Sermon for Williamstown
Easter Sunday, the 20th of April, 2014
Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!
This is the message at the heart of Easter; the affirmation at the heart of the Christian faith; the eucatastrophe (one of my favourite words – the happy surprise) described by each of the four gospel writers. It’s the ultimate happy ending; the happy ending that makes all other happy endings possible, and each of the gospel writers describes it slightly differently. Let’s hear what Matthew has to say to us.
In Matthew’s story, we find ourselves accompanying two women, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, as they go to see the tomb. These two women have followed Jesus from Galilee and been among those who provided for him. When he was crucified, they were watching from a distance. When Joseph of Arimathea laid Jesus’ body in his own new tomb they were there, sitting opposite it. They’ve watched every stage of Jesus’ journey, from life, to death, to burial. Now they come to sit in vigil. They haven’t brought anything with which to anoint the body – Jesus’ body had been anointed before his death, at Bethany, when an unnamed woman poured costly ointment from an alabaster jar over his head. They’ve come to see the tomb, that’s all.
Sometimes God breaks into the world in such an unexpected way that messengers from God are needed to interpret what’s happened. There was once a man named Joseph, who found that his fiancée Mary was pregnant, before they had lived together. Joseph was going to set her aside quietly, but an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said to him: ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.’ (Matthew 1:20.) Mary’s womb was full, when it should have been empty, but this scandalous fullness was an intervention by God.
Now the women who have come to the tomb in which Jesus’ body was laid find that it’s empty. There could be several reasons for that. The women might have come to the wrong tomb. Jesus’ disciples might have stolen the body away. Jesus might have only appeared to have been dead, and have revived and wandered off. But an angel appears to the women, and with fantastic, cosmological signs, reveals to them that the tomb’s emptiness is an intervention by God. ‘[Jesus] is not here; for he has been raised, as he said.’
Again, God has intervened in history. Matthew doesn’t want us to miss the importance of this astounding event, so he describes it in apocalyptic, end of the world, language – all heaven breaking loose. There is a great earthquake. An angel of the Lord, with a face like lightening and clothes like snow, descends from heaven and rolls the stone back. The angel perches on top of the stone, as though in mockery of those who thought that the tomb could confine and control Jesus! The guards set by the chief priests and the Pharisees to make sure that Jesus’ disciples didn’t remove his body, are terrified and pass out. But the women are reassured by the angel, and given a message that has them running back to the other disciples in fear and great joy: “He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him”.
Jesus truly was dead. And he didn’t come back to life through any power or virtue of his own. That’s what this tale of angels and earthquakes means; God has been at work. Jesus was raised by God. Just as we see God’s love in Jesus’ birth, so we see God’s love in Jesus’ resurrection. In both cases we see God with us, which is, of course, what the name Emmanuel means and what Jesus’ life and death demonstrated. God is with us.
In Jesus’ day resurrection was hoped for as something that would happen at the end of time, at the eschaton. When God’s kingdom came, the righteous would be raised from death to enjoy it. When God raised Jesus, the eschatological resurrection that will come with God’s kingdom is initiated. Jesus’ resurrection is a sign that in one sense God’s kingdom is already here. Every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer we pray that God’s kingdom may come, but in the resurrection of Jesus we can see that in one way the kingdom is already amongst us. No matter how dark and difficult life may be, there will always be a glimmer of light and hope, because Jesus was raised from the dead.
God’s raising of Jesus isn’t just a sign of God’s continuing presence among us. It’s also God’s comment on the events of Good Friday. Jesus was killed by humans frightened by someone they didn’t understand, someone who challenged the status quo. At his death the chief priests, the scribes, the elders, and the bandits all mocked Jesus, saying, ‘let him come down from the cross now, and we will believe in him’. Jesus didn’t. He died crying out: ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ His life seemed to have been a failure. His message from God, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice’ (Matthew 12:7; Matthew 9:13) seemed to have been overruled. But in the resurrection God affirmed and approved all that Jesus did. The one who came to ‘call not the righteous but sinners’ (Matthew 9:13) was shown to have been doing God’s will. All of us sinners can rejoice!
Jesus’ resurrection isn’t the only happy ending in this story. There’s another one, smaller, less earth-shattering, but one that’s just as meaningful for us. The angel tells the women, ‘Then go quickly and tell his disciples, “He has been raised from the dead,* and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.”’ But when the women meet Jesus, he changes the message ever so slightly: ‘go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me’.
The disciples had failed Jesus. It wasn’t just that Judas had betrayed him, and paid for that betrayal with his death. When Jesus was arrested all the disciples deserted him and fled. The only disciple who didn’t flee, Peter, denied Jesus three times before the cock crowed. (The women had managed to stay faithful, observing everything that happened and rewarded with the first news of the resurrection, but even they saw the crucifixion from a distance.) But here, by referring to the disciples as his brothers, Jesus shows that all that has been forgiven. The past is past; the disciples will be able to look forward to the meeting with Jesus in Galilee, their slates clean and their failures forgiven. This, too, is part of the happy ending of the resurrection.
Today, Easter Sunday, is a day of celebration. It is a story of apparent defeat turning into a great victory; of sorrow becoming joy. It reminds us that God loves us and that God is always with us. It is about the triumph of life over death; love over hate. Today, like every Sunday, we gather to celebrate life with joy. So let’s do that. Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!