A young man rose from poverty and obscurity, to a place where he was known throughout the land, to a place where he had prominence and influence. Crowds of people gathered wherever he was. They were fascinated by the things that he said, fascinated by the message behind his words.
The authorities felt threatened, it seemed like all of the old ways were up for grabs, it seemed like the old certainties were not quite so certain: that there might be a new way of doing things. Families quarrelled over what he did, there was national debate about what was happening. Those devoted to him saw a new era of hope and change emerging.
Then, whilst he was still a young man, he met a tragic death. His abused body was laid to rest. All of the joys which he had brought, the message which he symbolised, the hopes of release and new life were on the brink of coming to a tragic end. Those who were closest to him were lost in tragic grief, those followers who knew him only from a distance felt that their lives could not go on. But then reports started to circulate that he was alive again. No one actually saw the moment when he rose from death to life, but people familiar with his appearance saw him in one place, and then another. He always took them by surprise – utterly by surprise.
I speak of course this morning of Elvis Presley… Elvis is alive!
You have heard the stories about him, the reported sightings, the conspiracy theories about what happened to him. So, what would you do if he walked into this Church this morning, singing his rock and roll? My guess is, that after the initial shock of it all, we would claim him to be an imposter, we would doubt the truth of what we saw before us. If there was a way for us to know that it really was Elvis, and not an impersonator, who stood before us singing away, we would be utterly astounded and surprised.
I know for many Christians if we are really honest, the example of Saint Thomas, the one who doubted first and later believed is a re-assuring model and mirror of our own lives. Is it possible, that in all of our reflecting, and praying and celebrating around this great Easter story, which we do indeed with great joy celebrate this morning, that we have missed one of the central ingredients of this story which is at the heart of our faith?
I think that it is. I think that we have forgotten to be surprised by it. It is difficult for us this morning to feel the same feelings as the first disciples did on the morning of the resurrection: not because we do not want to believe in it; not because the hope of the resurrection does not fill our hearts with joy and gladness, not because it does not lead us (each time that we contemplate it) into a deeper longing for our lives to be fashioned by the hope that we find in Christ – but because we are unable to be surprised by it any more.
Many of us have known the good news of the resurrection for the whole of our lives, and those of us who are members of this Church celebrate that resurrection every Sunday as we come together for worship. The resurrection challenges us, but it does not surprise us, not like the surprise which we would feel if Elvis came through the door.
It is hard to be surprised about the message of Easter when we have planned and prepared for it for many weeks now, and because the memory of our celebrations of last year’s Easter is not all that distant in our minds (at least for some of us!). Ivy reminded us last night, as we lit the Easter fire, about us doing it the previous year. It was meaningful, it was beautiful but it was not surprising.
De-stabilising, heart-racing, confusing surprise is exactly what we are called to experience this Easter morning as we hear again from the Gospel of St John his description of the first encounter of one of the followers of Jesus with the Risen Lord.
Of course, we know from our own experiences of life that surprises can be both good and bad. The exhilarating surprise of finding out that we are about to become grandparents is quite different from the deflating surprise of opening and reading the latest electricity bill.
We need to work especially hard on this Easter Day to clear our minds of the pre-conceived ideas that we bring to the Gospel reading that we have just heard, if we are to experience any of the terrifying surprise of those first disciples. We must put out of our mind all of the anticipation which we have felt during the fasting days of Lent, and during our Holy Week observances. We must put those things on hold for a moment as we instead focus our attention on a young woman startled by the emptiness of a tomb: because the writers of John’s Gospel describe for us, not a surprise of joy, but a surprise of deep horror, and bewilderment.
The stone has been rolled away from the tomb, and we can imagine that the young woman hesitantly looks inside, and finding nothing there runs back to Simon Peter the one who had denied Jesus and the other disciple, who is described as the one “whom Jesus loved.” These disciples responded in surprised horror and shock as well, and ran as fast as they could to the tomb to investigate for themselves. Was Mary delirious? Had she mistakenly gone to the wrong tomb? Or was it true, had someone really moved the body?
It was true, the horror was real. If it was not enough that Jesus, their Teacher, had been killed on the Cross, now they had found that his body had been stolen; and all that was left was the linen which he had been wrapped in.
For the Jewish people bodies are very important: they are the literal vehicles for resurrection on the last day. Even today in Israel and the Palestine, Orthodox Jews will collect body parts after explosions or accidents in order for bodies to be buried whole. Jesus was dead, and without his body his death would be permanent.
After Simon Peter and the other disciples have returned home, Mary Magdalene remains at the tomb, weeping and in great sorrow. Jesus had become everything to her ever since he had released her with the encouragement that her life could be transformed. Her Lord was now dead and his body was gone. But she was soon to be surprised a second time.
As she looked into the tomb, into the sepulchre, she saw (not an empty space) but two angels where Jesus had been laid the previous evening, one where his head had been and one at the other end. The angels, knowing the good news, asked her why she was weeping; and she explained to them, that her Master’s body was missing and that she did not know where to find it. As she turned she could see through her tears the figure of a man standing by her, and supposing that he was the gardener, and that he might have moved the body, she asked him if he knew where the body was, so that she might take it away. And the man spoke, and in speaking came the greatest surprise of all.
“Mary!” She heard God’s love again, that love which she had heard, and felt, and seen in Jesus.
“Mary!” That love so great, that it could not be bound by death, and which, (as the disciples were soon to find out), could not be destroyed by betrayals and doubts and fears.
“Mary!” That love which is not found amongst the clothing of the dead, but in the ongoing life of the resurrected Lord, spoke to her and brought, with the rush of surprise and joy her wholeness.
Christ is Risen! Alleluia! Christ is Risen Indeed! Alleluia!
“Alleluia!” is our Easter song. But our Easter song is much more than a word. It is, as Saint Augustine tells us, a way of being ‘from head to toe’. Christ rises in every particle of our being and through baptism we are part of him: limbs and members of his risen body and ministers of his deathless, reckless reconciling love.
There is another surprise to come, and if we listen only to selective voices in the Church we could miss it completely. Gradually as the first followers of Jesus, and then those who came after them, thought deeply about all that we have been focused upon this week, they came to understand something that was so surprising and extraordinary, (so different from how everyone else around them saw the world) that it shaped how they would live. They came to see the cross not as a tragic and shameful event but as the greatest moment of glory that the world has ever seen. They came to see that the cross was not a moment of failure and tragedy, something to be shunned and embarrassed about, but was (as Jesus was lifted upon it) the moment when he was most clearly to be understood to be on his throne of glory.
That is why when we gathered here on Good Friday, we did not simply come to pass the time mournfully until we could celebrate his resurrection. We came to venerate and adore him in his glory on the Cross. Indeed Christians in the first few generations of the Church came to understand every aspect of the Cross as the framework for its life. Every detail came to express for them something of how they understood their calling.
The water and the blood that flowed from the side of Jesus as he hung upon the Cross, was not a sign for them of defeat, but of the intertwined life of Christ and his Church through the water of baptism and the life-blood of the Eucharist, being birthed from the side of Jesus, just as Eve was created from the rib of Adam in one of the ancient creation narratives.
In Early Christian art, the first Christians did not shy away from the death of Christian martyrs, they celebrated such terrifying deaths as the ongoing glory of Christ in the world. Some of us may find that surprising, but we are not called this morning as we celebrate the resurrection to leave the Cross behind.
The risen Elvis (so the stories go), in his manifestations in shopping malls and fast food restaurants, seems to make no more than a visual impression, a memory from the past. The risen Christ invites his disciples to inspect his wounds, to eat and drink with him, and most importantly to carry on living lives which are fashioned by both the self-giving of his death on the Cross, and the hope of his victorious resurrection. Which is perhaps the greatest surprise of all: that what the first followers of Jesus discovered for themselves is true for us as well.
The life of Jesus lives on in us, the Spirit of the resurrected Christ is entrusted to us for the sake of the whole world. He calls us all by name – like Mary – to share in his life, to be his body, to join with all those who have gone before us, and the many millions who will come after us in the ongoing procession of his life in this world.
Through our baptism we have entered into his life and death and resurrected eternity. A life of ongoing surprise, as we journey with him and each other, and as we are touched by his love and grace at work in the world. So we celebrate today, with those first disciples, and with Christians throughout the ages, the glory of the cross and the hope of the resurrection.
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whosoever believes in him shall not perish, but have everlasting life.”
The words of Saint John Chrysostom, preached over 1,600 years ago:
Let no one grieve at their poverty, for the universal kingdom has been revealed.
Let no one mourn that they have fallen again and again; for forgiveness has risen from the grave.
Let no one fear death, for the death of our Saviour has set us free.
God has destroyed it by enduring it… O death, where is thy sting? O Hades, where is thy victory?
Christ is Risen, and you, O death, are annihilated!
Christ is Risen, and the evil ones are cast down!
Christ is Risen, and the angels rejoice!
Christ is Risen, and life is liberated!
Christ is Risen, and the tomb is emptied of its dead; for Christ having risen from the dead, is become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep.
Christ is Risen! Alleluia! Christ is Risen Indeed! Alleluia!
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, let us celebrate the Feast!