Bible Reading: John 20:1-18
O God, may our hearts and minds be opened and challenged by your Word for us and for the world we live in. In Jesus name. Amen.
Its official, I have decided. New Zealand is a secular society! That is if you measure it by the degree of acknowledgement of the Christian Easter Story in the media and on the TV channels that bring us entertainment and enlightenment. I had a quick flick through the listener – mainline TV managed to resurrect for the umpteenth time the Vicar of Dibley Easter special (good as it is) and the fairly crass Bruce Almighty where Jim Carrey gets to play God for while. That is it.
In the news there has been and will be some media coverage of the Easter services held around the country, of the walks of the cross in the city as there was in the ODT on Saturday.
But still I say – that is it.
But then I started to think – possibly generously– that maybe this is not because programme chiefs or reporters are passionately secular or deeply anti-religious or just reporting a newsworthy event – far from it - but because people increasingly just don’t see how a Christian Easter has any relevance within this fast paced, complex world of self-survival any more. It may be that for some people within the church, too, there is a sense of detachment, of the repeated story of Easter losing meaning in the reality of living in this world, of difficulty in connecting with the drama that is the Easter story. Because it is a time of high drama – when you walk through Lent – look at the banners on the wall to remind you of the stories – when we experience the events of Holy Week, we become increasingly involved in sensing the anger, the betrayal, the loneliness and the pain, of Jesus and the anguish, the life seemingly extinguished, the waiting, waiting and finally the rebirth of hope in the risen Christ for those early followers and for all who have followed Christ since then.
It seems to me that there is a gap of understanding – and that the somewhat mysterious, ritualistic often uncomfortable happenings of Easter week within the church appear to those who look on from a distance, as a place of ‘yes well.. so...’? I see this as one of the great chasms that we need to bridge – if we want the gospel narrative to have any meaning and relevance for this world. And I see it as one of the hardest bridges to build with the most non-conformist engineering design that you are likely to find. We have to not only recognise how church is seen from those who have little experience of it but also figure out the story we actually want to tell. As an example of perspective, I remember a comment from a chance encounter – when the person found out I was training for ministry they said – well I totally refuse to have anything to do with a belief that promotes torture - on the cross – that is just not right.
I also wonder how many use the debate on whether the physical body of Jesus was fully restored in the resurrection as the most important entrance belief into being a Christian – small wonder if they do as we seem to have spent an inordinate amount of time on the question of a bodily or not resurrection. What do we want to say is the Easter story?
If, miraculously, the world of media and reporting was suddenly to turn to you and say – so what is it that you want on the front page of the paper, as the headline for tomorrow’s news, what is it that you want in the programmes for television over Easter week- what is it that you would reply? What is the Easter story you would want to tell the world? It’s an intriguing question but I believe we might find some direction in the reading from John heard today.
John’s Gospel tells the story of the empty tomb with drama and with clarity, with simplicity and an almost impatient sense of purpose for what is yet to come. I love the way that the John draws us in to a no nonsense account of the discovery of the empty tomb. It’s all action, Mary comes, sees, runs to tell the others. They run, race to the tomb, wanting to be the first to see, it’s almost childish, their rivalry, they see and believe – that the body is gone – they leave, walking past Mary who has come back, to weep and find out who has done this awful thing. It is she who learns the truth of the risen Christ in the garden, she who goes back to the disciples and brings a tale of hope and new beginnings. There is no mention of checking up or disbelief of Mary’s word in John.
One can get from these events a real sense of needing to work this one out together, that it takes community to hold each other in the midst of despair, uncertainty and discovery. Peter’s leadership is acknowledged in that he is first to enter the tomb, but the passion of the beloved disciple and the tenacity of Mary are equally needed to find a way forward in this bewildering conundrum. True faith and insight belongs to all.
But this action is quickly over - it is in the encounter with the risen Christ that John is seeking to draw our attention. And the clarity of the words of Jesus, ‘I am going to be with my Father, do not hold on to me, I have not yet ascended to be with my God and your God.’ The one whom the world lifted onto a cross is being lifted to the presence of God – the son returning to the Father. This is the secret, the truth of the cross, told to Mary in that one sentence, the same message that Jesus told in a much fuller and longer version to the disciples in the upper room. Whilst the reality of the resurrection is intrinsic in John’s Gospel account, what we do not have is such a focus on the risen Christ appearing to the disciples. There is an urgency in this narrative, a focus instead what is to come, a handing over of the reins so to speak to those who are the church – Jesus is about to ascend to the Father, his job is done and it is now up to those who are left behind. In the following half dozen verses, Jesus appears to the disciples, commissions them to go out into the world and breathes the Holy Spirit onto them – this is the new stage in God’s history with humanity – equipping the disciples with the Spirit and sending them out into the world. It’s all about action, not verification. Whilst we re-live the Easter story every year, we are not to stop at the miracle of the resurrection, whatever we might deem that to be, but are to go on beyond it to something much more significant. Ultimately what matters is that Jesus, who came from the Father returned to the Father, and that in him we meet God who gifts us with light and life and truth through the community of faith. By participating in that relationship, we are committed to and equipped for loving God and each other in a way that celebrates what the world ignores, loves where the world hates, acts when the world sleeps and seeks justice when the world turns a blind eye. That is the bridge, the radical design that will connect the gulf between those who live in the Easter Jesus and those who look from the outside in some perplexity.
So what is our ideal media headline for Easter – I suggest it might be all about action – something like this:
Homeless offered a long-term place to stay and recover their sense of purpose.
Government forced to back-down on plans to increase poker machine numbers.
Church leads the way in dialogue with racially divided community
This is Jesus prayer for us, his people as we gather around his table, to re-member him and continue to live out his love in this world. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Rev Margaret Garland.