Below is the text of the Easter Sunday sermon preached by Revd Graham Hunter on Sunday 12th April 2020.
Bible Reading: Matthew 28:1-10
1 After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb.
2 There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it. 3 His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow. 4 The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men.
5 The angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. 6 He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. 7 Then go quickly and tell his disciples: ‘He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him.’ Now I have told you.”
8 So the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples. 9 Suddenly Jesus met them. “Greetings,” he said. They came to him, clasped his feet and worshiped him. 10 Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”
Introduction: Fear & Joy
‘Go to Galilee; there you will see me.’
The risen Jesus meets the woman as they’re hurrying away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy. And he gives them a curious message – tell the disciples (Jesus calls them ‘my brothers’) to go to Galilee – there they will see me.
We meet on Easter Sunday – we’ve left Good Friday behind – we’re hurrying from the tomb. We have come face to face with death, and we’re fleeing from it. And yet, like the woman, we may all be experiencing a strange mix of fear and joy.
Fear – because the global coronavirus pandemic is no respecter of national borders or social status. We’re all in this together – each of us experiencing a new vulnerability, as the myth of self-sufficiency is stripped away; as the mirage that is our sense of security is destroyed.
It has not taken long for most of us to be only a few relationships removed from someone who has experienced the COVID-19 virus in its most severe form – some of us even knowing people who have died. We’ve discovered that once again it’s the poorest and most vulnerable in our society who will suffer disproportionately. Like the disciples in the days immediately following the first Easter, we stay locked in our homes, for fear of a persecuting pandemic and a deadly disease.
But joy as well – because we’re connecting with one another in new and wonderful ways. We’re experiencing the simple delights of baking together and playing games together. Even those who live alone are playing games on video calls with friends and family members. I’ve heard stories of digital kahoot games, virtual pub quizzes, online games of chess bringing people together across generations. We may practise physical distancing as a way of loving our neighbour and resisting the spread of the virus, but we’re embracing new forms of social connection that restore and renew relationships.
And Joy because many of us are re-discovering or renewing our relationship with God. Over the past week or two, we’ve been delighted to welcome visitors to our online services and daily morning prayer. Friends who had fallen out of the habit of attending church physically are now engaging digitally. Muslim, Jewish and Atheist friends of mine have been popping in to visit us during morning prayer on Facebook Live. Members of our pastoral care team have been telephoning people on our database, and hearing wonderful testimonies from people who have been at the margins of our church family now telling of how included they feel.
There is a peculiar kind of irrepressible joy breaking out – the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it – not even the darkness of death can stifle the joy of new life.
Many of us are experiencing Joy today, because in the bodily resurrection of Jesus, we know that the forces of sin and death that confine us to solitude and depression are defeated. Joy because the social distancing we have experienced in our alienation from God is overcome. God has come near.
Jesus does not keep his distance from us – the Creator enters into creation in the birth of Jesus at Christmas, and he shows our ultimate worth, the ultimate value of this beautiful yet broken creation by dying for us, and rising again bodily to show he’s not done with this glorious earthly life – there is to be a renewal of all things – a new heaven and a new earth – and it begins with the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.
Alleluia! Christ is Risen!
He is risen indeed! Alleluia!
Go Back To Galilee
So we encounter Jesus with fear and joy this Easter Sunday. Like the woman at the tomb, our world is experiencing a shaking like a violent earthquake. We pray for protection and safety for our loved ones, and we pray for those who are at the frontline in this battle – not soldiers with weapons, but nurses, doctors, delivery drivers armed only with dedication, compassion and care.
In this shaking, what should we do? Where do we go? To whom do we turn? Jesus gives a puzzling answer in his message to the disciples: Go to Galilee, there they will see me.
Why Galilee? Over the coming weeks we’ll read together the accounts of Jesus’ appearances among his disciples after his resurrection – appearing to Thomas, the disciples on the road to Emmaus, to Peter on the beach by the sea of Galilee. For forty days, Jesus appeared to and walked with his disciples. By the time of Jesus’ ascension, they’re back in Jerusalem. But for now, he tells the disciples to go back to Galilee – why?
Jesus, we remember, though born not far from Jerusalem in Bethlehem, spent most of his life in Galilee – in the north of the country. When Pilate discovered Jesus was a Galilean, he sent him to Herod – the puppet king who had jurisdiction over Galilean Jews outside Jerusalem. Jesus’ public ministry began and gathered pace as he travelled throughout the region of Galilee.
Galilee was for most of the disciples the place they were when they were called. It was home. It was where they were from. Fishermen and tax collectors – many of Jesus’ disciples were ordinary people like you and me – who in the midst of their everyday lives were called to follow him. When the disciples first encountered Jesus, there was something so compelling, so attractive, about him that they dropped everything and followed.
Jesus’ call on their lives had changed everything – and in the midst of this shaking, that’s what they were to remember. Jesus sent them back to Galilee so they could see him afresh, and remember again who it is that called them. It’s as though Jesus wants to take them back to the start – to remind them of their first love, their first call. It’s a re-capitulation, a re-boot, a re-start.
Jesus says to this disciples, in the midst of the crisis, return to the place of your call.
And for me this Easter – and perhaps for you – that’s a message full of meaning.
In the midst of this coronavirus crisis – return to the place of your call.
Return to the one who first gave you hope. Return to the one in whom you first experienced deep peace – not peace as the world gives, just the absence of conflict, but real peace that is mingled with joy. Peace that is expressed in that saying of mystic and poets:
‘All will be well – and all manner of things will be well’
Return to the basics of our faith – put our trust once again in Jesus – who shows us the way to the Father and assures us of his amazing love for each one of us. Remember you have been forgiven – the pride, envy, greed and all the multitude of diseased, dysfunctional and disordered attitudes and behaviours that separate us from God and neighbour – these are forgiven – you are made whole.
Remember the Jesus who addresses you as one who is significant beyond measure. Remember the God who speaks over you as he speaks over Jesus: ‘This is my daughter, my son, whom I love. With you I am well pleased.’
Remember that this significance is not dependent on your achievements or your performance. This significance, this value is secured simply by God’s decision to enfold you with his love and adopt you by grace into his family. This significance is secure because Jesus, upon meeting his disciples in Galilee, has promised to be with us always – even to the very end of the age.
In this time of lockdown, return to those basic practises of a Christian – read the bible and reflect on what God says to you there; pray – both listening for his still small voice, and bringing your hopes and fear before him with both thanksgiving and petition; pursue fellowship with other Christians – nurturing the family relationships God has given us – join an online Connect Group, make a telephone call; find ways to bless and encourage your friends and neighbours – a kind word, and encouraging text message, doing shopping for a vulnerable neighbour. Demonstrate the kingdom of God in your kindness, your gentleness, your joy and your hope.
And if this Christian life – this life following Jesus – trusting that God really does have purpose and meaning for your life – if this sounds unfamiliar but intriguing, then I invite you to step in and explore it further. Come and join us for our next Alpha course. All of us are searching for purpose, for relationship, and ultimately for love – and in Jesus I believe we find all three fulfilled.
In the midst of this crisis, return to the place of your call.
And slow down – remember what we’ve learned as a church family this past month ro two about the ruthless elimination of hurry! Practise silence and solitude, practise simplicity, practise sabbath. When you’re experiencing anxiety and fear, find support and solidarity by connecting to God and one another. But do this by seeking voices – listening to God in prayer, speaking with friends on the phone. Limit your screen time – life is not best lived through a screen! Practise social media distancing.
God is in the business of making things new. He takes broken yet beautiful lives and puts them back together. Like the Japanese pottery practise Kintsugi, the broken fragments are bound together with gold – making something even more beautiful than could have been imagined.
God takes darkness and fills it with light. God takes despair and fills it with hope. God takes sorrow and fills it with joy. God takes death, and overcomes it with life. Even the worst things that happen to us in this diseased and disordered world can be redeemed and transformed by God to bring life and light and love.
Even when the crowd turn against their proclaimed messiah, instead shouting crucify; even when threatened imperial powers stifle the prophetic voice with violence and coercive force; even when the darkness of the world and the darkness of our sin brings destruction and death; even then, God can redeem and transform, and work all things together for good.
Alleluia! Christ is Risen!
He is risen indeed! Alleluia!
‘All will be well, and all manner of things will be well.’
The darkness has not prevailed. Death has lost its sting. This physical distancing will not last forever. We will meet together again to dance, and drink, and eat, and laugh, and love one another. Our trust in Jesus Christ assures us of this. Disease, decay and death do not have the final word. Our God has the last laugh – the last laugh in the face of death, and the first laugh that heralds the joy of this strange new kingdom.
Joy is a gift and a reality – and I want to pray for you now to receive this gift – wherever you are. I want to pray for you that as you go back to Galilee as it were, as you return to your first love for Jesus, you would experience great joy.