IN ACTS, Peter warns that God shows no partiality; James confirms that we should not either (2.9). In 1611, this came out as “God is no respecter of persons.” Knowing that God has no favourites is good news; for favouritism is something that we are hard-wired to resent.
What the scriptures show is an equality so radical that it ought to take our breath away. Anyone — yes, anyone — can be acceptable to God. There are only two necessary conditions: one is right understanding about God, and the other is right behaviour. Peter explains what the right thinking consists in: believing that God raised Jesus from the dead and made him Lord of all.
Suddenly, we discover that being acceptable to God is more complicated than we were first led to believe. Peter’s speech moves quickly into the details of what is involved: anointing with the Holy Spirit (“What on earth does that mean?” his hearers might have wondered); resurrection (which is somehow not the same as being reanimated); judgement of the living and the dead (“How?”); forgiveness of sins (“without blood sacrifice?”).
There is a fundamental rule in both teaching and selling. When you start, keep it simple. Don’t cloud the message with caveats and complexities. Get people interested and leave the small print for later. But make sure you reiterate the simple message at the end: “Everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness.”
Paul’s approach is different. He is refreshing memories of earlier stages in the learning process, taking his Corinthian converts through the articles of belief which by now they have known for a while. So it is important to reassure those shaky believers that this may look like made-up religion invented yesterday, but it is authentic, traditional: “handed down”, and “in accordance with the scriptures”. Religious movements come and go, but even the most radical and free-spirited need to claim the mantle of authenticity; when the product they are selling is the meaning of life, “ancient” and “authentic” become almost synonymous.
What you cannot tell from the NRSV is that both Peter and Paul are talking about “good news”. Acts 10.36 refers to “preaching peace” (but the Greek says euangelizomenos, “telling the good news of peace”) by Jesus Christ. The NIV is more faithful to the Greek, here. In archaic English, the word for “good news” is “God-spell”, hence our “gospel”. It was a rare word in most ancient Greek texts, but it comes front and centre in the New Testament, encapsulating in a single term the whole Christ-event. Suddenly, it is not what is ancient that speaks authentically of God, but what is unprecedented.
In John’s god-spell, we may be hearing the voice of a third apostle; for Mary Magdalen is sometimes known as the apostle to the apostles. Peter and John have had their say, and revealed the truths entrusted to them for their hearers — and for us, their distant descendants according to the Spirit. Now, as the liturgy of Easter Day unfolds, we turn to her, and to the Lord himself.
Mary discovers the empty tomb: a shell encasing earth and air, which proves nothing and suggests everything. Unable as yet to recognise the truth we know, she resorts to the third-person plural, that repository for every wrong for which no wrongdoer can be found: “‘They’ have taken away. . . ‘They’ have laid him.”
Two verses of John 20 which attract less attention in the Easter story, 8 and 9, carry a powerful message of reassurance for us when we consider them closely. That other disciple “saw and believed”, but he did not yet understand. If we see faith as a matter of accepting certain propositions about God, this can make no sense at all. If we keep reminding ourselves that “faith”, here, really means “trust”, then the puzzle dissolves.
We already know the experience of seeing and trusting without understanding. Most of our learning begins in this way, with those simple statements, like Peter’s in Acts and Paul’s in 1 Corinthians: they cloak complexities that we are not yet ready for. But one day we will be, and we, too, will turn at the sound of the Bridegroom’s voice, when he calls our name — as once he called Mary’s, that first Easter Day — ready to learn from our Teacher, whatever truth, old or new, he has ready to entrust to us.