“Christ is risen. Alleluia!”
Sunday 1 April 2018.
At the very heart of the Christian faith is the belief that Jesus of Nazareth was raised from dead and that, in his resurrection, he has overcome the power of death for us all.
When writing to the Christian community at Corinth, St Paul proclaimed: “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ (1Cor 15.20-22)”
And this bedrock faith in the resurrection of Jesus is based on the evidence of eye witnesses who experienced the risen Jesus in the period immediately following his crucifixion at the hands of the Romans. Again, St Paul tell us: “For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared to me (1Cor 15.3-8)”
Some Biblical scholars identify this text from St Paul as a very early creed that was used by the Church to instruct those who were new to the Christian faith. Even in English, which is not the original language of the formula, it has a sort of rhythm about it which lends it to ease of memory.
Listen to it again: “For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, … Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared to me”. The last sentence is plainly Paul’s addition – the claim that the risen Christ also appeared to him. That event is described three times in the New Testament in the book attributed to the writer of Luke’s Gospel, the Acts of the Apostles
In fact, Paul gives it the context of a creed by his introduction: “For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received:” Paul is making it clear that these words are not his but something handed on to him. He in turn is handing them on.
One of the eyewitnesses not mentioned in Paul’s list is Mary Magdalene. We have just heard from the Gospel of John the account of Mary’s encounter with the risen Jesus. In fact, all of the gospels mention Mary Magdalene as being the first to witness that Jesus was risen from the dead. Why is she not mentioned in the early creedal formula that Paul has attested to in First Corinthians?
I suggest that the answer is a very simple one – because she is a woman. In those times, women were not recognised as witnesses in court. When it came to evangelising potential converts from Judaism or paganism, the early Church recognised that women had no currency in those days, and so, Mary Magdalene was airbrushed out of the picture in this teaching aid, this early creed that Paul has quoted.
But the Gospels were not written so much as tools of evangelisation but as detailed descriptions of Jesus’ life and ministry for those who had already come to believe. So, what does it tells us that all four Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John describe Mary Magdalene in some way as the first to encounter the risen Christ?
It tells us that she was the first! And it tells us that she did experience the risen Christ! The only reason that the evangelists would risk the whole Christian edifice by naming a woman as the foundational witness is if that was actually the case. It’s not something you would make up! And we have the evidence of this ancient credal formula where Mary Magdalene has been expunged as proof that early Christians were well aware of the potential weakness of an argument for Jesus’ resurrection based on the evidence of a woman. But despite that, the evangelists have not tried to write Mary Magdalene out.
If you were trying to invent a fact like Jesus’ resurrection, you would not have a woman as your key witness. The fact that she remains the key witness in the gospels points loudly to the truth of the Gospel’s claim that Jesus rose from the dead and was seen by his followers in this risen state.
And it is a very informative encounter as we wrestle with coming to understand what resurrection might mean. For the truth of the matter is that we don’t know exactly what resurrected life is like. But we do have some hints in this meeting of Mary with the risen Jesus which give us some insight.
Significantly, and in common with most of the accounts of people encountering Jesus after his resurrection, Mary does not immediately recognise him. Even when he speaks to her, she does not recognise his voice. But she does recognise him as a person. She thinks that perhaps this person is the gardener. He tells her not to hold him, so presumably she was doing that. He could be held.
So, this leads us to presume a couple of things: firstly that resurrected life is corporeal and, secondly, that there is continuity between our present existence and our resurrected life.
Mary can see and speak with the gardener. She can touch him. He is not a ghost. Resurrected life is corporeal. There is physicality. But there is a difference between the physicality that we now have and the physicality that will be ours in the resurrection. There is transformation.
Once again, St Paul expresses it well: “So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonour, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. (1Cor 15.42-44)”
And despite the fact that identification of the risen Jesus is not always immediate in the Gospels, it does eventually occur, and this assures us that there is continuity between our mortal existence here on earth and our transformed existence in the resurrection.
This is the Easter faith of the Christian Church. This is our hope. This is our trust in the God who sent his Son, Jesus Christ, to live, die and be raised for us that we might share in his resurrection, his victory over death.
This is what we celebrate this morning on this Easter Day. It is what we celebrate each and every Sunday morning as we gather as a community of faithful followers of Jesus to share the simple meal of bread and wine which joins us with Jesus in his life, death and resurrection. What a source of joy the realisation of this truth should be for us all. Life changing in fact!
Christ is risen, alleluia!
He is risen indeed, alleluia!
The Reverend Allan Paulsen
Parish Priest, St Matthew’s, Holland Park