Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Easter Sunday

On Good Friday, we left Jesus dead on the Cross.  His dead body was taken by two secret disciples for burial after one of them, Joseph of Arimathea, obtained permission to do so from the Roman Governor Pilate.  Jesus’ last words on the Cross had stressed the finality of it all:

‘After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfil the scripture), ‘I am thirsty.’’ (John 19:28)

‘When Jesus had received the wine, he said, ‘It is finished.’ Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.’ (John 19:30)

‘Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, ‘Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.’ Having said this, he breathed his last.’ (Luke 23:46)

Now today we interpret these words in the light of subsequent events, but to his mother and brother who, we are told, were at the Cross and able to hear his words, there would be no mistaking their significance.  This was the end.  Not only, ‘It is finished’, but ‘I am finished.’  Whatever it was that Jesus had intended to accomplish when he submitted to baptism by John and began his ministry, it was all over now.

We need to realize that for those there at the Cross, there could be no other possibility.  It is hard for us knowing there is more to come to put ourselves in the shoes of those who were there.  What is certain is that as far as those who were there were concerned: death was death.  As good Jews, they would have been under no illusion about that.

In the Old Testament, there is little by way of hope for life after death.  The grave was a place of darkness to be avoided for as long as possible.  ‘Eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we die’ is the attitude, for example, of the author of Ecclesiastes.  Such hope as there is, is for the nation rather than the individual.

During the time between the Testaments, and as a result of the intense suffering that many Jews had to endure, there developed the hope that one day there would be a resurrection and God would reward the righteous and punish the wickedness.  This, however, would also be the Last Day of this present world order.  Until then, there was nothing to look forward to.  Even this limited hope for the future was too much for many Jews and most of the Priests did not accept it.  So the best hope was that maybe Jesus would be counted amongst the righteous on the Last Day, but even that was only a distant hope - for now there was no hope.

In the Greek world, when it came to the possibility of life beyond death, while a significant number of Greeks believed that the soul would survive the body, this could be a somewhat vague and abstract notion.  There was, however, no expectation of resurrection.

You may remember when St Paul went to Athens and spoke to the Areopagus, the City Council, they were very receptive to his message until he spoke about the ‘resurrection from the dead’.  Then we are told: ‘some scoffed.’  For many Greeks, it was far from obvious that this was such a good idea.

The Cross, then, was to all intents and purposes the end.  How could it be anything else?  It is only when we grasp this that we can begin to understand the sadness the followers of Jesus must have felt.

They had had such high hopes, but these weren’t ignorant idealists.  They had truly believed in him.  Jesus himself acknowledged both their sacrifice and friendship.  Even in the garden of Gethsemane, they had been prepared to die to support him.  What was harder for them was watching him die.  For in their eyes, this meant that he died a failure.  What had it all been for?  They had been as deluded as apparently he had been.

It is only when we get this that we can get some of the shock of Easter Sunday.  The disciples weren’t gathered together behind closed doors waiting for something to happen.  There was nothing that could happen.  This also goes some way to explain their bewilderment when something did happen!  It took them a while to take it in.

But something amazing and unexpected did happen.  Something that was to change their lives and which was to go on to change many more lives, and which is still changing lives today.

It all began when the women went to the tomb to attend to his body.  It was gone.  Notice their reaction is to assume that someone must have moved the body.  Their thought is not that Jesus is alive.  Mark’s Gospel, as it now is, finishes with them being terrified.  They realize something has happened, they just don’t quite know what.  It is only after Jesus explains it to Mary Magdalene that things begin to become clear.

After Jesus appears to the disciples, his followers realize that it wasn’t the end after all.  Jesus is risen.  Jesus is alive.  And they are to go on to be his witnesses, proclaiming his resurrection to others.  The story has a happy ending after all!

So what was it all about?  What has been the point of all the events that we have been thinking about over the past few days?  Why did Jesus say, ‘It is finished’, when now it seems that it was anything but?  Was Jesus as surprised as everyone else to be alive?  Apparently not, at least not according to what the Gospels record Jesus as having said to his disciples after his resurrection. 

So what was it all about?  Jesus surely has some explaining to do.  The Gospels tell us that Jesus said to them that it was necessary for the Messiah to suffer and die.  And that is how they came to understand it.  Excited and delighted though they were that Jesus was risen and alive, in seeking to explain it all, they focused on his death and on the Cross.

Just look at how much space the Gospels devote to the events of the crucifixion compared to the resurrection.  Mark’s Gospel has 5 chapters in our Bibles describing the crucifixion and 8 verses on the resurrection.  St Paul writes to the Corinthians that he preaches Christ crucified.

This is not for one moment to suggest that they didn’t see the resurrection as important.  Of course, they did.  The resurrection, however, was inextricably bound up with the crucifixion and what it meant.  The resurrection established that Jesus’ death was of significance. 

This, I would suggest, is not quite how we approach it today.  The message coming from most churches at Easter and throughout the year goes something like this:

‘Jesus lived a good and exemplary life.  In his teaching and by his example, he taught us how God wants us to live.  This made him enemies and for this he suffered and died.  But God intervened and raised him from the dead.  He now offers life to all who believe in him and who seek to live as he lived and taught.  This life begins now and will continue after death.  We are a resurrection people.’

The problem is that this sounds very believable and contains sufficient truth to make it so.  It fails however, to explain one thing: why the Cross was so important to the disciples.  You would think that they would want to move on.

Instead, the more they thought about it, the more convinced they became that the Cross and the death of Jesus were the key to everything.  It wasn’t simply an accident or the result of historical forces and circumstances.

The question the New Testament asks is: who crucified Christ?

The answer is both simple and complicated.  Obviously, legally, it was the Romans.  The Jews didn’t have the legal authority to do so.  However, the Jewish authorities both instigated and demanded it.  As St Peter puts it to them: they crucified Christ by the hands of sinful men.  They got the Romans to do what they could not do.  The crowds who called for his crucifixion and those who betrayed and deserted him all also had their share in the guilt.

Then the New Testament writers also teach that we too share in the blame as it was the sin of humanity that led people to crucify Christ.  As sinful human beings, we share humanity’s guilt.

The Romans, the Jewish authorities, the crowds, those alive at the time, you and I, all share in the responsibility for Jesus’ death.

But the shocking and surprising answer the New Testament gives to the question of who was ultimately responsible for our Lord’s death is: God.

This will come as no surprise to anyone at the Lent Bible Studies.  During them, we saw how St Paul teaches that Christians were ‘chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world.’  St John describes Jesus as the ‘Lamb slain before the foundation of the world’.

The resurrection led the disciples to see the Cross in a new light.  Not now was Jesus crucified as a result of historical forces or human choice, Jesus was crucified according to the direct plan of God, and this plan was a plan for our salvation.  This shouldn’t surprise us.  It is something we remind ourselves of at each Eucharist.  For example, in the ‘comfortable words’ we hear:

‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life.’ (John 3:16)

Or as our Easter card has it:

‘But God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.’ (Romans 5:8)

The Cross was no accident, but a demonstration of God’s love for us, but without the resurrection, it would be a meaningless and empty gesture.  The resurrection, however, changes everything.  The One who died for us, now lives for us.  It is significant that the symbol of Christianity became not the empty tomb, but the Cross.

The Cross makes it possible for us to be forgiven, but more than that we can now have the life of Christ in us.  Today because of the resurrection we can see the Cross for what it is - not now a sign of defeat, but a sign of victory.  A place where we find forgiveness and peace.  An opportunity to put an end to our old life and in the power of Christ’s resurrection to begin a new one.

Alleluia, Christ is Risen.
He is risen indeed.  Alleluia!

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