Jeremiah 31.1-6, Acts 10.34-43, Matt 28.1-10
Holy Week is a really busy time for me, as you can imagine, because of the sheer number and variety of services. All human life is there in the story of the arrest, trial, death and resurrection of Jesus – sadness and joy, disaster and triumph. It’s a wonderful, moving week, but there’s a lot to do from the priest’s point of view, just as there is at that other great feast of the Christian year, Christmas. In fact, in many ways Easter is much more demanding, which is why I am glad that there is at least one way in which it is very different from the festivities of Christmas. It’s a great relief to me that gift giving has never really caught on as an Easter tradition, despite the best efforts of the advertising industry. An Easter egg or two is about the limit for most families, and often in my household we don’t even manage to get around to that – sorry Philip! At this festival at least we don’t have to deal with the endless shopping lists, or the desperate search for the perfect present for Auntie Mabel . We may have to contend with the Easter Bunny, but he isn’t half as weighed down as Father Christmas.
I don’t suppose I’m the only one who quietly thanks the Lord for this. I doubt whether many of us would relish the idea of two big buying sprees in the year – emotionally or financially.
But while it is Christmas that we most naturally think of in connection with gifts, actually Easter has just as much to do with giving and generosity. In fact, I’d like to suggest that Easter has an even more profound gift at its heart than the child of Bethlehem.
At Christmas we celebrate God’s gift to us of a baby, God coming to us in human flesh. It’s a moment of very simple and innocent joy. He is given to Mary and Joseph, given to the shepherds, given to the Wise Men, given to the world. But what does the world do with this great gift when he grows up. The world takes him and kills him, nailing him to a cross, entombing his body in the cold stone of the grave. Perhaps we can understand that response from those who were challenged and threatened directly by his message – the secular and religious authorities whose cages he rattled. But even those who apparently hung on his every word end up doing nothing to defend or help him, Those who have gained most from him, those he has healed, those he has befriended when no one else would - they hide their faces as he is taken away to be killed. It is a shocking response to God’s gift, a shocking response to the love he has shown. But what does God do? In the story we hear today, he gives that gift, that precious son, right back to us again in a mighty and dramatic act of resurrection. He puts him back into the hands of those who have betrayed him, rejected him, and killed him. The baby in the manger in Bethlehem was a great gift, but this second act of giving shows a generosity which seems completely over the top. It something that no one could have expected.
Jesus’ resurrection clearly comes as a huge surprise to his disciples – there is no way in which they were prepared for it. We might think that was quite understandable – why would anyone expect it? It goes against all the laws of nature. But it probably wasn’t the physical fact of the resurrection – a dead man rising – which astonished the disciples most on Easter morning. They didn’t have our scientific knowledge or our scientific attitude to the world. As far as they were concerned it was God who gave life in the first place, not nature, so there was no reason why he couldn’t, if he chose, give life back to one who was dead. There are a number of instances in the Gospels where Jesus apparently raises people to life from death by the power of God, and however amazed they are no one says “it can’t be done!. The truly astounding part of this story for the disciples was that God wanted to restore Jesus to them. The resurrection wasn’t just a sign of God’s power over death, it was also – and maybe more importantly - a sign of his forgiveness for them, a sign of his continuing commitment to them despite their failure and their weakness.
“I have loved you with an everlasting love,” says God in our first reading, which dates from 500 years before the time of Jesus. It was an old message, but people had always struggled to take it on board, as I think we probably still do. When do we ever experience love like this, everlasting, unconditional love, which survives anything we can throw at it. We may be wonderfully blessed with the love of family and friends – but everlasting love? That’s another matter. For Jesus’ disciples, who had run away when he was arrested, for Peter, who had denied knowing him, the crucifixion had seemed like the end not just of his life, but of his love for them too. Surely he would want nothing to do with them. And yet here he is, in the cool of this garden graveyard, eager to be with those faithless disciples again. There’s no trace of reluctance, or recrimination. The slate is wiped clean.
Who would have thought it? Who could ever have expected a love like this? That’s why I say that this story, even more than the story of Christmas is a story about generosity.
This generosity transformed the disciples from a terrified bunch of men and women paralysed with remorse and regret into people who somehow found the courage to take Jesus’ message out across the world, often facing humiliation, persecution and death themselves. If God was for them, who could be against them? as St Paul later put it. The generosity of God’s love changed their lives, and it can make all the difference to our lives too.
There’s a traditional Russian Easter song which captures this perfectly; I’ve printed it on your pew leaflets. It was this song, and the link it makes between Easter and giving, which started me pondering all this in the first place.
“Easter eggs! Easter eggs! Give to him that begs!
For Christ the Lord is arisen.
To the poor, open door, something give from your store!
For Christ the Lord is arisen.
Those who hoard, can't afford, moth and rust their reward!
For Christ the Lord is arisen.
Those who love freely give, long and well may they live!
For Christ the Lord is arisen.
Eastertide, like a bride, comes, and won't be denied.
For Christ the Lord is arisen.”
What is it that holds us back from living generously? Our gifts of time, money or effort are signs of the love we have for others – we give because we care. But often we are afraid that if we give of ourselves too freely we won’t have enough left to meet our own needs, and who will help us then? We hoard, we ration, we calculate what return we might get - what’s in it for us - because we’re afraid of running out. We are especially cautious about giving to those who seem like poor risks, those at the bottom of the pile, those who don’t seem sufficiently deserving or grateful, those who won’t go along with our agendas. We might recognise their need as very genuine, but will they scratch our backs if we scratch theirs?
But that Russian song tells us that when we think like that we have everything upside down. “Those who hoard, can’t afford” it says. Hoarding simply shows how poor we feel, and how alone – no one will help us if we don’t help ourselves. But the message of Easter is that we can afford to love, and to love generously, because we are generously loved, loved by a God who gave his son to us not just once, as a child, but again when he raised that son from death after we had beaten, mocked and rejected him the first time round. “Give to him that begs.” says the song. Why? “For Christ the Lord is arisen.” “To the poor, open door” Why? “For Christ the Lord is arisen” God pours out his love from an infinite store. There is no danger that it will run out, no danger that it will be diminished or destroyed, not by anything, not ever.
Jesus preached this message of abundance throughout his ministry. God’s kingdom of love was like yeast, he said – one tiny speck enough to raise the whole loaf, something that just kept on growing. It was like a single seed falling in the ground apparently rotting away, and yet from it could grow a rich crop or a tree big enough to shelter all the birds of the air. It was like a shepherd, prepared to leave a whole flock on the hillside so he could search for just one which had gone astray or a father who welcomed home his prodigal son even though he had wasted his inheritance and caused him grief. Jesus talked about water that welled up eternally, grain in full measure, pressed down and running over so that it couldn’t be contained. There was enough for everyone, and everyone was welcome. And he lived the message he preached, willing to be condemned for mixing with prostitutes and tax collectors, the despised and outcast, because these were the people who needed him most.
“Do not be afraid,” says the risen Jesus to the women who find his empty tomb.
“Do not be afraid,” he says to us too. The good news of Easter is that nothing we have ever done or failed to do, no sin we have committed, can destroy his love for us. It is a gift, freely given, and given again out of his abundance. On Easter Sunday, and on every day, he declares to us afresh that everlasting love, and invites us to draw on it for ourselves and for others, so that we can live with open hands and hearts like his.
Those who love freely give, long and well may they live! For Christ the Lord is arisen.