This is the text of the message I prepared for the people of the Morwell and Yallourn Cluster of the Uniting Church for Easter Day 2018, Sunday 1st April. On this day they gathered at Yallourn North.
Isaiah 25:6-9; 1 Corinthians 15:1-8; Mark 16:1-8
The disciples who gathered (and scattered) on Holy Saturday did not know it was a day of vigil. They did not know Sunday was coming: they thought it was all over. When the women approached the tomb just after sunrise, whispering amongst themselves about how they were going to move that huge stone, they were doing so because they hade no expectation that the stone had been moved. They were carrying spices to anoint Jesus’ corpse because that is what they expected to find, if they were actually able to move that huge stone in the first place. No-one was expecting the stone to be moved and the body to be gone, and even when they arrived and found it thus their first thoughts would not have been resurrection but desecration and grave robbery. Do not be mistaken, the women’s first impressions of the empty tomb were not joy and worship, but heartbroken desolation. “First, they crucify him, and then this. They open his grave and steal his battered body to do God-knows-only what horrific things to him.” It was with this mindset, this anguish and agony, this anxiety tinged with outrage, that the women meet the young man dressed in white.
Unique among the four gospel writers Mark relates only an empty tomb story and not a resurrection. Jesus is not in the tomb, the tomb is open and empty, but unlike Matthew, Luke and John Jesus is never seen alive. In one way we should not expect to see Jesus there, since in Mark 14:28 we read how he instructed the disciples to meet him in Galilee; so that’s where he will be. To see the risen Jesus the disciples must go to Galilee, to the home of Jesus the Nazarene as Mark and the young man in white tell us in Mark 16:6. Strangely, uniquely, Mark doesn’t tell us about that event and he finishes his story here.
Jesus’ final instruction to his followers in Mark’s gospel is to go home: to his and their home, which Mark 1:16-20 tells us is Galilee and the place where it all began. Jesus will appear again, but he will do so away from Jerusalem, in private, and among the “True Believers”. The message is reiterated at the empty tomb to the women; and these women are also Galilean. The next big thing in God’s plan of coming into the world in creaturely form is given to three women; Galilean females far from home, standing in front of a tomb which has been ransacked, and if they are seen there, women who are liable to prosecution and execution on suspicion of being the grave-robbers themselves.
I bet you weren’t expecting that from the first page of your Easter Sunday sermon, were you? So baffling, so threatening, so many unanswered questions, so abrupt a conclusion to the story of Immanuel that it hardly constitutes a conclusion at all.
Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:5-8 says what Mark 16:1-8 does not, which is what happened on and after that first Easter Sunday morning. Jesus does appear in person to Peter and then the twelve, and to a crowd of 500, and to his brother James, and to the apostles, and then to Paul himself. So, not to the women then: and since Paul doesn’t actually say where all of this took place then perhaps it did all happen in the Galilee somewhere. Maybe the women did eventually tell Peter what they saw, and maybe he lead the group back to the lake where he and they found Jesus waiting for them. Perhaps this is where the 500 were, and James as well. Maybe James as the next brother in the family has assumed the duties of the eldest with the death of Jesus and he has taken the grieving Mary home to Nazareth. Thanks to Paul, we get a sort of seventeenth chapter of Mark in 1 Corinthians, and all is good with the world. All is good for the moment at least.
You don’t need me to tell you that for Christians the resurrection of Jesus is a central idea in our religion. It’s arguably the central idea, and the fact that you have each come to congregate in this building on this morning suggests that you get that. The idea that Jesus returned to Earth in human likeness yet newly different; not as a disembodied and enlightened soul but as a real-yet-not-like-us person, is what 1 Corinthians 15 is all about. The facts and faith of the resurrection of Jesus is the future of the Church; and that God is the one who does it is central to our understanding. By God I am not saying that Jesus had inherent power to raise himself, but that The Father displays Jesus to whomever The Father chooses to reveal him, and hides Jesus from whomever The Father chooses to hide him. God’s promise to the Church and to all who believe in Jesus is new life, a fuller life which is still recognisable as human life. When Jesus appeared to each of the groups described by Paul, and those described by Matthew, Luke, and John in their gospels, and Peter in his testimony, he is not a ghost. The resurrected one is not a phantom, neither is he an angel; he is a man transformed by the power of God. When we leave this life and enter the next, fuller life in the perfection of the Kingdom of God neither will we be ghosts or angels: like Jesus we will be men and women transformed, transfigured even, by the power of God. The resurrected Jesus is for Christians the definitive sign and the visible evidence of the promise of the Reign of God. We shall become what Jesus became when Christ returns as king.
This is what it means when Paul writes that we are being saved through the good news we have heard (1 Corinthians 15:1-2). This is the good news, this is the message to which we hold firm, this is the promise where if we don’t get it then all else of our faith is in vain. Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures and was raised to life in accordance with the scriptures (1 Corinthians 15:3-8). Christ Jesus was vindicated by the resurrection: the prophets had said centuries before that the victory of justice over violence was coming, it came, and now we hold to it as true and valuable. Jesus really did live, really did die, and really was revealed by God as a resurrected and transformed man. The Christian gospel in its entirety is proved right by this, and it is shown to have power to transform the world, starting with our self-identification as sinners and traitors (1 Corinthians 15:3).
So, what does this mean for us? Our Old Testament reading offers that with the resurrection of Christ the promises made to Israel to bless all nations through them came into effect. Isaiah 25:6-9 speaks to how what was first promised to Judahites is released into the world for all to take benefit. In the Kingdom of God celebration will replace mourning, comfort shall replace disgrace, and restoration will replace destruction and all who choose to attend will be welcomed at the place of God’s revelation. Just as Jesus was restored and vindicated in the resurrection so the hope of deliverance for all who gripped on to faith with tenacity and desperation as all else faded shall be vindicated when they are brought home to God and to freedom.
So that’s what today is all about, because that is what Christianity is all about. The central message of Jesus was the inconceivably generous and gargantuan love of God for creation, particularly for women and men, and the eternal plan for reconciliation and the restoration of God’s rule on Earth as it is in Heaven. That is what “repent for the Kingdom of God is at hand” means, the first words of Jesus in Mark’s gospel. Change your mind about God, because overwhelming love is coming, and when it comes you will still be you, but you will never be the same again.