Sermon preached by the Reverend Anna Matthews
In the Orthodox church, the most common icon of the resurrection shows Christ trampling down the gates of hell, the chains of death and sin and all that ensnared humanity broken open, and the long-asleep dead emerging blinking into the light of Easter.
By contrast, the western Church has tended to depict the empty tomb: the rolled-back stone revealing the space where Jesus is not; a symbol that death cannot and has not contained him.
But that was not the initial instinct of the first witnesses. A lot happens on the first Easter day in Luke’s gospel. It starts at early dawn, when the women go to the tomb with spices, expecting to find the body, to complete the burial rites. They go, wanting to express love, and decency, wanting by their touch to undo the brutality of the Friday, to soothe a body even though it can no longer feel.
But the body is not there. And, says Luke, the women were perplexed. They did not immediately think, ‘Alleluia, Christ is risen!’ As John’s gospel makes clear, the likelihood is that the women reached for the most plausible explanation: someone has moved the body. Dead men do not come back to life. If the body is not in the tomb, someone must have taken it elsewhere. It takes angelic messengers to remind them of all that Jesus had said about his death, and that after three days he would rise again.
Then the women get it. And quite spontaneously they rush back to the other disciples and tell them what’s happened. But they’re women, and they’re not believed: their testimony is dismissed as ‘idle talk’ or ‘useless chatter’. Already we begin to see dissent within the group of disciples; already they are beginning to fracture.
And this fracture is taken further with the departure of two of them for Emmaus. Jerusalem would still have been a dangerous place for Jesus’ disciples: it’s easy to understand the desire to put a bit of distance between them and it. And with the crucifixion of Jesus, it seemed that all their hopes and expectations had come to a shuddering halt. They had thought he was the Messiah, the one to redeem Israel. But that hope had died with him. Only after the stranger on the road opens up the scriptures to them, and breaks bread with them, do they recognise him as Jesus, and rush breathlessly back to Jerusalem to tell the others.
When they get there, the news has arrived ahead of them: now Peter has seen the risen Lord.
And they’re all gathered together, trying to make sense of it all – not just the appearances of Jesus, but all that has been told them about the way it had all unfolded: that it was ‘necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory’. The empty tomb and the appearances of Jesus make them go back to the scriptures, make them re-examine their interpretation, their expectation. They had thought that Jesus’ suffering and death ruled him out as Messiah. As they go back to the scriptures in the light of his resurrection, they begin to discern a different story, one in which the crucifixion isn’t the end of the story, one in which it doesn’t invalidate all their hopes.
And then the risen Christ appears among them all. And still they are scrambling to keep up. ‘They were startled and terrified and thought that they were seeing a ghost’, says Luke. They have just been sharing with each other the good news that the Lord is risen, and when he stands among them, they still don’t get it. And again, they reach for the nearest explanation, though it strains their rationality: they think it’s a ghost.
But this figure shows them his body, his wounds, invites them to touch him. And he eats a piece of broiled fish. Ghosts do not have flesh and bones and digestive systems. This is a real body: Jesus is not a resuscitated corpse, or an immaterial soul. His resurrection is physical. And this is Jesus: the scars bear witness to that. The resurrected Jesus is still the crucified one.
And again, Jesus teaches them, reminds them of all he had taught them before, helps them to see that his life, his ministry, his death and his resurrection are all part of the one action of God.
Everyone had thought that crucifixion was the end of the story. The Romans thought they’d executed a rabble-rousing threat to peace, whose kingdom threatened their own. The Jewish leaders thought they’d got rid of a trouble-making blasphemer. The disciples thought they’d witnessed the tragic end of a life full of hope and promise.
But Jesus’ work wasn’t finished. Behind the sealed door of the tomb, there are no witnesses to what happens. The Orthodox icon tells the theological story: that Christ shoulders his way into hell to rescue those held captive there, defeating the power of sin and death and hauling into life our ancestors in faith. But from outside the tomb it looks like nothing is happening. The stone rolled into place acts as the definitive end to this story. It is the full stop.
But the stone rolls back. My spiritual director is fond of saying that God has a habit of turning our full stops into commas, and I think this is what the resurrection does. The empty tomb says that the story isn’t finished yet: from beyond the disciples’ imagination and understanding God has acted to do something new. And it takes time for them to catch up. Confession of faith in the risen Christ is preceded by bewilderment, sorrow, grief, doubt, fear, confusion, joy and disbelief. That’s all part of the first Easter day.
But that’s not where the story stops. Through all that emerges faith, hope, obedience. If Christ is risen that means death is not final. If Christ is risen it means that we are not left in our sin. If Christ is risen then our fears, our doubts, our suffering do not need to define us. When it feels like our world has come crashing down around us, God can breathe new life. When the world outside us terrifies and bewilders us, Christ gifts his peace.
At the end of that long, long first Easter day, Jesus tells the gathered disciples, ‘you are witnesses of these things.’ And that is still the call of the risen Christ to his church, as his life spills out of the empty tomb, out of that room in Jerusalem, into streets and cities and throughout the world. ‘You are witnesses of these things.’
So our ability to be witnesses depends on our encounter with the risen Christ. And the way Luke tells the story of the resurrection, we should be left in no doubt how that encounter happens. It happens in the scriptures, which we read now in the light of Jesus’ resurrection. It happens as we break bread, and as we discern Christ in the bread and wine of the Sacrament. It happens when those who have encountered the risen Christ in their lives hold out to us a hope, a love, a courage, a forgiveness that is not their own, and help us to see that a different future is possible from the one we thought inevitable. It happens when we roll back the stone of fear or resentment or pride or unforgiveness or sin, and allow the light of the resurrection to claim us, to empower us, and to send us out into our homes, our workplaces, our communities, our world as witnesses to a love that is stronger than death, and to a life that is only possible because the tomb is empty, because Christ is risen from the dead.