Sermon: Where, O death, is now your sting?

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
Easter Sunday, the 9th of April, 2023

Matthew 28:1-10.

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!

I want to introduce you to what may be a new word, although I did use it in last year’s Easter Reflection: the word ‘eucatastrophe’. You will know of ‘catastrophe,’ which comes from the Greek words for ‘down’ and ‘turning’ and means great and usually sudden damage or suffering. Today’s new word, eucatastrophe, adds the Greek word for good or well to the beginning, the same Greek word we hear in eulogy – the good words we speak when someone has died. The word eucatastrophe was created by the author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, J. R. R. Tolkien. Writing about fairy tales, Tolkien said that all of them include a eucatastrophe, a good catastrophe, the sudden joy that comes amid despair, the moment of unexpected deliverance. The reason, Tolkien argued, that fantasy writers like him were able to offer their readers the Consolation of the Happy Ending is because the Creator had already given it to us:

The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation. This story begins and ends in joy … There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many sceptical men have accepted as true on its own merits.[1]

What we are celebrating today is a good catastrophe, the surprising moment when during their despair the disciples hear the good news that their beloved friend has been raised from the dead. This is the ultimate happy ending, as Tolkien argued it is the happy ending that makes all other happy endings possible, and each of the gospel writers describes it slightly differently. This year we hear the story according to Matthew.

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 have watched every stage of Jesus’ journey, from life, to death, to burial. Now they come to sit in vigil. They have not 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 have simply come to see the tomb.

Sometimes God breaks into the world in such an unexpected way that messengers from God are needed to interpret what has 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 is empty when they expected it to be full. There could be several reasons for that. The women might have come to the wrong tomb. Jesus’ disciples might have stolen the body away, as the chief priests and teachers warned Pilate might happen. 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.’

As with Mary’s pregnancy, God has intervened in history. Matthew does not 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. 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.’

Two astonished women in black talking with an angel in a white robe.

From The Easter Story by Antonia Jackson and Giuliano Ferri.

Jesus truly was dead. And he did not come back to life through any power or virtue of his own. That is what this tale of angels and earthquakes means; it is God who has been at work. Jesus was raised by God. Just as we see God’s intervention in Jesus’ birth, so we see God’s intervention 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 demonstrate. God is with us.

That Jesus was raised from the dead offers us hope as we face our own deaths. When we heard the story of the raising of Lazarus a few weeks ago I said somewhat tritely that every life ends in death. We all know the tragedy of a too-early death, but even when death does come at the end of a long life, even when death is welcomed as a friend, the road to it is difficult. Old age usually brings a loss of independence, as aged bodies become frailer, drivers’ licences must be given up, and dwellings must be downsized. Sometimes, minds become darkened by dementia. Those who held prestigious positions when they were younger may find themselves no longer listened to. Those who had a large circle of friends may have had to say goodbye to them at funeral after funeral. The last part of life is about letting go, of independence, health, power, friends, before the ultimate letting go of life itself. Old age is not for the faint-hearted, neither is the journey to death. That God has raised Jesus from the dead offers us the hope that our deaths will not end our stories either. No matter how dark and difficult our life and death may be, there will always be a glimmer of light and hope, because Jesus was raised from the dead. Death has lost its sting because of the victory over death that God’s raising of Jesus demonstrates. The resurrection tells us that God’s ultimate aim for all of the cosmos, including us, is new life.

A painting of a single angel in a white robe, with blonde hair and two glowing white wings, standing before the stone that covered a tomb.

From The Light of the World by Katherine Paterson and Francois Roca

God’s raising of Jesus does not just offer us hope for the future. It is 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 did not come down. 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. If we ever worry that our sins, our faults and failings, make us unimportant, unacceptable, unlovable, that we deserve punishment rather than acceptance, then we can rejoice. Jesus said that he came to bring mercy, not sacrifice, and God affirmed Jesus’ teachings in the resurrection.

My favourite description of the resurrection of Jesus is ‘the greatest case of civil disobedience in human history’. Civil disobedience, the breaking of unjust laws in the cause of justice, is something that Christian saints down the ages, from the first martyrs through to Martin Luther King Jr and beyond, have seen as part of their call from God. Here it is God Godself who disobeys the law. When Rome executed rebels on the cross it was using the worst form of execution it knew to discourage further rebellion. It was expected that a few crucifixions would end a movement. It was also, at the very least, expected that those executed would stay dead! But God refuses to accept Rome’s verdict on Jesus, and raises him. The one who was meant to be dead is alive again, and the movement that was meant to die with him is reborn. When Christians disobey unjust laws, we have the best of all examples to follow.

Jesus’ resurrection is not the only happy ending in this story. There is another one, smaller, less earth-shattering, but just as meaningful. 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 himself, 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 was not 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 were 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 great victory, of sorrow becoming joy. It is the triumph of life over death, love over hate, hope over fear. It reassures us that, while every life ends in death, death itself is not the end. Every Sunday that the church gathers we celebrate this eucatastrophe, this new life, with faith that what was true for Jesus will be true for us, too. Therefore the church proclaims with joy: Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Amen.

[1] J. R. R. Tolkien, ‘On Fairy-Stories’ in The Monster and the Critics and Other Essays, London: HarperCollins, 1997, p. 156

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