“As yet they did not understand the scripture.”
As part of a television programme, the public was invited to vote for the best British invention of all time, from a list championed by various celebrities. Would it be the jet engine or the refrigerator, or perhaps the mobile phone? There was a clear winner – antibiotics. Many thousands of lives have been saved by the discovery made by Alexander Fleming in 1928, and the voting public realised that none of the other inventions would much use to them if they were dead.
But this was an invention that might never have happened. Fleming left a dish of bacteria on a bench in his untidy laboratory while he went on holiday. When he came back, he noticed that it had grown a mysterious mould which killed the nearby bacteria. That mould turned out to be penicillin, and it went on to be developed into the antibiotics that are so vital to modern medicine. It was one of those moments in n the history of human achievement, though it probably didn’t feel like that at the time. Fleming’s low-key response to the initial discovery was, “That’s funny.”
That’s funny.” We’re not told what Peter and John said to each other as they left the empty tomb that first Easter Day, but “that’s funny” might have been appropriate. There had been a stone door, and now there wasn’t. There had been a body, and now there wasn’t. But there was nothing to indicate that this was anything other than something odd, that it was an event even more extraordinary than Fleming’s discovery – a moment in history that changed everything. As the Gospel tells us, “as yet they did not understand the scripture that he must rise from the dead”. They were not expecting anything dramatic to happen. They were preparing themselves for a future without Jesus. Perhaps they were preoccupied with the choice facing them – try to carry on the mission without Jesus, or go back to their former lives? The disappearance of the stone and the body were odd, nothing more. Resurrection did not enter their minds. Why would it?
It took Mary to realise. Mary, for whom the empty tomb wasn’t a curiosity but a tragedy. If she could no longer have the living Jesus, who had been so precious to her, she could at least honour him in his resting place. For her, the void left by the removal of the stone and the absence of the beloved body was devastating. She had thought it couldn’t get any worse, and it had. And it was in the absolute depths of despair, as she cast around for someone to help, that she found him. He wasn’t the gardener. He said her name, just as he had always done. She didn’t respond, “That’s funny,” though it was. Instead she said, “Rabbouni,” recognising the master she had followed and loved. She saw instantly the enormous significance of her discovery. However it had happened, Jesus was not dead. In the certainty of her new truth, Mary went and told, and the world was changed.
There was no fanfare announcing the resurrection. There were no armies of angels. It didn’t happen in the full glare of the day, for all to see. In the darkness, hidden away, quietly, something funny happened. The evidence was a stone in the wrong place and an empty bench, oddities that most people would never have noticed.
Fleming’s discovery wasn’t really an accident. It was a lucky break, but he had been working for years on trying to find a way to stop people dying from infections. Nor was the resurrection an accident. It was strange and odd, but it had been planned from the beginning of time by the God whose intention was not merely to postpone death, but to defeat it entirely.
At the heart of this strange story lies the steely determination of not just of a scientist but of a creator who will not let created beings languish in the grave, but will do whatever it takes to give them life. Antibiotics may keep us alive longer, but through this other mysterious, odd, quiet event, we are saved from death for all eternity.