preached by the Right Reverend Dr Paul Colton, Bishop of Cork, Cloyne and Ross
in Saint Fin Barre’s Cathedral, Cork on Easter Day 2015
Whatever happened that first Easter – the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ – (and Christians do interpret it in different ways) whatever happened, all are agreed that it was a world-changing event. That should come as no surprise, the life of Jesus, the teaching of Jesus, the suffering and death of Jesus are all part and parcel of this turning point in history: a nodal point, a hinge, after which nothing would ever be the same again.
And if the first Easter was a world-changing event, Christians who are the product of that event – the so-called Easter People – are called to be a world-changing people. The world-changing Easter event demands that we be world-changing Christians.
It’s not just about hoping for something better in a next life and making sure we have banked the insurance policy to guarantee our fall-back or protection in the hereafter. It is about here and now. The American New Testament scholar, Marcus Borg, who died last January, went so far as to say that ‘salvation is more about this life than an afterlife.’ To use the words of Mrs Alexander’s hymn There is a Green Hill Far Away, it’s not only about Jesus dying ‘to make us good, that we might go at last to heaven …’ That is what was deeply embedded in us from childhood, says Borg. He says salvation is about ‘transformation – to be saved from one way of life to another.’ It is about transformation for us and for others, ‘this side of death’, as well.
This salvation, this transformation, through the death and resurrection of Jesus, his life and teaching are what underpins the Five Marks of Mission of the Anglican Communion:
- To proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom
- To teach, baptise and nurture new believers
- To respond to human need by loving service
- To transform unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind and pursue peace and reconciliation
- To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation, and sustain and renew the life of the earth
These are not an other-worldly agenda; they are here and now and we see it most acutely, perhaps, in the last three: responding to human need by loving service; transforming unjust structures of society, challenging violence of every kind and pursuing peace and reconciliation, and striving to safeguard the integrity of creation.
As we work on these things, in the name of Christ, we should not lose sight of how radically new and transforming was, and is, the Way – the life and teaching of Jesus Christ. We do well to recall this as we wrestle in these very days with questions of human rights and the meaning of equality for all in our own time: or, as we will be hearing again and again at this 1916 centenary time next year ‘cherishing all the children of the nation equally’ – that memorable (and indicting) phrase from the Easter Proclamation of 1916.
If you want to see how new and utterly transformative and radically challenging it all was, you have to go no further than today’s Gospel, or indeed any of the Gospel proclamations of the resurrection. In Jewish law, women could not generally be witnesses. They could not give testimony. With some exceptions, this remained the case in the State of Israel until three years after its foundation. At the time of Jesus women could not be witnesses: they were in the same boat at that time as slaves, anyone with mental health issues, deaf and blind people, and what the Mishnah listed as: ‘gamblers with dice’, ‘lenders who collect interest’, ‘chasers of doves’ and’ merchants who profit from Shemittah – the Sabbath or seventh year when the ground was supposed to lie fallow.’
We see this in today’s Easter Gospel. It was Mary Magdalene who came first to the tomb and saw the stone removed. She ran to Simon Peter and ‘the other disciples, the one whom Jesus loved’ Did they believe her or take it at face value? Hard to say, but we are told that their first instinct is to run to see for themselves. Even they who had lived so closely with Jesus fell back on their deep-seated religious upbringing: women could not be witnesses. It’s only when the men themselves went in and saw, that they believed. They hadn’t taken the testimony of Mary, a woman, at face value.
The risen Christ appears to Mary Magdalene first. She is crying. He comes to her. She mistakes him for the gardener. He speaks to her. And what does he do? Jesus entrusts her – a woman – with the task of being the first witness, of bringing a message to the men:
… go to my brothers and say to them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” ’ 18Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’; and she told them that he had said these things to her. (John 20)
Writing earlier St Paul, conveniently, never mentions the fact that the risen Christ first appeared to a woman. Writing to the Church in Corinth he says:
For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ … was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. (1 Corinthians 15)
No Mary Magdalene there. Yet she is in all four Gospels. We’ve already heard John’s account. But there are the other three as well:
Matthew has Mary Magdalene there with ‘the other Mary’ and the angel tells them Jesus has been raised and invites them to ‘come and see.’ (Matthew 28.1)
Mark has her there with ‘Mary the mother of James, and Salome.’ (Mark 16). Not only are they shown the empty tomb, and told the good news, they are told to go and tell the others.
Luke’s account says it all about the attitude to women as witnesses:
Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles.11But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. 12But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; (Luke 24.10-12)
Peter, the man, had to run to the tomb to verify. But it was women who were the first witnesses. The Gospel is making a point that we cannot overlook. woman as a witness was a revolutionary idea in the time of Jesus. In fact, so outrageous an idea was it that it was used against early Christians. The second century Greek philosopher Celsus – an opponent of Christianity – used the fact that a woman was the first witness to rubbish the accounts of the resurrection. He dismissed the accounts as ‘a fabricated story’ – it is ‘the fanciful imaginings of women’, he said, and dismissed Mary Magdalene as ‘an hysterical female’, ‘a crazed woman’. But there she is at the heart of the Easter Gospel.
I draw your attention to this aspect of today’s Gospel not to underscore a gender equality message, important as that is, but to point to this as only one example of how in scores of other ways too the life, teaching, death and resurrection were transformative – world-changing: women, children, authority figures, disabled people, leprosy sufferers, poor people, those society has pushed to its own edges, foreigners, and strangers. These were the people Jesus reached out to – more than that he put them at the centre of his message and held them up as exemplars of the kingdom.
Sadly and ironically, shamefully at times, Christians and the Church as institution, have often been slow throughout history to grasp how utterly challenging and upheaving the way of Jesus Christ is. The life and teaching of Jesus was transformative, and now, in our time, he challenges us to be instruments of transformation too: a world-changing event calls for us to be world-changing people.
In a host of ways and places, in spite of over two millennia of being at it, the transforming love of Jesus Christ has not yet percolated through to every corner of injustice, to every inequality, to every dark and marginalised place of human society or even of the Church itself. That should matter to us who celebrate today the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, and it should drive us on.