Bishop Helen-Ann's Easter sermonMay the force (of the resurrection) be with you!
Easter Sunday 2017
Now, tell me: what do you see?’
‘It’s so much bigger than that.’
These words may well be imagined dialogue between the angel and the women at the tomb early in the morning on Easter Day. They are in fact the opening dialogue between Luke Skywalker and Rey in the trailer for the new Star Wars film released on Good Friday, or Holy Saturday with the New Zealand time difference.
If the four Gospel writers were in a competition to pitch a narrative for film adaptation it is highly likely that our Gospel writer for today, Matthew, would be the winner. Matthew is far more Hollywood than Mark, Luke or John. His tendency towards drama and special effects lend themselves perfectly to a cinematic screen. We get an earthquake, and the angel of the Lord descends from heaven rolls back the stone and to make the point, sits on it. The state-of-the-art Roman security team demonstrate that they really aren’t up to much; they are like corpses: a play on the fact that the corpse that was put in the tomb, namely Jesus, is himself no longer lifeless. You can imagine the scene, the angel sat there on the stone with his arms folded, job done, perhaps with an air of satisfaction on his face: he has played his part, death is no more, only life is left, and life in its fullness. Jesus is not there, he is risen!
A few days ago, the largest non-nuclear bomb used in combat was dropped by the United States on a suspected IS target in Afghanistan. Growing tensions in global politics have been evident since Donald Trump became President in November last year. The crisis in Syria continues to appal us with distressing scenes a few days ago of chemical attack victims followed by a denial on the part of the Syrian President that such an attack took place under his orders. Coptic Christians in Egypt continue to worship in defiant fear following the murderous bomb attack on Palm Sunday. These are just a few examples; I could provide more. But this, like previous years is the global context within which our Easter celebrations take place.
Nearer to home, the clean-up following Cyclone Cook is ongoing, and the Auckland housing crisis continues. Look at our media, and all you see is brokenness and distress, juxtaposed with the latest celebrity crisis and the poor soul who has just been rejected by the Bachelor on TV3's cringeworthy annual love-fest (you do understand that I have watched a few episodes purely in the interest of market research!). The real greater love is that expressed so elequently in John’s Gospel: that Christ died for us, and that he rose again, and that all that is good in our world is an expression of God’s love for each one of us.
As with Mark, the women are the first human witnesses to the resurrection, as they have been witnesses to Jesus’ burial. They confirm the truth of the story, and are appointed as apostles to the apostles. They are sent to proclaim; that is what the word apostle means: one who is sent. The absence of the tomb is emphasised by the fact that Jesus remains absent in the narrative until near the end. Suddenly, in the midst of what must have been a chaotic scene, he appears and we can only imagine again what that must have been like to his surprised and probably slightly bewildered followers. Jesus meets them and tells them to ‘Rejoice’; our translation of ‘greetings’ doesn’t quite make the point of the Greek here: the word means an emphatic ‘exuberant cry for joy’ the most joyful you can muster, and the form is that of a command: the women are ordered to be happy; it’s not optional, it’s real. Now this could appear a little uncomfortable to us, rejoice, smile, shout out, in church, really? We’re Anglican and we are in the Cathedral! Well the point is yes, really, yes, because on this day of all days if we cannot do what Jesus asks of us and rejoice at the good news of his resurrection, we are not fulfilling that which we are asked to do. We too are sent out to proclaim good news, and it helps if we can do this with some degree of confidence that may encourage others that we do have something important to share.
To make the point that Jesus’ resurrection is real, the women grab hold of his feet, and, like the magi at the nativity right near the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel, they ‘worship’; Jesus confirms the mission that the angel had given them, instructs them not to be afraid and to go to Galilee where the mission will be lived out.
So the lifelessness on the cross becomes the life-filled presence by the tomb; death is turned into life, and nothing will ever be the same again.
But the danger of the ‘same-again-ness’ of the resurrection lies in the inevitability of the supermarket version of Easter, which began months ago.
The resurrection of Jesus does not begin or end in economic transaction: chocolate eggs and bunnies and the like (much as they are quite tasty! I don’t if anyone here managed the deep fried and battered hot cross bun filled with a crème egg and covered in chocolate sauce, icing sugar [interestingly named Christmas dust] and mini eggs at Winner Winner?! sounds more effective when said in one breath!).
Our understanding of the resurrection is grounded in a religious narrative that is thousands of years old, and evokes the story of the liberation of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt. It was and is a powerful narrative. So where and how do we begin to understand that, and articulate a radical belief in God who raised Jesus from the dead? What difference does this reality make to our city, and to our region? Are we talking another language entirely and are we able to help others appreciate its importance for their own lives? In our world of deep scientific exploration and the need for certainty, there is little room for mystery, wonder and events that turn everything upside down. But perhaps the challenge doesn’t lie in a focus on the mechanics of the empty tomb: there was no 24-hr news coverage after all. It’s what we do with that overwhelmingly good news now that really matters.
The power of the resurrection lies not only in the fact of it having happened, but rather in its reaffirmation of life in a world where God is now set loose and everything is turned upside down. Through Jesus’ birth, God enabled a connection between the ordinary and the extraordinary – something far more profound that the display of objects from the past alone can ever hope to express. Through the cross and resurrection, God affirmed a hope in humanity that brought us through the shadow of death into an eternal light.
If we take hold of the rejoicing, then we have good news for the journey. If we allow the joy to enfold every fibre of our being, then we have strength to hold and to share when the road becomes difficult.
That is the message of hope that must prevail against those who would murder our sisters and brothers in Egypt who gathered in peace on Palm Sunday; that is the message of peace that must prevail against warmongering global leaders whose only knowledge of diplomacy is destuction; that is the message of courage that we need today to be able to proclaim our faith, to stand alongside people in need and to respond in overwhelming generosity.
At the end of the Star Wars trailer we hear Luke again: ‘I only know one truth,’ he says, ‘It’s time for the Jedi to end…’
But what does ending really mean? Not a conclusion necessarily but a beginning of sorts. As the poet TS Eliot mused:
Time past and time future
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
The cross led to the resurrection, and ending and a beginning. May we so have the courage to proclaim that in our own lives.
Alleluia, Christ is risen!
He is risen indeed, alleluia!
May the force be with you,
Story Published: 16th of April - 2017
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