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Woman, why are you weeping?

00:00 / 15:42

31 Mar 2024

Easter Sunday

Acts 10:34-43; 1 Cor. 15:1-11; John 20:1-18

“Why are you weeping?”

During my adult life, I have often sought a change of scenery during the working day and gone instead to coffee shops. In one coffee shop that I went to many times, I observed the behaviour of a rather eccentric man, who seemed to mutter ecstatically to himself, smiling and laughing. At points, he would grow so excited that he would rise from his seat and, as it were, begin proclaiming his message to the entire room with arms outstretched. Sometimes, he would even take the street outside, doing a similar thing, stopping passers-by to tell them whatever it was he had to say. I confess I couldn’t work it out. One day, I noticed what he had written on the laptop which he often left open in front of him: Christian writings, Scriptures, prayers. I can’t remember what exactly. But I recognised at this moment that, whatever it was he was happy about, had to do with that subject matter. And it occurred to me that I had thought him mad, and that probably everyone else did too. But I want to suggest this morning that, in the light of Easter, of Christ’s resurrection from the tomb, perhaps he is the sanest one of us all…

“Why are you weeping?” asked the risen Christ to Mary Magdalen (John 20:15). (Though she, of course, did not know the bearer of the question.) On the face of it, there were all sorts of reasons to weep. Christ had been the victim of a brutal, judicial murder, a crucifixion. Without anything else to the story, Jesus’ message of God’s love, of the possibility of forgiveness and reconciliation, of eternal life, and all the other things he said and promised (even though dimly understood) was fatally undermined.

Moreover, his very presence had gone from the world. He was more than a bearer of good tidings to Mary. He was her friend, her comforter, her saviour, one who brought joy into the life of an otherwise lost and broken soul. And he was gone, taken from her by the inevitably harsh contours of human action and history.

What Christ’s death had shown was only that real life is harsh and vicious: that life is a natural economy of existence followed by death, of competing forces violently cancelling one another out, of recrimination, hatred, bitterness, mutual accusation, of the ultimately meaningless struggle for power and survival. All Christ’s was was an affirmation of the immanent order of things with all of its tiring and dull predictability: nothing new. We had thought it might be. But, it’s just the same old thing. The same old disappointment. The same old suffering. The same old death. The same old world.

The end has become the middle

So, how does the fact that it was Jesus himself who asked this question to Mary change things? In a word, it changes everything. The question changes from a request for an understandable answer to a rhetorical question with no answer: “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?” “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” (John 20:15-16). At this she recognised who is was who spoke to her and recognised that there was no further need for tears, at least, not at that moment.

There is a living theologian who coined a phrase to describe the significance of Jesus’ resurrection: In Jesus’ resurrection, the end has become the middle. It was true that certain Jewish believers had as part of their theology the belief that, at the end of history, God would raise the dead and judge the world in righteousness. This was a great hope that they clung to and would perhaps have sustained them under the occupation of the Romans, believing that the Empire under which they laboured was a temporary arrangement, one day to be eclipsed by the true empire: The Kingdom of God. That was what the end looked like.

Nobody was expecting the resurrection to occur before that. And yet, in Jesus’ resurrection, it has. In Jesus’ resurrection, what was expected at the end of history, occurred in the middle of history, as people went about their everyday business, as the world turned as it usually did. This was the greatest surprise of all.

So what does it mean, that the end has become the middle in Jesus? It means that, in the resurrection, we see, quite literally, how the story will end: with the victory of the life of God over the power of death, with the vindication of God’s righteous servant over the unjust powers of the world, with the ultimation affirmation of the truth over life, with hope over despair, with the infinite over the tragically bound and limited. How the story ends changes everything, and we see this in Christ.

And it changes everything for us too: not necessarily at this precise moment, but eternally and forever. We know that, in Christ, all the sufferings and pain and sorrow and loss and grief that we encounter in our lives, all the heavy burdens that we carry, all the roads that we travel, will be met at the last with the happiest of all endings. In the words of Samwise Gamgee in The Lord of the Rings: everything sad will come untrue. We might even go further and say that this happy ending will transfigure our sufferings in this world, as the sun rises upon a darkened landscape, and reveal them for the fleeting sense of unreality that they truly possess. A new reality, a deeper and more real and more lasting one, will reveal itself at last, and this world will seem almost as a dream that is past in an instant.

Moreover, the resurrection reveals that the power that raised Jesus from the dead is at work in the world today: in the lives of those who believe and in the ministry of Christ’s Church. This is, in the words of the Apostle Paul, ‘the immeasurable greatness of his power towards us who believe, according to the working of his great might, that he worked in Christ when he raised him the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places’ (Eph. 1:19-20).

When we feel weak, let us remember this. How great must God’s power be to raise a man who had been dead for three days? That is the same power that is at work in his, strengthening us to have hope in dark circumstances, steeling us to persevere through suffering and grief, enabling us to forgive those who have wronged us and to seek reconciliation, cheering us to rejoice in every circumstance. God is working that same power in and towards us.

The Greatest Question

What is the greatest question of all? It might be fair to say that the Apostle Paul thought it was to do with the resurrection of Jesus: Did this really happen? Is this the truth or is it merely a nice story? Was the resurrection, in other words and, as one notoriously controversial bishop once said, a conjuring trick with bones.

If that were true, then, at best, Christianity can be seen as a helpful fiction that has stayed the natural and brutal instincts of humanity and inspired us sophisticated apes to aim slightly higher than we would have done otherwise. The Church is a civic institution, a cultural central, which can assist in alleviating loneliness and providing community, which perhaps can support the amelioration of unsatisfactory situations in society. The Apostle Paul thought less: ‘…if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise…If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied’ (1 Cor. 15:15, 19). For Paul, we are suffering for nothing and wasting our lives believing a fantasy: let’s go and do something else with our time. We only live once, after all.

But, if Christ has been raised from the dead, then this surely changes everything: the old order is overturned; the lives of those who trust in him can radiant Jesus’ life, joy, love, life, forgiveness, hope; the Church can be a place characterised by the very presence of the risen Christ; the message that she carries, proclaimed across the world and believed on in every nation is the truth. The Empty Tomb stands at the centre of all history. The gates of death have been shattered by the one who simply stood up and walked away from it. And so, we wait in expectant hope for the very end, when the Risen Christ returns and makes all things new. In that day, as the Apostle Paul tells us, even death will be swallowed up in victory: O death, where is thy victory? O death, where is thy sting? (1 Cor. 15:55).

So maybe the man I used to see in the coffee shop wasn’t that crazy after all: maybe he just believed that he too, like Mary Magdalene, had met the Risen Christ, and maybe this had changed everything, turning his sorrow into joy.

Friends, let us, with him, with Mary Magdalene, Mary the Mother, with Peter and the Apostles, with God’s Holy Church upon the Earth, and with all the saints in heaven, therefore, rejoice. For this one reality has changed everything: Christ the Lord is risen today. He is risen indeed. Alleluia!

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