“Stories are always better than sermons and the two rarely mix well. If the story is used to illustrate a sermon, then it has a design on us …… and of course preachers normally have. Stories are best left to stand alone and people allowed to draw their own conclusions”. So wrote somebody in The Tablet, a Roman Catholic publication, a week or so ago. The New Testament Gospel writers knew this better than most, of course, which is why those Gospels are full of stories about the life of Jesus and about the resurrection of Jesus. And it has been excellent this week to have had the story of the passion of Jesus filmed on BBC, and at peak times reminding us of the fact that at the very least the Christian faith has deeply affected the culture of this country and influenced its values, even if the BBC says there was no religious motive in producing it – quite simply they were looking for a great story to tell in episodic drama – and it attracted 10 million viewers.
Of course, there isn’t one story of Jesus in the New Testament but four, since each evangelist uses the events of Jesus’ life to make his own particular point. Nor do we have just one story of the appearance of Jesus after his resurrection, but many different stories. So in St Mark it is the story of an angel who tells the women who go to the tomb to go to Galilee where Jesus has gone before them and there are no appearances of the risen Jesus himself. St Matthew has a few more embellishments before Jesus himself appears to the women at the tomb and then afterwards to the disciples in Galilee. St Luke has an appearance, not in Galilee, but in Jerusalem to two of his followers on the road to Emmaus, then to Peter and after that to all the other disciples. St John’s Gospel has a story after today’s Gospel story of Jesus appearing to Mary Magdalene in the garden, to all the disciples except Thomas, then to all the disciples including Thomas, and then to all the disciples at the Sea of Tiberias where he asks Simon Peter three times whether he loves him.
The writers want to tell the story of Jesus in their own way, just as the BBC series tells the story of Jesus from three points of view – the religious authorities; the Romans and Jesus and his disciples.
Which is why one theologian can write, “The New Testament has never finished saying what it has to say”. Why? Because it has layers and layers of meaning. Because it tries to convey truth through stories that are subtle, deep and many layered. Very often to understand them, you need to know something about the Jewish background against which they were written and also about the Old Testament, which is my excuse for preaching this morning and not telling a story.
The Gospel writers, just like the BBC, emphasise different aspects of the significance of Jesus, so that the question to ask, is not did the events in these stories happen in this way but what truths are they trying to convey? As the great theologian Hans Kung puts it, “the Bible is interested primarily not in historical truth, but in truth relevant for our wellbeing, for our salvation”. The New Testament is full of theology, of stories about the significance of God as it tries to convey truth through stories. We have just had read to us Mary Magdalene’s visit to the tomb of Jesus and when she sees the stone rolled away, she runs to tell the disciples and Peter and John rush to the tomb. When Peter looks inside the tomb, he does not really understand the significance of the discarded clothes but John, having first of all stood outside and then gone in, realises the significance of that empty tomb, that Jesus has been raised from the dead. As R S Thomas puts it in one of his poems, “I find the place where you lay warm”. John had come expecting a cold body and realises that Jesus has been raised from the dead. The disciples go home immediately but Mary Magdalene remains and immediately following this section of the Gospel read to us today, St John tells the story of Mary’s encounter with Jesus outside the tomb. Let me read it to you.
“Now Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot. They asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?” “They have taken my Lord away,” she said, “and I don’t know where they have put him”. At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realise that it was Jesus. He asked her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?” Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him”. Jesus said to her, “Mary”. She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means “Teacher”). Jesus said, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God”. Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: “I have seen the Lord!”. (John 20:1–2, 11–18)
Now you can read that story as a straight historical account. Mary meets the risen Jesus and has an encounter with angels. But one has to ask the question even if one takes it literally, what is the story trying to say? What is the significance of that story for you and me?
St John refers to a garden, the first day of the week and of a man and woman. It reminds us of the creation story in the Book of Genesis. In that first garden Adam and Eve, having eaten of the fruit of the tree of knowledge that had been forbidden, hid from God out of fear. They lost their innocence. They lost their sense of intimacy and friendship with God because of their disobedience. As one writer puts it, “once upon a time, there was no distance between human beings and God. We lived in his garden and met Him there every day. We could talk with Him as we talked to our neighbour for He was our neighbour and we were his”. We were created for this intimacy with God. Because of their sin, man and woman were expelled from the garden and driven to a world where meeting God was more problematic. But in this encounter of Jesus with Mary in the garden, the fall is, if you like, reversed, intimacy is restored. Here, St John is saying, Jesus is the new Adam. Here is a new creation. Here in the person of Jesus, men and women can be recreated, transformed, redeemed. In the person of the risen Jesus, God becomes close and familiar once more as he calls Mary by name. And it has been reversed, not because Jesus has come back to this life – there were plenty of people who had done that. Jesus himself had raised Lazarus but there would come a time when Lazarus would die again. This story is about the reversal of death. Jesus has burst through death to God’s new life. Mary mistakes him for the gardener and of course he is the gardener, but not in the sense Mary means it, but because He is the Creator of the garden – referred to in Genesis.
Mary also saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been – one at the head and the other at the foot. In the Old Testament angels are depicted as sitting at either end of the Ark of the Covenant in the Holy of Holies in the temple, where the 10 Commandments were kept. The cherubim sat facing one another. And above them and the Ark, God was said to abide. It was the place where God was to be found. By implication therefore St John is saying that it is in the person of Jesus that God is now to be found – here is the new place of encounter between God and his people, not in the Ark of the Covenant but in the person of the risen Jesus.
Mary, of course, misses the significance of it all. She is crying in the garden because she is weeping for a dead Jesus. Even when she meets Jesus, she does not recognise him and even when Jesus speaks to her, and asks her why she is crying, she still does not recognise him. It is only when he calls her by name that suddenly the penny drops. And in the calling of her by name, we are reminded of Jesus’ story of the good shepherd who knows his sheep and whose sheep know him because he calls them by name.
Mary misses the divine even when it is staring her in the face. Somehow she is unable to see until it is all spelt out to her. And the same may be true of you and me. We could be like Peter looking into that tomb, not seeing the significance of what has taken place or like John, having a moment of recognition, or like Mary Magdalene it may take a long time. Faith is not certainty – it is seeing life in a certain way, and realising its true significance. The Christian and the non Christian live in the same world and see the same things and yet come to different conclusions about their significance. For the Christian, the world is full of God’s glory. We look at beauty and see God’s hand. We look at ordinary human beings and see sons and daughters of the living God, for we claim to have seen into the heart of things as R S Thomas puts it, “Many creatures reflect you, the flowers, your colour, the tides, the precision of your calculations”. Mary sees the tomb and believes they have taken her Lord away. Peter looks and notices the details about the position of the linen cloths and John sees and realises that Jesus has been raised to new life in God’s presence. There are, of course, no knockdown arguments for the truth of the resurrection, any more than there are for the existence of God. Faith is a way of seeing and in seeing understanding and in understanding believing and in believing seeking to live out the divine life of serving God and his world. It is, if you like, to come back to R S Thomas “Finding the place where you lay warm” – and then acting upon it.
To God be the glory.