Sunday 16 April 2017
Easter Sunday Year A
Readings Acts 10: 34-43 & Matthew 28:1-10
Heavenly Father, on this glorious morn, may you open my lips to speak and open our ears to hear the Good News of the Risen Christ. Amen.
Christ is risen!
He is risen indeed, alleluia.
There is a lot of fake news about at the moment. Did you see all the tabloid outrage at the National Trust and Cadbury’s allegedly removing the word “Easter” from their Easter egg hunt. Despite the fact that they both denied this story the amount of heat it created was amazing – not good for Chocolate eggs. People were saying this marked the final death of Christian culture in our society, we should boycott the National trust, we should boycott Cadburys etc. etc. Now, as it happened on the way home from Spring Harvest the family and I popped into a big National Trust property called Stourhead and emblazoned across multiple signs was the word “Easter”, so I believe their denials and call this fake news. Whether either the word Easter or Chocolate Eggs really have much to do with the story of Jesus is another point but we shall be giving out crème eggs during communion for those who don’t normally receive the bread and wine. And I shall come back to fake news again in a moment.
Sisters and brothers in Christ, our journey through Lent is complete. We have journeyed with Jesus out into the wilderness of temptation, in doing so I hope we have learned a little more about ourselves, our weaknesses and our relationship with God. On Palm Sunday we experienced the joy of the crowds greeting Jesus and his disciples as they entered into Jerusalem. But, as the week progressed the mood turned more sombre. The authorities decided to arrest this trouble-maker Jesus and they did so through the betrayal of Judas, one of the disciples. On Maundy Thursday we remembered Jesus celebrating a Passover meal with his disciples. For most of the disciples this was simply another Passover but both Jesus and Judas knew that this was actually to be the Last Supper and, as a parting gift and commandment to his followers Jesus gave them the sacrament of Holy Communion and he washed their feet and told them to love one another.
And then, in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus was arrested, most of his followers fled into the night and he was taken for a mock trial and execution. At our services on Good Friday we remembered at length his betrayal, trial, crucifixion and burial. I sometimes feel guilty that the Good Friday service is quite so gloomy and that visitors to our church that day will be convinced that we are the dourest bunch in the world but if we are to truly enter into this story then there is no getting away from the fact that when Jesus died it must have seemed like the blackest defeat and the end of everything.
He was dead and in the tomb. His closest followers had betrayed him or disappeared into the night or denied even knowing him. Surely the Jesus Project had ended in failure and might had once again proved that it was right.
On that Saturday all seemed quiet at the tomb, as you might expect for the grave of someone killed by the Romans who were experts at this sort of thing. According to Matthew the authorities had posted guards at the tomb to stop his body being stolen away or, perhaps, to stop it becoming a focal point for his followers.
But, as we know, his followers were too scared to be seen anywhere near him, even in death. Except, of course, the women.
Although each of the gospels has a slightly different list of women who visited the tomb early on that Sunday morning they are definitely agreed about two things: 1. It was only the women who were brave enough to be seen near the tomb that day and 2. Mary Magdalene was definitely there.
Mary Magdalene is a very interesting figure who is named twelve times in the gospels, more than some of the male disciples, and she is a saint of the church. In Jerusalem I was lucky enough to visit a beautiful Orthodox convent, overlooking the Garden of Gethsemane, dedicated to her. More detail about her another day, perhaps even a dissertation.
In any event Mary Magdalene and others went to the tomb early on the first day of the week – perhaps to try and anoint his body or perhaps just to spend time near the grave of a loved one, much as we may do now.
In Matthew’s gospel they do not find the stone door of the tomb already rolled away – instead we have a much more dramatic account of a violent earthquake as an angel of the lord came down and rolled the stone away – the guards, we are told, also shook and became like dead men. But although the angel has just rolled the stone away we do not have a repeat performance of Lazarus rising from the dead, shuffling out in his grave clothes.
No, something else is happening here, it seems that resurrection is not the same thing as resuscitation. When the Angel speaks, apart from telling them not to be afraid as Angels always do, he or she tells them that Jesus is not here, he is risen. The resurrected Jesus did not need the door open in order to come out, but we need it open in order to see that he is gone. The stone rolled away is not an exit it is a sign.
And then the Angel charges them with a mission – they are to go and tell the disciples that Jesus is risen from the dead and is going ahead of them to Galilee, which is back up in the rural north where they had come from, and that they will see him there.
The women hurried away ‘afraid yet filled with joy’. What a wonderful phrase which says so much – this must have been the most terrifying thing they had ever witnessed – the guards had been shocked almost unto death – and despite the words of the Angel they were still scared. But despite that fear there was also a welling up of joy – this was not the end, death had not had the final word, Jesus was not in the tomb but was returning to his homeland and would once again see the disciples.
Then something even more amazing happens. Although Jesus said that he would see the disciples in Galilee – which would have been several days journey away – he does not make the women wait that long and appears to them now. What an emotional scene as they clasp at his feet and worship him and Jesus repeats the words of the angel – “Do not be afraid.”
The resurrection is a real problem for the world. There are plenty of people, both atheists and people of faith, who can accept that Jesus was a real person with a real message of love but who can’t accept the resurrection. In the next few verses of Matthew the guards who had been at the temple recover enough to report what had happened and it is decided to cover up the resurrection with a story about Jesus’ followers stealing his body. Fake news. In Islam Jesus is respected as a prophet in the Koran but his death on the cross and resurrection are denied. I saw a story the other day that a high number of people who identify as Christians don’t believe in the resurrection.
The problem with accepting Jesus but not accepting the resurrection is that you are stuck on Good Friday. If you deny that God is able to work through Jesus at the resurrection then, logically, you have to deny that God could work through Jesus in the miracles and then what are we left with? A preacher who told us to love one another and who was then killed by the Romans for his trouble. Big deal.
But the resurrection changes everything. If we believe not only that Jesus died for us but that he also rose again for us then we know that this was truly God’s plan to overcome sin and death and that if we become brothers and sisters in Christ then we join in the power of that resurrection.
The resurrection changes everything. It changes despair into hope, it changes sin into forgiveness it changes death into everlasting life.
And how do we know that the guards story about his followers stealing the body was fake news? Well, look at the transformation the resurrection had on his followers. Apart from these faithful women the disciples were terrified for their lives, their leader had been killed, they had seen betrayal, desertion and denial in their own ranks. Is it truly a sane plan to steal a body and make up a story about Jesus being alive again?
In our reading from Acts Peter, who had denied Christ three times for fear of his life, is now proclaiming that is was a witness to the resurrected Jesus and that Christ had commanded him to preach the Good News of the forgiveness of sins and the reconciliation of the world through Jesus. As you may know Church history tells us that Peter later travelled to Rome and was then crucified upside down because he did not feel worthy to die the same way as Jesus. Would someone who was scared for his life and could easily have fled back to a life of fishing in Galilee really die such a horrible death for something he knew was fake?
On the contrary the followers of Jesus, starting with these women at the empty tomb on that first morning and then Peter and the other disciples, were not only witnesses of the resurrected Jesus, who appeared to them for the next 40 days, but they also witnessed the ascension of Jesus back to the Father and then the sending of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost. These events transformed them from a rag tag bunch into the body of Christ, which shares the body of Christ and which is filled with the Spirit of God, which we call the church, and of which we too are part and which we remember by renewing our baptismal vows in a moment and by partaking in sharing bread and wine shortly.
Sisters and brothers in Christ – we are not followers of fake news, rather we are participants in Good News – the Good News that Jesus lived and died and rose again for us in order to reconcile us with the Father in the Power of the Holy Spirit.
Christ is risen!
He is risen indeed, alleluia.