This is the basic text of a sermon in Wakefield Cathedral at the Easter Vigil:

“Who will roll away the stone…?” (Mark 16:3)

It’s an entirely reasonable question in the circumstances. But, it is also quite revealing.

The three named women – Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome – will have spent the sabbath in empty agony. Jesus is dead and buried. The sabbath is not the day for visiting tombs or touching dead bodies; so, they must wait until the sabbath is over, the sun is shining on a new day, and they can resume their shocked grieving. They come early to the tomb of Jesus, expecting to find a corpse whose dignity will be honoured by being anointed in the usual way.

That’s the point. They expected to find a buried body. Everyone knows that when you are dead, you are dead. (And Professor Alice Roberts, President of Humanists UK, was surprisingly theologically orthodox when she tweeted yesterday that dead people do not come back to life. Christians strongly agree. We believe that “God raised Christ from the dead,” which is different.)

If we are to live this story and not just intellectually recall its drift, then we must inhabit the imagination of Mary and Mary and Salome. They came to the tomb expecting to find the body of Jesus. They didn’t pitch up with a sneaky suspicion that he might not be there. They didn’t predict the surprise that awaited them. They weren’t playing some game of emotional forgetfulness that then dissipated in the joy of resurrection.

In fact, what they encountered at the tomb didn’t fill them with unbridled joy; the message of resurrection, accompanied by the experience of a vacated grave, terrified them. Verse 8 tells us that “they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

Let’s just stick with this for a moment.

After I did Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4 yesterday morning (Good Friday), I quickly got an email from a woman who wrote: “A disappointing, wasted opportunity to share the story of the cruel, unjust crucifixion of Jesus on Good Friday. I learnt more about Winston Churchill and R S Thomas than I did about why Jesus died and what it means to know him as my redeemer through his glorious rising on Easter Day.”

Apart from confusing the Today studio with a pulpit (and not understanding the medium), she also made the mistake of wanting to rush to Easter Day before having lived through Good Friday or the emptiness of Saturday. And we cannot begin to understand what the gospel is telling us unless we work hard imaginatively at living with the story as it unfolds – not knowing the ending.

I don’t wish to be too controversial, but it seems that we would be much more ‘biblical’ if we were to recognise that the resurrection was met not with joy and bubbles, but with terror and fear and amazement. The joy can come later when, to quote Luke’s account of the couple on the road to Emmaus, their journey and conversation with the risen Jesus – incognito at first – “their hearts burned within them” as Jesus re-framed the narrative that made his death a necessity rather than an error.

I venture to suggest that we might benefit as Christian disciples from staying with the text and what it describes before moving on too quickly. Which means watching these women as their world begins to shake beneath their feet.

On one group visit to the Land of the Holy One, we were taken to a convent in Nazareth where we descended some recently excavated steps down into the earth. At the bottom was a tomb with the door-stone rolled back. When it was excavated they found a mummified body of a bishop – suitably attired – keeping watch over what was, to him and his community, holy ground. It is thought this might have been the burial site of Joseph, the husband of Mary. Apparently, when they first opened the cavity, the smell of ointments and perfumes, kept sealed for centuries, wafted up and out. I still have the photographs I took of a real tomb with its stone removed.

Looking at it, I remember making sense of these women who made their way to the garden where Jesus had been buried, asking “Who will roll away the stone for us?” As I said, it is a perfectly reasonable question.

But, as they found themselves confronted by emptiness and alarm, they also discovered that Jesus cannot be imprisoned, manipulated or contained – by prejudices (about how the world is or why it is the way it is), by past experiences (death is the end of everything), by our sin and failures (of which we need little reminding), or even by death itself.

In fact, what these women find is that God has already found them. He has gone before them, brought order out of chaos, seeded new life out of death, a new beginning out of the ultimate of endings, a new future from the ashes of the past.

This, I think, is powerful for us in our world at this particular time. We need no reminding that the coronavirus pandemic has brought death and misery across the planet – caused in part by our careless exploitation of the planet as if it is ours and not that we are stewards of it. Every community will know the cost – in every sense – of the last year. And when we ask the entirely reasonable question “Who will roll the stone away for us?”, we will find ourselves challenged to think afresh – what the Old Testament theologian Walter Brueggemann calls being “freshly faithful”.

You see, resurrection has become a useful metaphor for new life and hope – like bunnies and seeds and so on. But, to leave the resurrection there is to leave the stone unrolled. It is to lack either curiosity or seriousness. The resurrection is certainly not less than a metaphor for what, again, Brueggemann calls “newness after loss”; but, it is certainly much more than a metaphor. Something happened to Jesus, the disappointingly dead man.

Clearly, the Romans could have stopped the new and completely challenging Christian movement on day one – by producing the body. They didn’t. Is it really credible that the first friends of Jesus went through unimaginable struggle and suffering for what they knew to be a lie – if they had hidden the body? No, the women found an empty tomb; the men didn’t believe their story, so eventually saw for themselves; and the women became the first evangelists – quite fitting as they were the ones to stay with Jesus to the bitter end.

And what do they find? Jesus is the same, but different. Jesus knows them by name. Jesus bears the wound marks in his risen body. And, as the story develops, they find that it wasn’t just a grave stone that had been rolled away, but also their understanding – their assumptions – about God and the world and themselves.

This is why at the heart of the Christian faith is not some vague optimism about the future – no lazy or seductive ‘pie in the sky when you die’ crutch with which to navigate life. Nor is it some spiritualised faith that disconnects God from the material world and splits human being into compartmentalised bits. No. At the heart of the Christian faith is a real cross planted in a real rubbish tip outside the city walls … and an empty tomb that, if we can’t find an explanation, still cries out for a response.

At Easter we don’t just celebrate a ritual that makes us feel better when life is tough. Rather, we unashamedly and unapologetically plant ourselves with the friends of Jesus who, bewildered and maybe even afraid of the implications of all this stuff, offer the world a different way of seeing and believing and being. That is why we eventually sing alleluia. This is what makes sense of those people in the gospels – often disregarded women – who find in Jesus that they need not be imprisoned in their past, nailed to a reputation or fear that pins them down and traps them behind a stone. Here is life. Here is hope. And a community of Christians who have been grasped by grace and love and mercy has no option but, with a confident humility, to live it out in generosity, forgiveness, love and mercy towards our neighbours.

The Easter fire will not be put out. The Easter candle might sometimes flicker and fade, blown by the draughts and pressure changes around, but it will stand proud, bearing witness to the stubborn conviction that death does not have the last word after all.

What these women went on to experience was that this same Jesus, by his Spirit, empowered them for all that lay ahead. When in the Eucharist we proclaim: “The Lord is here, his spirit is with us!”, we are not just mimicking the old banner I saw in a photograph in Pravda many years ago – a banner hanging in a Soviet factory exhorting the proletariat to work harder at the five year plan: “Lenin is here; his spirit is with us” would have been the English translation. (Was it a promise or a threat, I wonder?) No, the Lord who is with us is the one we read about in the gospels, pouring himself out in love and mercy for broken people.

And this is why tonight, as we celebrate the rise of the Easter Son, we can bear the name of Christ with confidence and faith; for, as I have framed it many times before, we are not driven by fear, but drawn by hope.

The Czech Roman Catholic priest and professor of theology in Prague, Tomáš Halík, made the point recently in an address to clergy in the Wakefield Episcopal Area that the resurrection did not herald a return to how things were before crucifixion. The world has changed and so must we be changed and change … if we are to be faithful to the transformative power of the risen Christ.

As we emerge into a changed world, our hearts, minds and imaginations grasped by the haunting mystery of the resurrection, let us be faithful to the call of the risen Christ to walk with him and together into an uncertain future – just like the first Easter people.

I conclude with a verse from a song by John Bell – one I quoted to the clergy of the diocese on Maundy Thursday:

Sing, my soul, when light seems darkest,

Sing when night refuses rest,

Sing though death should mock the future:

What’s to come by God is blessed.

Amen.