Monday, 9 April 2012

Beryl Brier Easter Sunday evening 2012 Shrewsbury Baptist Church

Luke 24: 1-12 Resurrection! I can’t tell you what a roller-coaster these last few days have been. We came to Jerusalem for the festival of Passover as we so often do, in the usual excitement, mixed with some trepidation. I know the men were anxious. Jesus had a look of steely determination under his surface calm. Some of the twelve had expressed private worries and fears – wondering whether Jesus would now unveil his campaign to bring in the kingdom, and if so, what the response might be from our own leaders, or, indeed, the Roman military government. Our arrival was a triumph! The Galilean contingent of pilgrims was in fine and festive mood, and Jesus entered Jerusalem on that donkey, to the acclaim of the crowds, with their shouts of ‘Hosanna’ and their waved branches, and the carpet improvised from cloaks. There were some who carped, of course. Self-righteous prigs of Pharisees mostly. But what a day it was! After Jesus’ outburst against the daylight robbery going on in the temple courts (and that came as a shock, I can tell you!) he went back to his usual pattern of teaching, telling stories, and answering questions, occasionally wrong-footing those who tried to trap him, with questions for them, some of the time in the temple, some of the time out near the Mount of Olives where so many people were camped for the festival. Most of our group had proper accommodation. Jesus and the Twelve had been billeted out at Bethany, with Martha, Lazarus and Mary, but would rough it later in the week in farm buildings in the olive-garden of Gethsemane, as the Passover meal would end too late to get out of the city and back to Bethany that night. Jesus’ mother Mary, and Clopas and I (another Mary!) had been given hospitality in the city by Zebedee and Salome, who had a home there by virtue of their fish-business, and we would celebrate Passover with them. We’re all connected by family ties. Salome’s boys, John and James, were to celebrate Passover with Jesus and the rest of his disciples in the large upper room at John Mark’s father’s house where there was more space for the numbers. Jesus had arranged for this some time ago. He may have done so for the protection of the family, too, since his life, and that of his immediate followers was more and more at risk. So on the Thursday evening we were not all together. Mary was at Bethany with Martha and Lazarus. Zebedee, Salome, Jesus’ mother, Clopas, and I were at Zebedee’s city home. Jesus and the Twelve were in the private room at John Mark’s house, and Mark would take them later to the Garden. So when Jesus was arrested, we weren’t all there. The first I knew of it was when John brought Peter to us early on Friday morning. Poor Peter was in such distress. Jesus had been sold out by Judas, who had turned up with the arresting party, though it was more like a mob apparently, while they were in the Garden. Peter had tried to defend Jesus with his all-purpose dirk – though as he was more used to gutting fish than hand to hand fighting he only managed to cut off someone’s ear! Anyway Jesus told him off for it, and allowed himself to be taken. As Jesus was taken back into the city, all the others took to their heels in the opposite direction and escaped down the road to Bethany. Most of them continued their way there, but John and Peter decided to turn round, come back to Jerusalem and try to find out what was happening. John, knowing the high priest, got Peter into the courtyard of Caiaphas’ house, but when accused of being one of Jesus’ followers, Peter denied it, not once but three times, very vehemently apparently, and it was this that had completely unmanned him. So now Jesus was under arrest, Judas the traitor was who knows where, nine of the disciples were out at Bethany with Mary, Martha and Lazarus, but the rest of us were in the city and we spent the morning trying to find out what was going on. Well, all except Peter, who was so ashamed he wouldn’t venture out at all. By late morning it became clear that Jesus would be executed that same day. Those at Bethany knew nothing of this, of course. Except Mary, of Bethany, but known as the Magdalene from her chequered history in that town of ill-repute. She appeared during the day, sent by the nine disciples who had decided that discretion was the better part of valour and it was wiser for them to keep their heads down in case they were also on the wanted list. None of them were there at the cross. Just a little group of us were – mainly family. Some hung back, but a few of us were allowed to go closer: Jesus’ mother, her sister Salome, John (her nephew), Mary Magdalene and I. Before the end, when Jesus had placed his mother in John’s care, John and Salome took her away to their home. John came back towards the end. There were so few of us to see Jesus’ final moments. So few who were there to arrange for his body to be taken down and buried before the Sabbath began. We were so grateful to Joseph and Nicodemus – Joseph bravely went to Pilate to ask for Jesus’ body, and he allowed his own tomb to be used for the hasty burial. He supplied a cloth to wrap Jesus’ body, and Nicodemus turned up with an extravagant amount of dry spices as a temporary expedient until we women could do the job properly when the Sabbath was over. We watched where they put him, Mary Magdalene and I and a couple of other women, (Joanna was one), and we saw how the body was laid out. The stone was rolled into place and we left him there, alone in the dark. That Sabbath was a bitter day. Mary couldn’t get back to Bethany before it began, so the nine out there still had no idea what had happened. Over at the Hasmonean palace Joanna had begun to find and prepare what ointments and spices she could before 6 o’clock when all work ceased. Joanna was the wife of Herod’s steward, and as a wealthy woman had plenty of such things. Some of the rest of us would have to go out after 6 o’clock on the Saturday when the Sabbath had ended to buy our own supplies. But it would be too late to go to the tomb then. So we determined to go as early the next morning as we could. The men were concerned to tell the nine at Bethany the news, so as soon as the Sabbath ended Salome went shopping, and Clopas and I and Mary Magdalene went out to Bethany. I can’t describe to you the reaction of the nine to our news. They were devastated. Such dreams of greatness, of glory, as they had, were dashed into pieces. The cause to which they had devoted three years of their lives had come to nothing, and the one whom they thought would be king of a renewed Israel was dead, executed in the most humiliating fashion, on that most cruel of instruments, the Roman cross. It was a bitter day indeed, that Saturday. That evening at Bethany was the lowest point in all our lives. No hope, no future. We had nothing left now Jesus was gone. It was a greater bereavement than anyone could imagine. Bereft of Jesus, the companion, the friend, the master. And bereft of hope. I never want to live through another such day. We stayed in Bethany that night. It was too late to return. But Mary Magdalene and I were up again while it was still dark, and on the road back to the city, with Clopas as escort. We diverted by the house to collect Salome and her spices and leave Clopas there to talk to Peter and John about how the nine had taken the news. It was as we were on our way out of the city again towards Joseph’s garden where the tomb was that one of us stopped suddenly. ‘The stone! How are we going to move the stone?’ In all the fuss and flurry we hadn’t thought of this most basic problem. How would we gain access to the tomb? We considered going back to ask the men to come with us, but as we were by now so near the garden, we decided to carry on, in the hope that perhaps there might be some gardeners there, or maybe Joseph and Nicodemus would have realised we would need them and be there before us. But when we got there, to our surprise the tomb was open. The stone had been moved away. Mary Magdalene jumped to conclusions –impulsive as always. She immediately assumed someone had moved, perhaps stolen, Jesus’ body, and before we could stop her she was running like the wind, back to the house, to tell Peter and John that we couldn’t find Jesus’ body. Joanna and Susanna arrived from the Hasmonean palace at that moment with their supply of spices and ointments, and together we went into the tomb, not sure what we might or might not find. It was dark in there, as the doorway was very low, but as our eyes grew accustomed to the gloom and we looked round it was evident that the body had gone. Before we could speak, we found we were no longer alone. Two men were there with us, quite suddenly, as if they had just materialised. Even in the dim light their clothing gleamed, so that we were frightened as well as startled, and we all bowed before them, where they were seated by where the head and the feet of Jesus should have been. One of them spoke: “Don’t be afraid. I know who you are looking for – Jesus the Nazarene, the crucified one. Why are you looking for the living among the dead? He’s not here. He’s risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where they laid him. Remember how he talked to you when he was in Galilee, saying that the Son of Man must be betrayed into the hands of sinful men and be crucified and on the third day rise? Go quickly, and tell his disciples and Peter that he is risen from the dead and is going before you into Galilee. You will see him there, just as he said.” We backed out of the tomb in confusion and not a little fear, and hurried away from the garden. In the bustle of the early morning streets we stopped. Looking at each other in bewilderment, we tried to make sense of what we had seen and heard. If it was true, then this was the most wonderful news. We were shaking with fear and excitement. ‘We must go and tell Peter and John,’ someone said, ‘they must hear it first.’ So we stopped our discussions, and concentrated on hurrying through the streets back to the house, careful not to catch anyone else’s eye. When we got to the house Peter and John weren’t there. Of course, Mary Magdalene had left the garden in great haste ahead of us, told her tale of an open tomb, and a presumed missing body, and Peter and John had set off hotfoot to check it out. But Mary hadn’t waited to look inside, so she hadn’t seen the men – or were they angels? – and hadn’t heard what they had to say. And in the maze of streets in the city we had missed them as we hurried back. We waited at the house with some impatience for them all to return. The men did. John had apparently beaten Peter to the tomb and looked in, but it was Peter who went in first. John said he was convinced that Jesus had indeed risen by the sight of the grave-clothes lying as if the body had simply melted through them. But it was odd, they didn’t meet the men that we saw. It was a long while before Mary Magdalene reappeared, and when she did she had an even more extraordinary story. She too had seen the messengers. But more than that, she had met him, met Jesus, in the garden. We didn’t know what to do with this news. And then someone said we must go back to Bethany and tell the other nine disciples. It was becoming a well-worn road, the road to Bethany, but this time we had such wonderful news to tell, even though it still seemed truly incredible. Salome and I were given the privilege of taking the good news to them, and we set off with so much more enthusiasm than I had the previous evening when I travelled with Mary Magdalene and my husband, Clopas, to tell them of Jesus’ death. And while Salome and I were on our way we met him! We met Jesus! Quite suddenly, he was there! And as we fell at his feet and worshipped him he told us not to be afraid, but to tell ‘his brothers’ to go to Galilee, and they would see him there. So we did! Of course that changed the mood of the brothers! Instead of staying tucked away in the village of Bethany, they were now anxious to get back to the city and check the story out with more reliable witnesses! In other words, the other men! So we turned around and accompanied them back to Jerusalem. While I was on the mission to Bethany, my husband had gone with another of our number out to Emmaus. And they also met with Jesus, and ate with him, and then came all the way back to tell us all. By that time, Peter had also seen Jesus, but he never talked about it, not then, not since. But Praise God, he looked a different man after that from the broken man he had been after his denial of Jesus. Clearly Jesus had forgiven him, and Peter had been reinstated, though he was never the bombastic, impulsive, thoughtless man he had been. It changed him, that experience. He was a gentler man afterwards, actually. Knowledge of his own failure made him much more tolerant of others’ weaknesses. But I digress. We made use of that upper room again as we met to go over the events of the day. And as we did so, Jesus was there! In person! In the flesh! He even ate a piece of broiled fish to prove he was real! And he showed us the wounds in his hands and feet, and invited us to touch him. It was Jesus. Alive! He had so much to say to us, all about why his death and resurrection was necessary, and had been predicted in the Scriptures. Which was all very interesting, but all I could think was, ‘He’s alive! He’s alive!’ I couldn’t take my eyes off him. I’d seen him die. I’d seen him laid in the tomb. Yet here he was. Alive! Poor old Thomas. He wasn’t there, and when we told him about it he wouldn’t believe us. It was another week before he too saw Jesus, and then he too knew it was true. What a week! From the excitement of our arrival in Jerusalem, to the shock of Jesus’ arrest, to our despair as he was crucified, to this moment in the presence of our risen Lord! It’s been an emotional rollercoaster, but now I don’t think I shall ever stop smiling! The joy of knowing that he is with us again, and that death could not hold on to him. That he is, as he said, the resurrection and the life. From now on every day will be a resurrection day. Whatever the future holds, Jesus is with us, Jesus is alive, Jesus has risen from the dead. Life is again full of joy and hope. Praise God! Praise God! Praise God!

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