We were packed out at St John’s Itchen Abbas this morning – 166 – more than 10% of the civil population! This was hugely encouraging and thank you to the Itchen Abbas Church Wardens and sidesmen/women and to the Tottle for putting out all the chairs.
Thank you also to Jessica, Jonny, Anoushka, Rafie and Emily for so kindly acting out the parts that I needed them to act out for the brief drama on who would we choose to give important news? It was wonderful to have so many people coming up for communion or for a blessing. The singing was magnificent!
Thank you to Sonia, Jessica and Jonny for organising the Easter Egg hunt in the graveyard.
I gave the following talk at Evensong at Avington at which we had the same reading.
Important News John 20:1-18
If you were a teacher teaching children at this time in history what would be the most important single thing to teach them?
What would be the most useful single skill that, if they had it, you would be happy that their education was complete?
For me this would be the ability to determine the difference between the fake and the false; from ascertaining when you receive mail on line or through the letter box whether it is really what it pretends to be or whether it is fake; to being able to distinguish between what is ‘fun’ and ‘cool’ from what is undermining and damaging; to evaluating political and religious opinions and truth claims. As a teacher I would be saying ‘Look at the evidence, before you decide what is true or false’.
It is in, what I expect should be an atmosphere of scepticism, that I turn to Easter Day. The day on which Christians believe that Jesus Christ was raised from the dead.
At one level, of course, the sceptical student will take some persuading. The news of Jesus being raised from the dead as a historical fact (not ‘raised in our hearts’ or some kind of spiritualised or ghost like revival, but a physical rebirth of a historical person who died in the most unimaginable agony orchestrated by the Roman Army; who did execution as effectively as anyone before or since.
Everyone knows that people who have been dead for three days don’t come back to life. They never have done before and they haven’t done so since, so the sceptical student is beginning to wonder…
Christians claim that a man has only ever once come back from death to life; that it has only happened once but that it really did happen at a specific time in world history in around 30 AD and in a particular place in world geography – in Jerusalem.
It is on this single fact that the whole of Christianity is based. And if you could prove beyond a doubt that it did not happen, then Christianity is of no value, because Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, if it happened, gives an incredibly strong indication of the existence of a God who made it happen.
If he didn’t then its all just a philosophical theory and not something upon which we should base the direction of our whole lives. So how do we go about working out whether this happened or whether it is fake news?
You see we are not looking at this as a scientist might look at the world, by seeing whether the event is repeatable in a laboratory.
No we are looking at this as a jury would look at whether an event occurred by looking at the evidence and drawing conclusions from the evidence.
The evidence that this very peculiar event of the resurrection actually did happen is addressed in various books. The one I like in particular is Who moved the Stone by Frank Morrison
which has the advantage of being quite short, but was written by a sceptical journo whose wife became a Christian and who was determined to prove it was codswallop but concluded on looking at the evidence that it was true and became a Christian himself.
Another good book is written by a homicide detective who uses all his techniques to discover who killed someone to determine whether or not the resurrection happened!
So there are various arguments about what happened:
Did Jesus actually die?
Did the disciples remove the body from the tomb and hide it?
There are very good reasons to believe that he did actually die and that the disciples didn’t hide the body, but I want just to look at two areas which in my view lead us in the direction of believing that the resurrection actually happened.
Firstly, If you had really important news, a message to give, news which is so good but so unlikely that you think that no-one will believe it; in fact it is news of something happening so improbable because it has never happened before in the whole history of the world and you needed everyone to believe it and not think it is fake news, who would you choose as your messenger? Who would you choose as the first person to meet the risen Christ?
Someone very credible undoubtedly: someone very knowledgeable, maybe or someone very intelligent or someone very popular or powerful?
Whoever you would choose as the idea messenger, well it wouldn’t have been the person God decided to give the most important news in the whole of history: a woman who many people would have thought was very unreliable and probably a liar.
If you were making the story up the last person in the first century, you would choose would be a woman….sorry ladies……. because in the very patriarchal society of the time in the courts when establishing whether something had or has not happened the testimony of two women was needed or the testimony of one man.
So, firstly, if you were making the story up you would not chose a woman to deliver it, to be the first person to meet the risen Christ. But even more unlikely would be this particular woman: Mary Magdalene.
Luke 8:2 tells us that Jesus had removed seven demons from Mary Magdalene. Now she may also be the ‘sinful woman’ referred to in Luke 7:36-50 who anoints Jesus and wipes his feet with her hair with its overtones of prostitution, or maybe not, but in any event Mary Magdalene clearly had issues.
As the Devil is a liar and seven demons were removed from her, we can assume that before Jesus stepped in she was a liar.
So, in God’s wisdom, he chooses someone who had a reputation for lying, before she was transformed by an encounter with Jesus, to be the one who first delivers news of Jesus resurrection, the most important news in history.
It seems to me that it is just very very unlikely that that is how the story would go, if it was made up.
Secondly, there is the reaction of St Peter in our second reading for this evening from Acts 10:34-43 at Pentecost. Remember that Peter and all the disciples have a few weeks before been locked in terror in a room. Jesus, who they thought was the Messiah, had been nailed to a Cross by the Romans, the cruelest of agonies but also the cruelest of disappointments. Who was going to be next?
I have never been completely terrified out of control with fear, even skydiving does not do that to you….but then that is a controlled situation, keep your head and all is fine.
However, here is a situation where the cruel occupiers are going to stamp their authority and tell everyone who is in charge. And Jesus claimed to be a king, as Pilate put succinctly on the cross “the King of the Jews’. Surely his disciples were co-conspirators; a few steps away from execution as well…they must have thought……terrifying!
Yet within a few weeks Peter is standing in the centre of a crowd in Jerusalem at Pentecost claiming that Jesus had come back to life and that he had seen him.
Throughout their lives, the apostles continued to maintain that they had seen the risen Christ, despite the torture and death that they were threatened with.
It’s just not credible that they would have done this if they knew that the story was made up….
Three hundred years later the successors to those few disciples in a locked room had taken over the whole of the Roman Empire under the Emperor Constantine, despite persecution, despite unspeakable suffering and now 33% of the world’s population – over 2 billion are Christians. A third of the world’s population finds the evidence for Christ’s resurrection convincing.
This in itself, seems to me to make Easter Day pretty important.
It makes it worth looking at the evidence….
The Resurrection of Jesus
20 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. 2 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.” 3 Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. 4 The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5 He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. 6 Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, 7 and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. 8 Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; 9 for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. 10 Then the disciples returned to their homes.
11 But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; 12 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. 13 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.” 14 When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15 Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” 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.” 16 Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). 17 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.’ ” 18 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.
The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. (1989). (Jn 20:1–18). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.