A Sermon Preached at the 8.30am Service on Easter Day by Canon Simon Butler
It was the soldiers on the streets that should have alerted me that something unusual was expected. But being in a strange city with a different culture I thought it was perhaps an everyday occurrence to see riot police drilling. But they were preparing for something I knew nothing about it. I just carried on.
So it wasn’t until later that evening in the restaurant that I realised that this expected ‘something’ had happened. Suddenly car horns started sounding everywhere and young men were seen with leaning out of car windows and sunroofs shouting and cheering. Great shouts were heard from a distance, drums and loud music. Matters became more concerning when the first report of gunfire was hear, a shot in the dark. It was time to pay the restaurant bill and to find some way of getting back to the hotel. Fortunately, a taxi driver was quickly found and, watching signs of celebration everywhere, we beat a hasty retreat.
This was Istanbul a few years ago, and the event was the final match of the year between Galatasaray and Bešiktas, the two local Istanbul teams. Anyone who knows anything about football needs to think Rangers vs. Celtic with ammunition. And the outcome was that Bešiktas won the championship.
About all of this I knew nothing at the time. Somewhere, the evidence suggested that a great victory was won. The locals were transformed. But for us, unfamiliar with the culture, the expectations and the dangerous exuberance of the local response, being caught up in a great victory seemed strange and a little frightening. We knew we were part of it, but we weren’t exactly sure what to expect. In the end, we just ran away.
Easter can be a similarly disconcerting experience. It seems to have been so for the first disciples who went to the empty tomb. In the Gospel of Luke we’ve just heard read, first we encounter the women going to the tomb. They find it empty and we read not an immediate shout of alleluia as the truth of Easter dawned upon them, but these emotions: perplexity and terror. And when the women finally return and tell the disciples, their response is disbelief and amazement. It’s only as time moves on that it began to dawn on the first Christians the full significance of what had happened. Weeks, months and years passed before the fullness of insight dawned, when Paul can say, “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died.” Or when Luke can write the angels’ words perhaps a generation after Paul, “Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” It takes time to work out what has happened. It takes time to realize resurrection reality.
But when the truth of resurrection dawns, everything changes. Everything fits into place. Those words of Luke I’ve just quoted hint at it. Luke talks about Jesus’ death and resurrection as an inevitability – the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners. As resurrection becomes a reality so Luke can look back and see that it has always been the case that history is headed towards Easter. What seemed perplexing, terrifying and plain unbelievable to the first witnesses of the resurrection has become the hinge around which all history turns. The defeat of Jesus’ death has become, through Easter, the defeat not of Jesus, but of death itself. As Paul puts it, “For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being.”
This resurrection message that the Christian Church proclaims is a message for the whole of humanity. But, for many in the world, including perhaps for some of you hear today, your attitude is like mine on that warm Istanbul evening. The crowd is celebrating, but you’re not quite sure of what to make of it. The victory about which we sing today, the victory of Jesus Christ-returned-from-the-dead, has happened somewhere else and to a group of other people. You wonder what is going on. You sense something has happened. But it is both attractive and slightly scary. What does it mean? What does it imply? And what are the consequences for us?
Perhaps the truth is that you need to ponder the question like the early disciples. The slightly arrogant unfamiliarity, this claim that one man’s death has set us all free from the worst that we can or have ever been. Or what theologians call ‘the scandal of particularity’, that this one event of Easter has cosmic significance, these things need time to percolate and be absorbed. If time was required for the first disciples, then it is needed for us too. Think about what Easter signifies. Pray about it, too. Ask God to show you its truth – and not intellectually either, for perhaps Easter is first experienced in knowing God’s eternal love for us. But don’t dismiss it. Let it become real.
But if it does become real, and here I’m speaking to all of us, including and perhaps especially those for whom the resurrection is something already known and experienced, if it does become real, then the resurrection has an absolute claim on our lives. For if Easter is real, then nothing else is the same again. If Easter is real, then all our living, all our deciding, all our loving, all our spending, all our voting, all our working and all our churching – all of it has to be lived in the light of Easter. For Easter’s claim is absolute. There can only be two reactions to it – run a mile or celebrate as if nothing else matters.
And the absolute claim of Easter is this: Jesus is Lord. To believe in the message of Easter is to believe only that in Jesus a new way of being human has begun into which we can enter through trusting in Jesus Christ. Knowing him brings peace, hope and joy everlasting. Through him the world is to be changed through our service of Christ in the world. Knowing God’s peace, hope and joy, we are strengthened to bear witness to Christ, even though the world around considers us foolish, irrelevant or deluded. People may run a mile as I did from celebrating Turkish football fans. But, knowing what we know, we celebrate with our whole lives, because Jesus is risen and nothing can ever be the same after that.