Acts 10.34–43; John 20.1–18
a sermon at the Eucharist in Durham Cathedral on Easter Morning 2006
by the Bishop of Durham, Dr N. T. Wright
‘Go to my brothers and say to them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.”’ Jesus’ remarkable command to Mary Magdalene is the climax of John’s story of Easter morning. The other events so far, not least the breathless chase of Peter and John to the tomb, are framed within Mary’s story. From here on things will broaden out, with the eleven in the upper room and then the scene a week later with Thomas; but for John’s matchless story of Easter morning the focus is on Mary.
You would never have known this from the usual Easter hymns, prayers and liturgies. If you reconstructed the Easter story from them, you might suppose that when the evangelists wrote up Easter morning their main message was, Jesus is risen, therefore we too shall be raised at the last. That is indeed true, and it’s what Paul and the others say; but one of the many striking features about the resurrection narratives is the fact that at no point do either Jesus or anyone else mention the future hope, whether for heaven, or salvation, or indeed for resurrection itself. All that is left to be worked out.
What is far more urgent and important than questions of one’s own ultimate destiny, is to say, as all the evangelists do, four things. First, Jesus really is alive again. Second, therefore he really is the Messiah, the world’s true Lord. Third, therefore God’s new creation has begun. And, fourth – and this is the sharp edge of it all – therefore you have an urgent and important job to do, and a new identity to do it with. The whole thrust of this long Easter morning story is to take us, through the person and the eyes of Mary Magdalene, to the heart of the earliest Easter message: Jesus is raised, therefore the world is a different place, and we are called, as witnesses to the resurrection, to announce it, to make it happen, and to find ourselves remade in the process.
Look back at the story from Mary’s point of view. She is still in the darkness, since she naturally assumes that an empty tomb means a robbed grave. Peter and John go running to and fro, but Mary is still standing there, and in fact her eyes are at least partially blinded by tears. But through her tears she sees – perhaps you can only see them when you’re weeping – two angels, one at the head and one at the feet of where Jesus’ body had lain. Rowan Williams suggested in a characteristic article some years ago that we should see this as a reference to the mercy-seat in the temple, with the cherubim overshadowing it at either side: this place, this ledge in a tomb, has become the place, the ultimate place, where God has met with his people and has met with them in grace, bringing to its own climax the long Johannine theme of Jesus’ upstaging the Temple, of the destruction and rebuilding of the Temple of his body. We shall come back to this presently.
But then Mary turns round and sees Jesus himself, and in one of those typically Johannine moments of irony thinks he is the gardener – as of course he is: the new Adam in the new creation. And he calls her by her real name, her ancient Hebrew name, Miriam, the name of Moses’ sister who sang her wild song of triumph after watching Israel’s God defeat the Egyptians in the Red Sea. Something of that may be echoing in this story as well, with Jesus as the new Moses who has led the way through the dark waters of death and is now leading the way home to the promised land.
But at that point, and with all that interlocking biblical imagery rattling around in the text and in our heads, we might be tempted to read the punch-line the wrong way. ‘Don’t cling on to me,’ says Jesus – this isn’t about coming back into the old life, it’s about going on into the new – ‘because I haven’t 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.”’ And off she goes to do as Jesus has told her. And we all too easily suppose that the message is: Jesus is going off to heaven for ever, and one day we’ll go and join him there. And that would be to miss the whole point of the Ascension, here and elsewhere in the New Testament.
The point of the Ascension, so strikingly highlighted here in John’s resurrection narrative on the lips of Jesus himself, is not that he is going a long way away but that he is being elevated to be the true Lord of the world. The resurrection has vindicated his claim to be Israel’s Messiah; and Israel’s Messiah is the world’s rightful Lord, as any bible-reading Jew could have told you. ‘I have seen the Lord,’ says Mary to the disciples, and the word ‘Lord’ isn’t just a cipher, a polite way of denoting Jesus; what John wants us to hear is, ‘I have seen the king of the universe,’ ‘I have seen the one before whom the nations will tremble’, ‘I have seen the one through whom and for whom all things were made.’ That’s why, at the end of the chapter, the parallel confession by Thomas is, ‘My Lord and my God’. As Jesus made abundantly clear in the Farewell Discourses, when he goes away it is in order to send the Spirit, the one through whom the world will be convicted in terms of sin, righteousness and judgment – precisely the point that is made next in John’s Easter story. Ascension doesn’t mean absence; it means sovereignty, exercised through the Spirit.
And who is it that carries this stupendous message, this primal announcement of new creation, this heraldic proclamation of the king of kings and his imminent enthronement? It is Mary from Magdala. Considering the reputation subsequent history has given her, it comes as a surprise to learn that, apart from one reference in Luke, the only times Mary Magdalene shows up in the gospel stories is at the cross and the burial, and here at the resurrection. And in the one solitary reference in Luke she is not a prostitute; she is not identified with the woman who wipes Jesus’ feet with her hair; she is someone who has been cured of terrible multiple demon-possession. But the real shock is not Mary’s character. It is her gender. This is perhaps the most astonishing thing about the resurrection narratives, granted the universal beliefs of the time in the unreliability of women in a lawcourt or almost anywhere else. It is one of the things which absolutely guarantees that the early Christians did not invent these stories. They would never, ever, ever have invented the idea that it was a woman – a woman with a known background of emotional instability, but the main point is that it was a woman – to whom had been entrusted the earth-shattering message that Jesus was alive again, that he was on the way to being enthroned as Lord of the World, and that – this is the significance of the emphatic ‘my Father and your Father, my God and your God’ – he was opening to his followers, as a result of his victory over death itself, that same intimacy with the Father of all that he had enjoyed throughout his earthly life. It is Mary: not Peter, not John, not James the brother of the Lord, but Mary, who becomes the apostle to the apostles, the primary Christian witness, the first Christian evangelist. This is so striking, so unexpected, so embarrassing to some early Christians – Origen had to refute pagan sneers on this very point – that it cannot be accidental. It cannot be accidental for John and the other writers. And I dare to say it cannot be accidental in the purposes of God.
Something has happened in the renewal of creation through the death and resurrection of Jesus which has the result, as one of its multiple spin-offs, that whereas before Jesus only ever sent out men, now – now of all moments! – he sends out a woman. And though the church has often struggled – to put it mildly – with the idea of women being called to genuine apostolic ministry, the record is clear and unambiguous. And let me just say that one of the great ironies of that silly book The Da Vinci Code is that, in seeking to elevate Mary Magdalene, all it does is diminish her, to make her Jesus’ appendage, his girl-friend or even his wife, whereas she was his chosen first apostle. Here, as so often, the revisionist versions of Christianity only succeed in domesticating the utterly revolutionary message of the New Testament – not, of course, that the church has not been guilty of that as well.
But this highlighting of Mary, though hugely important for us to grasp, is not the main thing I have on my heart to say to you this Easter Day. Having established that apostolic vocation – the call to be a witness to the resurrection of Jesus – not only includes women, but began with them, let us simply and prayerfully reflect on vocation itself, the primal Christian vocation to bear witness to the risen Jesus, to announce that he is the world’s rightful Lord, and to go as an agent of that new creation which began when he came out of the tomb that first Easter morning. Durham has again and again been a place of vocation, a place where men and (thank God) women too have heard God’s call and have discovered in their heart of hearts that nothing matters so much as saying Yes to that call. This is a place where vocations to full-time Christian ministry have been discerned, fostered, nurtured, celebrated and translated into lifetimes of faithful and fruitful work. I pray that it may be so again. We are short on vocations just now, especially from younger candidates. We urgently need men and women in their teens and twenties, as well as older, to be saying, Yes, I believe the Easter gospel; yes, I find that as I contemplate the mystery of Easter I discover that I’m in the presence of the living God who meets me in grace at that mercy-seat between the angels; yes, as I ponder it I hear God calling me to go and be an agent of his new creation; yes, I realise as I search my heart that this is more important than anything else.
Again and again this call comes as the voice of Jesus breaks through tears of sorrow, as with Mary; through doubt and distrust, as with Thomas; through previous failure, as with Peter. Again and again, therefore, the call to full-time Christian ministry comes, as it did for Mary, as a renaming, the gift of a fresh identity, the call not just to do something but to be something, someone in whose total dedication to the gospel the power of the resurrection has full scope to work in the world. I believe there are people in the Cathedral this morning to whom God is saying: You are the person, and today’s the day. And if you think that might be you, then when you come up to receive the Eucharist make that a moment of openness, openness to the life of the risen Christ, openness to the purpose of God wherever it takes you. God calls surprising people and he gets them to do extraordinary things. ‘Go to my brothers and say to them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.”’ Through Mary’s obedience to that command, the risen Jesus launched the message of Easter. Who knows what he will do through yours?