Bishop Greg’s Easter Message 2017

“So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples.”

Bishop Greg Anderson

I guess we are so used to the outline of the Easter story that we easily lose the details that ring so true-to-life. There’s an example in that sentence I just read out. Running is not a common activity in the New Testament, because first-century Palestine was not really a running culture. In particular, women were not runners. But the Easter story, not just in Matthew’s account, but in John’s as well, features quite a lot of running. These women run to tell the disciples the news they have just heard from the angel, that Jesus is no longer dead in the tomb but has risen.

In John’s Gospel, Mary Magdalene runs to tell Peter and John, the two of them run back, with John winning the race. I ask myself: is there something I can imagine myself running to do – really running, not just a fast walk? What about you? Perhaps you’ve heard a loud crash next door and wonder if your neighbour is all right. Perhaps you are catching a bus to an appointment and you see the bus approaching your stop and you’re not there yet. Perhaps you see a toddler about to step into danger a little distance away. Perhaps the gates to the Rolling Stones concert have just opened and you want to be first in the mosh pit. (No, perhaps not.) Apart from the exercise routine, there is an urgency when adults run, and the same was true in ancient Judea as it is now. The women have been told to go quickly, but they hardly need to be told. The evidence that is in front of them is that something dramatic has happened. Their instinctive response is to run because the news is so dramatic, so surprising, so confusing, so urgent. Their emotions are in turmoil. We read that they are full of fear, but also of great joy. Fear because they have had a most disturbing encounter with a being so dazzling that he is described as like lightning, so fear-inducing in fact that the guards who are protecting Jesus’ tomb from disturbance are completely paralysed with terror, and we assume they are not the kind of people prone to neurotic displays. But the women as well as experiencing fear are also experiencing ‘great joy’ – overwhelmed by the strange and unexpected twist that has transpired, and no doubt scarcely able to believe it is real. As we hear the Easter story again, it is helpful to be reminded that little details like this bridge the gap between difficult-to-believe and believable. They are little spotlights of authenticity in stories that are very intriguing, and even puzzling. I don’t want to pretend that there aren’t puzzles in this story in Matthew’s Gospel, when in fact it is well known that the four Gospel accounts of the resurrection in our New Testament vary considerably from one to another. But I want us, in our imaginations, to enter once more into the Easter joy that these women experienced.

I want to say something more about the puzzles in this story. Some people have argued that the puzzles indicate that the stories aren’t meant to be historical recollections, but are somehow made up to prove some kind of theological point. Of course it’s true that the stories are deeply theologically designed, but that’s not the same as saying they are therefore unhistorical. In fact, one of the puzzles is that four different stories continued to circulate in the early church, with no attempt to smooth out what we consider as inconsistencies. People then were no more likely to believe inconsistencies than we are, which might demonstrate that they didn’t see them as inconsistent. NT historian N.T.Wright makes this comment: the surface discrepancies do not mean that nothing happened; rather, they mean that the witnesses have not been in collusion.

Let me give some example of the puzzles. We read in Matthew 28 that Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to the tomb early, on the first day of the week. Who is the other Mary? She has been identified in the earlier chapter as Mary the mother of James and Joseph, good Jewish names – the names of the patriarchs Jacob (James) and Joseph (ie Prince of Egypt) that might occur in any Jewish family. But early on in Matthew 13, Mary the mother of Jesus is described as the mother of James and Joseph and Simon and Judas – is this version in Matthew 28 just an abbreviation of the earlier one, and could this be Jesus’ own mother. After all, we know from John’s Gospel that she was near the cross as Jesus died. But if it is Jesus’ mother, why is she not identified more clearly, and given second position to Mary Magdalene. Here’s another puzzle: which women exactly meet Jesus on the road? Has he already appeared to Mary Magdalene alone, as John’s Gospel says? Or were there actually more than two women visiting the tomb that morning, despite Matthew’s reference to only two of them –after all, Luke and Mark both mention three, and John has three or even four on Good Friday, keeping vigil at the cross. And did Mary Magdalene run to Peter and John and the other disciples by herself from the tomb, while the other women couldn’t keep up, and then experienced Jesus as they hurried onwards, while Mary does not see Jesus until she has returned to the tomb herself? There are puzzles indeed, but none that undermine the remarkable consistency of the story – the empty tomb, the appearance of angels, the appearance of Jesus himself to women, and later to the other disciples.

Would you run if you saw these things?

Despite the puzzles, we have some other elements in the account that are part of what makes it run-worthy. I want to draw our attention to three. First, this event happens on the first day of the week, as light is emerging from darkness [just as we have enacted in our service this morning]. The Gospel of Matthew begins with the Greek words that are usually translated as ‘the account of the Genealogy’ of Jesus, but which could also be translated as ‘the Book of Genesis’. There are other indications that Matthew is deliberating linking his material with the beginning of the Hebrew Scriptures, our Old Testament. It strikes me as intentional that Matthew draws attention to this resurrection event happening on the first day of the week before light has emerged, just as God began creating the world by calling forth light on Day 1. Here is the sign that in the resurrection of Jesus, God’s new world, God’s new creation, has begun. Therefore the church is called on to live in this new age, depicting it, pointing to it, celebrating it, announcing it. Baptism and confirmation are witnesses to belief in this new age because baptism marks the separation from the old and the establishment in the new.

Second, the story points clearly to a physical or bodily resurrection, not just some spiritual event in the hearts or minds of Jesus’ friends and family. The angels invite the women to see that Jesus is no longer where he had been laid. The tomb is empty. The angel says that the disciples will see him. The women, when they encounter the living Jesus themselves hold his feet in worship. All these things underline that Jesus has entered a transformed, but still physical nature. The physicality of the resurrection looks forward to the physicality of God’s new creation – heaven is not mystical harp-playing in the clouds but structured around a renewed world that will fulfil what Jesus has begun. Our own bodies will be redeemed and raised when that new world comes into being, which is why the New Testament calls us now to offer our bodies to God as our spiritual worship. Does that sound easy? I don’t think so, but it is the logic that the New Testament calls us to. Since you have been raised with Christ in the spirit, and owned by God in your body, count yourselves dead to sin in your body, and alive to Christ. And the great news is that Jesus has not stopped being human by being raised – the physical resurrection, as Article 4 of our Anglican Foundation summarises it: Christ did truly rise again from death, and took again his body, with flesh, bones, and all things appertaining to the perfection of man’s nature.  He continues to know what it is to be human, he continues to be able to sympathise with us in our weakness. We can keep coming to him for refuge.

Third, the appearance of the angel, which I guess we take for granted in the story, even though it is so foreign to the lived experience of most of us here, is significant. Talk of angels is not all that uncommon in the New Testament, they are obviously part of the consciousness of the people of God. But while talk of angels is common enough in the NT, there are not really all that many angelic visitations. Almost all cluster around the birth of Jesus, and then only a couple of other occasions: the temptation in the wilderness, and in the Garden of Gethsemane. The intervention of an angel coming down from heaven (as the story reads), accompanied by an earthquake reminds us that the resurrection is not just a human thing – it is a dramatic intervention from God. The earthquake in its own way draws attention to that. There is stuff that humans can do to improve their world, but the resurrection reminds us that God is still in the picture. Our appropriate response is to trust him, seek to stay close to him, and to pray for and work for God’s ultimate redemption of the whole world, which the resurrection enables.

The resurrection of Jesus changes everything. It is indeed the turning point of human history. The end has begun and we move forward in confidence and hope because that new world already has its first citizen.

Christ is risen. Alleluia

(He is risen indeed. Alleluia.)