Death is no longer a fall into absence but a gateway into ultimate presence

Liz Stuart, 12 April 2020

Acts 10: 34–43; John 20: 1–18

Jesus Christ is risen. He is risen indeed. We are an Easter people and Alleluia is our song.

A few months ago, before all this isolation started, I got myself a Chinese takeaway. I put the bag of food on the front seat of my car and set off home. When I stopped at a set of traffic lights the bag fell on its side and as I reached over to right it I saw two tiny beady eyes staring out of the bag at me, and then they disappeared into the bag. I just couldn’t believe it but I had to keep driving and when I stopped again at a junction I looked over and there they were again – beady little eyes that disappeared as soon as I looked. By this stage I was in a panic and thinking, I cannot take a mouse or rat into my flat because the neighbour’s cat once brought a mouse in and it ran up my trouser leg, and I could not go through that again (which, funnily enough, is also what the mouse said). So I pulled over, grabbed the bag, went to a lamp post, and with my heart pounding yanked the bag open, and I was so relieved: it was not a rat, it was not a mouse – it was only the Peeking Duck.

I tell you that very bad joke this morning because in parts of the Church in medieval times it was customary for preachers to use their Easter sermon to tell a string of jokes (some of them a bit naughty), and for congregations to be rolling around on the floor in fits of what was known as risus paschalis (Easter laughter). Why was that? Well, laughter is about the release of tension, and what we celebrate today is the resolution of the greatest tension of all – the tension between life and death. We may not feel much like laughing now amid the isolation and loss caused by the pandemic, but perhaps laughter at this moment is the perfect expression of our faith. One of my favourite descriptions of the resurrection comes from the Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh, who described it as ‘a laugh freed for ever and ever’.

When Jesus dies on the cross, he enters into the realm of the dead, the place of God’s absence, the space where, as T. S. Eliot put it, nothing connects to nothing – a space devoid of life and light. Hell. But here is the thing: because Jesus is God he takes God into that space. In Jesus, God enters the space of his own absence. He is swallowed up by death and darkness; but absence cannot contain presence, death cannot contain life, darkness cannot contain light. So absence breaks apart, death disintegrates and life bursts through death. Jesus is risen. And everything is different. Suddenly, everything connects with everything. There is now no place where God is not. Death is no longer a fall into absence but a gateway into ultimate presence. The forces of darkness and hate are defeated; they know they will now never have the last word. They writhe and lash out in their last agony, knowing that they too will have to succumb to love and be remade by it.

The forces of darkness and hate … writhe and lash out in their last agony, knowing that they too will have to succumb to love and be remade by it.

So, there is no need to be afraid anymore. And how we need to hear that message today. Love will have the last word over you, over me, over everything; not our pain, not our brokenness, not our anxiety, not our sin, not our gender, our sexuality, our race or wealth, not our religion, not our mistakes and foolishness and sin, not a virus, not our isolation, not our dying; only Love, only God. Sadly it is so difficult to live in this amazing truth. We create our own little hells – spaces where we think or hope God is absent – we think that, but it is an illusion. There is no place God is not, and that is why we celebrate Easter every Sunday, never mind every year, to remind ourselves that God leads us out of our illusions of fear, death and darkness.

I like to think of the resurrection as a sort of conga, stretching across time and space, with Jesus at the front leading us out of darkness, out of despair, through cold, hard rock, through rotting flesh, into a blaze of light and love. You and I are somewhere in that conga, caught up in the wonderful dance of resurrection. And somewhere in that dance are our neighbours and friends and strangers and enemies, and a lot of them do not know it; they do not know that Jesus has broken the bonds of death and is leading them out of death to life. We are called to be witnesses of the resurrection to them so that they can be freed from the illusion of the absence of God and the fear that accompanies it, and join in Jesus’ dancing day. And perhaps somewhere in the line, at the very back, is Satan himself, defeated and redeemed by Love. And I think today, Easter Day 2020, that conga line is singing:

We’ll meet again
Don’t know where
Don’t know when
But I know we’ll meet again some sunny day.

And because he is risen,
a fire burns in my bones
and my eyes see possibilities
and my heart hears hope
like a whisper on the wind
and the song that rises in me
will not be silenced
as life disrupts
this shadowed place of death
like a butterfly under the skin
and death itself
runs terrified to hide.
Because he is risen.

So writes Gerard Kelly in his beautiful ‘Poem for Easter’. Because he is risen we are a free, fearless, Easter people – even in the middle of a pandemic, Alleluia is our song and resurrection is our rhythm.

View the sermon here
(12: 20)