Well, good morning everybody and welcome to our Easter service. I’m sure you don’t need me to remind you that we live in very strange and worrying times. Who would have thought that a disease that nobody had ever heard of just 5 months ago could suddenly change and transform our lives so dramatically – but the coronavirus has done just that! It’s changed the way that we shop, the way that we work and the way that we interact with one another. It’s damaged the economy and hurt our society, but sadly not as much as those families who have lost loved ones – hospital deaths in the UK being 8,958 as of last night but it’s possibly many more, and globally the numbers have exceeded 100,000. We, in the UK are just not used to living with such daily losses unless we’ve been at war. In a way, the British tendency to ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ serves us well, but it can’t hide the truth, that we are in fact at war – at war against this dreadful disease and that’s why we are so proud of our doctors and nurses and hospital staff as they battle on the front line, heroically doing their best to save as many lives as possible, remembering too the countless numbers of others working in essential services, all doing their best to keep us all going and our lives in order. And of course, in this war we all have a part to play, as we remember to keep our distance, stay at home, protect the NHS and help ‘flatten the curve’ in order to relieve the pressure and contain the disease. And so we all do our best to pull together, look after each other, trusting our political leaders and scientists to get us through.
But of course, today, is Easter Day, now it’s always been a wonderful story, but I believe its significance becomes even more profound and special to us as we reflect upon it in the light of our own current circumstances. For, today the coronavirus (as if we needed it) is a painful reminder that we certainly don’t live in a perfect world. The reach of this disease has been astonishing, and its capacity to bring so much strain, stress, sadness, suffering and death has been dreadful. Of course, young people may feel that they are indestructible, but to those of who are older, death seems to become more real the older one gets, and more greedy, eventually claiming everyone that we love. Which is why we look to science and praise our medical health workers as they endeavour to keep us all safe and keep us all well.
And of course, when we turn to Matthew’s gospel we appreciate that death was very much on the mind of the two Mary’s as they went to the tomb. Because only a few short days before they had seen, experienced and witnessed the most terrible of things; they seen Jesus arrested and brought before both the religious and political authorities, they’d seen Jesus publicly condemned to death and most brutally and horrifically crucified upon the cross. And all of their hopes, all of their dreams and all of their plans for the future seemed to have died with him. Not only that but their lives were turned upside down, their faith had been shattered and their party scattered. The disciples had fled, they were hidden in safe houses, locked away – and they were very much afraid! But the women loved Jesus and so after the Sabbath, they were determined to do what they could for him. Mark’s Gospel tells us that they wanted to anoint his body as custom required, but when they got their they found to their astonishment that the stone to the tomb had been rolled away. Now, it’s worth pausing here just for a moment, because some have tried to suggest that these ladies got it wrong and that in their grief and in the dark they went to the wrong tomb, but that’s nonsense on so many levels. Firstly only 15% of Jewish tombs had rolling stones, so that immediately narrows the field, but secondly this was not just a hole in the ground or a cave, it was a rich man’s tomb originally created for Joseph of Arimathea and his family, and so it would have been well made and possibly highly ornate, it would therefore stand out from the others and besides it’s the only one that’s marked by a Roman Guard.
Now in some way’s the account in Matthew’s gospel, is the most dramatic, because it features not only an earthquake, but a brilliantly shining angel and Roman soldiers who are so afraid that they swoon like dead men. Well, it may be like ‘all hell has broken out’ for our doctors and nurses in this current climate (after all that’s what they’ve said), but theologically speaking here in this passage it’s as if ‘all heaven has broken out’. The earth quake and the brilliant angel, which is so reminiscent of earlier encounters with angels in Matthew’s Gospel, alongside the awe struck soldiers, puts us in no doubt that this is a divine moment, a special moment, a turning point in the Gospel story. And the first thing, before anything else, that the women are told by the angel, is ‘do not be afraid’! Now, usually when we hear that phrase we as Christians draw huge comfort from it because we associate it with Joshua 1.9 which says ‘do not be afraid for the Lord your God is with you’ but in this case, we find comfort in the fact that he is strangely not, that he’s strangely absent.
5 The angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. 6 He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay.
Matthew 28.5–6 (NIV)
He is not here; he has risen! How amazing! How astonishing! How incredible is that! Jesus, the man who they thought was dead, is no longer dead – but alive! The cross is of course the central plank of the Gospel story and it will always be so, but it only makes sense in the light of the resurrection.
And immediately the angel gives these poor humble, frightened women – the most incredible task. They are told to go and tell the disciples that Jesus is risen, and that he will meet them in Galilee. And he told them to do it quickly, and so these women run from the tomb, but not out of fear like the Roman soldiers, but out of joy and excitement and huge anticipation they are going to see Jesus – and they are going to see Jesus very much alive!
And I like the next bit because it’s almost as if ‘just as they are excited to see Jesus’, he is excited to see them because no sooner have they left the tomb, than there he is! All that talk about going to see them in Galilee was him just ‘joshing’ around. He can’t wait he’s right there with them – and they fall at his feet, and they worship him. And what does he say? He says, ‘Do not be afraid’ and we all want to sing ‘because the Lord your God is with you’ Hallelujah!
‘Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.’ (Matthew 28.10).
And so we end our passage, but it’s not the end of the story, not by a long chalk! Because the significance of Jesus, life, death and resurrection is HUGE! MASSIVE!
Because not only does his resurrection, prove that he was, all he ever said he was – the ‘Son of God’, God incarnate, God made flesh, but it also means that our sins are forgiven, and that we have been made right with God when we put our faith and trust in him and recognise that he died for us. We are in that sense justified when we put our faith and trust in him and will be the recipients of eternal life.
But do you know what the significance of the resurrection is even bigger than that! Because the justification that we are speaking about is not just the justification of ourselves as individuals and the justification and atonement of our own sins, but the justification, the putting right and redemption of the whole wide world, and by that I mean the created order.
As we have already stated the world is not perfect, and yet when God first created it as described in the book of Genesis ‘before the fall’ he declared it to be good, and so it needs to be put right!
And this is where we often get so muddled as Christians, and where we have to fight against so many decades of misunderstanding. God’s plan is not that we should all becomes followers of Jesus and be whisked off into some spiritual plain which we call heaven as if the world is a load of junk and can be dispensed with! When we die in faith, we will most certainly be with God but we will not be floating in the clouds or in some far of place of our imagination. We will be with him waiting for that moment when the things of God, transform the things of earth so that it becomes the new heaven and earth which is described for us in the book of Revelation. When we become clothed in our new exceedingly real heavenly bodies that will be just like Christ. Because Jesus was not raised as a ghost, a spirit or a figment of our overactive imagination, he rose as a man, a real man of the new creation. Still able to eat, drink and touch and be with his disciples but is now incorruptible – because his death upon the cross has destroyed death, and every shred, jot, ounce and stain of sin – which is why there will be no more death, or mourning or crying or pain, because all of that belongs to the old order which has now been dealt with by his death upon the cross. Because as we are reminded in the book of Revelation 21.5 he who was seated on the throne said ‘behold I am making all things new’.
Okay, Okay, – but now comes the big question – so what? Despite Christ death upon the cross, it’s clear that the current world in which we live is not perfect, so what difference does it make? So what?
Well the difference is this! Yes, we may be called to live presently in this world amidst all of its sadness, suffering and pain – but God loves it and he has plans for it! And we are part of those plans! Because God has not left us comfortless, he has sent his Holy Spirit to be with us, and what did he command us to do – to love God with all of our hearts, and to love our neighbours as ourselves. We are called to be salt and light in this world, telling others about Jesus and sharing the hope that we have, and when we act collectively in a spirit of sacrificial love and self-giving, bolstered by our mutual love, concern, prayers and fellowship. We are already beginning to transform the world, it’s an act of the Holy Spirit at work in us, so what we say and do today really matters because it works in the light of what Christ has already done and anticipates that future change that God will bring. So let us not lose heart, nor our hope – and let us not be afraid because God is with us.
Hallelujah! Christ is risen! He is risen indeed. Hallelujah!
In the name of Christ. Amen.
Prerecorded for and on behalf of the Necton Benefice and released online for Easter Day 12th April 2020
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