Reading: John 20: 11-18
‘Woman, why are you crying? Who is it that you are looking for?’ I am sure I am not alone in finding it a daunting prospect to preach on this, the most holy and yet most mysterious day of the Christian year. This is the day, after all, when we find out what it is all about. The great mystery: the meaning of Jesus’ mission, of his whole life. Indeed, if we believe in him, of our lives as well. How can we approach this day of all days? How can we even begin to do it justice?
I think a good place to start is the surprise and wonder of Mary Magdalene. When Easter Day comes upon us, who is it that we are looking for? It is no shame to be at a loss for words, to find it hard to take in the events being described or to struggle to make a coherent response. Indeed, such bewilderment might seem the only right response.
Because the events of the first Easter Day are very strange indeed. There is no description of the Resurrection. We can not know and we can scarcely imagine what happened behind the stone. Like the Big Bang, the initial moment of creation, our minds struggle to grasp it; we can only grapple with its results. I think we are in good company. The gospels are crammed with references to the Hebrew scriptures that show how Jesus had fulfilled what had been foreseen in the past. There are no such references on Easter Day. Faced with the empty tomb and the glory of the resurrected Christ, it is as if Matthew, Mark, Luke and John just run out of precedents. They don’t have the concepts to interpret this. They have no ways to say ‘Jesus did this to fulfil such-and-such a prophecy’. We are all in uncharted territory here.
It is not just that Jesus returned from the dead that stretches our minds, then and now. He was himself strangely different. He was not a ghost, but he was not a resurrected corpse either. He had a physical body that could touch and be touched. But it was not the same body as before. He could appear and disappear at will. He could apparently pass through walls. He could be seen, but not always recognised. It is right to marvel at this. But that still leaves us with questions. What is going on? What does all this mean? Luke’s gospel speaks about Jesus opening the disciples’ minds after his return, showing them why these events had to happen. Part of the Easter experience, I suppose, is to put ourselves in the position of the disciples, to work out of the meaning of this day for ourselves.
Perhaps one way to put it is this. When the veil of the Temple was torn in two on Good Friday, it was like the pulling back of curtains to reveal God’s new world, his plan to restore and renew his creation. The universe which he brought into being, which he loves so much, is in pain. It is subject to forces of decay and disease and death. Of course, we know this all too well as we contemplate the ills of our own fractured world and, not least, our own mortality. But it is also true in a wider, cosmic sense. Recently, I saw parts of the BBC TV series ‘Wonders of the Universe’, presented by Prof. Brian Cox. Very well done I thought, but I couldn’t help but be struck by the prediction of the future of the universe which he set out. This is that, after an immensely long stretch of time, all the stars will burn themselves out and fade away into nothing, with not even black holes left behind. Needless to say, this will occur a long time after our own Earth has been consumed by the death throes of the Sun. The Universe, it seems, is destined for an eternity of empty nothingness.
Is this it? Is this what it has all been in aid of? Is the whole of creation utterly devoid of purpose or hope?
The writers of the Hebrew scriptures, particularly the prophets, also wrestled with this sense of futility and despair as their own society fell apart around them. They were able to see beyond their immediate circumstances to realise a greater truth. If God loves the world enough to make it, then he loves it enough to put it right again. One of them, Isaiah, had a vision of God taking hold of the Universe and not casting it aside, nor even binding up its sores, but transforming it in a way that frees it from evil and death forever:
‘For I am about to make new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy and its people as a delight’ Isaiah 65: 17-18
Much later, another Hebrew, Paul of Tarsus, wrote in his letter to the Romans of the same hope that God would renew the whole creation through an unimaginable burst of new life, in which, strangely, we insignificant human beings play an important role.
‘For the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will, but of the will of the one who subjected it, in the hope that the creation itself will be set free from bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God’Romans 8:20-21
This is what Easter is about. It is the most resounding shout of ‘No!’ to hopelessness that there can be. It is beginning of God’s new creation which is much more than a breath of new life into existing matter. It is a liberated creation which death and decay can never touch again. This, I think, is why the resurrected body of Jesus is so strange: physical and yet so unlike anything we have seen before. He is the first fruit of the new earth. His physical body can not die. It has been raised to a new plain of existence.
We are at the edge of human understanding here. What will this transformed creation be like, and when will it happen? There is little that we can say about this. But the first Easter Day is a guarantee that it will happen. What God has done for Jesus, he will do for us. He will do it for those of our loved ones we see no more. He will do it for Mary Gundry, Gilbert Wigmore and Rebekah Knap: just some of those who lie beneath the flagstones of the aisles of this church and over whom we walk every day. What happened 2,000 years ago might be compared to a stone which is thrown into a pond and which sends out ripples in all directions. But cold marble, barren earth and the long, slow sleep of the grave can not keep these ripples out.
But if this is the future, then what about the present? What do we do now? Well, if we believe God will bring new life to our world, then we had better get ready by living as if we believed it. The mission of the Church is not just about what happens within these walls, nor even within our hearts, vital though these are. God shows such solidarity with his creation that the Church is called to do likewise. Art, business, politics, the environment, architecture, literature, education, health — are not all these parts of God’s creation? Is not Jesus the risen of all of these too? Think about it. If we are Easter people, then we are called to proclaim the Easter message of transformed life everywhere that God has fashioned, and what place has he not fashioned?
There are those in our country and our world who want the Church to shut up, to confine itself to harmless rituals behind closed doors, who want it to be a mere irrelevance that challenges nobody. They do not want it to raise its voice outside these doors. But surely if we accede to their demands, we make a covenant with the same forces of evil that Jesus came to conquer. On the contrary, we know that a new day is at hand. It will come; its dawn has already begun and nothing can keep it out. As we celebrate this Easter let us therefore prepare ourselves to be the heralds of this day. We must get busy; there’s work to do.