The gospel reading today starts after Luke tells us that the women who had followed Jesus from Galilee saw where his body had been lain and then went away to prepare spices for embalming him. These women don’t just appear at this point in the story. They had been providing for Jesus and his disciples during his ministry and all the way to Jerusalem on his last pilgrimage. As soon they can they creep out to go and finish the work that was interrupted because they were not allowed to do it on the Sabbath. Perhaps the men were too afraid, in despair or too overcome with grief to venture out with the women.
Perhaps the women hoped
to be let in to the tomb, or maybe that a number of them could move it
enough to get in. When they get there all is not as they left it. I wonder
what they would have thought when they found the stone rolled away? Had
thieves been in? Were soldiers checking up that Jesus was really still
dead? We know from John’s gospel that Mary Magdalene thought Jesus’
body had been moved somewhere else. Whatever they thought it must have
been a terrible shock. Whilst they are still wondering what to make of
it what they can only describe as two men in dazzling clothes appear.
They say that indeed, Jesus’ body was not there – but reason
is that he has risen. What must have then gone through the women’s
minds? Are they dreaming or going mad? The shining messengers remind them
of things that Jesus said back in Galilee and now those words come back
to them. “On the third day he would rise again.” Jesus must
have said this in the hearing of both his male and female followers.
It’s one thing trying to remember and understand, but when they try and explain it to the menfolk they refuse to believe. I love the delicious irony of Luke’s description: these words seemed to them an idle tale! You’re making it up! You’re upset! You’re hysterical! There are many who still today claim the same thing about the resurrection. It cannot be true. Jesus may not have really died. Jesus did die, but seeing him alive can all be explained psychologically. But that is not to take the gospels and the witness of the first disciples, both men and women, seriously. Jesus really did die, and Jesus really did rise again. We may not fully grasp this mystery, but this Christian witness cannot be compromised.
There is a great deal of evidence that points to the truth of the resurrection. One of the pieces of evidence is the change in the disciples. To his credit Peter begins to wonder if there is some truth in the “idle tale” of the women. He rushes to go and check it out. Perhaps he doesn’t believe immediately, but he begins to open up to the possibility. We often think of him as impetuous, spontaneous, opening his mouth before engaging his brain. But at least on this occasion his way of reacting is to his credit.
The change in Peter
is plain to see in the story that Luke continues to tell in the book of
Acts. Peter spoke on the day of Pentecost addressing the crowds and telling
them fearlessly that Jesus had risen. In the scene that forms today’s
first reading, Peter is preaching to Cornelius and his household. Normally
a Jew would not enter a Gentile home for fear of ritual contamination.
But Peter has begun to understand that God has no favourites – all
who want to believe and whose lives are good, are acceptable to God. Peter
by now has got used to stepping outside his comfort zone. He denied Jesus
and suffered an overwhelming sense of failure. St John tells the lakeside
story of how Peter was reinstated by Jesus despite his failure.
Peter discovered all through his life that God was one step ahead of him, opening up new chances when he thought he knew the whole story. But then Peter gradually learnt that there might always be a new start just when you thought you had come to the end of the road. Rushing off to the empty tomb symbolised that perfectly: it might just be true! There might just be a way! Things may not be the way they seem at the moment! (or to put it in really sexist terms: the women might just be right!)
I think that is what
part of the mystery of the resurrection means for us. Who better to preach
the gospel of forgiveness and assurance than Peter? Who better to tell
others that a new start with God is always possible? He is not here, he
has risen! Impossible? It is not the end of the road, there is a new direction!
Impossible? It is not the end of all your hopes, of your life –
a new start lies hidden! Impossible? An idle tale? Go to the empty tomb
yourself and be like Peter!