‘Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark…’ John 20:1a
She had washed His feet with her tears, she had anointed His head with oil. She had been set free from the slavery of demonic influence. She had stood at a short distance watching, waiting, praying, hoping, with her heart breaking as He hung on the cross until with finality, He died. She had watched Him be carried by strangers into a newly cut, unused tomb. She had seen the tomb sealed with a stone far too massive for her to move, and all the time she couldn’t get near to his body, she could no longer serve Him food, sit at His feet, listen to His instruction, or hear comforting words, or even hear His voice once more. She couldn’t thank Him for all that He had done or ask for His advice, prayer and blessing. She was kept at a distance, as guards took up position in the garden, and night fell, and the sabbath began. As the darkness came down, the distance between her hopes for the future and their fulfilment seemed to increase, and her bitter sorrow deepened.
‘Joseph took the body, wrapped it in a clean linen cloth, and placed it in his own new tomb that he had cut out of the rock. He rolled a big stone in front of the entrance to the tomb and went away. Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were sitting there opposite the tomb.’ Matthew 27:59-61
The day after the Sabbath Mary Magdalene returned to the tomb with spices to anoint Jesus’ body. As she walked to the tomb she was preoccupied with human thoughts and concerns.
Now when the Sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, that they might come and anoint Him. Very early in the morning, on the first day of the week, they came to the tomb when the sun had risen. And they said among themselves, “Who will roll away the stone from the door of the tomb for us?” Mark 16:1-3
But when she arrived the miraculous happened.
‘After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb. There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightening, and his clothes were white as snow.’ Matthew 28:1-3
We live in a world that seems solid and real. We know no other. We believe what we see with our eyes and from our earliest childhood we have learnt to trust what we have come to expect through our senses. Water is wet, the sun provides heat, a chair provides support, oranges taste like oranges – sweet and juicy. Sounds and smells provide familiarity, memories, joy and distaste. We learn to trust our friends and our families, or not as the case maybe… Our brains make fixed points of reference from which we learn new ideas and thoughts, but there are some certainties: The dead remain dead.
It is no wonder then that all Jesus’ followers and disciples, not just Thomas, have difficulty coming to terms with God’s wonderful, Holy, majestic, and glorious truth of salvation and life eternal through the risen Jesus Christ.
‘But Mary stood outside by the tomb weeping, and as she wept, she stooped down and looked into the tomb.’ John 20:11
God’s glory often takes our breath away and amazes us. When we come into His presence we are literally bowed down. Three times in the gospels account of the resurrection is this one Greek word ‘parakupsas’. A seemingly ordinary word which could mean ‘bending over’ or perhaps ‘peering in’, but there are other words used elsewhere to simply say bending over.
‘Peter, however got up and ran to the tomb. Bending over, he saw the strips of linen lying by themselves,’ Luke 24:12a
“They have taken away the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid Him.” Peter therefore went out, and the other disciple, and were going to the tomb. So they both ran together, and the other disciple outran Peter and came to the tomb first. And he, stooping down and looking in, saw the linen cloths lying there; yet he did not go in.’ John 20:2-5
This word ‘parakupsas’ is only used five times in the New Testament, three times to describe Mary, Peter and John stooping down or bending over to peer into the tomb. The other two times are in 1 Peter 1:12 where Peter describes how ‘Even the angels long to look into these things’, and in James where he says:
‘But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do’
The tomb was large enough to walk into. The stone rolled in front of it was massive (which does not have to be round by the way, it could simply mean it was moved by rollers), too large for the women to move on their own but easily moved by heavenly angels. Yet even so, Mary, Peter and John are bent over as they peer intently into the tomb. They are in the presence of the remnants of the glory of God, of the Kingdom of Heaven and they are bowed down to this majesty. None of them understand this at the time: Peter walks away puzzled, Mary continues to cry, John begins to believe…
‘and Peter went away, wondering to himself what had happened’ Luke 24:12b
‘Now Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot. They asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?” “They have taken my Lord away,” she said, “and I don’t know where they have put him.”’ John 20:11-13
As we continue to ponder on the words in the bible and consider the events of Jesus’ resurrection in this Easter season, it is as though we are being invited to go deeper into God’s truths, peer into them with a curiosity and a drive and a determination. To get a glimpse of the majesty of God and how His total reality goes far beyond what we are able to perceive with our worldly senses.
As Mary stood beside the tomb crying, two angels sat on the stone, radiant in glory not dressed or veiled as ordinary people, ask her why she is crying. As she begins to answer, Jesus himself speaks to her, but Mary still failing to see beyond the emptiness of the tomb and to see the revelation of God’s supernatural Kingdom, doesn’t recognise Him until Jesus calls her by name and her heart is suddenly opened.
‘ Jesus said, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” John 20:17
She had to give up her belief in His humanity to understand His Divinity. When Jesus said ‘do not hold onto me’ she was holding onto the past and what she thought she knew, but she had yet to fully grasp the wonderful majesty and mystery that is Jesus Christ, our risen and victorious Lord.
‘She [Mary Magdalene] went and told those who had been with him and who were mourning and weeping. When they heard that Jesus was alive and that she had seen him, they did not believe it.‘ Mark 16:10
It wasn’t only Mary who failed to see beyond the normal into God’s kingdom. None of the disciples understood.
‘Jesus said to them [the two disciples on the road to Emmaus] ‘How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken!’ Luke 24:25
How foolish are we when we fail to see God’s hand over our lives, over the events that are enfolding around us, when we try to rationalise everything in a limited understanding, when we doubt what God is capable of, when we think we can solve every problem on our own without first turning to God, when we think we can base the rules of our society outside of God’s perfect law, when we fear and remain anxious even though Jesus has told us not to be anxious, not to fear or worry, to put our trust in Him and Him alone.
‘While they were still talking about this, Jesus himself stood among and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’ They were startled and frightened thinking they saw a ghost. He said to them, ‘Why are you troubled, and why do doubts rise in your minds? Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see I have.’ Luke 24:36-39
The disciples were gathered together in a locked and isolated upper room in Jerusalem when Jesus breaks into their presence, to open their eyes and their hearts to the reality of His eternal kingdom and His victory over sin and death, His Majesty and His rule.
“At present we are on the outside of the world, the wrong side of the door. We discern the freshness and purity of morning, but they do not make us fresh and pure. We cannot mingle with the splendours we see. But all the leaves of the New Testament are rustling with the rumour that it will not always be so.” CS Lewis , The Weight of Glory
We have had three weeks of almost perfect weather ever since the lockdown was announced by our government, and then on Friday after the lockdown was extended it started to rain. It seems to me like this is God revealing His amazing Grace, the sun shining, the leaves unfolding, the blossom blooming, the new plants poking their heads out of the ground are signs to us that God is most definitely still in control. The new rain a sign of his blessing to water the ground but also to say to us that is time we started to become more confident of declaring His love in season out of season, a love that He pours out upon us in good times and in bad.
‘Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit”.’ John 20:21-22
Jesus resurrection proves His power, His physicality shown in the upper room proves His victory over death, His comforting words and His presence to Mary and the disciples prove His love. Rising from the grave He gives us Hope. God is all powerful, nothing is impossible for Him. His presence with us, promised as He breathed on his disciples the Holy Spirit, guides and encourages and leads us into His truths, along His path, and into an understanding of the reality of His heavenly kingdom.
Jesus’ commission to us, at this time of all times, is to stand confident of Christ’s victory, of the Easter Message of Jesus’ everlasting life and triumph and to share with love our faith and our Hope into the world around us.
‘He said to them. ‘Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation. Whoever believes and is baptised will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.’ Mark 16:16
Revd Stuart Huntley