The New Job: To the Ends of the Earth   1 comment

Thanksgiving for Resurrection Power:

Risen Lord, we thank you for the varied and vivid accounts given to us by those who actually talked with you and ate with you and touched you. We thank you for this visible, physical evidence of your power over death. And we thank you, too, for the invisible spiritual evidence which each of us can experience in our heart, which declares to us that Jesus Christ is still alive. May we, like the first disciples, be brave enough to tell what we have seen and heard so that everyone may enjoy the friendship which we have with you and which is our great blessing; for your dear name’s sake. Amen

(Patricia Mitchell) 

Do not hold on to me … But go to my brothers and tell them…’

These are the simple first words with which the risen Jesus sends Mary Magdalene away from the garden at sunrise on the third day. So, Mary became the first apostle. Simon Peter and John were the first to enter the tomb, finding it empty, but they returned home feeling confused, because they still didn’t understand the scriptural prophecy about Jesus rising from the dead. Mary, according to the Hebrew custom, is left there to mourn, crying out. These were not low sobs, but full renditions of grief such as we see at Palestinian funerals of martyrs today. As now, this was the traditional role that women took up, together with many others. Her tears were also shed because of the disappearance of the body, of course. Whereas Peter and John run back to the other men, her instincts are to stay and to enter the tomb herself, still crying, until she recognises and holds on to the Lord. This is a very real, physical encounter, not a hallucinatory experience, as the male disciples may have condescendingly thought at first. Mary also knows this is no ghost, and Jesus’ words confirm this. Later that evening, he also appears to the eleven, showing them the physical signs of his crucifixion, so that they would believe that he was flesh and blood. Remember, Cleopas and his friend, after Peter the next to see him, had not recognised him until he broke bread at Emmaus earlier that evening. He consecrates the disciples, giving them the Holy Spirit so that they may continue his mission, and begin theirs, making them apostles. (John 20 vv 1-18)

Mary Magdalene and the other women surrounding Jesus pass out of Biblical history and into Church history from the exodus of 36 A.D. It is an indication of how much these ‘Holy Women’ were valued among early Christians, and even by some in the later Roman Church, that they preserved and published manuscripts referring to the women’s subsequent missions to the gentiles. Though it must have been difficult for the Papacy to admit the pre-existence of older forms of Christianity in western Europe, Baronius, the Vatican historian, records in his Ecclesiastical Annals that, in that year, a group of Christian men and women was ‘exposed to the sea in a vessel without sails or oars’. He quotes the Acts of Magdalen and ‘other manuscripts’ to suggest that, along with Mary Magdalene, Martha, Salome, the hand-maiden Marcella, Lazarus, Philip, James, Joseph of Arimathea, Mary (the wife of Cleopas, the disciple who met the risen Jesus on the road to Emmaus), and Jesus’ mother, Mary (to whom John the Divine had appointed Joseph as ‘paranymphos’, or companion), were among the occupants of the boat. The manuscripts all refer to Joseph being accompanied by twelve companions. They drifted as far as the coast of Gaul, the modern-day south of France, from where, the legend has it, ‘Joseph and his company’ went on to Britain, where he had substantial tin and lead mining interests in the west of the country, and that they preached the gospel there, remaining there until they died. This is confirmed by Greek and Roman sources, including the Jewish Encyclopaedia. We may choose to treat these stories as legends or ‘tradition’, but they do have meaning. They remind us of the centrality to the Christian faith of those who were present at the drama of the cross, and who were the last witnesses to the crucified Christ and the first to give testimony of the risen Christ, including the suffering mother whom John led away from the final agony, the women who discovered the empty tomb and the woman who first witnessed the risen body of the saviour. To any Roman the word ‘cross’ or ‘crucifix’ would have sounded a savage word, like ‘gallows’ or ‘guillotine’ to the English or French. Perhaps that’s why the early Roman Church didn’t use it, but preferred to mark the fish symbol as they worshipped secretly in the catacombs. It remained the way the Romans executed foreign criminals or rebels or slaves, but for these women, as well as for all the apostles, it became the symbol of God’s ‘amazing love’. Paul later wrote that he could ‘boast’ about it.  How much more could those who had overcome witnessing its destructive power do so?  The Celtic Church wisely turned it into a much more ‘feminine’ symbol of the intertwining of God’s grace with the nurturing of the natural world to make it a thing of great beauty set against the landscapes and seascapes of the western highlands and islands.

The expulsion of Joseph and his companions in an oarless boat without sails would be in keeping with the Sanhedrin’s methods. They dared not openly destroy him and, instead, conceived a treachery that they hoped would confine him to a watery grave. Their survival was not unique in Mediterranean waters if we consider Paul’s litany of trials and tribulation. We don’t know if Saul had anything to do with the castaway Christians, but we do know that it was soon after this that he had his dramatic encounter with the risen Christ on the way to Damascus, and became Paul. This news stunned the Sanhedrin, infuriating them beyond measure. They ordered an all-out drive to seize him and kill him on sight. In a complete reversal of circumstances, the hunter became the hunted. Paul went into hiding himself, appealing for aid from Christ’s disciples. Not unnaturally, they feared this might be a ploy by a man they knew to be clever, cruel and unscrupulous to uncover their secret network of survivors of his own terror, but they finally complied, lowering him over the wall of the city with a rope (Acts 9: 25). We know well what happened to him after this escape with the disciples, as St. Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles. However, the story of his visit to Athens is worth the re-telling, because it highlights the clash of cultures in the ancient world which the missionaries had to contend with, not only in converting Gentiles but also within the Church itself:

Paul came to Athens by boat, and he was waiting there for Silas and Timothy. He wandered through the streets; everywhere there were temples and images to Greek gods. This made Paul very unhappy. He had to talk to somebody about it. He went to the Jewish Meeting House and argued there; he went to the market place and argued with anybody who happened to be there. There were many lecturers in the city, for its university was very famous; some of them met Paul, and he argued with them. “What’s this chatterer talking about?” sneared some. “It’s sme foreign fellow talking about his gods, it seems,” said others. The City Council was called ‘Mars Hill’, after the name of the hill where it used to meet in earlier times….The Lecturers got hold of Paul and took him before the Council. “Tell us, if you please, something more about this ‘news’ of yours,” they said. “What you’ve been talking about seems very strange to us. We’d like to know what it’s all about.”

‘Paul stood before the Council. “Citizens of Athens,” he said, “by just wandering around your streets, I can see that religion matters to you very much. I had a good look at your temples and the images of your gods. And I noticed one altar that had these words on it “To the Unknown God”. You do not know him; I will tell you about him.

‘The God who made the world and all that’s  in it by that very fact id the Master of the whole world. His home can’t be a temple in the street that you can build with your own hands….We may belong to different nations now, but at the beginning God made us all one people and gave us the whole world for our home. All things are in his hands – the rise and fall of nations and the boundaries of their territories….Yet he is very near to every us. Your own poets have said this very thing – ‘In God we live and move and exist’ and ‘We, too, belong to his family.’

“If, therefore, we belong to God, we can’t possibly think that gold and silver and stone are good enough to show us what he is like. No artist can paint God’s picture, however clever or thoughtful he may be. What, then, has God done? He takes no notice of the past, when we didn’t know what he is like…We can no longer say we do not know; Jesus has made him plain…The proof of this he has given to all men – he has raised him from the dead.”

‘Some of them laughed out loud at Paul when they heard him talk like this – about him “raising Jesus from the dead.” But there were others. “We’ll hear you again about this,”  they said.’

(Acts 17 vv 16-34)

It was out in the world beyond Palestine, in Anatolia, Athens and further west, that what Jesus meant – why he lived as he did, how he died, and how he was ‘raised to life’ – became clearer. It meant nothing less than the vision of a new world, God’s world, and a call to be God’s ‘fellow-workers’ in its making. Nothing could have made this vision sharper than the sight of men and women, of different races and classes and nations, becoming Christians. Here Paul is writing to those who had become Christians in the highlands of Anatolia:

‘Living in God’s Way means that you can’t talk about one another as being ‘white’ or ‘coloured’, ‘working-class’ or ‘upper-class’, ‘men’ or ‘women’ – as though that was the only thing about them that matters. The most important thing is that as Christians you are one company of friends.  And if you are friends of Jesus, you are members of God’s Family as God meant you to be and promised to make you’.  (Galatians 4: 4-7)

For Paul it was the way Jesus died that made real what God’s love was like – a love which was ‘broad and long and high and deep’; and it was the way God had raised him from the dead that showed us how great the power of God’s love is. Death, he once quoted ‘has been totally defeated’. The whole world – this world and whatever may lie beyond it – is God our Father’s world.

To many people today the word ‘resurrection’ is meaningless. They find the idea of resurrection not only difficult but incredible. We need to remember that it was never easy or credible – that’s why Jesus’ friends, with the possible exception of Mary Magdalene, were taken so much by surprise. For Jewish people the whole story of an executed criminal being raised to life was a ‘stumbling block’, an obstacle that prevented them from taking the story of Jesus seriously. For the citizens of Athens and educated people, the world over it was equally ‘laughable’. Those who had become Christians also continued to struggle with what it meant. This is how Paul tried to explain it:

‘The heart of the Good News is that Jesus is not dead but alive. How, then, can some people say, “There’s no such thing as being raised from death?” If that is so, Jesus never conquered death; and if Jesus never conquered death, there is no Good News to tell, and we’ve been living in a fool’s paradise. We’ve even been telling lies about God when we said he raised Jesus from death; for he didn’t – if “there’s no such thing as being raised from death.” …Jesus is just – dead.  If Jesus is just dead and has not been raised to life again, all we’ve lived for as friends of Jesus is just an empty dream, and we’re just where we were, helpless to do anything about the evil in our hearts and in our world….If all we’ve got is a ‘story’ about Jesus inspiring us to live this life better, we of all men are most to be pitied.

‘Of course, the  whole idea of people being raised from death raises many questions. For example, “How are dead people raised to life?”,  “What sort of body do they have then?” But questions like these sound silly when we remember what kind of world God’s world is and what God himself is like. Take the seed a farmer sows – it must die before it can grow. The seed he sows is only bare grain; it is nothing like the plant he’ll see at the harvest-time. This is the way God has created the world of nature; every kind of seed grows up into its own kind of plant – its new body. This is true of the world of animals, too, where there is a great variety of life, men, animals, birds, fish – all different from one another.

This shows us how to think about the matter of being raised from death. There’s the life men live on earth – that has its own splendour; and there’s the life men live when they are ‘raised from death’ and live ‘in heaven’ – and this world beyond our earthly one has its own different splendour. The splendour of the sun and of the moon and of the stars all differ from one another. So it is when men are raised from death. Here the body is a ‘physical’ body; there it is raised a ‘spiritual’ body. Here everything grows old and decays; there it is raised in a form which neither grows old nor decays.  Here the human body can suffer shame and shock; there it is raised in splendour. Here it is weak; there it is full of vigour…

For the fact is that Jesus was raised to life. God be thanked – we can now live victoriously because of what he has done.’  (1 Corinthians 15: 12-56)

So if we accept the ‘wondrous story’ of Jesus, his life, death and resurrection, we suddenly become aware, like Mary, of who we are and what our job is. We take our place in the world’s work with everybody else – as engineers, teachers, shopkeepers, secretaries, farmers, nurses, doctors, managers, representatives. But that’s what we do, not who we are. We are members of God’s Family and God’s co-workers in transforming the world around us. And it is not just what happens in this world that matters. Death has been totally defeated so that this world is just an exciting beginning.

Prayer: Faith;

Almighty God, our Father, we have seen you in the evidence of changed lives and in the growth of the Church from the small group of twenty men and women in Jerusalem to a worldwide fellowship which has spread through time and space: but sometimes we still doubt.

We have seen present-day missionaries leave all to follow you: but sometimes we still doubt.

We have seen famous sceptics changed into compassionate, caring Christians: but sometimes we still doubt.

We have seen the burning joy of men and women who have who have undergone great torture and persecution for their faith: but sometimes we still doubt.

Father, each time we doubt use this experience to build up our faith. You do not offer us a blind faith but one we can prove through the help of your Holy Spirit. May we persevere in looking for answers in the right places and from the right people; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

(Patricia Mitchell)

One response to “The New Job: To the Ends of the Earth

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  1. Reblogged this on hungarywolf.

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