The great Easter greeting rings down the centuries and across the world. The Church is built on its Easter faith. The message of joy and victory will echo round the world today even in the face of this horrendously evil pandemic. The truth that death doesn’t have the last word, that God’s immeasurable love wins out over the implacable hatred of the devil is exactly what the world needs to hear. It is what the world always needs to hear whether in the complacency of its wealth or the desperation of its poverty. It is a message of timeless truth and universal relevant application. But Easter Day didn’t start like that. It started with tears. Let’s read the story as St Luke tells it in chapter 24 of his gospel.
But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they went to the tomb, taking the spices they had prepared. And they found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. While they were perplexed about this, behold, two men stood by them in dazzling apparel. And as they were frightened and bowed their faces to the ground, the men said to them, “Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men and be crucified and on the third day rise.” And they remembered his words, and returning from the tomb they told all these things to the eleven and to all the rest. Now it was Mary Magdalene and Joanna and Mary the mother of James and the other women with them who told these things to the apostles, but these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. But Peter rose and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; and he went home marvelling at what had happened.’ Luke 24:1-12
The previous chapter tells us that Joesph of Arimathea had courageously gone to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. St John tells us that Nicodemus who had visited Jesus at night earlier in his ministry went with Joseph as they both made their discipleship public. They buried Jesus in a tomb Joseph had planned for himself. They rolled a great stone in front of the entrance and St Matthew tells us the authorities placed guards there in case the disciples came to steal away the body. They didn’t notice the women. The women who had followed Jesus from Galilee simply didn’t trust the men to do a proper job of burying the Lord. They had stood at the foot of the cross while Jesus died. The only one of the twelve apostles we can be sure was there is St John to whom the Lord, from the cross, entrusts the care of Mary, his Mother.
As the women go to the tomb they go to finish the burial of their teacher, friend, healer, liberator and master. They talked of who might help them move the heavy stone away and, I have no doubt, there were many tears shed as they walked to the garden.
The resurrection story comes to us against a background of all the sadness the world knows. The betrayal of Judas, the desertion of the disciples, the hatred and plotting of the Jewish establishment, the weakness and injustice of Pilate, the cruelty of the soldiers and the indifference to injustice of the crowds in Jerusalem, all combine, as representative illustrations of the sin of the world, to nail Jesus to his cross……or, perhaps we should say, to our cross. As St Paul puts it “Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). The sunrise of Easter morning is set over against the dark sky of suffering and death. That’s why Easter Day this year is so important, so needed, so powerful: God’s message for this moment.
It is God who wipes away the tears from the women’s eyes. As the last book in the Bible tells us he still does for us (Revelation 21:4). What does it? The facts! Christians didn’t make up the resurrection as a gooey ending to the story of Jesus. They were not expecting the resurrection despite the Lord clearly telling them it would happen. It takes the rolled back stone, the two men in shining clothes (what a great description of angels, God’s messengers) and the great incontrovertible fact of the empty tomb to show that they will not find the living among the dead. Then they remember Jesus’ words and it all makes sense.
Gentlemen, we don’t come out of this very well. The women go back to the disciples and are not met with ready and rapturous faith. There are no shouts of “Alleluia”, rather the men write off what the women say as nonsense…..what you might expect from overwrought women going to a tomb in the half light of dawn. Something stirs in Peter and he has to go and check. He has to go to the tomb. St John tells us he went with him. It takes a while, but the penny drops, faith dawns and before long Jesus has appeared to both women and men and the great story is out! Christ is risen! Forgiveness is real, heaven is open and sin doesn’t win. There is Good News to take to the ends of the earth and the Apostles spend the rest of their lives doing just that.
That’s the task for us as today’s Church too. It hasn’t changed in 2,000 years. This year we are not in our buildings. Churches are learning new ways of sharing the unchanging message of Jesus. Sometimes that’s digital communication and streamed services, at others it’s a collected prescription for a vulnerable friend or bags of shopping delivered to a couple in self-isolation or a phone call to an old friend living alone.
I love this quote from John Sentamu, Archbishop of York:
”The church has got to remember it never began in a building. It actually began in a garden, on the road and in a house. So we have to rediscover the best prayers are said at home.”
May the Lord come to us this Easter as we go to the empty tomb. May He give us the assurance of faith, the peace of sins forgiven, the love of the cross and the eternal hope of the resurrection.
The Very Revd Robert Key