Come and see ... go and tell
This is the text of my Easter Sunday morning sermon, available below as a recording.
Jesus has risen
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 worshipped 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.’
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.
1 Do not be afraid …
There seems to be a lot of fear at the moment. Fear of being alone in lockdown; for some fear of being locked in with their abuser; for others fear of being unable to get a friend to pop round and fix that broken tap or share a cuppa.
There is fear about how long all this will go on and how safe it is to go out and buy milk. Whoever thought we would be in this position?
It’s all perfectly understandable fear but for those of us who have faith what can Easter Sunday say to us about our fears.
The two Marys came to the tomb after days of fearful watching: an arrest, a trumped-up trial, a cruel death and what seemed like the end of all their hopes. Jesus had preached a new Kingdom - God breaking in to human lives in a remarkable new way - but where had all that gone?
Matthew says they went to look at the tomb. Was that because it would be literally a rock-solid confirmation of their fears: Jesus really was dead and buried? Was it because they felt compelled to be where their Master was but fearful of how they would cope with their loss? Was it because this was the place to see if their promised hope in God had crumbled?
Into their brokenness comes an angel from God: arriving in an earthquake and the rolling away of the grave stone. In the prosaic way our English language works, they are told not to be afraid. Yeah, right!
Actually we need to understand the true translation of the phrase to see what the angel meant. The women were told, “no longer be afraid any more”. It was a recognition of where they had been but a call to live with a different attitude … and to live it out persistently.
It is not a rejection of their grief. There is surely a heavenly acknowledgement of their tears because it is to the grave where God sends a messenger with good news.
Later, when the risen Jesus meets the women, he also tells them to “no longer be afraid any more”.
2 He has risen …
The Good News the angel brings to the two Marys has substance. It’s not “there, there. Stop crying.” It is to announce that death no longer has the last word. The stone hasn’t been rolled away so they can go in and anoint the body - in fact Matthew doesn’t refer to spices or anointing - but so the women can see that the tomb is empty.
And here beginneth the argument which has kept theologians, scholars and sceptics in employment ever since: did it really happen?
When I was training for ministry one of my lecturers was quite sceptical about some of the Bible stories. For him the Exodus was a handful of people on a cold November Tuesday wandering out of Egypt rather than a decisive act of God; the Virgin Birth was very dubious. One evening an exasperated student shouted out: “well, what about the Resurrection then?” He went very quiet and said: “As much as I struggle with it, I just believe it happened.”
And that’s the point. It is, at the end of the day, a matter of faith. What do you choose to believe? For many of us, it was a physical bringing back to life of a dead body. That’s where I stand. For others it is a symbolic truth that God brings the power of life into dead situations.
Whichever of these views - and perhaps others - we hold what we can say for sure is that Jesus didn’t bring himself back to life. It wasn’t a magic trick to confound his killers. Again, English is limited and our Bible translations fail to convey the power of what happened.
When the angel says to the two Marys, “He is not here; he has risen, just as he said.”, we need to remember Jesus’ own words to his disciples:
“From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.” (Matthew 16: 21)
The proper translation of ‘he has risen’ is ‘he has been raised’. It is an act of God that the disciples had been prepared for … but were utterly unready to take on board.
The reason Jesus is not in the tomb is because God has stepped in. Douglas Hare in his commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, says the resurrection is “God’s comment on Good Friday”. Evil did that … I did this!
It’s also not enough to say that Jesus would have risen because he is divine. That makes Good Friday a minor inconvenience and it was always more than that. Douglas Hare again: “if the rising was due to Jesus’ nature then his death on the cross was an empty charade”.
Angels, earthquakes and the statement “he has been raised” are a declaration about the power and majesty of God breaking into human history.
3 Come and see … go and tell …
One of the worst effects of the pandemic lockdown is what’s unfortunately called social distancing. There’s nothing social about standing two metres away from everybody.
I’ve been collecting tablets from the pharmacy for a neighbour who is self-isolating and it feels dreadful to ring the doorbell and stand away.
We love being able to invite people to “come on in”. An invitation ‘in’ is a way of telling someone they are welcome and Joy and I look forward to our regular house group meetings when we can open the door and share with others.
For the two Marys, the angel’s invitation inside the tomb is being welcomed into a holy space - where God has brought life and defeated death.
But the invitation is a two-stage one and we need to be aware that the same applies to us.
They are invited to go in and see. To see that the tomb is empty and that Jesus has been raised. Then they are charged to go and tell. And this is a clear statement that this couldn’t be the early church crafting a story just to persuade people that something unbelievable happened.
Why? Because it’s the women who are given this task first.
Michael Green, the Anglican preacher, described this as astounding. He says:
“… women counted for little in Graeco-Roman circles in those days. They were nobodies: they were goods and chattels; they could in some circumstances be offered for sale; they could not bear witness in a court of law. And God perpetrates the supreme irony of having two women as the first witness to his Son’s resurrection!”
These discounted women see the empty tomb and head to tell the disciples what has happened. As they go Jesus meets them and repeats the angel’s words: “no longer be afraid any more”.
Easter is a moment when we too are invited to “come and see … go and tell”. But, you rightly say, how can we go when we’re in lockdown?
The call to the two Marys was to be witnesses of God’s grace; to make known what God has done.
We have opportunities to do that even when we are isolated: on our phones when people call or by calling them; on our doorsteps when we clap for carers; using our windows to ‘broadcast’ the good news through posters, rainbow pictures or cuddly toys; being good neighbours in giving and receiving help.
But more than that: when the lockdown ends - and it will - being ready to testify to the God who holds us when things are difficult and acts to resurrect our lives.
We have the ability to live in prophetic hope because the future is in God’s hands - and he will make it right.
The writer Philip Yancey has a meditation called The Day I’ll get my Friends Back in which he recalls three friends who have died and how difficult live can seem when the world appears broken.
In it he says:
I believe in the Resurrection primarily because I have gotten to know God. I know that God is love.
… There are two ways in which to look at human history, I have concluded. One way is to focus on the wars and violence, the squalor, the pain and death. From such a point of view, Easter seems a fairy-tale exception, a stunning contradiction in the name of God. That gives some solace, although I confess that when my three friends died, grief was so overpowering that any hope in an afterlife seemed somehow thin and insubstantial.
But there is another way to look at the world. If I take Easter as the starting point, the one incontrovertible fact about how God treats those God loves, then human history becomes the contradiction and Easter a preview of ultimate reality.
May we live in the preview and the certainty that God will bring it about. Amen.