This is the text of this morning’s sermon for Easter Day at Ripon Cathedral:
Acts 10:34-43 & John 20:1-18
Language matters. Describing the latest military attack on Afghanistan as the ‘mother of all bombs’ is shocking in its ‘boys’ toys’ trivialisation – or glorification of extreme violence. And it does not bode well at a time when nuclear war seems more likely than at any time since the end of the Cold War – especially given the unpredictability of the President of the United States and his predilection for changing his mind quickly and inconsistently. To say nothing about the Great Leader of North Korea.
An unusual way to begin a sermon for Easter Day? Maybe. But, this is the world we now live in at Easter 2017, and Christian worship cannot be an escape from it. But, rather than dropping high explosives onto other human beings, Easter explodes something different and more challenging into the world we know: Easter drops into the dark violence of the modern, sophisticated, scientific age the subversive light of resurrection.
And that is what we are here for this morning. We do not simply memorialise an event that happened two thousand years ago somewhere far, far away. We do not merely cross our fingers and wish for a deus ex machina to intrude into the insurmountable problems of human living and sort it all out. Nor do we rush with relief to resurrection before we have properly looked the cruelty of Friday and the horrifying emptiness of Saturday in the eye and lived with our mortality.
No, we are here this morning to have our lives transformed by an encounter with the risen Christ; anything less and we have missed the point.
It reminds me of the story of the bat that flew one night into the bat cave, hung itself upside down (as, apparently, bats are wont to do) and closed its eyes, blood dripping from its mouth. The other bats smelled this and said to him: “You’ve found something – you’ve got to show us where it is.” “Leave me alone,” said the bat, “I just want to go to sleep.” “Noooo,” cried the other bats, “you’ve found something – you’ve got to show us where it is.” In the end the bat gave up and said, “OK, follow me.” He flew out of the cave, followed by thousand of eager bats. They flew down the valley, around the hill, up over the crag and down into the next valley before rounding a wooded outcrop and turning into the next valley. As they approached a forest the bat stopped and hovered in the air, thousand of bats hovering behind him, full of anticipation. “You see that forest?” said the bat? “Yeah, yeah, yeah…,” hissed the bats. “You see that rock to the left of the forest?” “Yeah, yeah, yeah…”. “You see the tree next to the rock?” “Yeah, yeah, yeah…” “Well, I didn’t!”
You see, there is a difference between looking and seeing. And sometimes we see, but don’t understand. And sometimes we don’t understand, so we turn away and look somewhere else for we know not what.
So, consider the first evangelists: Mary Magdalene, Peter and the other disciple. Mary, a woman – significant in itself – sees the disturbed grave, but doesn’t venture in. Instead, she goes and fetches the blokes. They come running – probably suspecting a criminal religious or political plot – and Peter goes first into the empty tomb, followed eventually by the other friend of Jesus. Mary waits outside, distraught. And none of them suspect resurrection. According to verse 8, the friend “believes”, but this can only refer to believing Mary’s story that the body is missing. Mary, herself, just looks in and is distressed.
In other words, they look and they see, but what they see makes no sense. So, the men leave and go back to their homes. Back to their homes? Not even to their other friends to tell them the bad news? Not to the authorities to ask what they have done with the corpse? Not to the newspapers to report the scandal? No, they go back home – to the places where they know their place, where life is ‘normal’, where they have some control, where there are no surprises.
It is only Mary, the woman, who, having had her weird encounter with the characters in white and the supposed gardener, is given an even weirder message to convey to the friends of Jesus, and goes to find them: “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” But, when she finds her friends she actually says to them, “I have seen the Lord.”
Now, this is not a merely incidental detail of a far-fetched story. Had I been Jesus I might have said to Mary, “It’s me … I’m back again!” But, Jesus gives her some theology to be getting on with. And he will not let her hang on to him like some sort of shrine god.
When we think we have grabbed hold of Jesus, we soon discover that he will not be contained or controlled – even by our most powerful need for comfort or resolution or healing from grief. He moves on … as we, too, must move on, taking responsibility for what we do with the – often unbidden and unwelcome – experiences we have had visited upon us.
But, back to the point: what we are doing here this morning.
Mary did not go back to church. She did not write a book about her self-fulfilment. She did not simply reflect on what some theologians call ‘the Christ event’; rather, she became an articulate witness. “I have seen the Lord.” And only having put her own credibility on the line did she then go on to tell the friends what the risen Jesus had said to her.
And for us? We cannot simply come this morning to celebrate a notional event, to worship a good idea, or to maintain the edifice of a credible faith. We come together to encounter the risen Christ, and then to go out into the world in the light of this and tell the good news: that contrary to Hollywood, the news and the rumours of what is normal, death, violence and destruction do not have the final word. Christian faith is rooted in the fact that Jesus who was fully alive before being fully dead is dead no longer. Not that he sprung back to life like some sort of zombie, but that, as the Apostle Paul put it, God raised Christ from the dead. That is where Christian hope lies: that God raised a very dead Jesus of Nazareth and brought new life – life that still bears the wound marks of human suffering and doesn’t simply wipe out reality – to a very confused world.
I just wonder how we respond to this story? Or, perhaps putting it a little more sharply: not to the story, but to the content that the story conveys? The reality of a surprising and world-shattering encounter with the risen Christ who shows us the face of a God who will not be defeated by the misery of pain and loss, but shines light where even eyes are closed and darkness is at least familiar. Where we look, but don’t immediately see; where we see, but don’t understand; where we are surprised and confounded, but still go away and become articulate witnesses of how the risen Christ transforms our living and our dying.
Of course, this is only the beginning. Meeting the risen Jesus in the garden of death and decay becomes the impetus for challenging death and decay wherever we see or experience them. On Good Friday we were compelled to look death and destruction in the eye and not look away. No romanticism; no religious escapism; no convenient spiritual comfort; no relief from all that the world can throw at God and us. No. We were offered the gift of staring in the face our mortality and the immense power of death – living with the loss and the emptiness and the abandoned desolation of seeing our hopes and faith bleeding into the dirt of a rubbish tip outside the city walls – and finding our grief interrupted by the gentle, whispered sound of our name being voiced by the one whose all-too-real death was not the end.
Today – Easter Day – we are being invited to meet this risen Christ and to take the good news of resurrection into a world dominated by too much bad news. To offer the refugee and asylum seeker the hope that there is a future to be lived and a new life to be enjoyed; to question the political priorities of leaders whose vision dehumanises or breaks people down; to challenge injustice and public practices that exalt the mighty and denigrate the meek. After all, the risen Jesus is the same Jesus who challenged the religious securities of Pharisees who were content to use excluded and abused people to make theological points in their petty little power games. The risen Jesus is the same Jesus who healed the wrong people on the wrong day and in the wrong way. (Read the gospels and you will see what I mean.) The risen Jesus is the same Jesus who taught his friends to pray that God’s kingdom will come on earth as it is in heaven, but then embarrasses the pray-er with the obligation to be the answer to his or her own prayer: “Forgive us our sins … as we forgive those who sin against us.” The risen Jesus is the same Jesus who exposes our insecurities and fears, offering freedom in the company of others and the healing that comes from mercy and love.
Do you see the point? We can sing our hymns and pray our prayers this morning and leave as we arrived – perhaps warmed by the experience, but indifferent to the need for commitment and a clear willingness to belong to this risen Jesus who sends us out – like Mary Magdalene – not with a solution to a problem or a heart-warming spiritual experience, but with a compulsion to tell the story of redemption and hope, and to work out in the company of friends what all this stuff means for us and the world in a world that now looks very different.
It is this experience that led Paul the Apostle to write to beleaguered Christians facing imperial threat that “for me to live is Christ, to die is gain”.
What we are doing here this morning is nothing less than the stuff of life and death, of living and dying. The worst we can do is to be indifferent to it.
Later in this service we will be invited to come forward to receive bread and wine – or to receive a blessing which is freely offered. Bread and wine are tangible and taste-able tokens of all I have spoken about just now – the body and blood of Christ who poured himself out that we might be free to live differently, confounding the depressing narratives of the world we inhabit and promising life out of death. Like Mary Magdalene, Peter and their friend, we come to a place of death and loss and bewilderment – and maybe even hopelessness – and we come with empty hands and opened eyes. We cannot grab or demand or hold onto what we receive. We simply receive what is given – what is gift – and we consume them. They become part of our body – the fullness of God’s promise in the flimsiness of a wafer and a sip of wine. We thank God for them, and for what they represent. But, we are then sent out into the world (in the power of the Spirit) to live and work to the praise and glory of the God who raised Christ from the dead. That’s the deal.
So, I invite you to come with honest hearts and eyes wide open, not hiding behind a fear of being found out, or the pride of thinking that I can’t dot all the Is or cross all the Ts. Come with your fears about your living and your dying, about loss and love and pain and joy. Come with empty hands and a will to live life from today as a resurrection person amongst a community of resurrection people who have the same experience as you, but cannot escape the haunting claim of a God who loves you to death and beyond.
Maybe – for some of you – today might be an Easter Day on which your own transformation might begin. Surely, this is good news. Surely, this can draw from us a Hallelujah of relief and praise – one that means that from this day forward we know ourselves to be a people no longer driven in a threatening and uncertain world by anxiety and fear, but drawn by hope in the God of resurrection who comes to us, where we are, speaks our name, and sends us from the place of death to live life.
This is the mother of all hope – the mother of all mercies.