Saturday, April 23, 2011

Easter, Year A

Love and Death

Readings: Acts 10:34-43; Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24; Colossians 3:1-4; John 20:1-18

I have heard it said that there are two essentials to human life; love and death. The fear behind Easter is surely that death has the power to overcome love. Death can happen so suddenly. It can tear those we love away from us. It can change our lives forever. An earthquake swallows up everything and everyone in its path. The tsunami that follows completes the devastation. A tornado strikes leaving nothing but destruction. An accident wrenches a child from its mother’s arms. Even the gentlest of deaths, the ones we expect as the normal outcome of life, separate us from those we love and depend upon. At such times we see only darkness.

It is in our human nature to fear death. We make it bearable by coining phrases, euphemisms that save us from using the word. We find ways of softening the blow. Pushing up the daisies; joined the choir invisible; kicked the bucket; danced the last dance; and my personal favourite, shuffled off this mortal coil.

Why am I talking about death on this Easter Sunday? Should we not be shouting joyful alleluias and putting all thoughts of death aside? It is because in our anxiety and cynicism we humans see nothing but death. To put our faith in the love of God, to understand that God’s love has overcome death and the grave, to have faith in something as intangible and unbelievable as the resurrection is not a possibility.

It was still dark the following morning when Mary Magdalene made her way to the garden, her heart heavy with the events of the previous days. Not only had she lost her best friend and companion. All the hopes that had built up in the community over the last few years were suddenly shattered. They had been hoping against hope that Jesus was indeed the Messiah, the Christ. But now he was dead, and with him all illusions.

She saw only death as she made her way to Jesus’ burial place. Not the beautiful garden, not the lovely flowers, not the singing birds, nothing could make her see anything but death. She had watched as Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus had laid Jesus' body in the tomb in Joseph's garden in a vault cut out of the rock. She had helped to prepare his body for burial, wrapping it with spices in linen cloths according to Jewish custom. She had seen them roll a heavy rounded stone down the short slope into place. The authorities wanted to ensure that there would be no false claims about Jesus.

Mary was deep in thought as she approached the tomb. "Just a few quiet moments alone," she thought. But that too was quickly shattered when she realized with a jolt that the stone had been removed from the tomb. Who would have done such a thing? What further indignity were the authorities heaping on Jesus? Could he not even rest in peace?

In her grief and sorrow Mary could not see anything but death. And so she ran back as fast as she could to warn the others. She found Peter and John. "They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him," she told them breathlessly. Without a moment's delay they set out for the tomb. They ran as fast as they could, but John, being younger, got there first.

Something – indecision, fear – held him back from entering the tomb. So it was Peter who actually went in first. Not that its impact on him was immediate. He observed the cloths lying there – no body, just the cloths, looking as if the body had simply lifted out of them. Strange!

But when John went in, it was as if a thunderbolt had struck him. He would never forget what he saw – the sheer emptiness of the tomb. Jesus wasn't there. John saw and believed. But, not knowing what to do, the two of them simply left. They left Mary in tears, filled with questions and doubts, still seeing only death.

And there in the garden in the midst of her doubting, she too encountered the risen Lord. Not that she recognized him right away either. At first she thought he must be the gardener. You know what it's like to see something you hope for but don't expect. We do not always see what is real. Have you not experienced seeing someone in the distance, being absolutely certain that it is your friend, only to find when you get closer that it does not even look remotely like the person? Then Jesus spoke to her, just one word, but a word so familiar that she knew every inflection, every nuance. "Mary!" He said. And hearing her name, she recognized the risen Saviour.

"Do not hold on to me," he said to her. "But tell the others. Tell them I have risen and that I will ascend to my Father in Heaven."

So convinced was she that she couldn't wait to tell them, "I have seen the Lord!"

We frequently find ourselves going into places in our lives where we expect to find only death. We need to check out each situation to find the reality in it all. In each dying in our lives, what is the resurrection? In the dying of our planet threatened with extinction, where is the resurrection? In the death of the church as we see fewer and fewer people in our society living the life of faith, where is the resurrection? In the death of a marriage? In the death of a beloved child? In the sickness and suffering of a friend?

It is after all about those two essentials to human life, love and death. In every death there is resurrection. That is the love of God in action in our world. Do I really believe that Christ rose from the dead? What ought to happen in my life if I really believe? How do I demonstrate in my life that Christ is alive and that his saving grace and abundant life are available to every human creature?

Mary was searching for what is real. Everyone in this church this morning is searching for what is real. The gospel presents life in reverse. Yet contradictions bear fruit. Life does not end in death; death ends in life. We make our way from life to death to real life. That is resurrection hope.

Paul says that we must “set our minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.” That is not so that we become no earthly use, but so that we live with a vision of what can be. It is so that we can discover what is real, so that we will experience the risen Christ in our lives. When God’s Spirit moves us to faith in the resurrection of Christ, giving us God’s power to live and act on the basis that it is so, that it really happened, then we will discover, as millions have before us, that Christ is alive in us.

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

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