“On the first day… in the garden” is how John starts his narrative of the resurrection (I preached on it last year). He had started his Gospel ‘In the beginnings’ painting us a wonderful sweep from before time and Creation, and onto the incarnation, the word that spoke and it all came into being, the word becoming flesh and pitching his tent in our neighbourhood. In Jesus we see the truth and grace of God revealed. Now we have a new start and the dawn of a new creation. “on the first day… in the garden”
And maybe you expect John who had started his gospel with that grand sweep of cosmic proportions to start his narrative of the new creation, in the same way, but he doesn’t he starts with simple stories of people’s encounters with the risen Jesus… By telling us how that new life, that resurrection hope began to shine its new reality into one life at a time, it helps us to see how that resurrection reality can shine into our lives as well this Easter Sunday.
We’ve been working our way through encounters with Jesus in John’s Gospel and now… We’ve followed him from sitting under the fig tree, to being nailed to the cross… and today we find ourselves encountering Jesus risen from the tomb, in the garden with Mary, in the locked room with the disciples and in particular Thomas, and on the beach, by a fire with Peter … almost a full circle as we come back to where we started and find Jesus asking Peter to “follow me”.
Mary Magdalene, Thomas and Peter act as witnesses. They are witnesses to the reality of the resurrection; they meet Jesus raised from the dead. They also act as witnesses to what that resurrection reality means for us, how it can change our lives… from grief to good news… cynicism to certainty and forsaking to forgiveness. They invite us to witness what a life transformed by the risen Jesus can and what it means to be a witness to the resurrection.
Mary Magdalene, is mentioned in all four gospels as being at the cross, and a witness to the resurrection. Outside of that it is left to Luke to tell us about her, in Luke 8:2 he mentions Mary Magdalene as one of the women who Jesus had healed and who in response travelled with Jesus and provided financial support. In Mary’s case Luke tells us she was delivered of seven demons. She would have been a woman on the edge of her society, Outcast and stigmatised as having spiritual problems before she met Jesus, but in Jesus she found someone who had turned her life around.
She had been at the cross, she had watched Jesus rejection and death, you can imagine all her hopes and dreams dying on that cross as surely as if they had been nailed up there as well. She is full of grief, and now as she had come to do one last act of respect to her Lord and master, her beloved Jesus, she finds that the stone has been rolled away and the tomb is empty. She does not see it as hope… no…What cruel sick trick is this… what last desperate act of hatred… there was no longer anywhere to focus that grief and desire to remember. Even the angels John tells us who were there are unable to console her.
A figure comes and stands behind her, she does not recognise him, she thinks it’s the gardener maybe he can tell her where they have taken the body… She is so caught up in her grief until he says her name “Mary”.She recognises at last through the tear filled eyes, the voice that spoke healing and wholeness into her life, who had been willing to have women as part of his followers and had taught them, a voice she could not forget saying “Mary”.
Mary’s grief is turned to Joyous Good News. Jesus is ascending to the father, the grave has lost, death where is you sting. She is told to go and to tell the disciples and so her song of sorrow is turned to one of Good News “I have seen the Lord!”.
Despite what Dan Brown might have you believe…Mary seems to disappear out of the scriptural story at this time… My reflection on what she has to say to us today really comes in what sort of week it’s been for me. You see we too are called to witness to knowing the risen Jesus, and even in the face of grief to witness to that new life and new creation. I was given the privilege this week of doing a eulogy for my Father in Law Ray Middendorf, It meant that I sat down with Shona and some of his brothers and heard the precious family stories. But also as Ray was a man of faith I had the great privilege in the midst of that sorrow and grief in celebrating his faith and proclaiming Good News as well. That you and I have hope in a Risen saviour that goes beyond grief and death… I didn’t want to use my own words I borrowed them from a very trusted source… Desmond Tutu… who more than anybody recently has articulated that hope… when he finished his farewell for Nelson Mandela with “rest in peace and rise in glory”…
Thomas, also known as Didymus, which means twin, is one of the twelve. We meet him at various times in the gospel, you may remember when Jesus was going to Bethany and the disciples were trying to convince him that it would be suicide to do so, Thomas said “ hey we might as well go along and die with him”. But Thomas seems to be very absent at the cross and the day of the resurrection. In fact when Thomas turns up, he is not prepared to believe what he has been told. Thomas seems to fit into our twenty first century materialistic world, I want to see for myself, touch and hear for myself before I will believe. So when Jesus turns up in the locked room, Thomas as a witness becomes quite important. We don’t know how Jesus appeared in that locked room, we do know that Jesus like with Mary is concerned and cares for Thomas. He invites Thomas to do exactly the things that he had said he needed to do to believe. We don’t know if Thomas does these things or not, all we know is that Thomas stops doubting and believes. He turns from his cynicism to certainty… and he is the first to actually understand what this means. He responds in worship” My Lord and My God”.
You see for Thomas to believe in the resurrection is to believe in the divine nature of Jesus. If you believe in the resurrection it points to vindicating and proving all that Jesus had claimed about himself. Thomas knew that… it was not a step he would take lightly.
Again Thomas steps out of the scriptural story, except when he is mentioned as part of the twelve and the apostles. Part of that is that Luke is interested in telling us how the Gospel spread to the centre of the Roman Empire, and we have Paul who was a prolific letter writer. Thomas however went east, to Syria where he is acknowledged as founding the church there… WE can tend to forget that in what are mainly Muslim countries these days that the gospel and church have been there from almost day one. I am always reminded of this in a story told by shane Claiborne, talking with the bishop of Baghdad during the US bombings, and in response to Claiborne’s expression of amazement that there are so many Christians in Iraq, the bishop told him the west did not invent the gospel, it just domesticated it”… In fact even in India the church looks back to Thomas going and telling and establishing faith communities. (it was grat to have someone in Church from Madras India today who after the service told me of growing up and worshipping at St Thomas’ church in that city, traditionally said to have been built on the site of Thomas’ death in that city).
Jesus gentle rebuke of Thomas is a blessing on you and I who have believed withoutseeing. Who have come to know the risen Christ through the witness of people like Thomas and those who have followed him down through the millennium, have shared their hope and certain knowledge of Jesus death and resurrection. It calls us to stand with Thomas as a witness, maybe like him away from the limelight, without the write ups, not at the centre of the dominant society but as it says in the great commission as we go… where ever we go… everywhere we go.
Simon Peter, we’ve known from those first encounters that Jesus has in this gospel. His brother had come to find him and told him “I Think we’ve found the one”. He’d been there and seen and slowly begun to understand, he’d been given the name Peter… which means Rock… he’d assumed the position of leader and spokesman for the group. When many stopped following Jesus he had said “where else can we go, you have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” he’d even been ready for an armed uprising drawing his sword when Jesus had been arrested, but he was not ready for the cross. John tells us of Peter denying knowing Jesus three times; he tells us that while John was at the cross Peter was nowhere to be seen. He was at the tomb that first day and with the twelve. But it seems he had no understanding of what this meant for him, maybe he was still so aware of having forsaken Jesus, he decided to go back to what he knew. Let’s go fishing he says. It’s in that that he encounters Jesus again. In the midst of this we have a wonderful narrative of Peter being reconciled with Jesus, being forgiven, restored and freshly commissioned. Peter, do you love me?, Peter do you love me?... Peter do you love me? Then feed my sheep. Come and follow me…
When Jesus had first meet the disciples he had spoken to them of the power to forgive sins and here that power is demonstrated and wonderful shared with Simon Peter. Sin and death have lost their power and we are set free. We are invited out of the familiar to serve Jesus a fresh and anew. Of course we know a lot about Peter’s story from here, we know he was an apostle we know he made mistakes and didn’t get it right, Paul had to rebuke him about showing favouritism to his own people. But we see that here is someone who experienced the new life, freedom and forgiveness from Christ crucified and resurrected.John does not give us an account of Jesus ascension, but leaves us with his own account as a witness, in the hope that we will believe. There is the sense that the story of people encountering the risen saviour is to continue and it still continues, he still meets with us today, not in physical body, but by the spirit. Today does Christ want to meet with you. How today does the risen Jesus want to bring that new and abundant life to you? Like with Mary, Thomas and peter he cares for each one of us …How does he want to bring joyous good news into grief and sorrow for you? Certainty and belief in doubt?... Forgiveness and reconciliation in the face of our failings and faults? In what ways are you being called to witness to an empty tomb, fresh hope and the Risen Christ? He is here today may you encounter the risen Christ.