This evening we began the service in darkness and watched the light grow as we read the story of God’s freedom in Bradford Cathedral. I baptised five adults and confirmed more than twenty. The sermon was for them and the text follows here:
He has been raised (Mark 16:1-8)
I want to give you some advice – whoever you are and however old you might be: if anyone ever asks you to lead a tour of the Holy Land, try to say ‘no’. I have led several and I can only compare the experience to trying to herd cats… or attempting to get mice to walk in a straight line into a trap. Schedules go out of the window and any hope of sticking to time quickly becomes a fantasy. Go to Skegness instead.
However, if you do ever get the chance to go on a tour of the Holy Land, don’t hesitate. It will be wonderful and memorable. Just don’t agree to lead one, that’s all. And, if you do get to Jerusalem, here’s a question to ask people randomly around the streets (before the police come to pick you up, that is): “Can you tell me where the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is, please?” Whatever answer you get, follow it up with another question: “OK, can you tell me where the Church of the Resurrection is?”
You see, they’re the same place. Western Christians have traditionally called it the ‘Church of the Holy Sepulchre’, but Eastern Christians know it as the ‘Church of the Resurrection’. And I guess the two questions this provokes are: what’s the difference, and does it matter? After all, aren’t they just names?
Well, the difference is more than just names or semantics. Some Christians stop at the cross and see Jesus bearing the sins of the whole world and thereby setting us free for forgiveness and new life. Others go through the cross and the empty tomb and emerge surprised and bewildered, but in a new world – or, at least, the old world lived in differently and seen differently… shot through with new colour and unsuppressed joy.
You see, the whole point of the Jesus story is that it didn’t end with death –even death on a cross. In a world of violence in which the mighty Roman Empire exerted its power by making people very afraid of dying and death, Jesus of Nazareth opens his arms on the gallows, taking whatever nastiness the world can throw at him, and doesn’t throw it back. He takes it… and it looks as if he has massively miscalculated. The Messiah was supposed to lead God’s people to freedom – just like Moses led them through the waters of the Red Sea towards the Land of Promise; yet, here he is, hanging dead on a cross, mocked by his killers and deserted by his friends. What a pathetic disappointment.
The problem with Jesus is that he has gone walkabout with a load of friends for a couple of years and has raised their hopes. They thought that he might just be the one to trust – the one who would not let them down. As they went about their rather odd business, he began to use words to fire their souls and did things to make people think that God himself might at last be among them again. The words of the ancient prophets echoed in their deep memories when they saw sick people brought to health and the most unlikely people discover that God was on their side – despite the strictures of the religious leaders. They thought they were on a roll – that triumph lay ahead.
But, here he is, hanging limp and bloodied on a cross. Rome has won again. All the hope was simply blind illusion – fantasy. What a let-down. And now what do they do with their minds and hearts? Do they go back to where they were before Jesus met them on the beach and asked them to go for a walk with him? Or do they rationalise their experience and return to business as usual, but with a new religious perspective?
In fact, they did what you and I would probably have done: they ran away and hid and cried and tried to make sense of all that had gone on – and worried that they might be next up on the Roman executioner’s job list. Their world had fallen apart. Not just their rational understanding of God and the world, but their entire world view – the lens through which they saw God, the world and themselves lay shattered and bleeding in the dirt of the rubbish tip that was Calvary.
Now, we know the end of the story – what happened next. But, they didn’t. They knew only that their world had ended and they had only fear and bewilderment to lead them through Friday and Saturday and into yet another dreaded day of emptiness. They hadn’t been able to figure Jesus out when he was alive and with them; they certainly couldn’t figure out what was to happen next. It just all looked bleak – their world had ended.
Let’s come back to now – Bradford in April 2012. Easter services throughout the world will begin with the priest proclaiming to waiting congregations: “Christ is risen!” And, with loud voices, the people will respond with: “He is risen indeed! Hallelujah!”
I think this might be wrong. We speak of Easter joy because we know what happened next. But, I think that if we were to really live the story of Holy Week and Easter, we wouldn’t respond like that. I think the priest would proclaim: “Christ is risen!” and the congregation would say: “What? Really? You’re joking! Don’t be so cruel.” If we were honest, that is.
When Mary Magdalene went to the garden on the day after the Sabbath, she did not expect to find an empty tomb, did not expect to be met by a young man in white, and did not expect her world to be turned upside down. She went there to mourn and weep. She went there expecting to find the world the way it always is: violence has won, might is right, power always defeats justice, goodness is feeble when faced by fear. She expects business as usual in the same old world.
But, when she and Salome come to the tomb, their world is challenged, their expectations confounded, their grief confused, and their destination redesignated.
Easter is not about death and destruction – business as usual in the tired old world. It is about life and surprise and transformation and hope. For, in their arriving at the empty tomb they are surprised by life and bewildered by hope. The old rules have been broken: death does not have the final word, destruction is not the ultimate victor, violence need not be accorded honour and respect. Indeed, we are offered new life not because Jesus absorbed the sin and muck of the world on the cross, but because having done so, God then raised him from the dead.
I once told a famous songwriter that I had changed the words of one of his songs. He asked which, and I said it was an Easter song in which the last line of the first verse said: ‘Back to life he came’. “No, he didn’t,” I argued; “as Paul put it, ‘God raised Christ from the dead.” Or, as Mark puts it in our Gospel reading this evening: ‘He has been raised.’ Jesus did not resuscitate. He did not come back to life. The molecules of his body did not simply reassemble after a couple of days of decomposition. No. The good news (the Gospel, that is) is that God raised Christ from the dead. God did it. Jesus was dead, not just a little bit tired and swoony. Dead as dead can be. And God raised him. As we see later in the story, he was the same, but different.
And the point is this. I want to be an Eastern Christian in Jerusalem. I want to live in the light of the resurrection, not stop at the crucifixion. Easter is not possible without having first gone through Good Friday and Empty Saturday; but, if we stop at Friday or Saturday, we have believed the lies of the old world – that violence, death and destruction have the final word in this world after all. The Holy Sepulchre is vital, but we move on to be the Church of the Resurrection – a people filled with hope, confident to live in the old world in the light of the new world of resurrection life. We are an Easter People and ‘resurrection’ is our cry.
This evening we baptise a number of people and confirm many more. Why? What for? What is going on here?
Well, baptism is not something we do; it is something that is done to us. We receive the grace and love of God that cannot be earned, grasped, claimed or nobbled. We are marked with the indelible cross and know that we have passed from darkness to light – from the world of destruction to the one in which the God of resurrection surprises us with a joy and confidence we didn’t expect. Then, marked thus, we discover that we are in the company of millions of others who – as we now see – have also been marked with the sign of Christ, the cross that makes a mockery of the world’s powerful pretensions. We are not in this alone.
In confirmation we stand, marked with the sign of Christ, and take our place – consciously and deliberately – in Christ’s resurrection company. We take responsibility – as did Mary Magdalene and Salome and Peter and Thomas and all the others – for telling the story and daring to suggest that the world and its fears look different when we are marked with Christ’s cross and belong to the company of those who dare to defy the old world’s expectations and miserable resignation to violence and death. We are in this together. Filled with the spirit of that same Christ – empowered and equipped by that same Spirit of God who raised Christ from the dead – we dare to live differently in the world for his sake. Our eyes have been opened and we can do no other.
Brothers and sisters, let’s celebrate that tonight the darkness – however real and however dark – is not the end of the story. Let’s celebrate that tonight the darkness will be penetrated not by choirs of angels, but by the quietness of a bewildering encounter with the God who always surprises us – and who always has the final word in this world and the next.
Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Hallelujah!