SERMON EASTER DAY 2016
The Lord is risen! He is risen indeed. Hallelujah! This is indeed a day filled with awe, with praise and with great joyfulness. Death has not had the last word. Life has been raised from the depths of pain and despair. There is no power of darkness, no shadows of sinfulness, guilt, shame and torment that can overwhelm the power of God’s love and light. That is what we proclaim this day. How well I remember an Easter service when we sang “Thine be the glory, risen, conquering son”, accompanied by trumpets, voices lifted high in praise. Memorable indeed.
But today doesn’t really start like that. Maybe some of us are weary, as people back then were bone tired, exhausted by grief, loss, fear and shattered hopes. Maybe some of us carry anxiety about our future, about our loved ones, some of whom may be far away, or close but still at a distance, just as it was for Jesus’ friends back then. It has been a long journey to get to today, and we are aware of the still broken nature of the world around us, people struggling to live, creation groaning. It was the same back then.
But we are here, today, with all our mixture of thoughts and emotions. And that in itself, is testament to what happened on that first Easter morning. Back then, they didn’t know what to make of it. People, for 2,000 have known that what was discovered that first Easter Day, and what happened on the days before, had changed things. It has not been something that could be fitted into some comfortable category alongside everything else in people’s lives. It doesn’t fit. It never has. It can’t. And we shouldn’t try to make it. But the Easter message not only survives but is why we are here today. Because it changed everything for Jesus’ desolate companions, even if they couldn’t make sense of it. They discovered that God was still at work. They would discover that Jesus connection with them had not ended. They would discover the power of God’s Spirit for themselves.
What we have heard from Luke today is not a story of hallelujahs or triumphant songs. We last heard those on Palm Sunday, and we know what happened to them. The songs will rise to people’s lips again, later. But today we look back at a quiet day after the liminal space of Easter Saturday, the Sabbath, where there was nothing but the terrible emptiness and shock, fear, and a complete blankness about what could happen next. Very early in the morning the women came out from that house where Jesus’ friends were gathered, huddled together in their loss and confusion. One can imagine the women’s quiet conversation as they gathered what they needed and set out into the dawning light, unsure how they could work through their plan to minister to the body of the man who had meant everything to them. It is a quiet story Luke tells. We easily forget the courage of these women to go to that place at all, a place of caves, tombs, let alone to enter the tomb when they found the stone had been rolled away. What had been going on? It was a huge discovery, yet this is told quite gently. The moment of drama comes when suddenly they see two men in gleaming clothes beside them. It was overwhelming, just as a similar appearance had been for Peter, James and John on the mountain at the Transfiguration. The women bow down before this evident holiness.
In Luke’s account, unlike Matthew and Mark, these apparent angels do not tell the women what to do. There are no instructions. They are just reminded about what they had already been told by Jesus himself. And so, here, we know that these women were also disciples who had been with Jesus in Galilee. And they remembered. Their overwhelming grief and confusion was turned around as they stopped and turned their broken hearts back to Jesus before, alive. That was all they needed. To remember what they already knew.
It is part of what is so extraordinary about these happenings that it is the women who are so closely involved, the first ones to discover the truth of this day. And they are not just anonymous women but women who are named: Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James as well as, importantly, others also. We have met these women before. They had been ministering to Jesus all along.
They were not believed when they returned to the house and told the men. Apart from anything else, we know that women’s evidence did not stand in a court of law. But the men did not think it was anything other than “an idle tale” as some translations have it. Mine says “nonsense”. One can imagine what the men might have thought about these emotional women. What nonsense indeed! Yet for Peter, the impetuous one who had been through so much grief, guilt and shame, something must have wriggled through the heaviness of his heart. He knew he had to go and see for himself before dismissing it as impossible. And so he went, and saw, and then went away wondering, amazed.
And that is where we are up to today. Like those women, we are asked to think about what we remember, what we already know of Jesus, about the work of God in and through him. What do we remember, each one of us? We will remember different things that are part of our individual stories as well as things that have happened in the world, things that have reminded us that God’s spirit of life is at work. There are things that sometimes we forget: how a struggle through a dark and difficult time, when we didn’t know what to do, was surprisingly resolved. How someone or something enabled us to move on from a place where we felt stuck; how an unexpected meeting or phone call gave us a new perspective that shifted things; how, even in ongoing loss and pain, when nothing changes, we somehow know we are not alone, so when it all feels too much at times, we find we are being led through. There are the times when we may look up and all of a sudden see something beautiful before our eyes that changes things, times when our hearts are filled with joyfulness, peacefulness. I remember some time ago, lying in bed one morning. Things had been tough and I was reluctant to get up and face another day. I looked out the window and saw a tiny rainbow sparkle, held within a raindrop dangling from the branch of a bush outside my window, caught in a ray of the rising sun. Resurrection life. There is a quiet resurrection story that goes on happening. And we are left wondering.
We do not need to understand in our heads or fit it into a comfortable “normal” pattern. We are just asked to remember for ourselves and for each other. So it is enough to be here, wondering, remembering, and in that remembering to see that what happened that morning, way back then, was indeed an extraordinary new beginning because God, in Christ, was proclaiming freedom. Now there was to be a dynamic of love set free, of resurrection life, time and again, and again, ever after. We look back, we remember, and we recognise the dynamic of God’s love, that pattern of God’s purpose working its way through our lives, because God’s love can never do otherwise. There is a quiet resurrection story that goes on happening.
We know this story. It is a remembering that has been handed on from person to person, community to community, a living story, not a dead one. And that is how we come to be here, today. We started this service with hallelujahs, because this day has come to be something pivotal for our faith. If we are left with a question, it should be this: “What difference does it make for us?” What difference does it make when we look at the world around us, a world, which by and large, just dismisses the story as an idle tale or nonsense. It doesn’t fit into any of the categories by which life is usually conducted. Except, perhaps, when faced with mortality itself. Then people may wonder.
There is no good our being here today if we just take a cursory glance at the empty tomb and walk away, hardly even wondering or remembering any more. It’s no good if we feel we don’t really need this story, this day, because we can extract from the gospel stories about Jesus’ life plenty of things to inspire us. It’s no good if it doesn’t make a difference. There is a quiet resurrection story that goes on happening.
This is not about making sense out of what seems to be nonsense. The women didn’t try to make sense of it, as far as we know. They simply connected what they saw now with what they remembered, once they were prompted. When Jesus had told them beforehand what would happen, it had seemed a nonsense. They didn’t want it to be true. They knew that they hadn’t understood him back then. Now they began to see that their journey with him had not been abruptly, cruelly brought to an end. Maybe his truth had been real all along. How extraordinary that the journey was perhaps, going to begin again. Now, more than ever, slowly, slowly, this became a new stage of that journey of faith when they had to remember all that Jesus had been; all that he had shown them of God’s great love; all that he had exemplified of abundant life; all that he had called them to be for one another and for those around them; all the fear he had freed them from, about life and about death. There is a quiet resurrection story that goes on happening.
They did not yet know how to do this or what would happen. But they remembered enough for it to seem right and true and, indeed, believable. And within our own frameworks, we know that too. The difference that this day makes is, that even if the world sees it as nonsense, we know that all this experience is held within God’s purpose of love, for us and for everyone. In a sense then, we believe it for the sake of the world.
This day asks us to do that because there is a sense of futility and meaninglessness in the world. We know about so many lives that are broken in one way or another, physically, spiritually, mentally. We know how much need there is for us and for all people to understand the meaning of healing, of forgiveness, of peace rooted in justice. We know the yearning for acceptance and love. So what difference can this day make? It only makes a difference if it starts with us, each one of us, in our own faltering lives of faith. We cannot heal our broken world. Only God does that, but we can join in that purpose of God’s by giving our assent to resurrection life. There is a quiet resurrection story that goes on happening.
It makes me think back to being a mental health chaplain and to sitting with people who were deeply depressed. They were often barely able to speak and sometimes couldn’t at all. Often it seemed that it was no good, life was all too hard. They had no hope. All I could say was “Will you let me hope for you?” Always people just responded “Yes, please.” We can only hold onto hope through hopelessness, healing though brokenness, when we too are reminded to think back and remember who this Jesus, the risen Christ, as been, for us and for countless generations before us. So this day becomes a promise for the future.
Today is indeed a day when the sun’s rays shed a new warmth after the dark of the night. It’s a day when we imagine the emotions of those courageous, frightened women, the incredulous disciples and the wondering Peter, and we may connect with them in their responses. It’s a day when the warming sun continues to shine and we are invited to pause, to allow its warmth to creep over us, to nourish us, and then to add our praise to the whole of creation, for God’s liberating, renewing life is set free again, beyond our little time and place. So indeed the hallelujahs resound all around this world as we all remember. Thanks be to God! There is a resurrection story that goes on happening.