Preacher: The Rev’d Canon Jenny Wilson
In the name of God, creating, redeeming, sanctifying, … Amen.
‘Greetings,’ he said.
Almost nonchalantly. There is no mention of his crucifixion. No wise words about death and grief. Just, ‘Greetings.’ From one who is utterly alive. Time to get on with living it seems.
The two women walk to Jesus’ tomb to the place where his dead body has been laid, hoping to pay him homage there, to remember who he was and what he meant and to spend time there. They go to see the tomb. Mary Magdalene and the other Mary go to spend time with Jesus’ death.
But suddenly there is a great earthquake, a sign that what is taking place has cosmic significance; there is a great earthquake and an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, comes and rolls back the stone and sits on it. The angel sits on the stone …This is God’s statement about death. This angel is almost showing contempt for death. Imagine God’s angel sitting on the stone of the tomb of someone you love dearly … This is what I do with death, God says. We might almost imagine the angel swinging his legs as he sits on that stone. This is what I think about death, God says.
The angel’s appearance is like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. The day before Pilate had sent a guard* of soldiers to secure Jesus’ grave and keep guard over it. When the angel appears, the guards, the final perpetrators of violence, shake and became like dead men. Who is dead now, though?
The angel says to the women, “Do not be afraid.” Whenever God enters a scene, God says this. Throughout the stories of the Hebrew peoples and the gospel stories, over and over again, God says “Do not be afraid” as we struggle to engage with the strangeness of God’s action, when we struggle to find our way in the fear of it.
“I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified,” the angel says to the women. “He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he* lay.” The women look into the empty tomb and see. The body of Jesus is not there. And the voice of God says … “He has been raised.” This is the Easter truth and the heart of our faith. And these women respond in faith, choose to believe what the angel has told them, choose to engage with what their eyes have shown them. They leave the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and run to tell Jesus’ disciples.
The faith of the women is honoured by God. Their response is rewarded with presence. Suddenly Jesus meets them and says, ‘Greetings!’ “Greetings!” “It is I, I’m here.” Jesus seems to be saying. With what seems an extraordinarily relaxed approach, Jesus greets the women. God’s contempt for death, shown in the image of the angel sitting on the tombstone, is shown again here. “Greetings!!”
And so the women come to him, take hold of his feet, and worship him. Then Jesus says to them, ‘Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.’ Those words again, “Do not be afraid.” You can believe this.
We gather this Easter morning to hear again this story, to listen to the account of God’s assault on death, to try to imagine how it might be and what we might do in response to it. “Do not be afraid,” Jesus says. Because this story, this profoundly truthful story is almost impossible to take in. The angel sits on the stone that was to enclose Jesus’ body in a tomb. The earth quakes. And Jesus appears, saying almost casually, to those who love him dearly, “Greetings.” This event marks God’s redemption of all things. The revelation of who God is. God is the one who looks at his beloved ones enclosed in tombs and rolls stones away and has his angels sit on them.
And yet …
We live in a world where death seems so often to have the final say. Just in the last week or so, we have seen violence, involving the use of chemical weapons, by a government against its own people … and we have seen people going about their business in European cities mown down by vehicles driven by those who are deliberately aiming to cause death and terror …and we watch with grave concern as international tensions seem to be escalating … And, then, close by, we watch people we love suffering in body, mind or spirit, suffering and dying …In this last year, we have walked through the valley of the shadow of death with a number of dearly loved members of our community, accompanying them and their families.
The truth of the resurrection cannot be heard in separation from the truth of the cross. The truth of Jesus’ embrace of the suffering of the world. Jesus faced the agony of the cross. He allowed the betrayal, and denial, and desertion of his friends to hurt him. Jesus allowed the human fear and violence of the religious and political leaders to wreak its defeat on him. And all this he endured with the sense of his Father’s absence. And as he was about to die, he spoke words of forgiveness to those who had nailed him to his cross.
The word salvation comes from a word that means “make space for”. Jesus made space for everyone with whom he came into contact. Those who crucified him, and took away his life, attempted to constrain him, to enclose, him to shut him down … to take away the spaciousness in his life that came from his profound sense of closeness to his Father, God. But even as he died, his love could not be enclosed. He loved and forgave as he died. And even when death seemed to defeat him, God would not allow the defeat. The angel’s actions, God’s actions, at Jesus’ tomb set him free. The stone was removed and his life was made spacious again. And as his spirit, the spirit of the one who died forgiving, the spirit of the resurrected Jesus, infuses creation, makes space for creation to thrive.
And the narrative that informs all our lives – that we are born and we live and we die – that narrative is subverted, has suspicion cast upon it, is blasted wide open, in fact, by the rolling away of a stone and the setting free of the one who brought freedom to so many. Death is not the end of our stories. God, whose identity is made known in this action – God, the one who raised Jesus from the dead – has made a new narrative for all God’s creation.
How, this Easter morning, do we respond to this?
This morning we will renew our baptismal vows and we will baptise two women, three children. Baptism is a sacrament, a window into a truth that we cannot contain, just as the tomb in which Jesus’ dead body was laid could not contain Jesus. Baptism is an encounter with a reality that we cannot understand, cannot prove. One priest I knew well once said of one of the sacraments that it is like a child coming home from school and kissing their mother … the relationship is changed. Imagine kissing someone who is dear to you on the forehead. It is a whisper of a truth, a sign of a precious reality. When we pour drops of water three times on the forehead of the one to be baptised, in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, when we anoint their forehead with holy oil with the sign of Jesus’ cross, when we light a candle and gaze at its light, each of these gestures points to a deep truth. That we will give our lives to trying, and trying again, to follow the one who brought such love to the world, such love that he died a death in humiliation and desertion, such love that with his few last breaths he loved and forgave those who treated him so. That we will give our lives to living in the love of the God who raised Jesus from the dead, set him, and so each one of us, and all created life free from death’s tyranny, from death’s attempt to pronounce an ending on who we are. That we will give our lives as Jesus gave his life to living in the Easter truth – that we are created, and redeemed, and that our deaths and the death of all creation will be swallowed up in the great love of God.
‘Greetings,’ says Jesus, ‘did you hear me? Greetings.’