Today is the greatest day of the Christian year! Rowan Williams recently said that the death and resurrection of Jesus is the centre point of all human history. That’s quite a day!
And as if that wasn’t enough, today I want to say that what we celebrate right now is not only Jesus’ overcoming of death and suffering and guilt and pain – but the possibility that we too will overcome these things and rise again. I truly believe that Easter is not only about the resurrection of Jesus – but it’s about the resurrection of all of us. The good news is that his rising brings promise and hope for you and me too. Saint Paul said that if Christ is not risen our faith is in vain. But today we affirm – we shout from the roof tops – that Christ is risen – and that there is a reason to be alive!!
As I read that Gospel reading about the women and then the man who went to the tomb, I see that this story is the story of their rising too. They had been devastated. Their world had collapsed completely. The women came to the tomb prepared to anoint a body. They came in the agony of grief. They were puzzled and terrified to find the body gone. And they were already experiencing the fear that grief brings. C.S.Lewis wrote about the grief he suffered after his wife’s death and he said that no-one had ever told him that grief would feel so much like fear. And then the women heard of the possibility of new life, but were not believed. Their words were treated like an ‘idle tale’ – their hope despised, denied, belittled. Peter came with all that grief too, but also carrying a burden of guilt. He had denied Jesus, betrayed him. He was a broken man and was probably wishing that he had died like Judas, thinking that he didn’t deserve to live. But reality dawned on the women and on Peter, and as the truth that Jesus had risen sunk in, so light dawned for them too, hope grew, and life was restored to those once in the depths of grief and guilt and pain. This was their resurrection as well. They were frightened, disappointed, devastated at the loss of Jesus. But then they were re-born. We know them now not as sad, tragic figures at all but as the apostles, the saints, the holy ones, of the early church. A truly broken man became Peter, the rock. And Mary Magdalene and Joanna and another Mary – they came to that tomb dragging themselves out of depression and sorrow, but they went home dancing..
But this isn’t only their story. It is ours too – or it could be. We all of us know what it means to encounter death. And I don’t just mean the literal, end of life, call-the-undertakers type death. I mean the many small deaths and sorrows that we each know about as we live our lives. We all of us face all sorts of deaths as we pass our days. The career that never quite took off. The relationships that fail. The anxieties that torment us and consume us. The guilty secret that we just can’t forget, and the shame that prevents us from finding the peace we long for. And there are all those little slow deaths that are just a part of getting older.. For so many human beings now, even among those who have every material thing that we need and more, this kind of death still stalks us. We all know what it is to carry a cross, or to have a cross forced upon us. Any pastor of a congregation of people, however small or large, if they are looking with open eyes, will know that all of us live with these little deaths and these huge sorrows every day we breathe. Many of us here have endured losses of those we love, or we live with chronic illness, or just the ‘everyone has them’ fears and troubles of a human life.
But I am here today to tell you that death, even the deaths of this kind, do not have to win. Jesus’ rose from the dead. He is the crucified victim who became the one who could say ‘I have overcome the world’. And the story of his resurrection is the promise that you can rise too.
I’ve been reading a remarkable book by someone called Victor Frankl, a Jew, a psychotherapist and a holocaust survivor – a man who believes in hope. He developed his own way of helping people to find life again by using what he learned in the camp about how people can rise above suffering and death, to help them to rise above the bad things that happen or even the bad things we do ourselves. He learned some remarkable things. But they are also the things, I believe, that are revealed once and for all in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.
Frankl discovered, in the camp, the things that make it possible for people to rise and to live, even amidst pain and suffering, even, we might say, before or after a cross. The one thing above all that enables us to rise in this life is to know that our lives have a meaning. Even Neitzsche once wrote, ‘The one who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.’ If we know that we are loved and that our lives have meaning then it seems we human beings can rise and live –through almost anything. Frankl noticed that it wasn’t the physically strong or the toughest minded who survived and survived well in the camps, but it was those who had a sense of life’s purpose and meaning – and those who nurtured a meaning for their lives, through cultivating a faith in God, through concentrating on surviving for the sake of other people, or by remembering the work they had still to complete… Even those who were quite vulnerable physically could somehow sometimes survive or face death well if they had a purpose, if they knew that they were needed, if they remembered that they were loved and if they cultivated that love. He saw too how people could hold on to shards of life simply through appreciating nature, by looking at the sunrise, by having a sense of humour, by playing music. He saw that the secret to life is not to ‘get tougher’, not to steel yourself against pain, but to hold on to those things that give your life meaning and purpose – even to those things that might make you vulnerable to pain. So, walk in the woods and the hills, listen to the music you love, spend time with your family or with thinking about them, pray, hold on to what means so much to you that you could endure anything for its sake.
What those apostles found on Easter morning was an empty tomb. They found in that place, somehow, and in a way that we can’t fully explain, that Jesus’ life and their lives too had real meaning after all. They found a way to endure the ‘how’ of the cross and the death and the burial – because they had found what gave it meaning – they discovered what God was doing with it. They found a way to find meaning and purpose again after bereavement and loss, after guilt and shame, after disappointment and devastation. They found again the ‘why’. They remembered that he had said this would happen – and that it had a meaning and a purpose. That this was God’s doing and they were part of it all. Jesus was risen. And they could rise too, from grief and pain and sorrow and guilt. Life is stronger than death…goodness is stronger than evil… love is stronger than hate… forgiveness stronger than guilt..
I can bear witness to the truth of resurrection. I believe that Jesus is risen. I believe that death is defeated. I believe that all of us can rise too…whatever the ‘how’ of our lives, however old and frail we are, however anxious or afraid, and however burdened by anything. There is meaning in our lives and so there is always hope.
But I want to end with a poem, a poem by the African American poet Maya Angelou – a descendent of slaves, a victim of rape and racism and poverty… but someone who has risen…
She says, introducing her poem, ‘Everyone in the world has gone to bed one night or another with pain or loss or disappointment and yet each of us has awaken and arisen, somehow make our ablutions, seen other human beings and said, ‘Morning, how are you?’, ‘Fine thanks and you?’ This is the nobleness of the human spirit. We rise…’
You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt,
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.
Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed heads and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops,
Weakened by my soulful cries?
You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
Into a daybreak that’s wondrous clear
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
Jesus is risen! Let us rise with him! Alleluia! Amen…