Sermon - 24th April 2011
Easter - Proclaiming the Good News
Scripture - Matthew 28:1-7
Rev Andy Braunston
In my early to mid-teens I became a Roman Catholic – I say “became” but it’s probably more accurate to say that I explored my Catholicism. I’d been baptised a Catholic but never taken to Mass as a child. I’m very grateful for the instruction in the Christian faith I received and the grounding it gave me. The way my priest instructed me has given me a life-long love of theology and a real respect for the various traditions of the Church.
I also learned to appreciate liturgical worship – my journey of faith later on lead me to appreciate other forms of worship too – and for me the best of Catholic worship is found in Holy Week, and, especially, on Good Friday and Holy Saturday.
In the 1950s the Roman Catholics revived the Easter Vigil which was one of the great Easter services of the Early Church. It is held after sunset on Holy Saturday and is the first celebration of Easter. To many this seems a little odd – they are celebrating Easter a day early – but it follows the Jewish idea that the day starts and ends at dusk – not midnight. The service celebrates Jesus rising in the night. Two of the hynns we sing today in worship are contemporary versions of ancient hymns sung at either the Catholic or Orthodox Easter Vigil.
The service is very long but the most interesting part, for me, is the fire at the start from which the Easter candle is lit. The church is in darkness and the people nearest the Easter candle light their candles from it, and they, in turn, pass that light on to others near them. Slowly the church is full of light as Easter is proclaimed and the Lord’s praises are sung. It is a powerful symbol of the light of the Risen Lord spreading to others. The service has gained in popularity over recent years and it is replicated in many Anglican and Lutheran churches too.
Passing on the Story
The idea of passing the light of Christ that one has received to another is, of course, central to the Christian faith. We see this process starting in our Gospel reading today.
The reading is from the last chapter of St Mathew’s gospel and whilst his work is coming to an end it’s just not possible to draw an end to the story he tells. The point is that the story continues and is meant to continue until the end of time. Jesus’ story is meant to be continued in you and in me, in our churches, in every life that is touched by the power and grace of the resurrection until He returns.
This logic of a story that is meant to be told and retold can be seen in the Gospel reading itself. The two women come to the tomb to do one last thing for Jesus – to clean and anoint his body for burial. Everything had happened so fast on Good Friday that there was no time before dusk to do this work – work is not allowed, of course, on the Sabbath which starts at sun down. They come with heavy hearts, they had their act of love to perform for their Lord but they must have been fearful of the authorities. They come expecting to see the tomb and his mutilated body. They come expecting to draw a final close to the amazing story they’d been part of for the previous three years.
But things don’t go as they expect. Firstly they feel a message as a great earthquake shakes the foundations of their world. We know how scary earthquakes can be from the recent dreadful events in Japan. But after feeling the message they then see it – they see a messenger – the meaning of the Greek word “angel” is “messenger”- who rolls the stone away from the tomb. Finally, after feeling and seeing, they then hear the message:
"Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said."
This is their message, a message they have felt, seen and heard. And this message starts a chain of other messages. They then, literally, run into Jesus and he commands them to go and tell the disciples (who were in hiding for fear of the authorities).
We are not given a glimpse into that encounter with the other disciples, and are not told much about the Risen Lord. The Gospel writers don’t try and explain the message, instead they convey the power of the message in the hope that we too will feel, see and hear it for ourselves.
Feel, See, Hear, Do
This process of feeling, seeing, hearing and doing is reflected in our own faith journeys. I think when people walk through the door of a church they have been on a long journey. It’s very rare someone gets up on a Sunday who’s never been to church before and decides to come along.
There has, I think, been a process of feeling restless, feeling that there has to be something more to life, a search for a sense of meaning and purpose, a desire to explore “spirituality” (but often not to explore “religion”). Looking back I can see now that in my teens I felt something that needed to be explored. Faith wasn’t for me primarily an intellectual exercise but a feeling that I had to explore this thing called Christianity, to respond to God who I felt around me but who I didn’t really know.
Seeing came next – I saw other Christians and started to wonder about how their faith made a difference to their life. This is the scary bit for me now as a Christian and as a minister. It sort of means that we have to be conscious that people look to us and see us as representatives of the Church – not just those of us who wear peculiar fashion accessories and who are held to be reverend, but all of us. Our lives are pictures which draw people to, or repel people from, the Church.
I first heard the Gospel message in the context of a church community. I don’t mean those condensed versions of Christianity which are squeezed into a sermon or a short series of small group meetings but through the discipline of attending worship, seeing the liturgical life of the church and listening and exploring.
Just like those first women I now realise that I went through a process before I was in a place to start to tell the story. Each of us has been through a similar process of feeling, seeing, and hearing. But if the journey had stopped there for the women in the Garden on that first Easter morning then we wouldn’t be here now.
Of course the process of feeling, seeing, hearing and telling didn’t just happen once. We need to continually do these things to keep our faith fresh. Often in worship we don’t do much to evoke feelings – indeed many of us are wary of churches which are a bit too feely-touchy! Sometimes we’ve been through hard times and what we feel is mainly sadness; the women at the tomb were feeling their despair as they went to anoint Jesus’ body. Our feelings are part of who we are and we bring them to God just as the women brought their feelings to the tomb.
The Passover meal on Thursday allowed us to feel – through taste – in worship. For our Good Friday service in MCC we invited people to leave a stone at the foot of the cross – which we took down from the wall (I hope it went back straight) – as a sign of the things we want to leave behind. Many then chose to kiss the cross as a sign of love. These actions allow us to feel something. For some a particular song or poem allows us to feel our faith.
We continually need to see and hear our faith too – which is why worship is so important. It keeps us in community where we see how we each work out our Christianity and hear it being proclaimed and explained.
The women at the tomb felt something, they saw something, they heard the news of the Risen Lord and they told the others. That process continues to this day and this Easter, and every week. We bring our feelings to the Lord, and we feel His presence, we see how the Christian faith is worked out in our communities and in each other, we hear the faith celebrated, explained, developed and puzzled over each week as we gather for worship and we find ever more creative ways to tell others of our faith, of our relationship with the Risen Jesus which changes us and which changes our world.