Easter Sunday 2010
Acts 10.34-43 Luke 24.1-12
“Why do you look for the living among the dead?” ask the angels of the women who have come to Jesus’ tomb.
What an insensitive question to ask a group of grieving people who have just lost their friend! Where else would Jesus be? They saw him buried, the stone rolled across his tomb just a couple of days before. Luke tells us so. They haven’t gone to the wrong tomb by accident. This is where Jesus was, and where, as far as they are concerned, he still should be. But the angels tell them it isn’t so. “He is not here: he is risen! Why do you look for the living among the dead?” It is a shocking question. I think it’s meant to be. The women are stunned, and so is Peter when he finally comes to check it out for himself. Nothing is as it was. Nothing is as they expected.
On Good Friday we had one of our Messy Church sessions here. Messy Church, for those visiting us today, is an all-age gathering where we explore Christian faith through cutting and sticking and generally making a mess. It certainly lived up to its name on Friday. The church was packed with children. It was a riot of glue and glitter and paint. One of the things we made was the splendid Easter banner you see over there. The point of it was simply to get the children to explore the colours of Easter – the whites, yellows and golds which you see in the altar frontal and vestments. There was no real plan or design – the children could paint what they wanted, and stick whatever they could find to the banner, so long as it was white, yellow or gold. That’s the glorious, riotous result. I tried to decide earlier what it was that it reminded me of. In the end it came to me. It’s like an explosion in a Cadbury’s Creme Egg factory…
Its exuberance expresses something very important about that first Easter Day, though, because that was like an explosion too, an explosion which broke apart the expectations and the understanding of the people caught up in it; the women at the tomb, the disciples they announced their news to, and those who heard the message of Christ from them. Nothing could ever be as it had been before.
It wasn’t just the fact that a man had been raised from the dead which made their world explode, though. That might sound odd to us, because the sheer unlikeliness of the story is usually the thing that we get stuck on. But that’s because we come at it with a 21st Century mindset. Our first thought is that resurrection defies the laws of nature. Could it happen? we want to ask, and if so, how? We pick the stories apart looking for ways to explain this puzzle, or explain it away. For first century people, though, that wasn’t nearly so much of a problem as it is to us. For them it wasn’t the laws of nature which ruled the world, but the will of God. He controlled the boundaries between life and death. If he wanted to raise someone from death, he could. So it’s no good looking for answers to our questions in their stories – we’re unlikely to find them. What mattered most to them wasn’t whether God raised Jesus from death, or how, but why and what it meant that he should have done so. The conclusion they came to was that when God raised Jesus it was a declaration that he had been with him all along, even on the cross, that he was God’s chosen one, that the message he had preached really was God’s message. Those who had crucified him had declared it to be blasphemy, but the resurrection proved that wasn’t so, said the first Christians.
So what was this message? Jesus had come, according to his own words in the Gospels, to proclaim the kingdom of God, a kingdom where everyone was welcome. Men, women, children, Jews, Gentiles, saints, sinners, lost sheep, prodigal sons, tax-collectors, prostitutes. The first would be last, and the last first. “God shows no partiality” says Peter in our first reading from the book of Acts. If you want to follow Jesus, to be part of the kingdom of God, you can, whoever you are, whatever your background.
For many of those who met Jesus this was wonderful news, powerful, healing news, which gave them dignity and status they had never had before. That was certainly the case for these women who came to the tomb. Women in first century Israel were largely excluded from positions of power and leadership. They had no real voice, no real control of their lives, little education beyond the skills necessary to run a house.
Jesus, by contrast, had treated them as equals, talked to them, taught them – learned from them sometimes too. He’d challenged them, supported them, never patronised them, never put them down, never made jokes at their expense, never stereotyped them. No wonder they followed him. What a world he held out for them! But then he had died on the cross, and they must have felt that all their hopes had died with him. That vision of a new world in which they were treated with such humanity and love seemed to be just a mirage, a cruel delusion, something which had been snatched away as soon as they had reached for it.
When they came to the garden on that Easter morning all they intended to do, all they expected to do, was to complete the burial rites they had started on Good Friday and go away. They would entomb their dreams along with Jesus’ body, and go back to the lives they had come from.
But there were the angels, and there was the empty tomb, and now these women are the ones who are hearing the Easter message that Christ is risen, the ones who are sent out to tell it to the rest of Jesus’ followers. Them. A bunch of women. They are met with disbelief on the part of the male disciples. It’s just an idle tale, they say… It’s not surprising that they got this dismissive response. Women weren’t considered to be credible witnesses in a court of law. Why should they be in any other field? But their “idle tale” turns out to be true.
There isn’t just one Easter explosion going on here – the explosion of the Resurrection itself – there are multiple explosions. Everyone involved – women and men – find themselves looking at a new world in which nothing is as they thought it would be, relationships are changed, hopes are reborn. The early church, in which this Gospel was written perhaps 30 or 40 years after the Resurrection, was a place where women held positions of leadership which they didn’t have elsewhere. We find many of them mentioned in the book of Acts and in Paul’s letters too. How had that come about? It was the result of this Easter explosion, this moment when a bunch of women are entrusted with the message of good news for everyone else.
A decade or so ago a former Bishop of Durham got into a lot of trouble in the press for suggesting that the resurrection was “more than just a conjuring trick with bones.” “Bishop doubts resurrection!” screamed the headlines. But he was right. If all we worry about is what you might call the mechanics of the Resurrection – whether and how a dead body came to life – we miss the question it really asks. Not just, “Is Christ risen?” but “Are we risen?” Not just, “Is Christ alive?” but “are we alive?” Are we the people God calls us to be, living our lives with the fullness he wants for us, or are we hemmed in by other people’s expectations, or our own, imprisoned by old fears and regrets, stifling our dreams and denying our visions of what might be.
In a few minutes we’ll be baptising Reuben. I am sure that his parents and friends have all sorts of hopes and dreams and visions for him. Some of them will come about; some won’t. Some might be the wrong hopes, dreams and visions anyway. However hard those who care for him try to give him the best life they can, though, Reuben is sure to find himself at some point, like all of us, squashed into moulds that don’t fit, weighed down with regret or stuck in something he wishes he could have avoided. Our prayer for him is that when that happens he’ll be reminded of the explosive message of this Easter day on which he was baptised, reminded by his parents and godparents, reminded by this church, by all of us as we love and care for him. We can remind him in words, of course, telling him about today, teaching him the stories of faith. But better than that we can remind him by living the message we proclaim, by letting that Easter explosion happen in our own lives, letting God challenge and change us. Baptism and Easter belong together because both speak of new beginnings, endless hope, life that nothing can destroy. Whatever has happened in our lives, they say, we can start again, rise again. Life is stronger than death, hope is stronger than despair, love is stronger than hatred. Change is possible. We can all be made new. Explosive news! Christ is risen!