Scripture John 20: 1-18, Easter Sunday. Nigel Bunce
[This is our first attempt at filming a live service from the church. Please excuse the technical hitches.]
Understanding the Resurrection is tough work. Like Christmas Eve, Easter Day is among the most difficult services at which to preach. That’s because these Gospel stories are the most miraculous. They are the most other-worldly, the farthest removed from our modern scientific and literal experience.
The Resurrection story (or stories)
Today reaches the climax of the Gospel. The tomb is empty. Jesus’ body isn’t there. Some disciples report extraordinary experiences that Jesus is alive. How can we moderns possibly accept such a story? As an article I once read put it. “Dead people don’t walk out of funeral homes.” That’s a reason why understanding the Resurrection is so difficult.
It’s significant (to me at least) that the Resurrection accounts become more elaborate with the date of writing the Gospels. Mark’s Gospel is the earliest. It’s a very bare-bones account. Mary Magdalene and two other women discover that the stone is no longer guarding the tomb. A young man tells them that Jesus has been raised. The women tell the other disciples. But they are too fearful to tell anyone else.
John was the last Gospel writer to put pen to papyrus, and his Resurrection story is the most elaborate. It’s my favourite, and probably yours too.
Questions don’t help our understanding the Resurrection
We could ask ourselves questions like. “Did Mary Magdalene really mistake the Resurrected Christ for a gardener?” I wasn’t around two thousand years ago, so I can’t possibly tell you exactly what happened.
But trying to unpick the Christian story at that level is like picking at a scab. The wound underneath does not heal. It just gets bigger. Trying to assuage our doubts about the Christian story that way is similar. Our doubts just get bigger.
We can either accept that something amazing happened that first Easter Day, even though we can’t put our fingers on exactly what. Or we have to give up on the whole Christian story. Thomas Jefferson famously pasted together a “combined but miracle-free Gospel”. However, all that leaves you with is a faith-healer who told his disciples to love their neighbours.
The Resurrection as the foundation of Christianity
It’s what makes Jesus more than a preacher with a message of peace and love. For me, the evidence for the Risen Christ is the witness of Christians who have experienced Christ over the past two thousand years. Not on the specific details of the Resurrection accounts in the Gospels. One reality of Jesus, so many years after his earthly life and death, is that you tuned in to this on-line service.
I don’t dismiss the post-Resurrection experiences of the various disciples as having no basis in reality. Many people have had experiences of people who have departed this life being present to them. I have, too. So I can easily imagine that the disciples’ experiences that first Easter morning were real.
But the stories became embroidered in their telling and retelling, by the time that they were written down decades later. All four Gospel writers gave primacy to the women in the Easter story.
The Resurrection in the context of St. Paul
St. Paul wrote, “Now there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female.”
In Paul’s society, those equalities were not true. Paul’s dream was an early expression of human rights and non-discrimination. It was a major attraction of emerging Christianity. Events of the past year have emphasized that equality for all is not complete today. But Christianity insists that it should be and must become complete.
We have a choice
Either one dead person, Jesus, did walk out of the funeral home, even if not literally. Or he didn’t. In which case, we might decide that we have to throw the whole Christian story and our faith in God, out of the window. Then we must walk out of the church door for ever.
But before we take such a drastic step, we might step back and ask whether the Gospel story has a deeper meaning. I have said already that I find the most compelling aspect of the Resurrection is the witness of Christians who have experienced Christ over the past two thousand years.
The Resurrection as light in the darkness
Jonathan Dodson writes that symbolically, the Resurrection is an especially compelling and uplifting metaphor for people whose experiences of life are closer to Good Friday that to Easter Sunday [quote] “for people who are longing for a new start in life.
“People whose lives have been littered with failure, scarred by abuse, humbled through suffering, darkened by depression, or ruined by addiction, need the hope of becoming a new creation. To those seeking hope, the Resurrection exiles the old life and welcomes a new life in Christ, shedding a bright ray of hope into the heart of the hopeless.”
A call to action
Nevertheless we have to be careful not to take Dodson’s words casually. Said glibly, they come across as “Christian boilerplate”. Words that trip off the tongue, but have no substance. Something airy-fairy. Instead, let’s see them as a call to action.
The mere fact (or my personal acceptance) of the Resurrection doesn’t change the lives of those people who live closer to Good Friday than to Easter Sunday. The imperative of the Gospel message is to move us to do what we can to help people who live close to Good Friday.
To sum up
How will we know when or whether we can help? We can find part of the answer in the words of a hymn we often sing. Jesu, Jesu, fill us with your love. “Neighbours are rich and poor, varied in colour and race. Neighbours are near and far away.”
I said earlier that early Christianity attracted adherents because of its emphasis on equality. We can’t all work on a large stage. People like a Tommy Douglas, a Lester Pearson, or a Murray Sinclair.
Because, not every actor plays on Broadway or at the Stratford Festival. Yet, even actors who work as Extras are necessary for the success of the performance. That’s how I try understanding the Resurrection. Amen.