’ Afraid because of a situation that defied rationality – and that’s how the text is written. But was there another fear that’s not part of the written story. Were these men afraid because Jesus was no longer safely dead? Afraid of Jesus’ last and most profound riddle – a resurrection. Afraid of the conquencies of uncertainty. The mourning of a death interrupted by the possibility that there was another end to their story. We can’t know but only imagine, but in the hearts of his confused and bereaved friends there may have been this other fear. It was a terrible end to the story they had become a part of, but not the end that they had been trying to resolve.
He might come back?
The resurrection of Jesus – once it became a doctrine of the Church and guarantor of its status as the continuing vehicle of Christ’s mission, became a basic piece of ecclesiastical furniture to be preserved at all costs. Some years back when there were a few church leaders with arresting new ideas, the then Bishop of Durham, David Jenkins was for many an enlightened thinker but for traditionalists a dangerous man : he had a questioning mind, as one might expect of a previous theological professor at Leeds University. He tried to express in contemporary terms what it means for Jesus to be dead and Jesus no longer to be dead. So, when three days after his consecration as bishop on 6 July 1984, York Minster was struck by lightning, resulting in a disastrous fire, some Christians interpreted it as a sign of divine wrath at Jenkins’s appointment.
People felt they needed to protect the doctrine of Christ’s resurrection which he had imperiled. Those first disciples however may have felt they needed to be protected from the man himself. He came back!
Being a full time servant of the Church – deacon, minister, lay worker – is a funny job. You are paid to serve the church in the world and to do many other things as well. The job can take you over and submerge your own small faith in the very process of being obedient to the demands of your work and the demands of the people you are working with and for. Unless some things remain vital and alive in your personal faith, the job of ministry ceases to sustain you and the joy ends. I have always felt that if on Easter Day I am only left with the doctrine of resurrection and not the heft and weave of a Life whose relevance is now and for ever, then I am part of a church talking only about itself to itself. He came back! And the trouble he caused when he was alive remains to trouble, energize, and release us today.
Four reflections –
1. Human beings can be very bad at using the Law
Of all the things that make people anxious – especially powerful people – criticism of the law and its authority can be most alarming. Law exists to ensure some sort of equity and justice in the land and in the world. When a law is relevant to how people live it can provide stability and justice. It is the general consent without which no group of people can exist peaceably and creatively. When the law is oppressive, preserving the interests of a powerful minority, fractures in society break out and a country or a continent can be divided against itself. At a time of economic crises such as we are living through today, the making of laws that deal justly with the many ‘have not’s’ as well as the few ‘have’s’, is particularly fraught. The U.K.’s present Coalition government is not doing at all well in that respect.
Jesus was crucified by the law. Rome in its rough way was just to its captive states, more so than had been the case by other conquering empires. The accusers of Jesus got him killed by using the difficult balance between their customs and Roman rule, manipulating the process to their advantage. In their hands arguing for the protection of public order, the law in fact became destructive. It overreached itself. Against the purity and harmlessness of a Palestinian peasant on one side and a religious establishment frantic with the fear that they were losing authority on the other, the law lost credibility.
Jesus came back and we learned that the law can be manipulated for evil. It is fallible and we should never surrender our will to it.
2. Rationality of the mind and eruption of the spirit.
We have this need – we who live in the northern hemisphere and inherit western culture – to do everything tidily and well thought through. Be a fly on the wall of your average Church Council and you are likely to see a group of sincere, well- intentioned people trying to come to wise decisions about the organisation and development of a community held together by common faith and mutual respect. There’s often a lot of emotion there as well, though we try very hard to come to rational decions. It’s in our Methodist tradition – we are called methodical for a very good reason.
Jesus’ twelve disciples were a traveling school of religion. A very emotional one. But at the same time a cerebral one. Jesus was asking them to unpack their minds, examine the tradition and start thinking afresh. There was this series of imperatives. . ‘Look!’. Listen!’ ‘Seek!’ When he was no longer there, it must have felt like the death of mind. The most rational thing they had to manage. But he came back!
Thinking is obligatory for the Christian. But though we have a gospel to argue for, it’s never enough. There’s a spiritual truth that erupts and which is beyond rationality : from the ground it comes up and from the heaven it comes down. The Spirit energises our minds but can never be contained by them. Jesus evidently dead. And he came back.
3. Hope and Despair
It’s never been like it ought to be. We imagine that we are living in a uniquely bad chapter of human history, but if our horizons are anywhere broader than our own backyard, it must always have been like that. The situation in Middle Eastern and in African countries, the tension between the two Koreas, the appalling difference between the wealthy and the ordinary people in the so- called ‘new’ nations, who are in fact amongst the oldest civilizations, burdens us. There’s enough injustice and suffering around for us to feel that things will never get right and in fact are daily getting worse. It can become an act of will to listen to the news.
It is a terrible thing that we are part of a species that causes so much grief to itself and to its environment. No wonder that sometimes we despair and fear for our children and their future. It is not surprising that only something utterly unexpected was sufficient to deal with the blank despair which possessed the disciples of Jesus when he was killed. He came back.
Easter day is more than a commemoration of a remarkable experience remembered as an historical event. It is a promise that there is always hope, even against the total lack of evidence that it can be so. I am one of the Friends of Sabeel, a Christian organisatiion that exists to prays for the just treatment of Palestinians in modern Israel. Each week there is a bulletin which refers to the latest mistreatment of people in their own land, and a call to prayer. I find it difficult to read and even more to pray. But hope not despair is the Easter promise. He came back.
4. Beware Jesus
My last job took me into many churches in South Yorkshire. Often there were pictures in the church and the vestry of ancient worthies, long dead. Sometimes there were pictures of Jesus, also looking rather dead and often the same portrait : faded, no longer noticed I suspect by the regulars, usually very sentimental : a forgotten and inoffensive Christ. He wasn’t like that at all. You don’t demand that someone like that be killed because he has profoundly disturbed the status quo. You either follow a man like that or, as happened, you strike him down. He upset people. You don’t create such a disparate alliance – priests, pharisees, a local King, a representative of the Roman Emperor and gawping people tied in to the latest scandal – unless you have been deeply disturbed, troubled, challenged.
Beware Of Jesus. He lifts the burden of selfishness and fruitlessness, of life without purpose and gives us the rest of confidence in a God who knows and cares for us. But that’s the only rest. Our conscience cannot rest. Our idealism can never easily be satisfied. There are always people to forgive and from whom to seek forgiveness. The poor need to be fed and the politicians challenged. The prisoners set free. Good news offered to people for whom otherwise news has always been bad. A new life, but never an easy one. He came back.
Easter is not about taking a doctrine down from the shelf of the church’s storeroom, dusting it, venerating it and then putting it back in store for another year. More it is about a strange meeting, out of its first time into our time, the miracle of new beginnings.
Our sense of justice is challenged
We think about our faith and allow the spirit to energise us
Hope becomes a strong word as we seek the betterment of all life
We open ourselves to the presence of Jesus – free of death; free for us and people everywhere; free of the church; free for the world.
When the body wasn’t there on that first Easter morning, the women were afraid but Matthew tells us that they were told not to be, but to go back to Galilee, back to where it all happened. Back, in fact, to fear! But this would now be a different awesome, joyful, holy fear and one in which we now share. He came back!
Further readings related to Easter Day sermon: