Reading Acts 10 (NIV)
34 Then Peter began to speak: "I now realize how true it is that God does not show favouritism 35 but accepts those from every nation who fear him and do what is right. 36 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. 37 You know what has happened throughout the province of Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John preached— 38 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.
39 "We are witnesses of everything he did in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a cross, 40 but God raised him from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen. 41 He was not seen by all the people, but by witnesses whom God had already chosen—by us who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. 42 He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead. 43 All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name."
Gospel John 20 (NIV)
The Empty Tomb
1 Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance. 2 So she came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, and said, "They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don't know where they have put him!"
3 So Peter and the other disciple started for the tomb. 4 Both were running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5 He bent over and looked in at the strips of linen lying there but did not go in. 6 Then Simon Peter came along behind him and went straight into the tomb. He saw the strips of linen lying there, 7 as well as the cloth that had been wrapped around Jesus' head. The cloth was still lying in its place, separate from the linen. 8 Finally the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed. 9 (They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.) 10 Then the disciples went back to where they were staying.
Jesus Appears to Mary Magdalene
11 Now Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb 12 and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus' body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot.
13 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." 14 At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus.
15 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."
16 Jesus said to her, "Mary."
She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, "Rabboni!" (which means "Teacher").
17 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.' "
18 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.
In the village newsletter, I wrote a column about the resurrection. In it I said that the fact of the resurrection of Jesus and the empty tomb was the one statement of belief that set the Christian faith apart from any other. Belief in the resurrection is not some sort of optional extra in the pick-and-mix supermarket of faith. It is not something we can take or leave. It is an essential plank of our faith. Indeed, without belief in the empty tomb, our faith is nothing.
Paul makes this point when writing to the Corinthians. If Christ had not been raised, he said, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. If Christians do not have faith in the resurrection, then we are to be pitied because our confidence in the future is of no avail, and we remain in sin and have no redemption and no hope of life after death.
So, if faith in the resurrection is so crucial, then it’s no surprise that what we celebrate today, and these readings from Acts and John’s gospel, should occupy our thoughts, not just at Eastertide but for the whole of the rest of the year.
You see, John’s gospel is a witness statement. John records what he saw, and tells is what the women experienced before the other disciples. We can read the account and judge for ourselves what is the truth of what we are being told. It’s a pretty far-fetched story, but the way it is related has the characteristic of an eye-witness about it.
John insists on two things: one, the risen Christ; and two, his appearance in the flesh to the disciples. His certainty, based on these two facts, should, John believes, lead us to faith.
The accounts of the empty tomb are different in each of the four gospels, but the women play a crucial role in each one. In Mark and Luke they come with spices to anoint the body. In John, this has already been done. In Matthew there are three women at the tomb. In Mark there are only two.
In Matthew and Mark, the stone is rolled away from the mouth of the tomb. In John there is no mention of it. All these are details which vary as the story is retold, before being written down 30 years or more after the event.
All agree on the empty tomb. The grave clothes left behind, indicating the body had not been stolen. The appearance of the risen Lord to the women and to the other disciples.
So that’s what we celebrate today, the essence and very foundation of our faith. A faith not founded on a man, a faith not founded on an innovative moral code, a faith not founded on a particular set of beliefs – but a faith founded on the fact of the empty tomb and the resurrection of Jesus – and a faith based on a personal relationship with the risen Lord.