Readings: Acts 10:v.34-43
Easter Day is special. It’s a day for songs and beauty, for purity and happiness; a day to dream and love and hope. Feasting and gladness is the order of the day. It’s a joyful day; a day to affirm that impossibilities can become reality; a day when our humanness is made radiant by the indwelling of God, a day when an old story becomes the narrative of our lives.
For this is the day of resurrection, and a single cry from the past is echoed in the hearts of those who hear and believe it. ‘He is risen!’. Charles Wesley is right –
King of glory! Soul of bliss!
Everlasting life is this
Thee to know, thy power to prove
Thus to sing, and thus to love’ .
You can’t enter into the joy and mystery of resurrection until you face the death of Jesus that preceded it.
Of course. So we make a space together to think now, as well as to sing.
The facts as we know them. A good man was killed by a hasty coalition of people who wanted him out of their way. It was an appallingly cruel and brutal death, an execution reserved for felons and murderers. It was the death of a man of peace who lived as a poor man amongst the poor and, though grounded in the religious culture of his day, moved far beyond it, his message of new life and new dignity before a God of grace and love embracing all sorts of people, especially those who were disadvantaged by estate or condition.
A death that left his closest friends dazed, confused, suddenly utterly alone and afraid, his body summarily buried in a borrowed tomb. Removing the evidence and hiding from its shame.
As you know there are widely differing and indeed contradictory accounts in the gospels and echoed in some of the epistles, about what happened after the death. Scholars recognise that probably Mark’s account at the end of his gospel is the oldest and most reliable. It is terse and factual – verses 9- 20 are likely to have been inked in by another hand – and probably reflect how it is when you are bowled over by an unlikely event such as when someone dear to you is killed, and then returns? So much reportage, so much to try and get into focus and context.
Very probably Matthew and Luke base their versions on Mark’s and John on all three, and other sources unknown to us. For all sorts of reasons, they develop the simple statement into a narrative that reflects their own reasons for sharing their beliefs in the importance of Jesus and no doubt with the particular audience they want to address in mind. Grab a group of Christians in any age, and each of us will tell a different story – the impact of events, our own experience and background all help to create different responses and explanations.
So, Matthew is keen to emphasise the guilt of the Jews in his version; Luke in his gospel is preparing a message which becomes important in the composition of his second screed, the Acts of the Apostles, namely that the Risen Christ commands his disciples to preach repentance and the remission of sins. John writes a much more detailed version which includes the story of Thomas and his doubting and how that ended when he saw the marks of nails in the hands of Jesus, and as he had insisted wanting to see before he could believe, thrust his hand in his side. There are some people who think John’s might be the earliest of the gospels – partly because of such detail –, but not many. John Robinson, onetime Bishop of Woolwich wrote a book propounding the theory, but unlike much of the rest of his original thinking in the wild 60’s and temperate 70’s, it had few takers.
These differences require some sort of response by us. People who read the bible as if God dictated it word for word, ignore the differences; others who believe in synthesis have suggested ways in which the diversity can be accommodated. I am helped to understand this most significant of Christian beliefs as we read the scriptures by recognising that fact and symbol, though of course related, are never the same; that event and interpretation though related are not the same, that dogma and faith are not the same. Theology matters but it can obscure the drama of faith and reduce the theatre of our salvation to a verbal tract.
There was an event. Something beyond explanation, happened. Out of the confusion and desperation that followed the death, one single truth remained for the disciples. What seemed plain at the time – that their story was at an end – ceased to be true. All the accounts converge on that basic conviction. He is alive! Not as he was, not in this visionary sense for ever and indeed the claim is that it was only for a few days, but enough the same man in the same time- sequence for his friends to be transformed, as he had been. It was not over. Their story was but at its beginning. The time for mourning was over, the long hard pilgrimage of learning a new life was over, now was the time to share and open out that pilgrimage, to tell the story, and still to be disciples for there was more to learn, but now to be apostles as well.
There is this extraordinary sense of dynamism in the N.T., which is where our interpretation of the event must begin. Of course there were immense differences amongst people of the new faith, reflected in the resurrection accounts we have mentioned. James and his friends founded the new church in Jerusalem, conservative lot as they were, holding to the idea that the gospel was primarily if not entirely a message for the Jews. Meanwhile Peter and Paul were scurrying around the Mediterranean world and discovering that the gospel was for everyone, and the Holy Spirit (shock horror) had no favourites, alarming news to James and his uptight mates.
What was true then has been true of the church ever since, though we have tried to ignore the truth that interpretations differ, they do, and there is no one absolutely authentic template on which to form a church and define its doctrines, though the simple cry ‘he is risen’ takes us near to it. Paul struggled o to balance diversity with unity, even if the old pharisaic attitude to truth still clung to his coat tails. But for all of them in their different ways, the dynamism was there, and sustained an amazing missionary enterprise that spread to Asia Minor and perhaps beyond. That’s how the event was interpreted, the joy of finding that the Lord had risen, became the power of a new way of living and being and finding and telling, and the church of truth and love was born.
And still lives? Something happened and it still happens in loads of different ways, not always understood or acknowledged. That wonderful shout on the first Easter morning ‘’he has gone on before you’ is the motivating premise and promise of our lives. We shall argue our case as far as we can; we know that we are surrounded by a regiment of dissenters who insist on putting religion in one box and science in another and never the twain shall meet; we recognise that some of our Christian sisters and brothers are into absolutes and are better at finding heretics than discovering how to share love; we acknowledge the existence of doubt –for ourselves as well as for others; but something happened that was so real that we have entered into it and believe and base our lives on a response to Jesus Christ which is not an historical endorsement but a contemporary experience.
Jesus lived a simple life but has been used as an excuse for the extravagance of some of our famous buildings and too much of the pomp of our apparel and the assumed power of how the Church addresses the world. Not all our inheritance is good, much of it is bad. Today however we remember that coming from God there is a gift of personal encounter with the living values of Jesus and which belong to each of us: creating our tears of compassion, our anger at injustice, our suspicion of cliques, our commitment to open communities, our love for the forgotten poor, our rebuke to the heedless rich, our acceptance of personal shame and our willingness to be forgiven and to start again
All this and more is not the result of wishful thinking or inherited custom, but the consequence of the stone rolled away and the spirit of Jesus abroad in the world.
‘He lives, he lives, who once was dead
He lives, my everlasting Head’.
We are not fools chasing antiquarian ideas like archaeologists digging up the signs of a past drawing us back to a lost world, but existentialists whose lives are grounded in a story that once happened but belongs to the present and motivates and sustains our future. So be it.
So it is. Amen.