Easter Day, 20 April 2014, St Mary’s, morning

Reading Matthew 28.1–10

Preacher Canon Robert Titley

Well, the kids are having fun in the churchyard hunting eggs. So now we are alone, I can share with you an alarming story I found on the sober pages of the Daily Mail website about an Easter egg hunt in Holford, Somerset. Stuart Moffat tells the story:

We were beginning to count up the eggs at the end of the hunt and I saw a boy of three standing on an object. It was brown and about 4 inches high. It looked like an Easter egg, but it was a hand grenade.

A hand grenade? ‘I was shocked,’ added Mr Moffat (34). He was not too shocked, though, to alert the organisers, the Stowey Bears pre-school group, and a bomb disposal squad soon dealt with this relic of World War 2, thanks to something I’ve always wanted to have a go at, a controlled explosion.

Now, our organisers have carried out a thorough sweep of the churchyard, and our egg hunters are unlikely to encounter anything more scary than a discarded burger carton (of which the fast-food fraternity of Richmond give us more than our share). There is, even so, something explosive about what there is to discover on this day.

When Matthew tells his story of the first Easter this morning, he says there is an earthquake. The women followers of Jesus watched him die on the cross on what we call Good Friday (though nothing about it seemed good to them). Now, when they come to his tomb – to tidy up, perhaps, or just to be there – and when they discover that his body has gone, something seismic happens, something that sends shock waves through them.

Just before Easter exactly ten years ago, there was a death in our family. I went down to Bexhill, where my sister had lived – partly to help tidy things up and partly just to be there – and on the train home I was reading a book about Easter. I noted down these words that rather leaped off the page:

The Resurrection is a shock; and not a contrived shock…but a real shock…[like] the shock when we hear of a sudden death…or the shock of love at first sight.

What can be like love and death? The writer’s point is that the shock of something good actually feels very like the shock of something bad. As he says, ‘such experiences are opposite in value, but very similar in quality’. You’ve had experiences like this, you know what he means: heart beats faster, mouth runs dry, knot in the stomach; and your world, which you have got used to, suddenly looks a different place and you don’t know where this new thing is going to lead: things you had thought would happen never will now, and things you had never dreamt of might well now take place.

These are the feelings that leap off the pages of the Easter stories. In ours today, what do the women feel when they run from the tomb? Joy and fear. In Luke’s gospel, how does Peter feel when he goes to the tomb to check for himself? ‘Amazed’ (Luke 24.12). These are not people who on Easter morning smile a satisfied smile that the mission of Jesus, after hitting a bump in the road on Friday, has worked out just fine after all. These are people in shock and awe about something that has blown a hole in history, and in the blank wall of death that confronts them. These are people who are saying to themselves, ‘O God, where will this lead?’

These stories, Good Friday and Easter Day, the story of what human fear and hate did, the story of what the love of God did, these are old tales now. What currency can they have in these days? Listen to this, from another book:

He pointed to a fallen tree…sawn through the middle.
‘That dark ring there, it goes up and down the whole length of the tree. But you only see it where it was cut across. That is what Christ’s life was; the bit of God that we saw. We think God is like that for ever, because it happened once with Christ.’

We know the story of Good Friday tells us what the world (left to itself) is like for ever: because human fear and hate are still in business twenty centuries later. But what if Good Friday plus Easter tell us what God is like for ever, and that the love of God might still be seismic, and still have the power to shock? And what might that mean? How will that shocking moment come?

It will come when we are full of some of the things that were in the hearts of the first friends of Jesus after he had died: a sense of loss, perhaps, of ideals destroyed; a sense of defeat, of having been put to the test and failed; a sense of needing forgiveness and not knowing how. But no-one can say in detail how it’s going to be. Where’s the shock in that? That would make it like the things we plan for to give ourselves a happy ending; and today something greater than a happy ending is here. What the God of Easter promises us is joy, the kind you can’t bargain on or plan for:

A joy beyond the walls of the world…poignant as grief.

 

Notes

Toddler stumbles on grenade  http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2126672/

Fallen tree from Helen Waddell’s novel Peter Abelard.

A joy beyond the walls of the world JRR Tolkien, from his Lang Lecture on Fairy Tales

It is a sudden and miraculous grace that is in fact evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.

This raises the question whether the gospel stories are themselves fairy tales; that is, fiction. Tolkien addressed this in a letter to his son in 1944

Of course I do not mean that the Gospels tell what is only a fairy-story; but I do mean very strongly that they do tell a fairy-story: the greatest. Man the story-teller would have to be redeemed in a manner consonant with his nature: by a moving story. But since the author of it is the supreme Artist and the Author of Reality, this one was also made to Be, to be true.
http://www.e-reading.ws/bookreader.php/139008/The_Letters_of_J.R.R.Tolkien.pdf

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