Easter: resurrection begins in darkness

Peter Seal, 27 March 2016

Acts 10: 34–43; John 20: 1–18

The news is no better this morning than at this time last year. You may have heard of the terrible things that happened on Friday. Here in this building, and in churches across the world, Christian people relived the execution of an innocent man. Together, many of us re-enacted the arrest, torture and death of Jesus of Nazareth.

And it gets worse. Crucifixion, as a form of merciless execution, continues in a number of countries today. Media reports forewarned that Christians in some places would be crucified for their faith on Good Friday. One of them was Father Tom Uzhunnalil, a Catholic priest in the Yemen, which is ravaged by war. He was captured by Islamic extremists three weeks ago, during which time he has been brutally tortured. Rumour had it that he was to be crucified on Friday.

For all who spent time at the foot of the cross, Friday was a very, very dark day.

There are Good Friday moments in all our lives. This week the people of Brussels are in deep, traumatic shock following the double attack on their airport and a city metro station.

After any terrible experience it can feel as though our faith is being tested. What we describe as ‘testing of our faith’ is not how we try to intellectualise away the pain and suffering. The real test of faith is how to ease the pain with Christian compassion. This can bring peace and healing. God, in Jesus, suffers with all who suffer. So today, each of us can bring our Good Friday moments to the God of love, the God who suffers alongside us, from the inside of our suffering.

Easter is a big day. And big days like today often touch us deep inside. The great Christian festivals – like Christmas, Mothering Sunday, Easter and Remembrance Sunday – touch us deep inside. They seem to draw up from inside us, and carry with them, some of our deepest personal and family memories. If we’re going to be in touch with the deep things in each of our lives, the things that really, really matter; if we’re going to get in touch with the big questions, the deep questions we long to find answers to; then today is the day.

If we’re going to remember and miss someone we have known and lost through death, the chances are we will do so today. All kinds of people – regardless of how they might describe what they believe – seek, as it were, to hold in blessed memory the ones they miss. Our new initiative of inviting people to buy a lily in memory of a departed loved one has been a huge success. Many more lilies than last year, a total of 71. Just look at the abundance of exuberant lilies below the east window! Take a moment to sense all the deep loss, and love, they represent. During this weekend many folk visit graves and memorial plaques, renewing flowers, tending the earth. Love is poured out in silence.

Today, here in this place, in our celebration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, all our gestures and words and speechless silences are somehow gathered together. They’re sown deep within God’s love, ready for the day when he will make all things new again.

The day on which Jesus was executed became known as Good Friday because of the resurrection. As night fell on that first Good Friday two men, Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, both of whom admired the teachings of Jesus, removed his dead body from the cross. ‘Near the place where Jesus had been crucified there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb, not yet used for burial.’ It was in this tomb, in that garden, that these two men laid the body of Jesus. Jesus was dead. From our own Good Friday moments, we can imagine the depth of desolate darkness that those who had seen Jesus die experienced.

And then, ‘While it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb’. In the poem ‘Resurrection’ in his book In Search of the Lost, Richard Carter puts it this way.

Resurrection begins in darkness
There is distraction
There is confusion
And uncertainty
In the mind and stomach
The yawn of despair
And I look round
And I cannot find whom I am looking for
And there is fear so caustic that I will never find him again
And then Christ comes
Comes so simply
As though to dispel all fear
He comes like joy comes without introduction
Like healing which has dissolved the pain
He comes
Like rain on dry brittle land
He is simply there
Like light which ends darkness with no struggle
For then it was dark
But now it is light
He comes with his balance and with his beauty
And order returns
Like a bird returning home from another land
Spring comes
He comes with no explanation or reason
And there is song
And a hope
And a future
We are surprised by his love
But he is not
For though he kept us waiting and doubting and trusting
He always knew he would never leave us.

Without death, there is no resurrection. Death is real but, in Christ, death is conquered and not sidelined. Our Christian hope lies in the fact that God raised Jesus from the dead. With faith we can face our mortality but not fear it.

We can go forward into resurrection living, into the wide-open spaces of a new creation that has come into the world with God, in Christ.

We might ask: is the resurrection about the past, the present or the future? And the answer is, ‘yes’.

The Easter season is not a full stop, rather a series of dots. The end is where we start from. Jesus’ tomb was discovered empty on the first Easter Day. He appeared to Mary Magdalene and to his disciples – not resuscitated, not a ghost, but resurrected. He was alive in his body, but alive in a new way. When he had shown himself to his disciples a number of times, he parted from them.

An Easter poem for children describes Jesus as Mary Magdalene’s ‘somehow living friend’. This is an interesting phrase which seems to capture the reality of Jesus as an intimate friend and, also, the unknowable mystery of quite what his risen presence is like.

The church seeks to demonstrate that Christ is risen indeed. There are no human boundaries that can contain his life. The worldwide church of today is a universal community. A community constantly seeking to reach Beyond Itself, to those from ‘every tribe and tongue and people and nation’ (Revelation 5: 9).

The angel at the empty tomb proclaims the message that ‘perfect love casts out fear … God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of love and power and self-control.’ The frightened and grieving disciples hear the words, ‘He is not here, he is risen’, and then ‘He has gone before you’. Like those first disciples, we can go forward, without fear. We can go forward into resurrection living, into the wide-open spaces of a new creation that has come into the world with God, in Christ.

To conclude, in a short poem Ruth Burgess puts it like this:

Having been grabbed
by resurrection
we are full of tears and laughter.
The way ahead is unknown.
It will always be like that.
But having danced in the light
we will look for glory everywhere.