Readings: Psalm 18:1-2,14-24; Colossians 3:1-4; Acts 10: 34-43; Matthew 28: 1-10
And so we engage with the Easter narrative once again - I guess the key question is what meaning and purpose does this nearly two thousand year old story have for me in my living, for us in the here and now? We live in a scientifc factually-based world so part of our mindset probably starts wondering about what really occurred back then? But we need to remember that the authors of the gospels saw no problem in writing metaphorically rather than factually which is why Matthew`s gospel just loves to dramatically emphasise things with cosmological events. What he is doing is highlighting that Jesus brought new earthshaking theological understandings for his readers.
Remember how, a chapter earlier, at the moment of Jesus`s death, the curtain of the temple had been torn in two from top to bottom? Well, more to the point the curtain hid the `holy of holies` where God was supposed to reside and to which only the high priest had access. In other words, Matthew is affirming Jesus`s understanding of the divine as no longer to be seen as contained within any temple - pretty radical thinking for his time for both Jews and Romans.
And now Matthew goes on to emphasise this with earthquakes and angels and stones rolling back to show that Jesus was right. His message of God`s love and peace as freely available to all wherever they may find themselves has been vindicated. It is as if Jesus`s body also represented this sense of divine freedom unconstrained even by death.
All we know for sure about what occurred back then is that something happened to Mary Magdalene. She is the only one mentioned in all four gospels as being at the tomb and is still called `the first among apostles` by the Greek Orthodox church. And if you have ever wept in the predawn darkness for a loved one now gone, for what once was and isn`t any more, then you know how Mary felt as she approached the tomb hollowed into the limestone cliff. She was a shattered woman, weeping not only for her beloved Jesus but also for what might have been. High expectations of expanding their community`s way of being in loving relationship into a kingdom of God had been replaced by the depths of despair. We can all identify with her pain of loss when loving relationships or dreams and hopes are broken. But in that dark hour there also come words of reassurance for Mary that things will go on into the future.
I do in fact believe that Mary experienced a post-death vision because I know of quite a few people who have had unusual post-death experiences of their loved ones, so why not Mary? Whatever happened, it certainly galvanised her into realising that the Jesus Way of seeking peace and love and social justice had not died with him but lived on with her and all his followers. In fact it was a way of being which could be followed by anyone who would listen as they learnt of Jesus`s stories about God`s kingdom and shared in community breaking bread together.
And therein lies the relevance of Easter for us today because the whole Passion story is not just about Jesus, it is also about our human story. Dramatic events do happen in our lives - an act of violence, a car accident, a diagnosis of terminal illness, war and famine devastate lives. We humans have to learn to engage with both good and evil, love and pain, joy and despair, light and dark. How on earth do we do this when our hearts seem broken, our lives torn apart? It takes courage and an audacity to believe that life will go on even if we can`t see it for ourselves. And sometimes just like the Easter story this sense of hope, this Christ light, needs to be upheld by others for us in times when we walk in darkness.
At the end of November last year there was a documentary on ABC called Life and Death which I recorded, about author Richard Flanagan who won the 2014 Manbooker Prize for his book The Narrow Road to the Deep North. In it Flanagan shared how his story of Dorrigo Evans, a flawed war hero and survivor of the Death Railway, was based on his father`s own experiences. It`s an amazing book and you get a real sense of the reality from different perspectives. When Richard was asked how he could bear to intentionally engage with the horror of the camps in such depth, he replied:- `If you wish to walk into that darkness you must be true to that other aspect of life which is hope. Love stories provide the corollary to the darkness. We glimpse and maybe discover eternity in that moment of love but that moment dies immediately afterwards.
Who is this I ask myself. I realise that I am floating above everything that has been my life, my time, my place. And yet as I look beneath me it all seems so strange. What does it mean I wonder all these crazed and contradictory words? How was it possible to root myself in that nonsense to derive meaning and purpose from it?
In an age where everything can mean anything, perhaps it is only possible to exist as a cypher, as a thin fragile outline of hope etched across an infinity of madness.`
And as he said these words a thin fragile outline of hope etched across an infinity of madness, I had an image of a fragile mesh of light settling over a darkened landscape of hills and valleys. . . the closest image I could find on the web, (shows a network of strands), where each fragile strand is connected with another making this a web of hope strong enough to survive. Grieving as I was at that time, perhaps it resonated with me because that is how I was experiencing my friends and church community in my own time of darkness. When things are bad, in times of despair sometimes all we can do is hang on to that fragile strand of hope that things will be different, otherwise we too are in danger of sinking into that infinity of madness.
But when I listened again to copy down what he`d actually said, his comment perhaps it is only possible to exist as a cypher, struck me. A `cypher` is of course a code containing a message. And as I was preparing for today I got to thinking about what my particular cypher was. I am convinced that just as we have physical DNA so too we have a divine spiritual code embedded within us. And in our reading from Acts we hear from the apostle Peter more about how this was seen as embodied by the God-imbued Jesus. His followers knew that this Christ cypher had now been clearly translated by his actions of love and service of others.
On Wednesday I happened to watch One Plus One on ABC when Jane Hutcheson was interviewing Greek Orthodox priest Themi Adamopolou about his journey from being a successful pop band artist to becoming an Orthodox priest and academic theologian. But now he is working in Sierra Leone with war amputees and ebola orphans. When asked what motivated him to make such a change, he said something along the lines of `I realised my life was all about words and then I asked myself `where is the crucified Christ?` and I felt called to be there.` He also went on to point out that moving from western to third world countries is like being on two different planets. And as we saw on Friday, there are far too many examples of the crucified Christ in our world but there are also many examples of the risen Christ. I`m not sure if Themi would see it this way but I see him as living out the Christ cypher, the risen Christ himself. I`m sure you can think of many others who do so too, including in this congregation.
The message we receive from the empty tomb is not that love wins over everything except human treachery, or over everything except fear, or everything except despair, or pain or death. The meaning of this day, if we are open to encountering the risen Christ, is that love is the only thing that triumphs over all else. And interwoven into this is the reality of ourselves as the body of Christ present in the world. Following faithfully along the Jesus Way may well feel like it is becoming more challenging in our crazy world but, in the end, the experience of God`s love for us and for others does make a difference.
Sometimes poetry can put things better than anything so I`d like to conclude by reading a poem by Joy Crowley called `The Paschall Way`.
`You said that if I walked your path with you
I would experience the blossoming of heaven.
I thought that you meant flowers,
blooms of celebration strewn
along the Hosanna road,
or arranged by flickering candles
in a church filled with peace,
or clustered fragrant in a heart
made into permanent summer by prayer,
or handed to me by friends
who valued flowers as much as I did.
You said that if I walked your path with you
I would discover the sweetness of God
and I expected to be given flowers.
But actually you were talking of thorns
and a cross on the road to dying
and hands and feet pierced by a truth
that I did not want to own
and a feeling of forsakenness
and a letting go
and a love so terrible it came
like a sword in my struggling heart
and finally, nothing but you and I
in the silence of the tomb.
You asked me to walk your path with you
and yes, you did mean flowers
But not the fragile things of a day.
Something of permanent fragrance
and a beauty that can`t be measured
by a panacea of small comforts.
You were talking of the tomb transformed,
imprisonment into freedom,
crosses into wisdom,
suffering into compassion,
darkness into light,
You were talking of your presence
in a life made large by your Easter journey.
You were talking of resurrections without end.`
Psalms Down Under