Easter Sunday 21 April

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Freedom for life [Matthew 28:1-10]

ON  BY GRANT BARCLAY

In the year when a film about Queen (the band, not the monarch) triumphed at the Oscars, we might take a lead from Freddy’s words and ask: how much do you want to break free, as the band sang? Here are some of the lyrics:
“But life still goes on
I can’t get used to living without, living without
Living without you by my side
I don’t want to live alone, hey
God knows, got to make it on my own.”

I imagine the women that first Easter morning might have had such a tune on their playlist as they headed for the tomb. For them, life had to go on. Yet, they knew they were going to have to live without him by their side. And since he had become almost everything to them, God knows how they were going to make it on their own.

They weren’t walking to the tomb expecting the garden to be quiet and peaceful. Even early on that first day of the working week, they would have anticipated a bit of noise and bustle. Matthew, alone among the Evangelists, tells that the morning after Jesus was buried the authorities sought Pilate’s help again. They persuaded him to put a guard on the grave until the third day, because they believed what Jesus had said more than the disciples believed it.

Those among the religious leaders who had heard him speak were disturbed about his strange talk of rising. They didn’t want the disciples stealing the corpse and claiming some restoration to life. So, on their request, Pilate put a guard on the cave and the soldiers made it as secure as they knew how.

Perhaps the women hoped this military guard would remove the stone so they could complete the burial preparations. Or, maybe, they imagined it would all be a lost cause. Perhaps the best they thought they could do would be to sit somewhere near, watching even if unable to touch, grieving so close to the body of the One who had loved as he had. Unable to get over his life of love shattered in such a cruel way, they might find it impossible, now, even to get close to him in death.

There is a wonderful irony in the picture this Gospel paints. Those who guard this place of burial and who try to ensure that death holds sway, are completely defeated and become, for a short time, as though dead themselves. And in the midst of the place where death seemed to reign, life in its wonderful, glorious, resurrected mystery breaks free with a human face and says, ‘He has risen!’

Matthew is alone in speaking of an earthquake, or explaining the angelic intervention in the stone rolling. Only he speaks of the guard at the tomb, and the extent of the fear the soldiers felt such that they fainted.

The question for us is: what did the writers and compilers of this Gospel, and the early Jesus-trusting community, hope to convey to themselves and to others by describing things in this way? One thing is victory over fear. Another is freedom to live in an entirely new way.

The narrative has been oppressive since Gethsemane. From that time on, Jesus has been a prisoner, captive to and hard pressed by various authorities. There were those at the Temple, and the Romans, too, as well as the power of public opinion which saw him (rather than Barabbas) condemned. He is ordered to carry his cross, he is nailed to it and he is hoisted high. Jesus can do nothing about any of this. The only response his disciples can make to it all is to deny knowing him, and then to run away.

The women are no doubt anxious, afraid as they walk towards the garden. But the scene is not at all what they anticipate, for even greater fear has paralysed the guards. That doesn’t make the women any less afraid; if anything, it heightens their concern. And so the angel, who uses the stone as a seat, tells them not to be afraid. It’s the first thing he is recorded as saying to them.

Easter is God’s victory, in Christ, over fear.

What about freedom to enter a new way of living? That is the consistent experience of Christians throughout the centuries. The women may have been going to visit a grave and prepare a body; they come across an empty tomb. More significantly, they encounter a Jesus who, having been dead, is now alive. These women are the pioneers of the faithful in all generations who have encountered, and experienced, the power of the living Jesus.

Easter is God’s gift of freedom, that all those who meet Christ may live. They don’t live to themselves, but live to serve the purposes of the Christ who lives and shares his risen life with them. The women are pioneers, again: the risen Jesus tells them to head north, and not to be slow to share what they have experienced. Up in Galilee, when they are gathered together, the rest of Jesus’ followers will meet him alive, too.

The guards at the tomb wanted to keep things dead and buried, lifeless and unchanging. What they, and the women, experienced was a rising to new life, a freeing from death, a fresh vitality which would change the world. And it left them dead.

They are a lesson to us. Let’s not allow the resurrection of Jesus to leave us dead, or cold, or unfeeling, or unmoved. For the power of this account – or, rather, the power of God which flows through the fresh hearing of this tale – has reinvigorated tired souls, energised jaded imaginations, given hope and possibility to those who thought their best times and work were behind them.

These women may have thought they were going to complete the finishing funeral touches to an ended life. How must they have been changed as they came face to face with the beginning of a new way of living and loving as Jesus, very much alive, says hello?

Easter is God’s victory over fear. It is God’s gift of freedom for us, for the Church, for the world.

Having started with one pop song, this post finishes with another. U2, a band not unfamiliar with Christian things, sang ‘I feel free’, with these words:
“I was aching, the darkest night,
To give up in the darkness of the night.
So you enter to give me love…”

So, on Easter Sunday, this day of resurrection, we may see the risen Jesus entering our lives to share a love which never ends. What will this gift mean to you and what, therefore, will you become in the light of encountering such a living Christ? 

For today is Easter, and it is about meeting the living Christ here and now. Easter is now for us when ‘Jesus is the never-failing source of affirmation, challenge, enrichment and enlargement’ of our lives. Rowan Williams, who said that, continues: ‘The believer shows Jesus as the centre of his or her life.’

This is the central focus of Christianity: that Christ’s first followers met him risen from the tomb; and that his followers in every age encounter him alive in their experience. 

This frees from fear, and offers freedom to live in the fullness of life which is a quality and not a duration promised by the ever-living God to those who open their hearts to the living Jesus they meet every day, Easter included.

Jim Friedrich has said recently that ‘resurrection is about the healing and restoration of wounded and severed relationships: relationships between God and humanity, between human persons and, ultimately, among all the elements of creation.’

This is the freedom into which we are invited to step. Now. And never be the same again. Thanks be to God, through our living Lord, Jesus Christ. Amen.


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