Sermon for Williamstown
Easter Sunday, the 16th of April, 2017
Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!
This is the joy at the heart of Easter; the affirmation at the heart of the Christian faith; the happy ending that makes all other happy endings possible.
I had a strange Holy Week. On Tuesday I involved myself in a fight in a shopping centre car-park. Two men were grappling apparently fighting over one hitting the car door of the other. They both had partners and small children with them, and the children were terrified, so I found myself trying to get between the men while saying, ‘Sir, sir, please stop; you’re scaring the children’. At one point I had my arm around a little boy, I think about three or four years old, who was sobbing in fright.
The situation left me with a lot of questions. Why did the men think that their violence was acceptable? Why didn’t their wives or girlfriends intervene? Did the women also accept the violence, or were they afraid that it would be turned on them if they tried to interfere? Most importantly, how will the fight have affected the children, and is there more I could have done for them?
I’ve been pondering all these questions about this tiny incidence of violence in an Australian car park affecting a handful of people – violence on a micro scale – and at the same time we’re aware of violence on a macro scale. There’s been the alleged use of chemical weapons by Syrian President Basher al-Assad on his own people; the United States’ launch of 59 cruise missiles against a Syrian Air Force base in response; America dropping the ‘mother of all bombs’ on Afghanistan; and the bombing of two churches in Egypt by IS on Palm Sunday, in which forty-five Coptic Christians were murdered. The story of the crucifixion is a story of violence, of political execution in a country under occupation, and we’re constantly reminded that the world we live in continues to be an extremely brutal place.
The resurrection, God’s ultimate intervention in history, is God’s definitive ‘No’ to all of the world’s violence and brutality. 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 lightning 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. God’s intervention in itself seems almost violent, leaving the guards ‘like dead men’. But the women, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, who have come to the tomb to sit in vigil with Jesus’ body, are reassured by the angel, told not to be afraid. The angel gives them a message that sends 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’.
God’s raising of Jesus from the dead is God’s comment on the events of Good Friday. It tells us what God thinks of the murder of the innocent and the use of violence in the service of politics and social stability. God is against it! 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. But in the resurrection God affirmed and approved all that Jesus did. The victim was shown to be innocent and his execution condemned. The world may be a brutal place, but God does not endorse that brutality. Throughout history, even today, attempts have been made to convince people that God endorses violence and that murder can be done in God’s name. But the story of the resurrection tells us that God’s response to murder is to overturn it, as the angel of the Lord overturned the stone that sealed Jesus’ tomb.
Jesus’ resurrection, the ultimate defeat of death, 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.”’ At the very end of today’s reading Mary Magdalene and the other Mary are confronted by Jesus himself, and Jesus repeats the angel’s message, but with slightly different words: ‘go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me’.
The disciples had failed Jesus. Judas had betrayed him; Peter had denied him; the other disciples had deserted him and fled. 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 everything 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.
In a world in which violence leads to retribution, the resurrection instead tells us about forgiveness. In a world of war and hate and death, the resurrection instead tells us of the ultimate victory of peace and love and life. We don’t yet live in that world of forgiveness and peace, although we pray for it every time we ask for God’s kingdom to come in the Lord’s Prayer. But we know that it’s what God intends for the creation, and we know that it will come, because we see a preview of it in the resurrection.
In Jesus’ day resurrection was hoped for as something that would happen at the end of time, at the eschaton, when all the righteous would be raised from death to enjoy God’s new kingdom. But when God raised Jesus from the dead the eschatological resurrection that will come for all the creation started. The apostle Paul describes Jesus’ resurrection as ‘the first fruits of those who have died’ (1 Corinthians 15:20) and later quotes the prophets Isaiah and Hosea: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’ ‘Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?’ (1 Corinthians 15:54-55). We sang Charles Wesley’s version of that at the beginning of the service. In the resurrection we see the birth of the new creation. 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.
We live in a world of violence, hate and fear. We also live in a world of love and joy and hope. When it seems that the darkness is winning, God’s resurrection of Jesus reminds us that we already know the end of the story. We know that love and joy and hope win; that God’s light defeats the deepest darkness. We can join in the fight against violence and hate and death, from the smallest confrontation in a car-park to the murder of Christians while worshipping to the dropping of the ‘mother of all bombs’, knowing the final outcome.
Today we hear again the story of apparent defeat turning into a great victory; of sorrow becoming joy. We are reminded us that God loves us; that God forgives us; that God is always with us. Today we celebrate the triumph of life over death; love over hate. Today, and every, we gather to celebrate life with joy. So let’s do that. Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Amen.