Then Peter began to speak to them: ‘I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all. That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.’
Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, ‘They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.’ Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went towards the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned to their homes.
But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping?’ She said to them, ‘They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.’ When she had said this, she turned round and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?’ Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Mary!’ She turned and said to him in Hebrew, ‘Rabbouni!’ (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, ‘Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” ’ Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’; and she told them that he had said these things to her.
Throughout my own spiritual journey and life as a priest I have met two kinds of people who call themselves Christians. On the one hand there are those who start from a position of self confidence. They are the ones who seem to be in the know and sure of where they stand. They know what is good and what is bad, what is permitted and what is forbidden, and they seem to be sure of their spiritual standing.
And I wonder whether that describes Simon Peter up until the small hours of Good Friday. He seemed sure of where the Lord was going, even though it earned him the rebuke, ‘Get behind me satan’. He had boldly proclaimed that he would follow Jesus even if it would cost him his life.
It wasn’t until he was actually confronted with the truth that his foundations were sand that he crumpled. It took a slave girl challenging him about being a disciple of Christ and his denial before he was broken.
And maybe another example of this kind of person was St. Paul. So sure was he of his spiritual viewpoint and the inherent wrongness of the spirituality of these new followers of the Way, these people who proclaimed a crucified Messiah, that he began to travel throughout Palestine in order to have them arrested.
It wasn’t until he was confronted with the truth on the road to Damascus that he, too, crumpled. It took Jesus showing him the depths of his arrogance for him to realise the truth.
So perhaps Peter and Paul are good examples for us of how we can be so self-confident of our spirituality and our place within God’s kingdom, and yet be so very wrong. These are the first kind of believers in God, the ones who start from a position of self-confidence.
And then there are the other type of believers, the ones who aren’t sure that they should really be there, that surely someone else more important, more self-confident, more at ease with Jesus should be taking the lead.
One example of that was the Samaritan woman at the well at Sychar, the woman who had lived with five husbands before the man she was currently living with when she encountered Jesus. Clearly she was lacking in self-confidence, having gone to the well to draw water in the middle of the day when it was so very hot and she could therefore be sure that there was no one else there to bully her.
Except Jesus was there, wasn’t he. And their encounter changed her so that she took her testimony to the whole town and many believed in Jesus because of her.
And then we get to the woman who is amongst my favourites of all the followers of Jesus, Mary Magdalene, as we remember her at this break of day. Mary’s not a big player in any of the Gospels. She doesn’t appear much, but we do know that she was someone who had been deeply troubled, out of whom Jesus cast several demons. Some have even referred to her as Mad Mary.
And what we find in this story is that in her bitterness and grief at the loss of perhaps the only man who had ever believed in her, she goes to the tomb for the sunrise, signalling the end of the Sabbath. In some accounts she’s there with others, waiting to anoint Jesus’s dead body, but maybe this story suggests that she was there on her own. Why? Perhaps because she felt she had nowhere else to go.
Grief makes us do strange things. But when she gets to the tomb she finds the stone has been removed. So what does she do? Remember, Mary is one of those without self-confidence, so she runs off to find someone important, Simon Peter and the beloved disciple. They come running back with her and do what? They confirm her story. The grave has been desecrated and the body stolen, and then they leave her, on her own, weeping.
No one stays to take care of Mary. And so she who has nothing, and has no self-belief, collapses in floods of tears. And it is she to whom Jesus reveals himself. She is the one, not the self-confident disciples, who is the first person to receive the good news that Jesus had risen from the dead. And she is the one who is told to go and tell the disciples that the Lord is risen.
And so the message to us is I think quite simple, and yet we miss it over and over again. Jesus chooses the ones without self-confidence to be the ones who proclaim the good news, and he does it over and over again. And they are the ones who have to learn to bear the responsibility for sharing the Gospel. Meanwhile the ones who think they know it all have to be humbled before they are ready to receive it, and ready to share it.
This seems to be a theme throughout the Bible, and it’s one that I cannot help but return to. Over and over again God chooses the weak to shame the strong, and he chooses the foolish to shame the wise. How many people who start from a position of self-confidence do you know who have become effective ministers of God’s love?
Then think about the ones you know who despair at their failures and who yet seem able to communicate over and over again the simplicity of the message that they have discovered God loves them. And for the self-confident there seems to be the need for some kind of crisis to show them who they really are before they are of any use as servants of the Gospel.
So if you come here today wondering at your own failings, faults and insecurities, looking around at the important people who seem to run the whole show, then welcome; welcome to you who are to be given the keys to the kingdom of heaven. But be prepared, because Jesus has a knack of saying to us, ‘Go now, and tell them that the Lord has risen.’ He is risen indeed. Amen