On 5th April 2015, Easter Day, Helene Milena preached the following sermon in the Anglican Cathedral on Epiphany Island in Second Life. The readings were Psalm 118:1-2, 14-21, Isaiah 25:6-9, Acts 10:34-43 and John 20:1-18.
When I was training to be a teacher, one of our first psychology lectures centred on ‘individual differences’. You might think it’s pretty obvious that individuals differ one from another and hardly needs anyone to lecture about this. However, it’s all too easy to take a group of children who have been allocated to the same class in school and treat them all alike. What my lecturer was pointing out that this approach, though simple, is inadequate to achieve learning for the whole group.
Perhaps one of the most notable differences with the youngest children is their varied levels of maturity. Of course, within one group there can be pupils who are nearly a year apart in age. When the children are only 4 or 5 years old this is a huge difference but is not so great later in life. Differences in aptitude and ability, however, are significant throughout life. Some people will always find spelling a mystery; others will be brilliant with numbers; yet others may have a real feel for biology or history or art or languages. When you add in learning styles the picture becomes even more complicated as some like to learn by hearing, some by seeing and some are better off moving around or handling things. Although my lecture was given in the context of teaching small children, the principles can be applied far more widely and will dictate how an individual may respond to a given experience.
It should not be surprising to find in today’s gospel reading that three of Jesus’ followers all react in different ways when confronted with evidence of the resurrection. The first whom we meet is Mary Magdalene, possibly with some of the other women. She had risen very early and arrived at Jesus’ tomb while it was still dark. We’re not told why she went there, perhaps she was just so grief stricken that she needed to be near Jesus even though he was dead. Alternatively, as the other gospels said, the women went to complete the burial which had been so hastily done on the eve of the Sabbath. It seems that even the comfort of being near Jesus or doing the right thing for him was denied her. Seeing the tomb open, Mary perhaps jumped to the obvious conclusion that it had been desecrated by grave robbers. Confused and distressed she simply ran to find Peter and John to tell them of her fears.
When Peter and John arrived we see that each responded differently to what they were presented with. John, arriving first, took a look in the tomb, saw the burial cloths, but did no more. Peter, more impetuous perhaps, maybe needing more than just a glimpse of what was going on, actually went inside. He too saw the burial wrappings, including the one for Jesus’ head lying separate. Not to be outdone, John followed Peter into the tomb. Both could see that what Mary had said was true – the body of Jesus had gone. Then we are told of the difference between the two men. With the same evidence before them each responds differently. John saw and believed – somehow he made the leap in understanding scripture and knew that Jesus had risen from the dead. Peter, on the other hand, appears not to have been able to work that out. Perhaps he spent the time at home puzzling about what he had seen. We hear elsewhere that Jesus appeared to Peter. Maybe it took until then for him to understand.
Mary meanwhile had just stood and wept. Eventually it seems she too decided to take a look and saw something very different – not the linen wrappings but two angels. I don’t know about you, but if I saw two angels I don’t think I would have a conversation such as Mary had with them. It seems she still thought the body had been stolen so maybe she thought the angels were ordinary people. Even when she turned and saw Jesus she saw him as someone she might have expected – a gardener. It was only as Jesus spoke her name that she understood whom she was talking to.
Three individuals, all of whom had known Jesus well in life, each responded differently to evidence of his resurrection. John nearly immediately overcame the supposition that grave robbers had been at work and believed what Jesus had been trying to explain before his death. Peter went away from the tomb apparently no closer to understanding, perhaps until Jesus appeared to him personally. Mary needed to see an empty tomb, some angels and then hear her name before she realized what had happened.
It’s the same for each of us. We can’t run to the empty tomb on the first Easter Day or experience the various appearances of Jesus in the days that followed. If we had have done, there is no knowing how each of us would have responded. However, each of us will have had something, maybe many things, happen to us to bring us to the point where we have faith in Jesus as Lord and God. As with Mary, John and Peter, it takes a different amount of time for each to get there and perhaps a different number of experiences.
Sometimes I’ve heard people express regret that they don’t have faith like someone else they admire, or that they took too long to actually come to faith. I see no evidence of God making distinctions between people in that way. There are no second-class Christians. It seems to me that God loves and accepts us as we are, the individuals he made us to be. He will wait for as long as it takes to welcome us into his family. Individual differences are not a surprise to him!
Once Mary, John and Peter had all understood that Jesus had risen, they each had the same work to do in their own way. Individual differences again. Mary became the apostle to the apostle, carrying the news to Jesus’ followers: ‘I have seen the Lord!’ John wrote his gospel so that generations of people might believe. Peter addressed the crowd, telling them: ‘God raised him on the third day.’
Those of us who have come to believe the news that Mary, John, Peter and many others have shared now have dual citizenship. We live in our country in the world, under its president, leader or sovereign. We also live in the kingdom of God. We live by its rules and we share with others the wonderful story of its beginning in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, inviting them to join us if they choose.
Today is our national day. Christ is risen! He is risen indeed. Alleluia!