For those of you who missed the Easter Sunday sermon, if you would like to read it, the text is below.
Easter Sermon 2020
The gospel reading from today is from St Matthew. At dawn Mary Magdalen and another Mary go to the tomb where Jesus has been laid.
Reading the text, their experience must have shaken them to the core. There was a violent earthquake; the stone in front of the tomb was rolled away, and an unearthly being with an appearance like lightning was in front of them. This experience so terrified the Roman soldiers who were present that they became like dead men!
Clearly the women were made of stronger stuff! They did not faint; but I can imagine that they must have been absolutely terrified. This experience must have been so far beyond anything they had expected or experienced before, even though they had travelled with Jesus for years and seen many miracles and amazing things.
This Easter must be the strangest that any of us have experienced, perhaps the strangest in living memory. The last time the churches were closed in this country was in 1208, when the Pope excommunicated King John. We are unable to meet together, worship and pray together, or to celebrate the traditional dawn of new life and new hope at Easter with our friends and families.
So to speak of resurrection and new life in a time when it feels more like a continuing Good Friday, or the emptiness and waiting of holy Saturday, is very strange. Emptiness, absence of the familiar, and a sense of isolation and lostness are, for many of us, probably more prominent emotions at present.
I find myself reflecting on the fact that the women who had spent so much time with Jesus and who were so close to him did not seem to immediately recognise him when they saw him that Easter Sunday. This lack of recognition is something which comes up, one way or another, in all of the gospel accounts of the resurrection. The women do not recognise Jesus; the travellers on the road to Emmaus do not know who they are walking with; until a certain moment. And that moment is different for each person in each of these accounts.
What I’m trying to say is that the resurrection was not immediately obvious. At first they saw emptiness and absence, or perhaps it is truer to say they did not recognise God’s presence with them.
I think this is especially relevant to us this year in the midst of this pandemic, where we hear of the numbers in hospital and the numbers of those who have died rising and rising, both in this country and around the world. Although today is Easter and is a celebration of the renewal of hope and new life, for very many of us that hope is not yet visible, but rather all seems still very dark.
Perhaps we are looking in the wrong place for these signs of hope. If we look in the tomb for signs of life, we will not find it. In Matthew’s gospel, the angel said to the women: I know that you are looking for Jesus, he’s not here, he has risen, just as he said. Go and tell his disciples that he is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him.
If Jesus has gone ahead of us into Galilee, then where is Galilee for us today? It is no good looking in the tomb for the signs of life and for hope and a future which are not there. Instead, we must look forward to what is not yet known, and be brave enough to take the journey, trusting that Jesus will walk with us even as he walked to Emmaus with those disciples. We may not recognise him as we travel; we may have to wait until we arrive, even as they did. But we can make that journey in the certainty that he will meet us, that we will see him, that the resurrection hope is there and that new life is with us even if we don’t see it yet.
Matthew finishes this section of the account with another unexpected twist. Given what the angel has said, we would expect that the women would go home, tell all the other disciples, and that together they will see Jesus in Galilee. But as they hurry away, Jesus meets them. He repeats the message that the angel has given for the other disciples.
This is worth stopping to think about because it is likely to have been so unexpected to those hearing this story for the first time. For women to be the first witnesses of the resurrection is amazing. In Jesus’s time, women were of less importance and value than men, in all kinds of ways. But in this account, the men – the Roman soldiers – are unable to cope and overcome by the experience and are as corpses. The women may be afraid but they stand their ground, and they are given the message of hope to pass on.
Looking at this as a metaphor, perhaps again this is relevant for our own times. The people, systems, and ways of doing things that we expect to be powerful and which we rely upon have perhaps not been as strong or important as we might have expected. Rather it has been the people and the aspects of life which we have overlooked and taken for granted as small, and perhaps previously unimportant, which have suddenly become absolutely key to our everyday lives. It is these that have brought us the message of hope and new life, the message that we can survive, even if not in the ways to which we have been accustomed.
And that brings me back again to the fact that the resurrected Jesus was not immediately recognized even by people who knew him well. Maybe the shoots of hope, and the possibilities of transformation and blessing, that are symbols of the resurrection and of Easter are among us already, but we need a little more time before we can recognise them for what they are.
Wherever we find ourselves, spiritually, emotionally, mentally and physically, may we be open to God’s blessing and to his peace, and above all may we know that we are loved and precious in his sight. Amen.