Everybody knows the Easter story. It’s about life that follows death. It’s about miraculous resurrection to life, and someone who died but that death could not hold. It’s the victory of the cross against the backdrop of the courage of the first believers. And it’s about a woman who became the very first witness to the risen Jesus. This is based on the Bible study on the Bible readings for resurrection Day, or Easter, set by the inter-denominational Revised Common Lectionary and discussed in The Living Word for April 17.
What does this turning point mean for us? And what has this got to do with God’s purpose in the world?
• Watch this week’s 10-min video Jesus Lord of New Life
A glimpse of new life as kingdom people
Our way in is through words from Isaiah 65 which sets the scene for us. Isaiah’s prophetic foresight points to God’s purpose in establishing His kingdom — a completely new world order to come at the end time. Before that, we would see His kingdom gradually being realised: people experience renewal and new spiritual life by coming into a personal relationship with God through Jesus
I will rejoice over Jerusalem and take delight in My people… For as the days of a tree, so will be the days of My people; My chosen ones will long enjoy the work of their hands. They will not labour in vain… for they will be a people blessed by the Lord, they and their descendants… Before they call I will answer; while they are still speaking I will hear.
Excerpt from Isaiah 65:17-25
Isaiah talks about “my people” and “my chosen ones”. If we put this in the context of Isaiah’s prophecy generally, we know that he brought a particular challenge that people of the time found difficult to understand. God’s choice of people to receive His salvation extended much wider than the nation of Israel. Isaiah was looking forward to a time when “my people” would be redefined as those of ANY background who turned to God, believing and trusting, through His Anointed One yet to come.
God’s first choice is a female witness
We continue with the story. By following the Bible order we follow the progressive revelation of God, firstly from Old Testament command and obedience through, secondly, the gospel accounts, where Jesus reveals what God is like in Himself, then thirdly in the era of the Holy Spirit in followers of the Way of Jesus, revealing God in spiritual gifts and inward witness.
The next episode is near the end of John’s gospel account and the focus is on Mary Magdalene. She was an outsider in many ways — but perhaps the most difficult was being a female disciple of Jesus in the then strongly male-dominated world. She went in the half-light of early morning to see if she could prepare the tortured body, recently cut down from the bloodstained Cross, for a decent, honouring burial according to their custom.
Her motive was pure, and her devotion a hallmark of her having experienced God’s love in a life-changing way.
The one thing that she didn’t expect, was to discover that Jesus is alive! Let’s hear this in the words of John’s account:
While it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed… So she came running to Simon Peter… and said, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put Him!” So Peter and the other disciple started for the tomb. Both were running, but the other disciple outran Peter … Then Simon Peter came along behind him and went straight into the tomb. He saw the strips of linen lying there, as well as the cloth that had been wrapped around Jesus’ head. The cloth was still lying in its place, separate from the linen… Now Mary…outside the tomb crying… saw two angels in white… where Jesus’ body had been…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.” She turned around and saw Jesus standing there… thinking He was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried Him away, tell me where you have put Him…” Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She… cried out “Rabboni!” Jesus said, “…I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go…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!” And she told them that He had said these things to her.
Mary the outsider, least and last in the religious pecking order, has just been chosen to be the first to have an encounter with the living, risen Lord Jesus.
Mary, whose testimony would be disregarded as having no credibility in any law court of the time, has been chosen by God to bear witness of the most amazing, world-changing, miraculous event in history, the risen and living Lord, to the rest of the disciples.
There is a message coming through here about a different order, about God’s order and God’s priorities turning the established understanding upside down.
Peter tells his story to people he would have excluded
We move on in our story to an event following Pentecost and probably a year or two after the resurrection. The action takes place at the extreme edge of the Roman province on the coastline between Caesarea and Joppa, where Peter was staying at that time.
Peter has just had His understanding of God and understanding of who he is as an observant Jew turned upside down — once again. In a sudden insight, a dramatic rooftop vision, what Isaiah was prophesying all those years ago has dropped into place for him. All the sayings about light coming to the Gentiles have now made sense to him. Now Gentiles were to be seen as having the same light, the same truth, about God’s mercy.
And Peter, sought out by two Gentile messengers, finds himself doing something for the first time. He submits to accompanying them back to their Roman household, where he is asked to share his story with all the assembled company. Here is the story as Luke told it in Acts:
Peter began to speak: “I now realise… that God… accepts from every nation the one who fears Him… You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, announcing the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all. You know… how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how He went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with Him. “We are witnesses of everything He did…They killed Him by hanging Him on a cross, but God raised Him from the dead on the third day and caused Him to be seen. “He was…seen… by witnesses whom God had already chosen — by us who ate and drank with Him after He rose from the dead. “He commanded us to preach… and to testify that He is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead. “All the prophets testify… that everyone who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sins through His name.”
Excerpt from Acts 10:34-43
The good news about God’s mercy and salvation has just changed gear. Before, there was a limited understanding of who was eligible. This story represents the turning point. From now on, the good news of man’s reconciliation with God through Jesus Christ would spread like wildfire through the Greek-speaking, Greek-culture people and lands, far distant from Jerusalem.
God’s gift of life is for any who believe and belong to Him
Roman soldiers sent on military duty to the outposts of the empire would take it to northern Europe, to Gaul and over the sea to Britannia. God was showing himself to be no respecter of persons in sharing His love and His risen life and presence. Paul reflects on this, writing to Christians in the busy port city of Corinth:
Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep… Since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive…when He comes, those who belong to Him. Then the end will come, when He hands over the kingdom to God the Father after He has destroyed all dominion, authority and power.
Excerpt from 1 Corinthians 15:19-26
What Isaiah saw in the Spirit all those years ago was made reality in Mary Magdalene’s experience, in Peter sharing his witness story with a Roman household, and in Paul’s explanation of how Jesus was the second Adam who conferred life on all who would belong to Him.
Throughout history, mankind has sought to apply its rules about who is in and who is out, who belongs and who doesn’t. Meanwhile God uses a different measure of who belongs to Him — simply who believes and trusts His Son. The shameful history of the institutional church, its denominational silos and religious rules, has not required faith but compliance. The word of God, which the church should believe and proclaim, shows how in the kingdom of God those man-made barriers are demolished.
We need to return to this Resurrection Day story often. This is where our values are reshaped and made true again by God’s Spirit, in the shadow of the Cross and the light of the glory of the open tomb.