This is the basic text of this morning’s sermon at Bradford Cathedral:

John 20:1-18

Do you realise that in the eyes of many, many people, by coming here this morning you are an April Fool? You are doing something ridiculous. Dead men do not rise from the dead – as the Guardian pointed out with great patronising cleverness on Friday. So, if you are here this morning celebrating Easter and the resurrection, then you are to be pitied by the commentariat and those who clearly know best.

I did an interview on BBC Radio Leeds this morning and the track played before I went on was Queen’s ‘It’s a kind of magic’. And I thought: “No, it’s not!” Easter is about plunging into the heart of human reality and resurrection is about the transformation of that reality, not some magical escape from it.

Did you know that one of the earliest depictions of the crucifixion was found scratched on a wall in Rome, dating probably from the second century? It is shocking. A man with the head of a donkey is strapped and nailed to a cross; next to the cross is a very badly drawn little figure wearing the short tunic of a slave – with, scribbled above it, the words: “Alexamenos worshipping his god.” We don’t know who did this, but they were clearly poking fun at Alexamenos. After all, isn’t the god of a slave inevitably a failure? Isn’t it a feeble god who gets himself crucified by the powerful Roman Empire? Wasn’t Alexamenos deluded and a bit dim to worship a god who is so obviously not worthy of common devotion?

Seen on Twitter, but unattributed

The early Christians did not invent the crucifixion and resurrection in order to establish a new religion, nor did they wake up one day and think to themselves: “You know, let’s perpetrate a fraud on the world and see if it brings us safety, liberation and prosperity!” Rather, the first Christians were compelled to worship the crucified God because they could find no other response that did justice to the facts of their experience. Dead men don’t walk; but, all the Romans had to do was present the body and Christianity would have been as dead as Jesus on day one. Why didn’t they?

In the face of oppression, unspeakable violence and widespread ridicule, these early Christians knew somehow that if just this one man did walk again, then the world is changed for ever and this God is worth the world.

The bit I struggle with every Easter Day is … joy. Not because I am miserable or pessimistic or worn out from a long Lent and Holy Week, but because we jump too quickly from the pain of Good Friday’s world-shattering loss, through the emptiness of Saturday (when we wake to the reality that this loss was not an illusion or a nightmare from which we will come round), to the “happily ever after” resolution of the problem. Shouldn’t the resurrection fill us with confusion and fear rather than joy that the nasty stuff has been sorted out? Shouldn’t we respond to the cry of “Alleluia, Christ is risen!” with a resounding whimper of something like: “Stop mocking us – you can’t be serious.”?

Let me explain by reference to the text.

“The two disciples were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in … but he did not go in. … Simon Peter … went into the tomb. … Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed. … Then the disciples returned to their homes. (While Mary stood weeping outside the tomb.)”

This certainly has the ring of authenticity about it, doesn’t it? No great heroics here. No building up of the future hero of the faith – Peter himself – by having him grow spiritual muscles that he then flexes fearlessly in the face of a by now wondering world. No. Here we have these men greeting the resurrection with fear, bewilderment, maybe even silence, and then “they returned to their homes”. To do what? Read the paper? Have lunch? Just carry on?

Well, this is probably what I would have done. How do I make sense of what I have just witnessed? I need to think about it. For goodness sake, don’t breathe a word about this: we might get accused of nicking the body. It doesn’t make sense of the world as we know it … or of God as we think God should be.

Isn’t there something powerfully real here? People respond differently to the absence or appearance of Jesus in their life. The first disciple would only enter the tomb once someone else had done so – not exactly what today in the Church of England we would call ‘Pioneer Ministry’. Peter goes straight in, impetuous man that he has proved to be throughout the gospel accounts of him. The quicker disciple, we are told, “saw and believed”. We aren’t told what Peter thought … or believed. The story is only just beginning and this is not the problem-solving end of it all.

But, then, I have to ask the question that this text begs of us. Why do the men respond like this, but the woman stays there and ponders in her heart while weeping? She, too, is caught in the moment and yet, when presented with the same evidence as the men, responds so differently. This woman disciple, the subject of a new film in the cinemas now, acts with raw emotion and determined will. Whereas the men go home in silence, having seen the empty tomb, this woman – Mary of Magdala – the first-responder, as it were, has already returned home … not to silent and bewildered contemplation, but to tell others what she had seen. She didn’t wait until she understood it. She didn’t assume that she needed to get her theological ducks in a row before she could dare to tell anyone. She didn’t worry about being thought dim or ridiculous. She went and simply told the men what she had seen.

No wonder, then, that she is seen as the first evangelist of resurrection hope. No wonder that her first reaction to the fearful experience of the missing body was to tell and bring others to see what she had seen.

And isn’t this encouraging? We will all respond differently to the news of the resurrection of Jesus. Some will doubt and some will just drag others to have a look. Some will weep with emotion whilst others withdraw and try to work it out in their head. Some will draw all sorts of conclusions, but do so knowing that their conclusions are not conclusive and the story does not end here.

Yet, isn’t this all a little bit abstract? OK, we see how several friends of Jesus encountered the resurrection event two thousand years ago, but, … so what?

Well, today we might encounter the resurrection in a variety of ways. We might ponder the wonder of it all and find ourselves being transformed by the implications of it for our own life and values and behaviours. Or we might look at the historical evidence – of which there is plenty – and draw some conclusion on the basis of probability as to what happened … and how we must now respond. Or we might find ourselves overwhelmed emotionally at the realisation that, despite the ridicule of the clever world around us, the whole world is challenged and changed by the presence of a God who confounds – in real time and space – the ‘normality’ of a world too often coloured by violence, fear and chaos.

Of course, the resurrection is not just about individual discipleship of Jesus in a changed world. The resurrection and its impact on these first Christians was not a mere private pursuit of people who needed a crutch with which to limp through a hard life. The resurrection was what we might call ‘public truth’ from the word go. The Romans wouldn’t have been worried for one moment, would they, by a group of Northern peasants entertaining private religious devotions and devising cliquey rituals for celebrating their delusions? Of course, not. But, these followers of the crucified and risen Jesus proved difficult from the beginning because resurrection posed a fundamental challenge to the world order of their day. If Jesus is Lord – and resurrection as the ultimate defiance against imperial power, against the threat of violence and death, against a social order shaped to keep the mighty on their thrones (to steal a phrase from the Magnificat) actually happened – then the clear implication is that Caesar is not Lord. And if people start thinking that there is one more powerful than Caesar, to whom ultimate allegiance must be owed, where will it end? Clearly, this is subversive of natural order; clearly, this is fundamentally seditious and must, therefore, be stopped.

You can see the problem. But, Christian faith has to be subversive: subversive of narratives driven by fear and not drawn by hope; subversive of habits of worshipping the way the world is – with its global business and financial systems, powerful data companies, nasty ideologies, rogue military and paramilitary forces; subversive of any capitulation to fear or fatalism or resignation. Those who follow the risen Christ are free from these paralysing fears. The world does not have to be the way it is.

Did you know that one of the reasons the Romans found the early Christians offensive was that they kept looking after the poor, the vulnerable and the destitute? Not just their own Christian poor, vulnerable and destitute, but even those pagan Romans who had no Christian faith in the first place. This was the scandal: indiscriminate love; generous mercy; reckless compassion; a quiet but resolute challenge to the fundamental values – the basic understanding of why people do or don’t matter – of a society that is threatened by goodness.

This was – and remains – revolutionary. Christians, fired by resurrection hope, respond to the selfless love of God in Christ by imitating him – loving as he has loved us, giving ourselves as he has given himself to and for us. We are an Easter people who, like Mary and Peter and Thomas and all the others, will fail a million times and feel our bewilderment at being grasped by this love. Yet, like resurrection after death and loss and emptiness, we find that this is the love that will not let us go (even when we try to escape it for ourselves).

And this is the love – the love that will not let us go – that compels us to challenge any social order that kills and demeans and diminishes any people. Racism, antisemitism, imposed poverty, industries that enslave and drugs that steal people’s souls, politics that prioritise ideology over people and sacrifice truth on the altar of power. And that includes the church in which, historically, abuse has been allowed, the shame of which is being exposed in the light of day. A resurrection people will find themselves to look deeper, then whisper to a sceptical world: “That way lies darkness, emptiness and death; the way of Christ empties the tomb and opens the way to light and transformation.

Is this the day you peer into the tomb and decide to follow this Jesus? Is today the day you choose to walk the road of faith in defiance of the ‘evidence’ that might always wins? Is today the day you catch a glimpse of light scratching away at the darkness of your loss, and drawing you away from resignation towards hope? Is today, Easter Day, the day you decide the world does not have to stay the way it is … because God, having surprised earth with heaven by coming among us in the baby of Bethlehem, has not exempted himself from all that the world can throw at him (or us), but has drawn the sting of all deathliness and opened the gate of glory?

Alleluia, Christ is risen!

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