, but as John followed him, we’re told, he saw and believed. Maybe, just maybe, Jesus’ words about being crucified and rising again on the third day were at last beginning to hit home. And so the two men thoughtfully returned to Jerusalem, with the beginnings of faith dawning in John’s heart and the beginnings of hope in Peter’s.
Just Mary Magdalene was left behind: and so this remarkable woman who was last at the cross and first at the empty tomb, was also the first to meet with the Risen Christ. Why her?, we might wonder. Well, perhaps because while John contributed his faith that morning, and Peter his hope, Mary contributed her love; and the greatest of these is love.
And finally to Scene 3: for it was as Mary turned and looked into the tomb itself, her eyes red with a weekend’s weeping, that she was startled to see two men in white, who’d somehow made their way inside. ‘Woman, why are you weeping?’ they asked. And having given her answer, she turned once more, and there, standing before her, was Jesus, only through her tears she didn’t recognise him; she thought he was the gardener. And then that wonderful moment of recognition: his word to her, ‘Mary’; her word to him, ‘Rabboni, Teacher’. And so to Mary’s great commission as the apostle to the apostles, the first real evangelist in the history of the Christian church: and here was her gospel, simply this: ‘I have seen the Lord’.
And as I’ve reflected again on this ‘old, old story’ during Holy Week 2015 – and as I’ve prayed for fresh bread to feed on myself and to share with others, rather than simply defrosting a loaf baked in previous years; so there’s something about our gospel reading today that has struck me with new force: and it has to do with the momentous and the intimate nature of this story, and the way it holds the momentous and the intimate together.
To anyone who knows John’s Gospel, and who remembers its mighty opening: ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God’ - it’s clear that John the evangelist was keen to root the story of Jesus in the story of Creation. That is just how momentous he considered the life of this Jewish carpenter-turned-preacher to be. And as we travel through Holy Week with John, so he continues to drop in little hints that Creation is still on his mind.
On Day 6, the Friday of Creation, we’re told that God created Man in his own image, and saw what he made and it was very good. On Day 6, the Friday of Holy Week, Pontius Pilate points to Jesus and proclaims, ‘Behold the Man’: nothing much to look at, perhaps, in his bloody and battered state, but quite simply the best that humanity has to offer - the one who most fully deserves the commendation ‘very good’ from the mouth of God Himself.
On Day 7, the Saturday of Creation, we read of how God ‘finished the work that he had done, and he rested. So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it’. On Day 7, the Saturday of Holy Week, after Jesus has died with the words, ‘It is finished’ on his lips, he is placed in a tomb where he rests after the appalling rigours of the previous week.
So when John writes about the events of the first Easter morning, Sunday, the first day of a new week, he is saying that something extraordinary has happened: that Jesus’ Resurrection is nothing less than the beginnings of a new creation: an event of comparable significance to the big bang of Genesis 1, when God said ‘Let there be light’, and there was light. And how quickly the Church responded to this understanding by moving their main day of worship from Saturday, the 7th day, to Sunday, which they variously described as the ‘first day, the ‘eighth day’ or simply the ‘Lord’s Day’. And how quickly, too, St. Paul in particular – whose life of course had been turned upside down by an appearance of the Risen Christ – began reflecting on the implications of Jesus’ Resurrection not just for himself or for the church or even for humanity, but for the whole of Creation lock, stock and barrel!
This is incredible stuff, in other words. In ways that we can understand, and in ways that will always remain something of a mystery to our puny minds and imaginations, the Easter story points us towards a reality in which no situation is ultimately hopeless, in which all human lives and loves and dreams and aspirations have the potential to last into all eternity, a reality in which even the end of the world isn’t the end of the world. Easter Day places love and light and hope and a future at the very centre of God’s grand design for the Creation he’s made. And if that isn’t momentous, I don’t know what is.
But just as we’re thinking thoughts that stretch our imaginations way beyond their normal capacity – so we’re reminded once again of Mary and Peter and John and Thomas and the rest of them, and of the very human, intimate nature of the Easter stories. An incredible thing is happening all around them, and yet everyone behaves true to form: Mary Magdalene in her loving, the disciples in their competing, Peter in his blundering, John in his reflecting, and later Thomas in his doubting.
Even the Risen Jesus is recognisably Jesus as he speaks Mary’s name with such tenderness, as he later shares the scriptures and breaks bread, as he playfully invites the disciples to put down their nets on the other side, as he speaks the truth in love to Peter. There is something honest about these accounts: something deeply human about a story like the one before us, and the artless simplicity of Mary’s encounter with her Risen Lord. But even as we are touched with the intimacy of the narrative, the story of a man and a woman in a garden takes us back to the Garden of Eden, and we’re reminded again that something momentous is taking place. Mary mistakes Jesus as the gardener, and in many ways that is what he is – in the words of Tom Wright, he is the ‘new Adam, charged with bringing the chaos of God’s creation into new order, into flower, into fruitfulness’.
So as Easter brings together the momentous and the intimate, the creation and the incarnation, there is a challenge for every Christian believer to live our lives before God from a place of awe and intimacy.
Some find it hard to acknowledge that God is the God of the Universe, a God who has extraordinary plans for the whole of the Creation he has made. They can cope with Jesus all right – Jesus is a great role model, a wise teacher, even their best mate – but whenever they contemplate the sheer vastness of the Universe, they can’t begin to comprehend how God could be bigger still. In the words of J. B. Phillips, their ‘God is too small’. And so they stick to Jesus and metaphorically switch on the streetlights to block out the light of the stars.
Others find it harder to acknowledge the sheer intimacy of God, the ‘God-with-us’ that lies at the heart of the incarnation. They can cope with the idea of God as the Prime Mover, the life-force that set the Universe on its way – but any idea that that same force might be fully, personally present in a man called Jesus; and that the Spirit of Jesus might be fully, personally available to us now – is a step too far. Perhaps in that sense their ‘God is too big’. And so they stick to the concept of God, whoever he or she or it may be, but ignore, even ridicule, any kind of faith that speaks of love and warmth and a personal relationship with God our Father through our Lord Jesus Christ.
And yet: the events of the first Easter Day invite us into a place where the momentous and the intimate are combined – into a relationship with our living God that brings together both the deepest awe and the strongest love and gratitude. And it’s as we move from the events of the morning of that day to those of the evening, that one final image draws together the story of the old Creation with the story of this new. In the book of Genesis, we’re told, God breathed into the nostrils of Adam and Eve the breath of life; and in John’s Gospel we read of how the Risen Jesus breathes on his disciples with the words, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’.
For it’s the Holy Spirit, at the end of the day, who connects us with the momentous God and the intimate God, a God who is both bigger and smaller than our imaginations can fathom. It is the Holy Spirit who brings us life, life in all its fullness, a quality of life that even death itself can never extinguish.
And so to a prayer for us on this eighth day of the week, this day of resurrection, as we joyfully prepare to come around the table, with the living Jesus as our host, his hands pierced and yet outstretched in love and welcome. ‘Peace be with you’, says this Jesus: and then he breathes his Spirit upon us (breath). There’s nothing of the drama of Pentecost here – no shaking, no wind, no tongues of fire; and yet the sense of the Spirit of God in the stillness is almost palpable. And here is a prayer we might like to pray as we enter into that joyous stillness ourselves:
Breathe on me, Breath of God,
fill me with life anew,
that I may love what thou dost love,
and do what thou wouldst do.
Breathe on me, Breath of God,
until my heart is pure,
until with thee I will one will,
to do and to endure.
Breathe on me, Breath of God,
till I am wholly thine,
till all this earthly part of me
glows with thy fire divine.
Breathe on me, Breath of God,
so shall I never die,
but live with thee the perfect life
of thine eternity.