Acts 10: 34-43
Matthew 28: 1-10
Easter Day. A day we celebrate with Alleluias and bunnies and bonnets and chocolate and family gatherings; we go to town celebrating a surprising day which in my mind is a bit odd because I’m sure that very few of us like surprises.
Here’s a story for you.
When my husband Paul and I were relatively newly married, on his first birthday we shared as a married couple, I organised a surprise birthday party for him. I was reminded of it recently because my daughter’s just done the same for her partner. I invited his closest friends and family to join us in a birthday celebration and we all managed to keep the secret from the birthday boy. It takes a lot of organising and effort to be so underhand. And it’s true I went to a lot of effort deceiving him which is perhaps why I can still remember what my husband said to me after it was all over. As we enjoyed reminiscing later on that birthday evening he said ‘How great it was that so many of my friends would come like that’ – but, and he paused - ‘please don’t ever do it again!’
So here’s my theory. That we’re people who by and large don’t like being taken by surprise. We organise our lives as much as we can to be rational, predictable and under our own control, to avoid the unexpected. We hope for a steady adherence to the route map which we’ve drawn up for ourselves and which we then work hard to achieve. Deviations, or as the sat nav would have it, ‘recalculations’ are unwelcome. We’re happy being people of certainty and habit. We may have to hunt for the Easter eggs but we like knowing where to find them.
And yet here we have an account right at the defining heart of the Christian faith which is so full of surprises.
There are many versions of the resurrection of Jesus given us in the New Testament but the one we’ve just heard, from the pen of whoever wrote Matthew’s gospel, particularly emphasises the dramatic and surprising nature of that day.
- For a start it’s a day involving only women. Now there’s a surprising way to tell a story. The historical testimony to Jesus’ resurrection would surely have been so much more plausible if told by men. Women were both legally and culturally deemed to be unreliable witnesses so why make them the messengers, unless, of course, it just happens to be true. Surprising though.
- Then there are features of that day which would take any of us by surprise. An earthquake, an angel whose appearance was ‘like lightning’, the rolling back of a huge stone sealing the tomb, and the trauma of the guards who ‘shook, and became like dead men’. No-one could miss that something unique was happening here.
- And the surprise of all surprises on that day of resurrection was the encounters with Jesus himself: those encounters which were promised would happen when they returned back home to Galilee, ‘you will see him’, and those which the women have right there and then because Jesus intercepts them, ‘they came to Jesus, took hold of his feet, and worshipped him.’
The really surprising thing about that Easter Day is that we’re introduced to a new genre of being. God had introduced a new reality of which we’re a part.
- Remember that the Jews had long believed in resurrection life but only in the next life, when we enter the world beyond time;
- And some people believed that they’d seen people come back from the dead. We read the story of Lazarus being brought back to life only two weeks ago but he returned as he was, human flesh and blood;
- Through the ages, who has not believed in the agencies of rebirth as we watch the Spring transform our natural world;
- Or in different cultures there are those who put their trust in reincarnation as a way of keeping faith with the essential power of life to recreate itself.
There’s no shortage of human convictions about life reasserting itself. But we’re rightly surprised by what happens here. Jesus was dead, and is now alive sufficient for women to take hold of his feet. But his body has been changed because God has broken the known boundaries and produced a unique transformation of matter.
And all because, the most surprising feature of all, death, and all that belongs to it, is not the end. The people who recite for us these accounts of seeing the Easter Jesus don’t entirely know what to make of what they’ve seen. Yet as a result of Jesus’ resurrection they become supremely confident that God has the last word. They’re now sure that light is stronger than darkness, that love is stronger than hate, that goodness will ultimately prevail over evil and that creation – ordinary matter – has been transformed in such a way that a new kingdom awaits us beyond this limited earth which we cannot fully comprehend but which will rescue and redeem us.
Easter Day is about unlikely, surprising events which deliver to us the message of great hope that we are not beaten by death. In the here and now resurrection is an invitation to live by hope.
What is the Easter invitation to you?
To let God’s love for you so break into your perspective that you know he’s always there for you, helping you face even your despairing hours.
You can, if you like believe in a God who made this wonderful world and sent it on its way but who then lets it simply get on, following the natural rule book. You can, but it’s not the God of resurrection. For the God of Easter Day cares so deeply about your life that he wants to intervene, to work out the best purposes for you in this life and the next. He is still creative in you.
And what is the Easter invitation for our world but to live by that same hope. We live, as we’ve always done, in the face of great temptations to hate, to resentment and rancour, paying little heed to the humanitarian costs. We’ve recently added treating truth as a commodity serving only partisan interests, and substituting popular mood for prudence, civility and a patient resolve to do good. We treat moderation as an outmoded political platform rather than a human virtue of immense value.
Whereas the hope celebrated today is that all may win, and be reconciled with one another. As we heard in our first reading, Peter came to realise that one of the most surprising and radical consequences of the resurrection was that God passionately loves all, and he privileges no-one. ‘God shows no partiality’
To illustrate such hope let me finish with an image which has inspired many this week.
Last weekend, as Holy Week began, there was a small but ugly event organised by the English Defence League, a self-avowedly anti-Muslim organisation, to happen in the centre of Birmingham. The organisers were using the tragic events in Westminster and Stockholm to promote their cause which some would see as nakedly racist. It all got played out to a predictable script with the police trying to keep apart protesters until one small surprising incident happened. A young Birmingham woman went to defend a small, hijab-wearing woman who was being surrounded and abused by a group of EDL men. Having separated and protected the woman from them Saffiyah Khan then came face to face with the leader of the English Defence League, Ian Crossland who seemed to be a human cauldron of angry confrontation. Someone took a photo of her as she, gently smiling, relaxed and unafraid, looked him directly in the eye. In the face of his dark fury she was frankly beautiful and the contrast was there for all to see. Love is stronger than hate, the beauty of kindness is closer to God than the ugliness of distrust.
Many thousands have ‘liked’ this image. They like the fact that Saffiyah Khan put herself on the side of the vulnerable woman and was not intimidated. And they’ve not missed the fact that any of us could do likewise. They were surprised by the joy of the image.
Easter is a time to be surprised. A time to believe in resurrection, to know we’re not beaten by death. A time to accept God’s invitation to live by hope and to live out that hope on behalf of others. To surprise others with hope.