In one sense no – not at all. Those who first see and hear are witnesses to the resurrection and, in their own way, find words to tell other about it. The resurrection of Jesus from the dead is not a well-kept secret – rather it is an amazing miracle the news of which spreads fast in the city of Jerusalem and beyond (think of the road to Emmaus). Ultimately, the news of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead spreads over the whole of Europe an Asia, and across the known world. It is carried by word of mouth of the first followers of the Way, by merchants, by letter, by soldiers serving in far-flung outposts of a dying Empire, and by brave monks crossing wild seas. These first witnesses could not be silenced – they wanted everyone to know.
Another vie is that is it significant that the gospels capture the truth that Peter and Mary Magdalene are key figures in the events of that resurrection morning. The first witnesses to the resurrection of Jesus are not powerful or important people, influential, credible or articulate people. Peter is a bluff northern fisherman who lacked loyalty or courage when confronted after Jesus’ arrest as to whether he was a friend of his. Three times he denied, betrayed and abandoned Jesus in the courtyard of the High Priest’s house. Peter was human, frightened and uncertain – just as we are sometimes.
We know that Mary of Magdala was healed by Jesus. She may have suffered from poor mental health – at the time of Jesus, and in earlier language, she is described as being possessed. Jesus restores her to full health and well-being and she becomes a follower of his, supporting his ministry, standing at the foot of the cross with other women disciples and caring for his body when it is taken down from the cross. Somehow the person of Mary of Magdala is Christian history is conflated with other stories about women who encounter Jesus including someone who anoints Jesus. This woman (without any clear evidence) is described as a prostitute. So in Christian art and tradition the early Church decided Mary from Magdala was a prostitute and she was often portrayed dressed in scarlet and assumed to be a very sinful person. The Magdalene Laundries in Ireland for unmarried pregnant women were named after her. So Mary, from the town of Magdala, who may have struggled with her mental health, and who wasn’t a prostitute, is the first person to meet the risen Jesus and is trusted by him to pass on the good news.
It is significant that the friends of Jesus are not powerful, not the perfect, not the smooth and successful, but rather the frail and the powerless. The Church begins as a community of those who knew they were loved by Christ and raised with Him to new life.
(Taken from Irthlingborough Methodist Church Lent Reflections 2020)
24 March 2020
A people in exile and a people of hope
I was standing washing my hands and singing the Lord’s Prayer to myself on the day the churches issued the guidance that there should be no public worship. London like other cities was getting quieter every day, physical greetings were unwelcome, shop shelves were being stripped of items thought to be essential and we were entering a strange new world. This was a world of self-isolation chosen or imposed, a world where we were being separated from loved ones in order to protect them, a world where our physical gathering to worship, pray and share bread and wine was forbidden.
This felt like exile from the world I knew and I began to think about the exile of the people of Israel.
I want to share some initial thoughts about the experience of exile, acknowledging that in this fast-changing world I have not had time to research in any depth. I am drawing on my memory which may be imperfect. If this initiates any conversation it will be good but please let’s be kind to one another.
When the Israelites were exiled to Babylon they were taken from the land, which they believed was their inheritance and in which they had built the temple in Jerusalem. The temple was not the only place of worship, people met together to pray, to read scripture and to receive teaching. Families prayed in their homes. The temple was not the only place of worship but it was the only place where sacrifice could be offered to God. The temple was the place where the faithful felt that they came into God’s presence in a distinctive way and the continuity of the offering of sacrifice in the temple was at the heart of their identity as God’s people in God’s land, people of the covenant.
In Babylon there was and could be no Jewish temple, in Babylon they could not offer sacrifices to God. Even worse, the temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed and desecrated and the offering of sacrifice could not continue there either. The heart had been torn out of their religious practice.
By the rivers of Babylon—
there we sat down and there we wept
when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
we hung up our harps.
For there our captors
asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’
How could we sing the Lord’s song
in a foreign land?
How did the exiled people of Israel respond to their new situation?
There are, of course, a variety of interpretations of the biblical evidence for the way in which the exiles lived and worshipped in Babylon but what seems clear is that they identified the practices that were distinctive of their religious identity, those they could continue to observe and develop in their new context. It seems likely that Sabbath observance and commitment to following the Torah (teachings or law) became a focus. Groups met for worship where there were a minimum of ten adult Jewish men, the same criterion that holds for synagogue worship today. By identifying the practices that could continue they were able to recognise the presence of God with them, even in a foreign land. In fact, they began to develop an understanding of God as present everywhere in the world and perhaps God could be known by everyone.
In exile the people of Israel were able to continue to worship, to grow in their knowledge of God, to be challenged by new possibilities.
Of course, exile was not easy and there continued to be a longing for their own land and a hope for return. It took a little longer for the people to realise that after return from exile things would not simply be the same as before, but that is another part of their story and ours.
We may feel that we are in exile, certainties have been stripped away, we are facing an unknown future. For some of us, the fact that we cannot share together in services of Holy Communion is a cause of sorrow and a great loss. Holy Communion is a central and distinctive part of our worshipping community and it is not possible for this to continue at this time. we are forced to accept this, perhaps to grieve and certainly to look forward to the time when we will come together around the Lord ’s Table again.
We regret what cannot be but we should also look to those parts of our life that can be continued, enriched and even transformed. There is much that we can do together through social media and other forms of communication, new ideas are being shared on a daily basis among the churches. We continue to pray and will find ways of praying together at particular times and in different ways. Our Methodist Prayer Handbook and other prayer disciplines enable us to retain a sense of community even when we are not in the same place. At a time when we could become completely absorbed by the coronavirus outbreak, prayer schemes and set liturgies encourage us to look beyond our immediate circumstances and to engage with the wider context.
The call to care for others, to be aware of the needs of our neighbours and to offer hope in the desert place of fear and despair is another distinctive of our faith and we are finding many ways to share God’s love with those around us.
In exile we still respond to the calling of the Methodist Church to respond to the gospel of God’s love in Christ and to live out its discipleship in worship and mission.
We are a people in exile and a people of hope, we are a people for such a time as this.
As St Paul wrote:
in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
The Revd Ruth Gee, Assistant Secretary of the Methodist Conference
‘And the last enemy to be destroyed is death’ (1 Corinthians 15: 26)
This will be the first Easter since my Dad died. In some ways, this has made the themes of Lent and Easter – dying, death and resurrection – more resonant and relevant for me this year. What shall we say about death? What shall we say about those who have died?
Before Jesus’ death and resurrection, in John’s gospel we read the event of the raising of Lazarus from the dead – this is portrayed by John Reilly’s painting ‘The Raising of Lazarus’ (John Reilly ‘The Raising of Lazarus’). Before Jesus calls Lazarus forth from his tomb, we have the shortest verse in the Bible: ‘Jesus wept’. Jesus weeps for the death of a friend; but I think there’s more. Jesus weeps for the power that death has over those he knows and loves; the power of death to destroy hope, relationships, confidence, joy; death as separation, death sapping colour from life.
Paul in his letter to the Corinthians describes death as the last enemy – the greatest enemy. There are other enemies in our lives – greed, selfishness, injustice, cruelty, poverty of experience, lack of hope, loss of love. These enemies (and others) could be given the collective name ‘sin’. Sin is the power which seeks to control us in place of God and God’s love; sin isn’t just a description of human wrongdoing. Sin is a force which seeks to separate us from God; this is why Paul describes death as the ultimate consequence of sin, or to use his words, ‘the wages of sin is death’. This is why death is the last and greatest enemy.
So when Christ rises from the dead, his resurrection defeats death, (the ‘sting’ of sin). Death no longer has the power to ultimately separate us from God and God’s love; death no longer has the power to separate us from the love of one another. Sin loses all power to control us and separate us from God. These are the enemies destroyed by Christ’s resurrection. Dylan Thomas puts it more poetically than I can:
And death shall have no dominion.
Dead man naked they shall be one
With the man in the wind and the west moon;
When their bones are picked clean and the clean bones gone,
They shall have stars at elbow and foot;
Though they go mad they shall be sane,
Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again;
Though lovers be lost love shall not;
And death shall have no dominion.
And death shall have no dominion.
Under the windings of the sea
They lying long shall not die windily;
Twisting on racks when sinews give way,
Strapped to a wheel, yet they shall not break;
Faith in their hands shall snap in two,
And the unicorn evils run them through;
Split all ends up they shan’t crack;
And death shall have no dominion.
And death shall have no dominion.
No more may gulls cry at their ears
Or waves break loud on the seashores;
Where blew a flower may a flower no more
Lift its head to the blows of the rain;
Though they be mad and dead as nails,
Heads of the characters hammer through daisies;
Break in the sun till the sun breaks down,
And death shall have no dominion.
Yet resurrection is not just about Christ’s resurrection – the first and most important though it is. Christ’s resurrection is the foreshadowing of the resurrection of all at the end of time. Jesus speaks of this to Lazarus’ sister, Martha, as he tells her: ‘I am the resurrection and the life’ (John 11: 25). In Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, he is speaking to those who had begun to question the resurrection of all people at the end of time; Paul says if you doubt that resurrection then you’re denying that Jesus was resurrected. And if you’re denying that, then what’s the point? What’s it all about? What is your faith based upon? We have to believe the resurrection both of Jesus and the promise of the resurrection of all people.
If we consider John Reilly’s painting ‘The raising of Lazarus’ we get a sense of the now-and-not-yet-ness of the resurrection. Christ is risen, Christ will come again and will draw all people to himself. In the painting, the resurrection is represented by the rising sun at the centre of the painting. All things, all creation seems to be drawn into the spiralling light – the opposite of a black hole. To the left of the painting we see a before-and-after of Lazarus and his sisters, Martha and Mary. Jesus is in bright white, like the dazzling light of his transfiguration and ascension. This painting says that we will all – in time – be drawn into the resurrection. It may be that we feel that we are on the outer reaches, still in the darker areas, but eventually we shall be drawn utterly into the light of resurrection.
So, what shall we say about death? Life, victory, hope, light and love. That’s what we can say, because in Christ’s resurrection we have something positive to say about death. The resurrection is real – even if it is a mystery to us as well. Mary’s encounter with the risen Christ in the garden has that dream-like but real quality. John doesn’t try to explain how it happens – it just is! Mary doesn’t respond to a long theoretical explanation – she responds to her master calling her name. Although we still live with the shadow, the light we are being drawn into is stronger than the darkness. We are part of that big story, that big picture of resurrection. Christ is the resurrection and the life – this is what we believe. Alleluia, Christ is risen! He is risen indeed, alleluia! Amen.
Seven Stanzas at Easter by John Updike
Make no mistake: if He rose at all
it was as His body;
if the cells’ dissolution did not reverse, the molecules
reknit, the amino acids rekindle,
the Church will fall.
It was not as the flowers,
each soft Spring recurrent;
it was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled
eyes of the eleven apostles;
it was as His flesh: ours.
The same hinged thumbs and toes,
the same valved heart
that – pierced – died, withered, paused, and then
regathered out of enduring Might
new strength to enclose.
Let us not mock God with metaphor,
analogy, sidestepping, transcendence;
making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the
faded credulity of earlier ages:
let us walk through the door.
The stone is rolled back, not papier-mâché,
not a stone in a story,
but the vast rock of materiality that in the slow
grinding of time will eclipse for each of us
the wide light of day.
And if we will have an angel at the tomb,
make it a real angel,
weighty with Max Planck’s quanta, vivid with hair,
opaque in the dawn light, robed in real linen
spun on a definite loom.
Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
for our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are
embarrassed by the miracle,
and crushed by remonstrance.
John 12: 1 – 8
Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus lived, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. Here a dinner was given in Jesus’ honour. Martha served, while Lazarus was among those reclining at the table with him. Then Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.
But one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, who was later to betray him, objected, “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages.” He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it.
“Leave her alone,” Jesus replied. “It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial. You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.”
One Sunday when this was the set reading, I took some nard – the perfume mentioned in this reading – for the congregation to smell. I put a few drops in some oil and we drew crosses on our hands as a form of anointing. As the anointing took place, the room began to fill with the smell of nard. I say smell rather than fragrance as fragrance would suggest it was a sweet and enticing smell – it wasn’t! The reactions to the smell of the nard were strong; wrinkled noses, turning away, some even wiping it off with their hankies (only to discover later the smell doesn’t come out… even after washing). You could see the physical reaction to the smell. I wouldn’t say it’s really unpleasant; rather it is very earthy and musty. Our modern noses might wonder why it was such a precious and expensive perfume.
One of nard’s historical uses was for the anointing of bodies. More than one person in the service commented how they’d smelt this before at funeral parlours. This usage along with Jesus’ comments about Mary’s actions being the anointing of his body for burial brought it home to me that the smell that filled the house at that moment was a smell everyone would associate with death. Of course, in that room, the thoughts of death were already close because Lazarus sat amongst them. Lazarus who had been dead for four days, and then was restored to life by Jesus’ summons from the tomb (John 11: 1 – 44). When Jesus calls Lazarus from the tomb the onlookers fear the smell of the dead body, even though it would have been anointed with nard and other spices. Once again the thought of death is brought close by the power of smell. Jesus knew what was coming and he had told his followers, but I wonder if they had really taken this in. Mary’s actions are prophetic, even if she didn’t realise it.
Just a few drops of nard filled the church – imagine the impact of a whole pint of the perfume. There would have been no escaping it. There would have been in that moment an extravagance of smell, an extravagance of death. John’s gospel often points to the extravagance actions of God in Jesus: the miracle of the water into wine at Cana (John 2: 1 – 12) Jesus makes gallons of wine – more than needed and of the best possible quality; in feeding the 5000 they end up with twelve baskets full of left-overs (John 6: 1 – 14). The extravagance of God’s love is seen in Jesus’ anointing and in his death on the cross. It might seem an odd way to show love, but it is summarised in John 3: 16 – ‘for God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life’. Jesus makes the ultimate sacrifice for us – an extravagance of death pointing beyond to an extravagance of love. But for the moment, whilst we are still in Holy Week, let us remember the smell of the nard reminding us of the imminence of Jesus’ death.