April 21st, a Sermon for Easter Day 2019

“Why do you look for the living among the dead?”
(Luke 24.1-12)

On the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. 2They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, 3but when they went in, they did not find the body. 4While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. 5The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, ‘Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.6Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, 7that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.’ 8Then they remembered his words, 9and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. 10Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. 11But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. 12But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened.

“Why do you look for the living among the dead?”

Easter is, perhaps, the perfect feel-good story. It is the original redemptive epiphany, the story with the biggest twist in the plot, drawing all the strands together in a happy ending, yet leaving so many tantalising loose ends to follow up in our imaginations. Perhaps the only trouble with it is that the plot seems a tad unrealistic. At the end of a story that is so full of hard-bitten reality and which (particularly in the hands of Luke) is so carefully historical, why have such an unbelievable ending?

Well the simple fact is that the ending has always been unbelievable. The women who first peered into the empty tomb were ‘perplexed’ and the apostles dismissed it as an ‘idle tale’.

In fact, Luke leaves us with little more than a hint of the resurrection at this stage of his Gospel. Like a master story-teller, the plot unfolds slowly and tensely. It is not until the next Chapter when the risen Jesus appears to Cleopas on the road to Emmaus that we ourselves meet the risen Jesus and even then it is only a fleeting glance. Finally, as the disciples receive the news from Cleopas, Jesus appears in their midst. Even then, we are told, they were disbelieving, putting it down to wishful thinking. Jesus has to eat a piece of broiled fish to prove to them that he was alive, with a physical resurrected body, and was not merely a ghost.

It is the most striking feature of the resurrection narratives that the witness accounts are more about doubt than faith. Each of the Gospel writers goes to great lengths to describe their deep and profound doubts about the resurrection and to impress upon us that they only believed after the most convincing proofs. It is after all, not possible for the dead to come back to life, unless God does it. And their evidence is clear: we didn’t believe it either, but we saw it with our own eyes.

Through the 20th century, there was a great fad among revisionist theologians for dismissing the resurrection as ‘an idle tale’. The real Gospel, they argued, is of the wise down-to-earth rural teacher who had inspiring sayings about mustard seeds and lost sheep. The resurrection was a fanciful addition from a much later date, which crept into the story in the decades that separated the crucifixion from the writing of the first Gospels. You can see why they might think that.

But the main difficultly with the argument – and the reason why it has gone right out of fashion in modern theology – is that the Gospels were not, in fact, the earliest accounts of the resurrection. The letters of the apostles were – written very early after the resurrection. The first letter of Peter, one of the first people to peer into the empty tomb, begins: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.” And his whole letter is shot through with the electric vibe of a man who has personally witnessed something truly unbelievable.

Yet the first and most important thing he, and all the other apostles, wanted to tell us about Jesus was that they had seen him die and had then seen him alive. Only later did people start getting interested in his stories about mustard seeds and sheep. And then the Gospels were written, around the resurrection accounts.

The closer you look at the evidence, the harder it becomes to dismiss the resurrection of Jesus as an idle tale. It was the first and most important thing the apostles wanted us to know. All but one of them would be put to death for telling it. Yet each proclaimed defiantly to the end that their witness was true. Indeed it was worth dying for, because it was a greater truth than any other truth this world could offer.
It was a greater truth because it changed everything monumentally. It changed the course of their lives, it changed the course of the world, and it shattered the boundaries of what is possible. They had seen glimpses of this before, of course: in the healings, in the walking on water, in the miraculous feedings. Now they realised these were no conjuror’s tricks. They were the foretaste of the resurrection world, the kingdom of Heaven breaking into this poor old, broken earth; eternal life re-igniting our dying lives.

And they were never under any illusions that their story was anything other than unbelievable. They, themselves, had considered it nothing more than an idle tale. But, their message was that we should not be confined by the dull constraints of what we believe to be possible. As the angels said, “why do you look for the living among the dead?” Perhaps that is where we have been going wrong: being constrained by looking at everything the wrong way round: from the perspective of death, rather than life, from the worldview of the familiar, rather than open to what is possible, fixated on what limits us, rather than believing in the power of God which is beyond all we can ask or imagine. I said in the April parish newsletter, “faith is not believing the improbable. It is defying belief, seeing that that which we once dismissed as impossible might be possible after all. And so an outcome that had not been possible before suddenly becomes possible after all.”

Where would we be if our scientists had not defied the view of the world that we had always believed? Where would we be if our social reformers had not defied the belief that society’s structures could not be changed? Where would we be if our early lawmakers had not defied the belief that reason, evidence and discourse could overpower the brutal rule of the armed man?

And it is no co-incidence that all of these fields of human endeavour began in the monasteries and houses of Christian thought. While the rest of the world carried on as before, far into the modern world, the resurrection of Christ had long ago inspired these people to challenge the boundaries of what they believed possible.

And we are still making new and wonderful discoveries that defy our beliefs. Recently, I was listening to an astrophysicist on Radio 4’s Life Scientific talking about the multi-verse theory, the idea that there may be an infinite number of universes out there, all teaming with life. He said “we’re beginning to think that life is not unique to our planet, but that it might be an unstoppable force, which must break out whatever the odds.”

He was describing Easter. He was describing the kingdom of heaven. He almost certainly wouldn’t have used those words, but if he had understood what theologians meant by those words, I think he might have agreed. Easter tells us that life is an unstoppable force, which must break out whatever the odds, that God, the source of life, is infinitely more powerful than anything that might seek to harm or destroy us, whether that be the killings of our brothers and sisters in Sri Lanka this morning, the burning flames of Notre Dame or our own burdens and fears.

I don’t know what constraints you brought with you to Church this morning, but I wonder if you can find the inspiration to leave them here with Jesus. Allow him to dispose of them for you, whether they are doubts about your future, anxieties affecting your mental health, worries about loved-ones, fears about your own mortality, or even just the frustration that life is not all it could be. Leave them here at the foot of the Cross to let God perform the same transformation that brought Christ back from the dead.

Easter is no idle tale. It challenges us all to stop looking for the living among the dead, to challenge the boundaries of what we believe, to consider that that which we once dismissed as impossible might be possible after all, with God. And so an outcome that had not been possible before suddenly becomes the biggest plot twist in our story. May life become, once more, an unstoppable force for you against all odds, and may that be God’s gift to you, your loved ones and to us all this Easter.