Sermon preached by the Revd Hilary Fife
at the Easter Liturgy on Saturday 20th April 2019
Genesis 1.1–2.4a; Exodus 14.10–15.1a; Isaiah 55.1–11; Jeremiah 31.31–34; Romans 6.3–11; Luke 24.1–12
Tonight we begin our celebration of Easter – the most holy day of our Christian year, the most special of all times – a time out of time, a time like no other. We will have travelled here with eager anticipation but as the Gospel reminds us it was very different for the small group of women who came to the tomb – and for Jesus’ friends and followers at the time. They were in shock and deep grief. The hopes they had carried and dreams they had dreamed, the love and joy they had shared, the healing received, the wonders experienced during the time they had spent with Jesus had come to an end, and a dreadful end, on the Cross. While the world around them celebrated the Passover, and the soldiers began to prepare for the next round of crucifixions they did what driving people do, withdrew, cried until there were no more tears, thought again and again of all that had been and took occasional refuge in the sheer numbness that loss can bring. When it came to it, it was the women who seem to have been most prepared for Jesus’ death. They were able to stay within sight of the Cross, they saw where His body was laid. They were the ones with spices and ointments in store ready to use for the funeral rites for their dead Lord and friend. It was the last thing they could do for Him because, they thought, it was over. Nothing, not even love, lasts for ever…. And they had to wait even to do their last, precious act, for it was the Passover. They had to wait until everyone around them had finished celebrating. The waiting must have been so hard. But then, finally they can gather the ointments and spices and head for the tomb, walking not in excited anticipation but with resolute determination – we will do this for Him. But He is not there. The tomb is empty. They rush in to check but no – He is gone. Remember, it is easy for us – we know the end of the story – but for them this was totally outside anything they had ever experienced or known. Of course they were shocked, dismayed – what could possibly have happened? And then two ethereal figures are there gently reminding them of some of the things Jesus had said to them. “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, He has risen.” “Remember what He told you!” And they do remember – and somehow with just an empty tomb to go on – they begin to believe. AS the first witnesses they rush to share the news with more of Jesus’s friends – who are unconvinced. We are told they regarded it as an “idle tale” which is the polite version of “sheer piffle” (or worse). Peter does go to take a look but doesn’t go in the tomb but leaves wondering.
You can’t help thinking that if Archbishop Justin’s communications officer had been planning the launch of the news that Jesus had risen it would have been handled a bit differently. Firstly the risen Christ would probably have been there – prior to appearing to His enemies and bringing them to their knees in shock and horror at what they had done. There would have been several ranks of angels, a full complement of disciples, Mary would have organised refreshments and Twitter would have gone into meltdown. The world’s media would have been in overdrive.
But that is our way and not God’s way. As Jane Williams reminds us, “we cannot get to the majesty and saving power of God except in the way that God chooses to reveal it.” And God, in his merciful humility, begins with an empty tomb and a small group of grieving women. Later Jesus will appear to Mary Magdalene as she returns to the garden to try to work out what has happened, calling her by name; later He will appear to a small group of His friends and disciples – forgiving Peter and recommissioning him, showing the incredulous Thomas His wounded hands and feet, joining a couple as they head away from Jerusalem to Emmaus, but on balance comparatively few people meet the transcendent Lord whom death itself cannot overcome. Then these few are sent out to tell the world what has happened, what God is like, how His love, fully expressed in Jesus, has destroyed death and brought the possibility of light and life to even the darkest parts of our world and our humanity. And they will tell the story in words but also in who they are becoming – as Jesus’ risen life touches them and begins to make them the people God always intended them to be… So Peter finally becomes worthy of the name “the rock”, and Mary’s life finds fulfilment as the first of the Apostles.
The veil in the temple was torn – God will no longer be confined, His holiness is bursting out into the world, unconfined. The empty tomb confronts us with uncontainable love. From this rocky symbol of death comes forth life and from the tomb God’s love pours forth… and the risen Christ calls our name, shows us His wounded hands and side, tells us He will always be with us and gently, firmly, sends us out to share the good news with everyone, the sceptical, the indifferent, the hostile, the hurting, those wanting to dare to hope.
We are His witnesses – go and tell, go and live the new life Resurrection makes possible.
Christ is risen! Alleluia!