This is the text of the message I presented on 16th April 2017, Resurrection Sunday, to the people of Lakes Entrance Uniting Church. It was the first time I had preached on Easter Day.
Colossians 3:1-4; Acts 10:34-43; John 20 1:18
One of my favourite songs for Resurrection Sunday is not a hymn or chorus, or even a “church song” at all. It’s by U2, it’s called “Window in the Skies” and it begins:
The shackles are undone,
The bullets quit the gun,
The heat that’s in the sun
Will keep us when there’s none.
The rule has been disproved,
The stone – it has been moved,
The grave is now a groove,
All debts are removed.
Oh, can’t you see what love has done?
It may seem strange to begin a reflection on the most foundational of Christian truths with a ten-year-old rock song, but I believe that this song, written by Christian men who work in “the secular realm”, expresses the same sorts of emotion that our reading from the gospel summons.
John’s gospel tells us that Mary Magdalene came to the tomb alone and before dawn. She arrives to find that the stone – it has been moved, and so she runs for help, believing that the body had been stolen. When she and a couple of the men return, the “disciple whom Jesus loved” is said to have “seen and believed”, although we’re not told what he believed, and he and Peter having seen what they have seen promptly go home. They just go home: as you do.
But not Mary, Mary stays there. She takes another look in to what she understands is an empty tomb only to find that it is not empty at all. The empty tomb is now occupied by angels, two of them, the same number of angels as there were men who have just gone home. They ask her who she’s crying for and she tells them. Did you get that, Mary tells a pair of angels, sitting in an empty tomb, that she’s upset that the dead Jesus has been removed without her knowledge. There are angels…in an empty tomb… Something extraordinary is going on here but Mary’s distress is too overwhelming for her to look past the first thing she’d seen; that Jesus’ corpse is missing.
The story goes on, Mary is alone in the garden once more since the men have gone home and the angels have not left the tomb, yet she is not alone and a man is there. He calls her “woman”, and those of you who were around a few weeks ago know what happens when Jesus addresses a female conversation partner as “Woman”. Revelation is about to happen. Something more has happened in Mary’s vicinity, the story is reaching its climax, and Jesus calls her name.
The shackles are undone.
Some traditions put the words “don’t touch me” in Jesus’ mouth at this point, but I like what we have heard here, “do not hold on to me”. Mary is allowed a hug, but not a long one, as Jesus has a very important appointment to keep. I just love this moment in this story. Consider what is happening here in what I believe to be one of the finest, and yet also one of the most under-reported events of that first day of resurrection. Jesus is in the process of ascending to the Father, he’s heading for Heaven for the first time since he left Heaven at the annunciation of Mary his mother, this is the culmination of the resurrection when the Son of Man is to be vindicated in glory by God the Father, but that can all wait until Jesus has comforted his friend. The risen saviour of creation pauses in the very act of ascension to embrace his weeping, confused friend to assure her that he is there and that it is truly he who is truly there. And then, like every other man in this story so far, Jesus goes home.
To every broken heart,
for every heart that cries:
love left a window in the skies,
and to love I rhapsodize…
So sings U2. So sing we.
The repercussions of the resurrection of Jesus are not limited to the final chapters in Matthew, Luke and John; neither are they evident only in our day and the miracle of today’s salvation in Jesus’ sacrifice. In Acts 10:34-43 we read the immediate events of the resurrection of Jesus, of how the truth that God has no favourites was revealed to the disciples of Jesus and of how that message was quickly spread to all corners of the known world. Peter, speaking in a Roman household in the Roman capital city of Judea, i.e. the city where Pilate and the bulk of his army actually lives, tells that pagan yet imperial household the message of Jesus: that Jesus alone is the source of forgiveness of sins, and of fellowship between those who have accepted his grace because they have received the message of his witnesses. Cornelius the centurion had been searching for God, and God had sent one of Jesus’ moist experienced eyewitnesses to tell him that he was welcome in the family of God. Cornelius, the gentile agent of an invasion force, is welcome to sit at the table of grace with Peter himself because of the resurrection of Jesus.
In Colossians 3:1-4 which was written before Acts but describes events that occurred following what we read there, Paul exhorts the Jesus-believers in Colossae to be confident in their pursuit of God and the Way of Jesus in life. In other words, live as if you are already in Heaven because Christ who is in Heaven lives in you. This is the story of the Reign of God which we have heard about so much in past months. Live as if God is king and Jesus is lord: as if the world is already God’s own province, and that the influence and governance of God extends to where you live. You can live like this, even though the roll-out of the rule of God is not yet complete, because Christ has ascended. Yes, there is evil in the world, and yes there is harmful and difficult stuff which is not necessarily evil but is just not good, but since you are “hidden with Christ in God” as it says in Colossians 3:3 you can rely on the resources of the Kingdom to flourish where you are right now.
Jesus is celebrated by Peter’s testimony as one who went about doing good and healing all who were repressed by the devil (Acts 10:38). The Way of Jesus was picked up very quickly by the apostles, disciples, and witnesses who followed him across the world. Enter a place and tell the story of Jesus, heal any sick, expunge all demons, raise any dead, welcome each of the restored, go to the next town, repeat. What was once a tomb, a dead-end, is now the front door to a well-worn path: the grave is now a groove.
I have heard it said that a grave is a rut with the ends filled in. But I’d like to flip that around and say today that a grave with the ends blown out becomes a channel. Christian life is not about slipping into a rut, at least it is not designed to be: Christian life is a way; and more than that it is a way where there wasn’t a way before. Dead-ends become tunnels and channels, high walls become ramps, ridgeways and bridges like the raised track of a train. The road of the way, just like the recently-dead Christ on Sunday morning, is unstoppable.
And so, we find ourselves where every Sunday finds us: knowing that we are loved beyond our capacity to understand, rescued and restored from terrors we could never fully appreciate (nor want to), and empowered to live a life of unparalleled freedom and joy because of the Spirit of God who lives in us, just as that spirit lived in Jesus, Peter, Paul, all the Marys, and Cornelius.
Two weeks ago, we heard from John 11:25 that whomever continues to believe into Jesus will live into eternity. This is the story of resurrection day. Life is assured for you, not just eternal life in the sense that you will live forever in Heaven, but complete and abundant life in that your existence will always be bountiful, extravagant, and well resourced. Trouble may come and trouble will come, the resurrection power of Jesus did not prevent Peter and Paul each being murdered by the Roman authorities, and I’m sure Cornelius didn’t long in command of his cohort once his conversion story came out, but such trouble will always be temporary. The grave cannot hold any of us, it is now a groove, and a groove where Jesus walked before us to open the way.
Love left a window in the skies, and to my God, (who is love), I rhapsodise.
Come and see what love has done, what it’s doing in me