I’ve been having a bit of trouble with Jesus this weekend. He has just refused to stay dead. On Friday I closed the door on his tomb at the front of the cathedral and went away, knowing he was safely inside. Later that evening I found myself thinking over how we might open the tomb up so that it didn’t happen too early but was ready for after the vigil service yesterday evening. Well on my way back from getting St John’s ready yesterday morning I looked over and found to my amazement that the door had been blown down. It was as if he had burst out of the tomb, ahead of schedule, and there was no containing him. The irony was not lost.
That was the wind, but our gospel reading (Luke 24:1-12) gave us the women who, having done what needed to be done for Jesus after his body was taken down on Friday from the cross and buried, came early in the morning wondering how they were going to open the tomb. They brought spices to anoint the body so that the process of decomposition would have a less unpleasant odour; be less smelly. And like me, but for real, they were stunned to find the tomb had already been opened. Surely someone had been up to no good here. When they went inside they found there was no body. When they told Peter he ran to the tomb. Stooping down he looked in and saw not just an empty tomb but the linens used to wrap the body lying by themselves. If this was grave robbery, why leave those behind? It is easier to remove a body wrapped than not and much more likely that robbers, or those wanting to destroy all evidence, whatever their motives, would just pick up the corpse, wrapped as it was, and go. The physical signs prepare us for the dramatic accounts of encounter which follow.
Easter is a day that should surprise and puzzle us. It is not expected; in fact it disrupts what we expect. The first disciples, the closest friends of Jesus, did not expect him to rise from the dead. They expected to find what we would go to a graveyard to find, that the dead stay dead. A place for grief and sorrow to be poured out. They were broken and shattered. Their hopes and dreams had come to an end. They knew where to contain the dead and a tomb was the place for the dead. So you don’t go looking for the living in graveyards, as the angelic messengers pointed out to them. The disciples of course weren’t looking for the living; they were looking for the dead. And just like I found yesterday, Jesus refuses to stay dead.
For good reason, not least 2,000 years of celebration, we have lost sense of that surprise. We expect Jesus to rise and plan for it. Flowers, eggs, meals and special services are all planned and made ready for today. If we have given up chocolate or alcohol, or whatever for Lent, we know that today we can indulge again and make up for lost time. We anticipate the celebration in so many ways and of course we never really think he has died because we live so much with the presence of resurrection. So even the darkness of Good Friday is play acted, because the grief is not really raw, as it is when someone we know and love dies and that is raw, or we lose something treasured and life will be different.
But there are ways in which Easter does still surprise us. New life breaks through in all sorts of situations that previously looked intractable or without hope. Who’d have thought 30 years ago that bombs and violence in Northern Ireland would surprise us, so this weekend’s commemorations over there are within a context of new life, peace and hope. It can happen in relationships. There can be enmity which finds a resolution when forgiveness is accepted and change follows; new life in behaviour and attitude. It can come when oppression and violence seems to have the upper hand and then liberation and harmonious living flow. Even the church can show signs of this. It is popular to talk of terminal decline, but I don’t buy that view. There are too many people still living this new life and being drawn to it. In fact it is the new life of the resurrection which is the sign that the church’s fortunes are not the central matter. We are merely here to proclaim this life changing, transforming love let loose.
Today we baptize a baby because a family believes it is important that the risen Jesus is part of how this child grows. We will all reaffirm the vows and declarations made at our baptisms too and rededicate our lives in the service of Christ, to stand against evil, to allow Christ to be the one who rules in our hearts and lives. Easter is the day we remind ourselves of our title deeds and recommit to living them, renew our confidence in them.
On Friday we kept this church open for silent prayer during the three hours between 12noon and 3pm. There was a steady stream all afternoon. It was a rare moment that there was no one else in the church. Most of those who came in sat down to reflect and pray, the silence allowing their own hearts to respond to the living God without the constraint of words and liturgy. As someone who likes crafting services it is important to remember that as much as they can help hold us when we struggle to find the words those words can also get in the way and there are times for free expression without constraint: for the tomb door to be burst open.
There has been talk of fixing the date of Easter. I’m not sure this is to pick up the Act of Parliament that lies dormant from 1928 to fix Easter to the first Sunday following the second Saturday in April. I suspect it is more for East and West to agree how they will calculate the date. The former is an arbitrary date, designed to fit commercial and administrative convenience and Easter is precisely the season to refuse to do that. It is inconvenience writ large. The dead do not conform to the expected pattern and that is an administrative and management nightmare. Good. The problem is rather that East and West are using different calendars and so the dates are not aligned. We have form here. In 664 a Synod was held in Whitby to agree the date of Easter in the English Church because the Celtic tradition followed one scheme and the Roman another. We pegged to Rome to align ourselves with the rest of Europe. Pegging things to align with Europe has a longer history than Brexit may realize.
One of the values of the floating date of Easter, however calculated, is that it aims to follow Passover and the first Easter happened around Passover. This reminds us of the Jewish heritage in Christianity and you can’t understand much of the New Testament without realizing this. Passover is the festival that remembers the liberation of the Hebrew people from slavery in Egypt. Moses demanded that Pharaoh ‘let my people go’. His refusal brought about their liberation through the waters of the Red Sea, liberation from death in the waters, and life in the land of promise. Baptism echoes with this tradition, which is why Easter is such a good day to baptize and be renewed in our own baptismal commitment.
Christ bursts from the tomb. Death cannot contain him and his new life bursts out all over the place. This is the Easter joy, both for now and the life to come. This is why our song is Alleluia.
Alleluia! Christ is risen.
He is risen indeed. Alleluia!
Sermon preached in Peterborough Parish Church, Easter Day 27th March 2016