Texts: Romans 6.3-12; Matthew 28.1-10
Tonight we celebrate the resurrection of the crucified Jesus, an event that - in the faith of the church – bears no comparison or analogy within the ordinary space and time of this world. It is an event that has happened only once, and will never happen again in exactly the same way. The resurrection is so unique, in fact, so singular in its eventfulness, that we are able to say a lot more about what it is not, than we are about what it is. That’s just how it is when God decides to change world. The old rules no longer apply, even the laws of biology or physics, and suddenly what we thought we knew turns out to be wrong!
Amongst the many things that the resurrection is not, for example, is a resuscitation of the dead body of Jesus. We know this because, according to the eye-witnesses, the risen Jesus’ body does not behave like a re-animated body should. It can change its basic appearance, so that even the closest friends of Jesus do not recognise who he is. It can appear and disappear from sight, at once here and then somewhere else in an instant. It can walk through walls. It can even ascend into the air. Resuscitated bodies don’t do that stuff.
Another thing that the resurrection is not, is a moment of re-birth or re-turn in the cycle of life as we know it. This may be bad news for those of you who take Bunnies and eggs to be legitimate symbols of ‘Easter’. Because actually they are symbols of a certain kind of Easter, the pagan ‘Easter’, the Easter that is named after the Anglo-Saxon goddess of fertility, Oestre. This Easter celebrates, and is actually all about the turning of the agricultural seasons through autumn, winter, spring and summer. This Easter is about the re-birth of light and life and fertility after a long fallow, enwombed, winter. It is the Easter that the ancient Christian missionaries sought to overcome, but never did, because here we are in the midst of a bunny-and-egg obsessed culture in the southern hemisphere, which celebrates such things according to the northern agricultural cycle! Such is the strength of the pagan myth!
Enough, then, of what the resurrection is not. Allow me to explore something of what the resurrection is. Tonight's gospel reading shows us that in the face of the resurrection of Christ, the theologian must become a poet. When he speaks of the resurrection, Matthew does not speak of the thing itself, but only its effects. This is to invoke what the English poet, Percy Shelley, called ‘negative capability’, the capability of a event that we cannot directly see, touch, taste, smell or hear, to nevertheless produce effects that we can sense and interpret. In Matthew’s account, the resurrection is something that happens in the dead of night, the dead of this night (but without the benefit of coal-fire electricity and street lamps). The darkness represents an event that cannot be witnessed directly, like a nuclear explosion, or the implosion of a vast star into a tiny singularity. Matthew wants to insist, nevertheless, that the event is very real and that its effects are profound. That is why he invokes the image of the Angel who brings lighting and an earthquake to unlock the tomb and let the dead Christ free; that is why he speaks of an Angel who is, himself, bright, swift, and devastating as lightening. The Angel is an image from Jewish apocalyptic literature, a literature that seeks to bear witness to things hidden since the foundation of the world, to represent, though the hyperbolic devices of poetry, the revolutionary action of a God whose actions so fundamentally change the rules that whatever rules we are working with are for ever playing catch-up.
Let us then, like Matthew himself, confine ourselves to speaking of the risen Jesus in terms of his revolutionary effects. The first thing to say is that Jesus is risen to trans-value every value, to re-value, in fact, every thing and every person that is considered mere rubbish by the powers that rule our world. Christ is raised to go before us into Galilee, the Galilee of where we happen to live, the Galilee of Melbourne, shall we say. Christ is risen to effect in that Galilee a revolution of values whereby those who are called ‘sinners’ become saints and those who are called ‘saints’ or ‘models of virtue’ are shown, in fact, to be sinners. Christ is risen to give life and worth to anyone generally considered to be either ‘dead’ or ‘worthless’, like aborted babies and the severely disabled, locked away from public view (as they are) in institutions, in order to protect the general public from distress. Christ is risen to reveal that the many who claim to be really ‘alive’ and living the good life are already dead, dead inside, living only on the phantasmal power of their insatiable desire and wishful thinking. Christ is risen to raise the least important people of all, whether they are children or seekers of asylum or whatever, to membership in the royal household of God. Christ is raised to shine a light on the so-called ‘leaders’ who rule it over us, to show that their care, in far too many cases, is only for themselves. Christ is risen, finally to reveal that many whom this world considers wise (Richard Dawkins comes to mind) are nothing more than ranting fools, while the so-called ‘fools’ of this world, those who live out a simple faith in the God who is love, are actually wiser than any mind can measure or equation can tell.
Even more than this, Christ is raised to create a new world, a new universe. Christ is raised to effect a revolutionary transfiguration in the very cosmos we inhabit. His crucified and risen body straddles, you see, both this universe - the universe think we know - and the new creation to come that God has promised. Through his body broken on the cross, Christ has opened a conduit, a portal if you like (you Harry Potter fans, you), into this new cosmos, where the rules have been changed so that the power to kill and to break, to maim and destroy, has been rendered as nothing. There, it is only the love of God shown in this crucified Son that prevails. In this perspective, the day of resurrection is simultaneously the last day of this creation, and the first day of a new creation. What happens now is that the new will unfold within the old, until this world has finally fulfilled its purpose: to find sons and daughters for the God who is love.
Note that while the portal has indeed been opened in the risen body of Crucified, the purpose was never to suddenly transport us to that world - immediately and instantaneously - but to create, instead, a colony of witness in this world for the world that is coming but has not yet arrived. That is what Matthew’s talk of evangelism is about. You know, the woman being sent to tell the men, and the men being sent, with the women, into Galilee to wait for and bear witness to the resurrected Christ. ‘In the resurrection of Jesus the new creation has indeed arrived’: that is the substance of their message. But there is more. ‘To everyone who believes in our message, Christ will grant a key to the portal of life, that everyone who believes may experience the liberating power of the new creation, even before it has fully arrived!’ This is the promise of the risen Christ to all who would believe. To every soul who is willing to die with Christ to the hateful values of this world and its values. To every soul who would submit to Christ’s teaching and allow his or her self to be undone by it. To every soul who is willing to be broken and remade after the image of the Crucified. Christ is risen, friends, to do nothing less than heal and transform both our selves and our world into a place of goodness and beauty. A world like the one that is to come.
That he does so in a mysterious and rather hidden way goes with the territory. For the story of Jesus told by Matthew is not, in the final analysis, the story of two worlds, one that comes before the resurrection and one that comes after. It is the story of an ordinary and not particularly powerful man who is always already - from the beginning of the story to its end - a visitor from the new creation, whose only power is the power of love. If he was to take Galilee or Melbourne or anywhere by storm, with weapons and armies to effect his will in a campaign of shock and awe, this would be to contradict everything that his Father, the God who is love, is on about. Instead, in the gospel story, he takes a route at once more subtle and far more powerful: the strange and hidden way of friendship, servanthood and loving sacrifice. And we who have died with him in baptism are called to do exactly the same: in every thought, in every deed, in every relationship, in every moment; trusting not to the power of this world, the power of our ferocious self-protection or self-interest, but to the hidden power of self-giving love that flows from God’s future, through the portal of Christ’s crucified and risen body, into the hands, the feet, the faces and the voices gathered thus on this night of revolution. To the church, which is Christ’s very body - crucified and risen, like him, for the healing of the world.
Christ is risen. Hallelujah!