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John 20 1-18
20th April 2003

Deep underground in the catacombs of St. Priscilla in Rome, archaeologists have uncovered an ancient fresco that could have startling implications for the Church. The small, faded painting depicts seven women seated around a table. Experts studied it closely and were stunned to realise the women were performing church rites only men were allowed to perform. The women were celebrating the Eucharist, breaking bread and pouring wine as it was at The Last Supper.

Tests revealed the painting dated from the 1st Century AD.. Several theologians believe the discovery added evidence that in the early years of the church, women performed an equal role with men, a role women lost and are now demanding back. Women played a significant role in the early days of the church. Both men and women believed. Both men and women testified to Jesus. Both men and women were imprisoned for their faith. During the life of Jesus, He established strong relationships with women of character. These include His mother Mary and her friends including Joanna, Susanna and Salome who went to the tomb to anoint the body of Jesus, another Mary and Mary the wife of Clopas whose son James was a disciple. There was Mary, the mother of Mark whose home contained the Upper Room where the Last Supper was held and which became the headquarters for the young church. There were other women to whom He ministered including Mary of Magdala, the woman with the constant haemorrhage, the woman with the bent back, the Canaanite woman whose daughter was epileptic, the woman of Sychar whom He met at the well, and His two special friends from Bethany, Martha and Mary.

It is interesting to note the women in the history of the early church as it spread through the Empire: Sapphira, the wife of Ananias, misappropriated church funds. Tabitha, or Dorcas, was famous for her charity works and sewing. Rhoda, was the maid at Mary's house who left Peter at the gate. Lois, was Timothy's grandmother who taught him the faith. Eunice, was her daughter and Timothy's mother, and a believer. Lydia, a businesswoman, baptised as the first European believer. Euodia, was also baptised by Paul as a foundation member with Syntyche in the Church at Philippi. They worked in the Gospel. Damaris, was one of the first believers in Athens. Priscilla, with her husband, ministered in Corinth and Ephesus.

Phoebe is called a minister of the Church in Rome and a patron. Priscilla was used to correct the evangelist Apollos's doctrine. Mary in Rome, Paul says, worked hard in the Lord. Junia was a woman of faith who was imprisoned for her witness. Tryphaena and Tryphosa, probably twins, "laboured in the Lord". Persis, Paul describes as hardworking and "beloved in the Lord". There was the mother of Rufus, who was like a mother to Paul. Julia and the sister of Nereus were the Lord's servants. Nympha conducted a church in her house at Colossae. Apphia, also in Colossae, Paul refers to as his sister. Jezebel, was an immoral woman who deceived the church at Thyatira. There were thousands of un-named women who preached like the four daughters of Philip the Evangelist, or conducted churches in their homes, who provided money for Paul and his travelling companions, who were slaves like the poor girl at Philippi, or just believers like the women at Berea and Thessalonica.

Down through the centuries women have been the backbone of the Christian church, and according to statistics, make up two thirds of the membership of the church in Australia today. Woman have provided most of the missionaries in the history of the church, most of the Sunday School teachers, nurses in church hospitals, workers in the outback, in the slums, the prisons, the homes for the aged and infirm. Yet the church has never found place for women in terms of equality, authority or leadership. This is also true of the place of women in the rest of the world outside of the church. Leticia Shahani, the Secretary of the United Nations Decade for Women Conference said: "Women are half of the world's population, one third of the world's labour force, have one tenth of the world's income, own less than one per cent of the world's property and number two of every three illiterate." Women played a special part during Holy Week. The mother of John Mark opened her home to Jesus and the disciples, and it was there He washed their feet, prayed, and established the Lord's Supper. Women were last at the Cross, and first to the tomb. "The women" who are mentioned along with Mary, Jesus' mother, were probably the same group who watched the Crucifixion: Mary Magdalene; Mary the mother of James and Joseph; and the mother of the sons of Zebedee; and Joanna, wife of Herod's steward; and Susanna.

Note the emotions of the women on the Day of the Resurrection. While He suffered upon the Cross, their emotions were obvious, and Jesus, moved with pity, spoke His last words to His mother, and asked His closest friend, John, to take her into his home and care for her. On the Day of the Resurrection, their emotions ran the whole gamut.


"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." John 20:1 There were several women who had been to the tomb after His body had been taken down from the Cross. They came to embalm the dead. It was the last thing they could do. Like women in every generation, they preside at the birth of a child, and take personal care of the last rites of death. The women came, as women have always gone to graves, to embalm the body, the leave flowers and prayer, and to weep. The last act of Mary and the other women was one of devotion.


But when she found the stone rolled away "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!" So Peter and the other disciple started for the tomb. Both were running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent over and looked in at the strips of linen lying there but did not go in. Then Simon Peter, who was behind him, arrived and went into the tomb. He saw the strips of linen lying there, as well as the burial cloth that had been around Jesus' head. The cloth was folded up by itself, separate from the linen. Finally the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed. (They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.)" John 20:2-9 Their feelings were feelings of anxiety. Something had happened over which they had no control. It was beyond their understanding. Anxiety filled them. No bravery, only fear and anxiety.


Mary stayed by the side of the tomb crying. "Then the disciples went back to their homes, but Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus' body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot. 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." The news of the greatest event to have happened in the history of the world came to a woman who was crying! She was in despair and sorrow. "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." John 20:10-15

What a contemporary question! We could speak to women in every country including our own, who live with tears. We could ask: "Woman, why are you crying?" to a mother who has AIDS contracted from a blood transfusion given in hospital following the birth of her baby daughter. She nursed the baby at her breast not knowing that through her mother's milk she was infecting her own daughter with AIDS! "Woman, why are you crying?" We could ask that of a weary young mother with four children and a home in Sydney's outer western suburbs who rang our Credit Line. With her husband, she does everything right, but they are behind in their mortgage, the bank has delivered a tough demand, there is not enough food in the house and the car has broken down and there is no other way her husband can get to his work from way out there. "Woman, why are you crying?" We could ask that question to women in Iraq and in every war-torn country. The news of the first Easter came to women crying in sorrow and distress.


When the news of the Resurrection did break forth it came with overwhelming astonishment with just one word of recognition: "At this, Mary turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realise that it was Jesus. "Woman," He said, "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." Jesus said to her, "Mary." She turned toward Him and cried out in Aramaic, "Rabboni!" (which means Teacher)." V14-16

Astonishment! Absolute astonishment! I once commented on the beauty of this passage as I was translating it. My 80 year old University classical Greek tutor, Miss Annie R. Rentoul from Ormond College subsequently wrote this poem for me that I might read it on Sunday April 14th 1960 in the Easter Service, at the Ascot Vale Church of Christ:

"Easter is here, and the dawn, and the early light,
And drifts of daisies blossoming pure and white,
I think of another Easter long since fled,
Of sorrowing hearts, and Jesus lying dead;

I think of a spicy garden long ago
The dawn, and the dewy grass, and the flowers ablow
And of her who walked in the garden at break of day
After the long dark hours of wild dismay;

And knew not one she met, but thought Him there
To tend the flowering garden with loving care.
"Mary" "Master!" She looked and the look sufficed;
Easter was there, and the dawn, and the Risen Christ."


The fact of the resurrection dawned upon Mary: "Jesus said, "Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet returned to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, 'I am returning to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.'" 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." John 20:17?18 The last woman at the Tomb, became the first evangelist of the Resurrection! The resurrection of Jesus Christ did not change the harsh realities of the first century world. What the resurrection did was unleash a new spirit in the world. Now there were men and woman who cared, who shared their possessions, who gave to help the needed, who stood up in the face of persecution, and who treated slaves, foreigners and the rejects of society as brothers and sisters. A new Spirit was loosed the world.

Easter had come and the Easter people lived with new hopes, and ideals and attitudes. They were now willing to leave their homes and families and tell others this remarkable good news. Nothing could stop them. No form of persecution or punishment, no matter how cruel, could change those valiant Easter men and women. Listen, you who are discouraged and downhearted, you who are crying with pain and secret sorrow: this is your day! Jesus Christ comes to you with a new beginning. Resurrection means new life, new beginning, new power, new hope. Easter means light has come into a darkened world; life has overcome the bondage of death; liberty has dawned in long-bound souls. Jesus Christ is alive! He makes all the difference! And women were the first to know it and the first to tell it!

Wesley Mission, Sydney.