Sermon: Easter Day, 16 April 2017, St John the Divine

Reading  Matthew 28: 1-10

Preacher  Revd Neil Summers

One of the striking features of the Easter stories in the Gospels is that places which were thought to be enclosed, protected and safe are thrown wide open. Chief among them, of course, is the tomb itself. A large stone had been placed across the entrance in order to both secure and protect Jesus’s body during the Jewish Sabbath. Small wonder that, when his followers come to the tomb, they are alarmed to find the stone rolled away, and the body gone. This strange turn of events brings about mixed reactions, depending on which Gospel account you read – blind panic, confusion, tears, excitement, and one or two tentative hints of revelation and belief. These reactions give us a valuable insight into the state of mind of Jesus’s followers on that first Easter day. The events so took their toll that, by the evening of that first day of the week, they had gathered in an upper room, behind locked doors, frightened about their safety and despondent about their future. When Jesus had been arrested and put on trial, when he had most needed his friends, they had deserted him and fled. His subsequent humiliation – the mockery, the flogging and the crown of thorns – increased their sense of bewilderment, and probably their guilt. For three years they had been with him, listened to his teaching and witnessed his works of healing. They believed that he was a visionary leader who was about to establish a new kingdom. His death naturally destroyed those hopes and brought them disillusionment and despair.

The tomb, with its stone, and the upper room with its locked doors, are a picture of life. Like the disciples, we can feel unsafe and unsure, with a need to shut out the many things that can threaten us, undermine our confidence and destroy our hopes and dreams. Often the end result is that we withdraw into ourselves, roll across the stone, and bolt the doors of our minds and hearts. The threats can be real or they may be imagined, but the end result is the same: locked doors. Fear is often the reason: fear of failure; perhaps the guilt we feel; the addiction we can’t master; financial problems; maybe fear of losing a job; serious illness; fear of old age; losing the ability to control our own lives; fear of death. Any one of these can become obsessive and debilitating. And for all these major fears, there are countless smaller ones day by day which can have precisely the same effect. So we retreat behind locked doors and turn our inner selves into a kind of fortress as we look for security and try to keep intruders out. As time goes by, the fortress can become a prison and before we know it we are in chains.

The atmosphere in the upper room was one of gloom and doom. The Roman soldiers had nailed Jesus to the cross. He was dead and would soon be forgotten. The kingdom he spoke about would never be established. The disciples’ disillusionment was complete. What could they do now, apart from return quietly to their homes and take up the lifestyle they had abandoned the day Jesus called them to follow him?

But something quite extraordinary was about to happen and nothing had prepared them for it. Jesus himself came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ His coming was direct and personal. He didn’t send a message or an envoy. He came himself and stood among them, speaking words of peace – no forced entry, no breaking down of doors. This sort of encounter gives us hope whenever we feel we have reached rock bottom. Paradoxically, it is often when things are at their worst that something can happen through which life can begin to take on a new meaning and small chinks of light can begin to break through the darkness within us. And that’s what I think the Easter story can symbolise for us. The dark night of the soul, the Lenten wilderness, the way of the cross, are not an end in themselves, but turn out to be the prelude to a new dawn. But this isn’t magic: it may be a long hard road, but every journey begins with a single step. Jesus the risen Christ comes among us and speaks a word of peace which is an invitation to the chance of a new start. That doesn’t mean that all our suffering miraculously stops, or that worries disappear. After all, when Jesus appeared to his disciples in the upper room he showed them his hands and his side. Even his resurrection body carries the wounds of conflict and of suffering. They haven’t gone away, but they can be seen in a different light. Those disfiguring scars are symbolic of the cruelty and suffering which people and nations have inflicted on each other. They have a special relevance today with Syria so much in our thoughts, and the suffering endured by so many innocent people. The wounds of Jesus speak of his identification with us in all our human frailty.   Liberation and peace did not come cheaply in Jesus’s life, and they don’t come cheaply today. But Easter is good news because, at the very least, it makes them potentially possible.

The disciples were overjoyed when they saw Jesus. This was a new dawn as they realised the cross was not the end of him after all. The entire atmosphere in the upper room was transformed from sorrow to restored hope. The experience of the disciples on that first Easter day has resonances for us, too. Yes, of course, the ways in which we entomb ourselves and the ways in which our ‘upper rooms’ are constructed are down to the different circumstances and events which make up our lives, but the principle is just the same. The worst possible reaction to the good news of this Easter Day is to be so consumed by our fears, those metaphorical doors we have locked and bolted, that we allow ourselves to be unmoved by the rolling away of the stone and the empty tomb, and feel that resurrection can never happen in our lives. Easter Day triumphantly says it can: here is a life that refuses to end!

On Easter morning, as we come to the tomb, it is tempting to think that, in some ways, it would be easier if we found a Jesus lying there who is lifeless, wrapped up, reverently disposable, unchallenging, so that we don’t have to make any response to him at all. That way, Jesus becomes another piece of history that we take out, dust down, and glance at once a year, a bit like an old book on the shelf. But Easter Day makes all of that impossible. We don’t find a body. Instead, we find an empty space we cannot totally explain, but which opens up limitless possibilities. This empty space is liberating and full of potential. The stone has gone; the life of Jesus lives on. So many stones can lie across the tomb, holding back the risen Jesus from touching our lives. And yet, if we allow those stones to shift even a bit, the resurrection can ricochet around our lives and the world we inhabit. We become an Easter people, even if we feel like we are often living in a Good Friday world.  We may well keep the doors bolted in our own upper rooms, but even that cannot stop Easter happening. The new life of Jesus can’t be shut out: it comes to us even through locked doors and solid walls. This day gives us the chance to start again. It can transform us, if we will let it, as it has transformed countless other lives.

This short prayer to conclude lifts the disciples’ Easter experience and places it in the context of our daily life: Lord, come alive within my experience, within my sorrows, fears, disappointments and doubts, within the ordinary moments of my life. Come alive as the peace and joy and assurance that is stronger than the stone seal and stronger than the locked doors within, with which we try to shut out life. Come alive as the peace and joy and assurance that nothing in life or death can kill.

The Lord is risen; he is risen indeed!  Alleluia!  A very happy Easter!

About Revd Neil Summers

Revd Neil Summers served as a non-stipendiary minister in the Team between 2000 and 2014, whilst continuing his work as a lecturer in further and adult education. In October 2014, he was licensed as full-time Team Vicar of St John the Divine. He has particular interests in the literary and poetic aspects of scripture and theology, the rational case for faith and belief in an increasingly secular culture and the strengthening of links between the local church and the community in which is it set. Among his spare time pursuits are travel, literature, theatre, dance (only as a spectator!) cycling, singing in a local community choir, and gardening.
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