April 16 2017
Isaiah 25.6-10; Acts 10.34-43; Matthew 28.1-10, 16-20
Rev Páraic Réamonn, Church of Scotland
On the evening before she died, my first wife Rowena became distressed and agitated. The woman doctor who headed the palliative care team that for a month had been looking after her at home asked if she would be happier in hospital. An ambulance was called, and we set out along the highway from Geneva to the clinic at Genolier.
It was rush hour, and both lanes of the motorway were full of traffic. So the driver put on his siren and drove straight down the dotted white line dividing the two lanes, scattering cars to the right and left of us. In other circumstances, it might have been fun.
Looking out through the rear window of the ambulance, we noticed behind us a bright red sports car. It was taking advantage of the gap we were opening up to drive between the two lanes of traffic.
The reaction of the ambulance crew was prosaic. They expressed mild astonishment at this reckless behaviour, and then they phoned it in.
My reaction was somewhat more fantastic. I was at this point tired beyond exhaustion. I fantasized that Satan was in the bright red sports car ambulance chasing – that Satan had plans for my dying wife.
He didn’t catch us.
The nurses in the clinic put Rowena to bed and helped her to sleep. She never woke up.
At the end of the Holy Thursday service in St George’s Cathedral, Archbishop Suheil, Dean Hosam and their colleagues stripped the altar, while one by one the lights went out.
This left them with a practical problem, for the liturgy called for a reading of the story of Christ’s passion before the congregation set out in his footsteps to Gethsemane.
So they processed to the back of the church, where two small side lights were still lit. And there, almost in the dark, we listened to Mark’s version of the story:
“They went to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, ‘Sit here while I pray.’ He took with him Peter and James and John, and began to be distressed and agitated. And he said to them, ‘I am deeply grieved, even to death…’”
“Distressed and agitated”.
The words leapt out at me, for reasons I’ve just explained. They brought home to me again that here was a real death.
Our first Easter challenge is to accept that Jesus of Nazareth really was human, just as we are, and that he really died, just as we shall.
Our New Testament writers go out of their way to make these points, but we often find them hard to hear.
The Scottish poet Edwin Muir famously said of Presbyterian worship that “the Word made flesh is here made word again”, and that is often true. We can play the same trick on ourselves when we come to think of Jesus. The letter to the Hebrews may insist that Jesus is like us in every respect except sin – which makes him more human than us, rather than less – but we find it easier to think of him as God going around disguised as a human being.
Here we may need to read again the passion story in any of its four versions or to remind ourselves of the words of the creed: “suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried”.
“If we do not come to tears on Friday,” says Herbert McCabe, “we shall miss the mysterious joy of Easter.”
Jesus of Nazareth was really human. He really suffered. He really died.
But death had no dominion over him.
Our second and more profound challenge is to say what this means – to say what Easter means. Here we need to recognize that we are bound to fail.
Christ is risen, we say. Paul tells us, indeed, that if Christ is not risen, our faith is vain; and as Christians we do not believe this to be true. Christ is alive. As Christians, we stake our lives on it.
But we don’t know what it means to be risen.
Resurrection, new creation, eternal life: we use these words and phrases because we must, but we don’t know what they mean.
It is the same here as with creation.
We say that God creates the world because we must, because otherwise we have no answer to the question, “Why is there a world rather than nothing?” But we don’t know what creation means.
We know how to make an omelette by breaking eggs. We know what it means to make a canoe out of a log or a mountain out of a molehill. But we have no idea what it means to make a world out of nothing.
In the same way, we don’t know what it means for a dead man to be alive, never mind alive with the risen life we claim for Jesus Christ. And we cannot know, this side of death.
The same God who creates the whole universe and holds it in being over against nothing raises Jesus of Nazareth from the nothingness of death to a life of glory. We can and must point to these essential truths, but they elude our grasp.
When we speak of Easter, we are taking our language out of the familiar world of things of which we can speak easily and stretching it to breaking point. In the world of faith, we find ourselves in a hall of mirrors where we cannot see reality as it really is. We see, as this side of death we only can, through a glass darkly. Faced with the most important event in the whole history of the world – an event that cannot be contained within the categories of history – we can only babble.
The third and deepest challenge of Easter is existential.
Is our Easter faith just a hand-me-down language – language we learned, perhaps, at our mother’s knee and continue to wear like a pair of comfortable old shoes?
Or is it a living faith that continually transforms us?
We are fallen creatures, and, unlike Jesus on the Via Dolorosa, we fall more than three times. But the point of Easter is that God raises us up to share in God’s own life through the risen Christ.
When Christ comes again, will he find in us a life of grace? Will he find that we are being “changed from glory into glory”?
If we are in Christ, says Paul, we are a new creation.
We may not be able to say clearly what this means, but we know it when it is happening to us, if only because of the labour pains.
Jesus Christ is risen today, Alleluia! (CH4 410)
Now the green blade riseth from the buried grain (CH4 417)
Christ is alive! Let Christians sing (CH4 416 Solo)
Come, ye faithful, raise the strain of triumphant gladness (CH4 414)
Thine be the glory, risen, conquering Son (CH4 419)
Herbert McCabe OP, “A Sermon for Easter”, God Still Matters (London & New York: Continuum, 2002)
Herbert McCabe OP, “Easter”, God, Christ and Us (London & New York: Continuum, 2003)