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Sermon for Easter Sunday Year C

March 6, 2016

Easter year C

He is not here; he is risen, and is going ahead of you’ Words from Matthew’s gospel

In the name…

They went to the tomb and found it empty. ‘He is not here; he is risen, and has gone before you’, is the message to the astonished disciples

Their disappointment led to unbelief. This is captured first in the story of Mary Magdalene coming to the tomb to anoint the body. It was an act of unbelief to expect his body to be there. The second act of unbelief was after she told the disciples of what she had not seen – his body. Peter and the others didn’t believe her and came to see for themselves. Later we have Thomas doubting the others when they said they had seen Jesus.

As the story unfolds it becomes clear that unbelief is not such a bad thing. Joseph Campbell, a student of comparative religions, looked for the transcendent truths that undergird all religions. He noted that they all require letting “go of the life we have planned, so as to accept the one that is waiting for us.”

Unbelief is about letting go of what we once accepted as true, as real; as possible versus impossible. It is a death experience that requires grieving. Not only did the disciples mourn the loss of a dear friend, they had to mourn the death of their belief that Jesus was a political messiah who would overthrow Rome. They had to mourn their lost opportunity to help him rule this new kingdom he had talked so much about. His death had killed the life they had planned.

But letting go of those beliefs left them open to new possibilities, new experiences. They discovered when they gathered at the synagogue on the Sabbath and listened to the Hebrew scriptures; that so much of what they heard reminded them of their dead master. He seemed to be there giving new understanding to the ancient and familiar words. But where was he?

After a long day working their boats, gathered around the fire for their evening meal,  reminiscing about the last three years, they sensed he was waiting for them to understand.

But where was he?  In their travels, they remembered how, before walking with Jesus, the sick and poor and the marginalised were invisible to them. Ever since he died they have found they can no longer ignore them and walk by. Like it was when he was alive they have to stop and engage them, offering comfort, healing and acknowledgment. But where is he?

No longer were they afraid. No longer were they locked up in themselves. They had new priorities. God wasn’t in their planned lives. God was in the new life waiting for them. With that awareness came knowledge of their oneness with their neighbour and with God. They had never imagined they were part of the Godhead. Yet, for the disciples who accepted the life awaiting them, Christ is risen – in them.

What might God’s victory over death in Jesus mean for us in the 21st-century? Peter and Cornelius, in our second reading can be our guides. The Greek in that passage is rough, full of grammatical errors, unlike the rest of Acts, so we may well have Peter’s unedited words.

Peter is in a city and a house where God’s people should not be. Indeed the only reason that Peter is in such a Gentile location speaking to a house full of Gentiles is that God has arranged this encounter 10:3-8,17-24,29-33.He preaches to a gentile soldier whom he might have previously dismissed as “profane or unclean” 10:14, 28 He preaches, then, as one attentive to God’s leading and God’s presence. This attentiveness allows him to do more than recite the details of an already familiar story v. 36 it creates an opportunity to consider the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ in the light cast by the fresh and surprising work of God in their midst.

Those of us who took part in our benefice Lent group read that Jesus didn’t just die and rise again to get us to heaven, great though that is, but that the resurrection of the crucified Jesus establishes a new world order, nothing less than God’s kingdom of righteousness – justice for all. As Peter in Acts says “God shows no partiality.” 10:34

This one who went about doing good and delivering all from oppressive injustice, himself ultimately bore the full brunt of that injustice in his unmerited suffering on the cross. It’s typical of worldly political powers: Caesar’s iron-hand rule often served elite, imperial interests rather than those of the poor and disadvantaged. Justice was skewed toward the top of the social pyramid. Might made right, and if some unfortunate innocent folk had to be crucified to sharpen the point and keep the peace, so be it.

How the Church does mission is about our understanding of God. Are we God’s keepers? Does the Church own God? Is it only us who can unlock the pages of the Bible and take him out with us, and see if he can do some good?

Or is it more that God is alive and well in his world, and that we need to unlock the tomb of the Church, not for dry doctrinal statements or rote storytelling but for a message that tells how the resurrection can change peoples’ understandings of them selves, their lives, their neighbours, and their world, and the God who raised Jesus on the third day and can help his people get out to lend a hand, so that what God is trying to bring about can be helped to happen?

After all, the risen Christ is out and about and doing things and wants people to go out and join him. So walking away from Jerusalem turns out to be not a slipping off home but a major reorientation, whether the disciples go to Emmaus or to the lakeside in Galilee. The experience of the resurrection pushes the disciples outwards, and forms the basis of the Church’s apostolic mission.

We need congregations who are confident enough to walk out of church, expecting to find God at work in his world, and who can spot the signs of life and recognize that activity as God’s. The Church’s responsibility is to draw people together to celebrate this involvement in life, but then to move them out to help to create the conditions in which the seeds of God’s creative life can grow and flourish.
Now it is our turn to stand before the tomb. It is our time for unbelief. What plans for our life do we have to let go of? We have had the six weeks of Lent to consider this and other questions: Are we willing to consider the possibility that life can be better than we imagine? Are we prepared to give up our resistance to new possibilities and truths? Are we willing to let God out of the box of our own making and lead us no matter where, no matter what? Are we going to have the courage to walk out of the tombs of our own making and accept a life of hope, love, justice and freedom?

The seduction of living in the tomb is that the conventional God is there too. You can sit in your comfortable grave clothes and talk to the God who is the same yesterday, today and forever. You can sing “Our God reigns”, soak up the acoustics, and feel all holy. You can memorise verses that affirm that God is the way, the truth and the life. It’s all very nice in the tomb.

Out of the tomb however it is not nice. The God of liberation is not a pleasant puppet you can sing to and feel all holy with. God, like truth, is bigger than our experiences and projections. Out of the tomb we discover that people are complex, life is complex, and God, like love, manifests Godself in a variety of forms and relationships. Change is not in our control.

May God break open our tombs, disturb our thinking, send niggling questions to visit us in the small hours of the night, compel us to shred the trappings of death and break free of the grave.

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