On Thursday evening, we were thinking about love. It being Maundy Thursday, we recalled the mandatum novum, the new commandment which John tells us Jesus gave as he sat with his disciples at dinner for the last time before his crucifixion. That night, he said to them: Love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.
Just as I have loved you. No less than that. Just as the one who loves because he is love incarnate – without conditions, without questions, without hindrances. Easy to say; hard to do.
Similarly, it is easy to say, “Christ is risen!” But it hasn’t always been easy. It wasn’t easy on that first Easter morning. The words of the women, of Mary Magdalene, Joanna and Mary the mother of James, seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. According to Luke, there were the three named women, close friends of Jesus, one even the mother of one of his disciples, and others besides, reporting what they had found, or rather not found. They had gone, as early as possible, as soon as it was light, to complete the work the Sabbath had interrupted. But on arriving at the tomb, they had found it open and empty. That much could easily be explained. It had been closed with a stone, but a stone which could be put in place by one group of people could just as easily be removed by another. Indeed, the women must have been intending to move it themselves. In other Gospel accounts, the possibility that someone unknown had removed the body is addressed much more explicitly.
Luke, however, only tells us that the women were perplexed. Presumably, they were wondering who had got there before them, why had they come, what had they wanted with the body, what they had done with it. The last thing on their mind in that moment was the idea that a three day dead corpse was now up and about.
But very quickly, they are forced to confront that notion. Two men in dazzling clothes address them. Who are they? We do not know but can only surmise that they are some kind of heavenly messengers. At the very least, they are a useful narrative device, because they refer back to words previously spoken by Jesus. Are we to take their presence literally? I don’t know. They could just as easily be some kind of personification of the seedling of an idea, an idea forming in the minds of Mary, Joanna and Mary, an idea so strange, so audacious, that they barely dared to own it as their own.
An idea that Jesus might have risen.
Could this be the source of their terror – not a couple of strangers in pristine clothes reflecting the morning sunshine – but an idea so fundamentally at odds with every strand of sense and knowledge and experience that few would dare to express it? Anyone who imagines that suddenly beginning to think that a loved one, so torturously killed three days ago, may be alive, would be a cause for simple, uncomplicated joy, is naïve in the extreme. Emotions are powerful. Hurts and griefs are real. They don’t just vanish. It takes time to comprehend a new reality.
The idea, now forming, could not be dismissed, and could not be kept to themselves. The whole group, quite a number of women, went to tell the apostles. Many women will report similar experiences of how, if they relate something, they get ignored, but if a man says the same thing, he gets taken seriously. The men, hearing what the women told them, did not believe them. To them, it sounded like idle talk.
To all except one. Peter had not done too well up to this point. He was always arguing with Jesus and contradicting him. He was always getting things wrong. But a change has come over him. His bluster, his bravado, his sureness of himself had let him down badly two nights ago. Absolutely, he would never deny Jesus, he had said, only to find himself weeping bitterly when he did just that. Jesus had been right again. Maybe he’d been right when he spoke of rising again. Unlikely as it seemed, Peter had to check out this story for himself.
He must have told and retold the story many times – how he ran, stooped, looked in and saw the linen cloths by themselves. He must have relived the amazement of that morning many times, tracing from that moment the growing realisation that it had been no idle tale he had heard from the women; that Jesus was, in fact, risen from the dead.
But still, neither Peter, nor Mary Magdalene, nor Joanna, nor Mary the mother of James, nor any of the apostles and disciples can ever have found it altogether easy to make that claim – Christ is risen. And neither should we. We should not say it glibly. We must never say it as if it is just plain common sense, because it isn’t; and if we treat it as such, we will alienate so many who, rightly, approach this claim with scepticism. We have to treat this claim with great care so that it does not seem to be an idle tale, unworthy to be believed.
I want to suggest that, while I believe in the physical resurrection of Jesus, the physicality is not the most important aspect of the resurrection story. A close reading of the Gospel accounts presents, at best, an ambivalent understanding of physical resurrection. In John’s Gospel, the risen Jesus at first cannot be touched, when he meets Mary in the garden, but later on appears both to invite the touch of Thomas and be able to pass through locked doors without opening them. In Mark’s Gospel, a subtly different account from Luke’s, the women are told that Jesus would “go ahead . . . to Galilee”, but there are no accounts of him being seen on the way. In Matthew, again subtly different from the others, Jesus appears very briefly to the women in the garden, where they touch his feet, before he goes to Galilee where he has promised to appear to the apostles. Paul counts his vision of Jesus on the road to Damascus as a resurrection appearance. Peter in Acts asserts that Jesus appeared only to a few chosen witnesses – hardly conclusive proof. All this variety, all this disagreement between the accounts, indicates to my mind that we are in the realms of mythology, that each of the Gospel accounts is leading us, by similar but different paths, to a truth so profound that it cannot be told simply.
And that truth is that Christ is risen, risen in a sense which is unique, risen in a way with marks Jesus out from Jairus’ daughter, or Lazarus, or the many holy people whom Matthew says rose from their graves and entered Jerusalem and appeared to many both at the moment of Jesus’ death and the moment of his resurrection, an event otherwise unmentioned either in the Bible or elsewhere. Christ’s resurrection is somehow different from any of these others.
How so? Let’s go back to the words of the men in dazzling clothes. “Why look for the living among the dead?” Jesus is all about life. His incarnation is about God becoming a living human being. His teaching is about living a better life. His miracles are about supporting life, about freeing people from what harmed their lives. And even his death becomes about life when finally we have the courage to affirm that Christ is risen. Courage, yes, because what it means, when we make that affirmation, is that we are taking on the mantle of his incarnation, that, if you want to find Christ, you need to look among the living. It means that Christ is alive where people follow his teaching, where people give their lives to him, where people become like him in their love and service for all humanity. Christ is alive now in his church, in this incredible, multifaceted, occasionally infuriating and endlessly diverse organisation which we acknowledge is the body of Christ. Christ is risen and Christ is alive whenever people sit at table and break bread together in his name. Christ is alive because he, who is love incarnate, has made it possible, by word and example, and by the constant presence and indwelling of the Holy Spirit, for his people to love one another, just as he has loved us.