One of the great joys of episcopal ministry is the Eastertide rush of Confirmation services. This year I have baptized and confirmed hundreds of people. Most of my sermons have begun with the same question: what were the first words that the risen Christ said on the first Easter Day? And although I didn’t actually put anyone on the spot – it is supposed to be a
rhetorical question – quite a few people shouted out suggestions. In fact, after the first couple of sermons I urged people not to guess because they invariably got it wrong – and when this was the clergy it was slightly embarrassing. But the plain fact of the matter seems to be that people don’t know. The story of the resurrection itself is familiar, but the words Jesus
speaks have somehow evaded us.
Having, then, established that people don’t know, I have wondered out loud what we think he might have said. Would it be something triumphant – ‘I have risen from the dead!’, or credal – ‘I have conquered sin and death; I have opened the gate of glory’?
The actual answer is surprisingly different. So surprising, so apparently innocuous, that the words themselves have failed to stick in many people’s minds. The most popular guess shouted out was ‘Mary’. This is, of course, one of the things that Jesus says; but it is not the first.
So which is? Well, first of all it is something of a trick question. The answer is different in each of the four Gospels, and each Gospel has its own fascinating twist.
In Mark, Jesus does not say anything at all (or at least in the more ancient version of Mark that ends at 16.8). There is just silence and a disturbing presence. The women come to the tomb. They sense something has happened. They leave in fear.
In John’s account – and the first part of this book sticks almost exclusively with John – Mary Magdalene finds the tomb empty, fetches Peter and John, but then when they leave she lingers at the tomb. She is the first person to actually see the risen Jesus (though she mistakes him for the gardener). He says to her, ‘Why are you weeping?’, and then, ‘Who are you looking for?’, and then simply her name, ‘Mary’. She holds on to him and then Jesus says,‘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”.’ These are astonishing words: each one a book in itself. Jesus speaks to the sadness and then the lostness of Mary. He says her name. He points her beyond his presence with her in the garden to a new availability and a new relationship with God.
In Matthew, the women run from the tomb, having been told by the angels what has happened and what it means. They then meet Jesus who says to them, ‘Greetings . . . do not be afraid: go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.’
In Luke – and the second part of the book leans heavily on the Lucan narrative – there is no record of Jesus saying anything until the evening: then on the Emmaus road he comes alongside Cleopas and his companion and says to them, ‘What are you discussing as you walk along?’ They stop dead in their tracks (though they do not recognize him either) and say he must be the only person in Jerusalem who doesn’t know what has been happening these past few days. ‘What things?’ says Jesus – and we tend to miss the humour here: after all, Jesus was the one person who did know what had been happening in Jerusalem that weekend! They then tell him all that we would now understand to be the gospel, but it is not good news for them. So Jesus says, ‘Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets declared. Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?’
After this, Luke’s and John’s accounts combine: Jesus is known to Cleopas and his friend at the breaking of bread. They rush back to Jerusalem to tell the eleven what has happened. Jesus appears in their midst. ‘Peace be with you,’ he says. There is then a longer piece in Luke where Jesus instructs the disciples on the meaning of what has happened and on his ascension. He then tells them to wait in the city until they receive the power of the Spirit. John has Jesus saying, ‘As the Father sent me, so I am sending you’, and then
breathes the Spirit into them there and then. For John, the gift of the Spirit is bound up with the Easter story itself. Luke establishes the more familiar liturgical pattern where, after the ascension, the disciples wait for the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost.
A popular Good Friday devotion is based upon Jesus’ seven last words from the cross. Pieced together from the different Gospel accounts, the words are the stuff of Holy Week preaching. A good many clergy over many generations will have written sermons on them. Many books have been written about them. We experience these words as a way in to the deepest meaning of the Passion. But for some reason there has never been the same emphasis on the words that Jesus spoke on Easter Day: words, as it were, from an empty tomb. Because at first sight they seem casual, almost offhand, they are passed over. They seem to pale against the drama of the event itself.
But these words deserve greater attention. The words from the empty tomb can speak to us as powerfully as the words from the cross. They can illuminate our understanding of the resurrection, helping us to penetrate its meaning and significance. They can also speak effectively of God’s purpose for us today as we try to discover what it means to be an Easter people. The Christian faith stands or falls on the resurrection of Jesus – without it, says St Paul, we are to be most pitied – therefore it is these words that we must hear and respond to.
It is therefore striking and significant that many of the things Jesus says are questions: ‘Why are you weeping?’, ‘Who are you looking for?’, ‘What are you discussing?’, ‘Was it not necessary . . . ?’ Taken that the other common thread running through the resurrection stories is the fact that Jesus isn’t recognized, these searching questions have the effect of confronting us with a risen Christ who cannot be easily pinned down (‘Do not cling to me,’ he says to Mary), who demands response. But it is not a coercive demand. It is more the magnetic attraction of great and puzzling beauty; the sort of beauty that takes us beyond ourselves. Just as great art poses great questions, so does the resurrection of Christ.
In this sense the resurrection asks as many questions as it answers. Therefore, in order to understand the resurrection we need (like the disciples on the Emmaus road) to have our eyes, and our minds, opened; open to the probing questions Jesus poses, open to his disturbing and surprising presence. What are the sorrows we are carrying and where do we expect to find comfort? Who (and what) are we looking for in life? What are the questions that concern us as we travel through life? And, crucially, who is Jesus Christ? Why did he suffer and die? What does this tell us about God? The whole Christian faith is a dialogue – an Emmaus road walk – and these questions are the agenda. But it is also about recognition. Being recognized by God (he speaks our name, and at every Confirmation I am reminded of this when I say to the candidates in turn, ‘God knows you by name and makes you his own’); and responding: knowing Jesus as our Teacher and Lord. But the continuity and discontinuity between the Jesus of his earthly ministry and the Jesus of the resurrection mean that we discover him as the ‘same person’, the one who was killed on the cross; and a different person, the one who was raised with a new and incorruptible life. He therefore evades definition. Instead, he invites relationship. And it is in the relationships, through responding to his call and continuing the dialogue, that we begin to find out and dwell in the truth of his audacious claims: that his God is our God; that we have a share in his risen life; and that we are commissioned to share his story with the world.
So the risen Jesus poses questions. But this is not a book of answers. It is a book designed to retell the story in such a way that we might slow down and hear it properly and therefore hear the questions clearly.