Bishop Martin Wharton, until his retirement Bishop of Newcastle in England, and now an Assistant Bishop in the Diocese in Europe, shares with us the life-changing news of Easter, drawing on the lectionary Gospel for Easter Day, John 20.1-18.
Easter celebrates an earth shattering event. The most decisive, unique event in the history of the world. The raising of one dead, from the dead after he had been buried.
Look again at the story. The women come to the tomb early on the Sunday morning, but John’s Gospel only mentions Mary Magdalene because she was the ﬁrst person to see the Risen Lord.
Why did the women come to the tomb? One answer is that they came to anoint the body. I ﬁnd this improbable.
The tomb was secured by a very large stone. Those of you who have been to Jerusalem might have seen the huge stones used to secure tombs in 1st century Palestine. It was quite beyond the strength of a group of women to roll back the stone, enter the tomb and complete the anointing.
So why did they come? They came to mourn. Early on the Sunday morning there would be no one much about. Remember this was the man they had ministered to during his time in Galilee. This was he on whom they had pinned all their hopes.
Everything had been very rushed on that Friday evening. There was just time to wash the body, put on the grave clothes and seal the tomb before the Sabbath. So they wanted to mourn in quiet near the body and they went to the tomb just as dawn was breaking.
And what did they ﬁnd?
The stone rolled back.
Now if you had been there and seen that, what would have been your ﬁrst thoughts?
I think I would have had the same thoughts as Mary Magdalene. I would have said, “someone’s been at work here ……they’ve taken him away and we don’t know where they have laid him”.
John’s Gospel tells us that Mary rushed away to ﬁnd Simon Peter and tell him. Peter got hold of the disciple who was Jesus’ special friend, John, and they both ran there.
It’s fascinating to see the diﬀerences in character between Peter and John. John got there ﬁrst, but didn’t go in.
Peter always the impetuous one, full of good intentions, the leader, but not always good at carrying things through. John, not much of a leader perhaps, but the one with discernment and spiritual insight.
So we aren’t surprised that when they get to the tomb, John gets there ﬁrst, but doesn’t go in. He just peers in and sees the linen cloths.
Peter, the impetuous one gets there second but goes straight in and ﬁnds the cloths lying there and the napkin which had been on the head of Jesus rolled up separately.
Peter, sometimes a bit slower on the uptake, doesn’t realise what this means. But John, seeing the shape of the grave clothes, realises.
Somehow or other, and it will always remain a mystery, the Lord had vanished! He had been raised.
That was what the strange arrangement of the grave clothes meant.
Peter saw what had happened. John had the insight to know what it meant.
There was nothing more to be done, so they returned home.
But Mary stayed there weeping. “They have taken away my Lord”. And that one word, “Mary”. She thought he was the gardener.
The Risen Lord was the same yet diﬀerent. We ﬁnd that again and again in the resurrection stories. The same yet diﬀerent.
She couldn’t touch him because he had not yet ascended to the Father. The same, yet diﬀerent. The ﬁrst of his many resurrection appearances.
I am clear that Jesus’ body did disappear. He was raised from the dead. He is alive and he sits, as the creed says, on the right hand of the Father. This is the only explanation that I know of that ﬁts the facts.
As for the claim that the story was merely made up – there was just no time for this to happen. Myths don’t appear overnight. People were still alive who knew what had happened.
As for the empty tomb, it is silly to think that the women went to the wrong tomb – they had only left it on Friday night.
The Romans had no reason to steal the body. Nor had the disciples. And if they had, where they laid him would have quickly become a place of pilgrimage – of which there is no sign at all. If the Jews had stolen the body, you can be quite sure they would have produced it. There is no other reasonable explanation. Jesus was raised from the dead. In any case, who would have made up such a story?
Furthermore, how could the disciples have been changed overnight from a group of beaten, depressed followers into a people vibrant and full of life and hope. How could the Christian faith possibly have got underway without a start like that?
Living, as we do, in a highly sceptical age, it’s important to deal with the historical evidence. Equally important is the way the risen Jesus – the same yet diﬀerent – shows himself to the disciples in the coming weeks. They knew he was alive. We too, in our own way, have experience of him, know he is alive. We have received him as we shall at every Eucharist. We have experienced in our hearts what we call the grace of Our Lord Jesus Christ.
For the God who acted so decisively in raising Jesus to new life. In breathing new life into that disﬁgured and scarred body is, we believe, the same God who breathes new life into his people today.
The risen Lord is the same yet diﬀerent. Our place in Europe at Easter 2019 is the same yet diﬀerent. Britain has not left Europe. While economic, legal and institutional arrangements will be changed, our relationships with our partners and friends will continue. They will be the same yet diﬀerent. And our task remains the same. The task given to us by our Risen Lord to bring peace, wholeness and harmony throughout Europe and all creation.
Easter people. People made new by the Risen Christ. Filled with hope – for ourselves and for our world.