Readings: Acts 9.1-6 & John 21.1-19
‘After this he said to him, ‘Follow me.’’
It isn’t often you hear people complain about the commercialisation of Easter: talking about all the Easter shopping; the hundreds of cards to be written; the huge number of parties; not to mention the endless stream of Easter adverts and cheesy films on our televisions. For some reason, Easter, despite being the most significant festival of the liturgical year, has stubbornly resisted the commodification that has swallowed up Christmas and left the season one more of dread than the joyful celebration of the Nativity of Our Lord. I was wondering about this question a lot this year how has Easter – with the
exception of ever-expanding baskets of eggs – maintained its relative religious purity? The answer, I would say, is the subversive message it carries with it: three simple words, Christ is risen.
‘Christ is risen’ is the most extraordinary declaration of the Christian faith and is also a pretty easy one to understand, whether you believe in it or not. Jesus of Nazareth, the man whose followers claim that he healed the sick, stilled storms, raised people from the dead and made the poor the centre of his ministry, was crucified under the orders of Pontius Pilate and died an agonising death in Jerusalem. Then, as his followers believe – include many of us here – after three days in the tomb, he rose from the dead.
If you don’t believe in the resurrection, you can go on living your life while perhaps admiring the example of Jesus, even practicing some of his teachings. But, at the same time, you can set aside those teachings that you disagree with or that make you uncomfortable – you don’t have to forgive your enemies, pray for your persecutors, live simply or risk death for Christ’s sake. If you don’t believe the sentence, ‘Christ is risen’ you can set all these demands aside because Jesus is just another great teacher among many.
But, if you believe that Jesus rose from the dead everything changes. If this simple claim is true, you cannot set aside any of his teaching because a person who rises from the grave, who demonstrates his power over death and who has definitively proven his divine authority needs to be listened to, he need to be followed as he says to Peter at the end of our Gospel reading. What that person says demands a response. The Resurrection makes a claim on you.
The Resurrection makes a claim on you.
The Easter story is both appalling and astonishing: the cruel betrayal of Jesus by one of his closest followers, the triple denial of his best friend, the gruesome crucifixion and the brutal end to his earthly life. Then, of course, there is the stunning turnaround three days later. Easter isn’t commercialised like Christmas because it’s so much harder to take – anyone can be born in a snowy stable with lambs and funny visitors – not everyone can rise from the dead.
Yet the Easter story, essential as it is for Christian belief, can be a confusing one, even for us who believe. To begin with, the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ appearances after the Resurrection can seem confounding, they are even contradictory. They are mysterious in the extreme. In John’s Gospel alone, we have Mary Magdalen who mistakes the Lord for a gardener and only knows him when he speaks her name, ‘Mariam.’ What is going on? How could Mary not recognise the person that she has been following for so long? More confusion follows in John – on one hand, Jesus appears as an almost ghostly figure, apparently able to walk through locked doors; but this morning he sits and eats breakfast. Ghostly and yet physical, recognisable but unrecognisable. Which is it? How could Matthew, Mark, Luke and John have presented the details of such an important story with such seeming contradictions? The agnostic or atheist will point to this as proof that it never happened. But I think it’s quite the opposite.
Most likely, I would claim, the narratives reflect the struggle of the eyewitnesses and, later, the evangelists to understand and communicate what they had experienced. After all, no one had ever encountered what theologians call the “glorified body,” the appearance of Jesus after the Resurrection. So they naturally struggled to explain it. It was him, but more. It was his body, but something else. It was like this, but not like this. If the Gospel writers were intent on getting their stories straight and providing airtight narratives with no inconsistencies, each would have made sure to agree with the others, so as not to give rise to any doubt or confusion (a process partly visible in the accounts of the Crucifixion). Instead, the Gospel writers, composing their accounts at different times and for different communities, simply reported what they had experienced and what they had been told. And what they had been told was beyond telling.
The risen Christ bursting from the tomb is so beyond the language and experience of those first witnesses that, instead of systematising the stories into something coherent they preserve for us those first stories – stories which so set ablaze a group of Palestinian nobodies and one violent pharisee that they carried the story to the ends of the earth. There may not be one coherent account of what Jesus was like when he rose from the grave, and God only knows what we’d see if there was a CCTV camera in the tomb – but the resurrection of Christ was so certain to those first women and men that they left their fishing nets and set out, many to their deaths.
What difference does Easter make in the life of the Christian? The message of Easter is, all at once, easy to understand, radical, subversive and life-changing. Easter means that nothing is impossible with God. Moreover, that life triumphs over death. Love triumphs over hatred. Hope triumphs over despair. And that suffering is not the last word. For Peter and Paul, it means a complete transformation of life: Paul, a persecutor of Christians, becomes their greatest apostle; Peter, a fisherman from a backwater of the Roman Empire travels to Rome and is crucified upside-down because he believed his friend had risen from the dead.
Easter reminds us, as it reminded Paul and the disciples, that Jesus Christ is Lord. And if he is Lord then what he says has a claim on you. His teachings are invitations, to be sure, but they are also commandments: Love your neighbours. Forgive. Feed my sheep. Care for the poor and the marginalised. Live a simple life. Put the needs of others before your own. From now on, the universe has changed and whoever wants to keep their life must lose it for Christ.
Jesus’ message still has the power to make us feel uncomfortable, as it did in first-century Palestine. It was just as much of a challenge to pray for your enemies in antiquity. It was no easier to hear Jesus’ judgment against the excesses of the wealthy during a time of degrading poverty for so many. It was just as subversive a message to be asked to pray for your persecutors as it is now.
By walking out of the tomb on Easter morning and sitting on the beach to cook fish with hands which still bear the fatal scars of the Cross, Jesus declared something life-changing, something subversive and something that cannot be overcome by any commercialisation. It is a message that refuses to be tamed. The Resurrection says not only that Christ has the power of life over death, but something more subversive.
The Resurrection says, ‘Listen.’