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Turn around!

Acts 10:34-43 or Isaiah 65:17-25    Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24  1 Corinthians 15:3-5 or Acts 10:34-43   John 20:1-18 or Luke 24 1-12

In his book, A faith for this one world?,  J.E. Lessllie Newbigin 1 recounts the following story:

In the early 1920’s, Bukharin was sent from Moscow to Kiev to address a vast anti-God rally.  For one hour he brought to bear all the artillery of argument, abuse and ridicule upon the Christian faith, till it seemed as if the whole ancient structure of belief was in ruins.

At the end there was silence.  Questions were invited.  A man rose and asked leave to speak, a priest of the Orthodox Church.  He stood beside Bukharin, faced the people, and gave them the ancient liturgical Easter greeting, ‘Christos Voskresje’ – Christ is risen.  Instantly, the whole vast assembly rose to its feet, and the reply came back like a crash of breakers against the cliff, ‘Vojestene Voskresje’ – He is risen indeed.

There was no reply; there could not be.  When all argument is ended, there remains a fact, the total fact of Jesus Christ, who requires no authority to commend him, but who places every man in the position where and answer has to be given one way or another to the question that he asks. 

One hundred years on, our focus once more on Kyiv – for very different reasons – but the question is still the same.  It is a question that stretches back to the dawn on the first day of a spring week, where Mary from the little village of Magdala, turned away from the empty tomb (20:14).

Mary was one of a small band of faithful women, who had followed and financially supported Jesus in his ministry:

1Soon afterwards he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him, 2as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, 3and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources.  (Luke 8:1-3)

We cannot imagine the agony of crucifixion, nor can we grasp the anguish and grief of the women who stood by and watched Jesus breathe his last breath.  These women had witnessed everything about Jesus’ ministry, staying through the crucifixion and following to the grave.  And now, one of their number, Mary came to the tomb alone wanting to be where Jesus is – or at least where she thought the body was.  Mary is grieving – who doesn’t at the death of a loved one.  She thought her task was to perform a memorial act for the dead.  

Instead, she will leave as the first apostle carrying a sacred message.  The transformation from grieving believer to activist is an act of grace.  The development from struggling to believe, to dawning comprehension to unequivocal faith, takes place in a very short time for Mary.  And it begins at verse 14, when Mary turned around to talk to the supposed gardener. 

To turn – Metanoia

When Mary had summoned Peter and John, they both looked and then returned home.   But Mary stayed by the tomb and her persistence is rewarded, first with an encounter with two messengers in white, and then by someone she assumed to be the gardener.  I’ve often thought Mary was overwhelmed with grief at this point, but for those who have read this familiar tale so many times, there is a hint of the divine.  For the Lord God was said to walk often in the first garden at the time of the evening breeze (Genesis 3:8).  And evening and morning marked the days in Genesis.  But now God is about to do something different – for this is the dawning of a new day; Mary’s darkness will evaporate as good news begins to dawn for her.  And just as God conversed with Adam and Eve in the garden (Genesis 3:8), so now Jesus enters into conversation with Mary.  The gospel records how Mary turned as she recognised Jesus (John 20:16). 

The conversation that follows invited Mary – and invites us too – to have a complete change of heart, of mind and soul.  The grace of God changes us as we turn.  You see, the story of Mary in the garden is our story: she turned from the empty tomb and turned to face Jesus (vv 14 & 16).  And we turn too: away from evil and all that denies God; and toward the marvellous light which is ours through Christ Jesus our Lord.  For us, baptism marks that turning.  Whether baptised as an adult, when you acknowledge this life-changing event, or as a child when the promises made by your parents are later confirmed by your own assent, all baptised people belong to Christ.  As our eyes and hearts and minds are opened to the life-changing encounter with Christ, we like Mary are sent to share this good news with others.

To respond

We are invited to make our response to this good news; and perhaps like the early disciples we too are struggling to make sense of good news as the world moves from pandemic to war in Ukraine.  War in Europe is deeply shocking as it is something we did not expect to see.  So how should our acceptance of good news of Jesus Christ transform our hearts and minds?  Mary turned immediately, but one of the most dramatic changes we see was in the life of St Paul on the Damascus road; as he leaves behind all the things he was most certain of, to commit to following Christ. According to all the accounts, it took Paul some time to process all that he had experienced on the Damascus road, before he engages with a life-time of service. And it meant a complete change of direction in his spirituality and faith.

To commit

Since the second century, Easter Sunday was a time for the celebration of Baptism and/or Confirmation. It can also be a time when Christian people publicly declare union with Christ in his death and resurrection; and then go out to witness to the life-changing meeting with Christ. Mary was called by name; just as every child of God is called by name.

Jesus said, I am the Good shepherd.  The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep …  the sheep hear his own voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and he leads them out. (John 10:11, 3)

People mistakenly refer to ordination as a ‘calling’, but I find this misleading, for our calling is in our baptism.  Each candidate for baptism is addressed personally, by name. Try reading these words, inserting your own name at the beginning :

‘N– for you Jesus Christ came into the world; for you he lived and showed God’s love; for you he suffered death on the Cross; for you he triumphed over death, rising to newness of life; for you he prays at God’s right hand; all this for you before you could know anything of it. In your Baptism, the word of Scripture is fulfilled: ‘We love, because God first love us.’

When Mary stood outside the tomb, she was called, she turned and she was given a new ministry – to speak to others about the risen Christ. And she was the first in a long line of believers to be called and commissioned.

We are witnesses to all that he did … (Acts 10:39)

We don’t hear too much more about Mary or the other women who followed Jesus, but scripture does tell us that early disciples quickly discovered their voices and began to talk about Jesus, describing themselves as witnesses to all that he did.  So that by the time we reach Acts chapter two, the followers of Jesus were sharing testimony with those who had yet to hear the good news, baptising those who wanted to become part of this new way of life, and gathering together to pray and to break bread, and praising God.  

By virtue of the fact that Christian people are still gathering together today, it is evident that someone has passed that message on down through the centuries, which means that now we are the witnesses to all that Jesus did.  We are now entrusted with that self-same mission to go and tell, and by our words and deeds offer testimony to the saving power of God’s love. 

Easter is a reminder of ultimate destinies of Mary and of Paul who represents all subsequent followers of Jesus.  And just as we need a change of heart, we must surely pray for others to receive a change of heart.  It is difficult to know how or why the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, has given theological backing to the war in Ukraine.  But we should pray for him, and as we do so, we give thanks for the hundreds of Orthodox clergy, scholars and lay people who have come together to reject this heresy and the shameful actions of Putin.  These will stand on Easter Sunday and proclaim that Christ is Risen, and that this will impact on how we live. There is nothing holy or just in behaving or supporting a barbaric dictator.  Just as people in every generation are called to stand for truth and justice, so baptism into Christ continues to call God’s people to turn away from all that is evil, firstly in our own lives. Praying for others often can be relatively easy, in comparison with a call for personal holiness in the life of the believer! 

In earlier days of the Methodist church, Easter Sunday began with the saints of God gathering for the Easter vigil.  It was the service to conclude Lent and begin the new day.  It was a service of readings and prayers, and the Paschal candle was presented as a reminder that Christ is the light of the world.  The main morning service included preaching, the baptismal covenant and holy communion. It may be that this a pattern that some of you still observe, but the habit of reminding ourselves of those essentials of faith is a good one. How will you respond?

The declaration of faith

We believe in the God of Life, whose breath is in us, and whose mercy encircles the creation. 

We believe in Jesus Christ, who loved us indestructibly and who shared our pain.  He is with us now as he promised, even to the end of the age.

We believe in the Holy Spirit, who welcomes us into the household of faith, gives us gifts in abundance, enlivens our hearts with joy, and urges us into the world to testify without fear to God’s justice and grace. 

Hoping against hope for the promised realm of peace, we love one another while we live, we honour every creature God has made, we stand against the powers of sin and death, and we bless the earth and all that fills it. 

Glory, thanks, and praise be yours, O Living God, now and forever! Amen. 

Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!

Those who are baptised are called to worship and serve God. Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?

With the help of God, I will.

Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?

With the help of God, I will.

Will you proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ?

With the help of God, I will.

Will you seek and serve Christ in all people, loving your neighbour as yourself?

With the help of God, I will.

Will you acknowledge Christ’s authority over human society, by prayer for the world and its leaders, by defending the weak, and by seeking peace and justice?

With the help of God, I will.

May Christ dwell in your hearts through faith, that you may be rooted and grounded in love and bring forth the fruit of the Spirit. Amen.

God of glory, by the raising of your Son you have broken the chains of death and hell: fill your Church with faith and hope; for a new day has dawned and the way to life stands open in our Saviour Jesus Christ.  Amen.

1 Lesslie Newbigin, ‘He is Risen’, quoted in A Worship Anthology for Lent and Easter, compiled by H.J.Richards. (Bury St Edmunds: Kevin Mayhew, 1994)

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