Alleluia! The Lord is risen. The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!
To begin to appreciate the significance of what we celebrate this morning we need to step back to Friday….the day the Romans crucified Jesus and two others. On Friday I described the brutal horror of crucifixion….it makes hanging look almost friendly by comparison and the Romans had perfected the art…and it proclaimed we Romans run the place and if you get in the way we will obliterate you. We also need to appreciate the significance of the idea of a Messiah…who was to be a military hero, the one who would deliver Israel from bondage to whichever power had the upper hand at the moment…and in the time of Jesus of Nazareth it was definitely Rome. We saw in a gospel reading a few Sundays back how thoroughly Peter believed that Jesus was to be such a warrior Messiah when he totally rejected Jesus saying that he would die and rise again….The kind of military messiah Peter had in mind would certainly not be dying…and so no resurrection would be necessary. But when Jesus was crucified, every single disciple knew what that meant….in slang…the gig was up. And whatever their expectations were coming out of their experience of Jesus their hopes had been thoroughly dashed…and they knew as well that they were lucky to still be alive….
Another thing we need to appreciate is that the whole idea of resurrection for the early Christians is thoroughly Jewish as it ought to be. For them the future was a two step process….first death and then a new bodily existence in a newly remade world, the kingdom of God, and it is the newly remade part of this that is so important to our celebration this morning. And we will come back to this in a minute.
What I want to make clear is that the gospel narratives of the resurrection are a vivid example of what my Rabbi professor in seminary used to thunder about. You Christians, he would say, ask the wrong questions. The question needs to be not what exactly happened or how did it happen that way….the critical question is “What does it mean? “ What does it mean….That is what I want to try to explore this morning. I am not interested in the perennial debate about whether we are to understand sacred texts literally or metaphorically….I am interested only in what all this means…what it meant to people then and what it needs to mean to us now. Because what it means has immense significance…as it did then and I believe it does now, urgently.
To quote the well recognized scholar and former Bishop of the Church of England, Tom Wright, “The resurrection was an accepted and politically revolutionary doctrine ….(Life that happens in spite of tyrants attempts to kill it off) and it remained so for the early Jewish Christians. Wright refers to a wonderful scene in Oscar Wilde’s play “Salome” when Herod Antipas hears that this Jesus is going around not only healing people but apparently actually raising the dead…the scene catches the politically subversive nature of resurrection when Herod though happy enough to have this Jesus go around healing people draws the line on resurrection. He thunders (I almost said Twitters) “I do not wish Him to do that. I forbid him to do that. I allow no man to raise the dead. This man must be found and told that I forbid him to raise the dead.” Herod the tyrant knows that death is his ultimate weapon and if someone is raising the dead his whole world will be turned upside down
So now back to this morning’s gospel….where Jesus calls Mary by name and in so doing calls her into a new way of understanding, of recognizing of being and she runs to the others panting “I have seen the Lord.” That all the gospels agree that this first proclamation comes from women in a time when women had no credibility at all should be a big red flag that the ways things were is not to be the way things need to be!.. Loren Wilkenson makes this point beautifully in his April Active Page article. Well worth reading!
But God so loved the world that He brought light out of darkness, hope from despair and life where there hadn’t been any . And it doesn’t matter to me whether you understand this reversal in a literal or metaphorical way because what is important is that something new happens and hope comes to life. Further the simple fact that not just the four gospels proclaim this new life in and for people and the world but Paul’s letters to the early communities, all of which predate the gospels, are full of what this meant….In those early communities the people of the way as they were often called lived and worked together, sharing resources, being transformed through love and their communal experience…being the Kingdom of God not the empire of Rome…And many of them paid a huge price for their choice of new life…both Paul and Peter were crucified and hundreds of people fed to the lions in Rome and elsewhere…Something absolutely profound and unprecedented had happened that presented a new vision of being God’s partners in the world, the kingdom of God, not Caesar’s had broken in….
And we are still at it….trying to live by the Kingdom rules, God’s will for the earth where we all have enough to eat, where swords are turned into farm tools, where people are safe living together without fear, or grudges or attitudes of privilege, where peace and justice are the priorities…all the things the Hebrew prophets thunder about and the prophets of our own time, people like Martin Luther King, Mother Theresa, Nelson Mandela, Ghandi, to name only a few incarnate in their own lives.
Though the Hebrews repeatedly tried to overthrow the Roman empire by force, it was not military force that ultimately changed things but living as changed people in spite of Rome. As an aside I chuckle at the recognition that it was actually the Celts, who for many of us are our ancestors, who ultimately brought the empire to its knees…..
God’s kingdom rules as lived out in Jesus life and the lives of his followers are sometimes described as the “pattern of our hope” a wonderful image since to me anyway it suggests patterns for making things whether it is quilts, or clothes, or computer chips..a pattern is what the new thing needs to look like. And this feast of Resurrection we celebrate today is like that. What God launched through who Jesus was and what he did is the pattern for a new creation and we are all called to be participants in that…in spite of whatever empires we find ourselves confronting….and they are clearly out there and at times in each of us too.
I believe our time in history….what we are experiencing in the world right now in so many places begs us to live and work as agents of love, people of reconciliation, people who feed rather than take, who share bread as we will shortly do, people who care for all creation, not blow it up or milk it dry.
I want to close with a quote from one of my favourite biblical scholars and theologians, Walter Brueggemann. (The people in this church community hear a lot about Brueggemann from time to time.) He writes:“The core truth of our faith is this. The God of the gospel brings life out of death. But the truth is a rock bottom acknowledgment that God can create new possibility, new space for life, new energy for obedience, new waves of joy. And the seal of the deal is Easter. On that dread Sunday morning Jesus’ followers discovered that the Jesus who had been executed by the state was alive and on the loose; death had no power over God’s will for life.
Alleluia. The Lord is Risen. The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!