A sermon preached at St Mary’s Iffley
by Andrew McKearney on Easter Day 2017
All the Gospels begin Easter day with an empty tomb; so that’s what I want to reflect on with you this morning. The Gospels tell how the women went to the tomb and were perplexed when they found it empty, stopped in their tracks, bewildered.
And even stranger is the fact that no matter how early the women had got up and gone to the tomb it would have been empty! We don’t hear of them sitting around later that day wishing they’d got up a bit earlier because then the body would have still been there to anoint! Equally we don’t hear of them regretting that if only they’d got up in the middle of the night then they would have seen the resurrection happen like some meteor crossing the sky!
The event of the resurrection is the one thing that is never described in any of the Gospels. No one saw it happen, no attempt is ever made to describe it, complete silence reigns!
Matthew’s Gospel from which we heard this morning loves to dramatise things and he goes quite a long way when it comes to Easter morning – but even he keeps silence about the event of resurrection itself. By ‘dramatise things’ I mean he sets a stirring scene of a great earthquake, and an angel of the Lord descending from heaven, coming and rolling back the stone to then sit on it.
He then goes on to describe the angel with an appearance like lightning and with clothing white as snow. But even after this great fanfare, Jesus is not then released from the tomb like some genie when the cork is removed from the bottle. Instead Matthew’s reader is left with a clear but extraordinary impression – the stone is rolled away by the angel to reveal a tomb that is already empty!
That’s the disconcerting truth – Jesus is not released from the tomb by an angel – but raised by God the Father. And how can that be described?
Jesus’ life is historical – that’s what each of the four Gospels are full of, stories of meals and trips in boats, journeys and teachings – that’s all describable. The encounters with the risen Jesus, the appearances as they are often called, are also, after a fashion, describable – we heard an account just now of the risen Jesus meeting the women as they ran from the empty tomb.
But the resurrection itself, the hinge between these two histories, God’s act of raising Jesus from the dead eludes us.
Which is why no matter how early the women had got up and gone to the tomb, it would have been empty. All that the women are invited to look at is an absence: that when they go to the tomb, the body of Jesus is not there.
So what are we to make of this?
Christian theology and the western spiritual tradition have worked with two strands of thought when it comes to our understanding of Christ and our talk of God. The first strand is embodied in the scriptures and follows closely our Jewish heritage; the second strand is influenced by Greek philosophy and the experience of the contemplatives of the church; and these two strands of thought have shaped the way Christians think and talk.
The first way is sometimes called the ‘positive way’ or in Latin the ‘via positiva’ or in Greek the ‘kataphatic way’. Here image, metaphor, parable are all used to express our understanding and experience of God. This way abounds in scripture – God is my rock and my shepherd; Christ used this way all the time in his teaching in parables – ‘There was a man who had two sons’; and our prayers and hymns are full of images and metaphors which speak to our hearts and minds.
The other way is very different.
It stresses the otherness of God, that God is not an object like other objects, a being among other beings, a person like other persons. It’s sometimes called the ‘negative way’ or in Latin the ‘via negativa’ or in Greek the ‘apophatic way’. It cautions against assuming that the way we think or experience God is in fact how God is. It suggests that the spiritual journey involves letting go of much that is familiar and dear to us, and instead stresses darkness and silence as necessary stepping-stones on our spiritual path.
Christians have affirmed both of these ways; that they are like our two hands working together – they’re not to be thought of as contradictory or in conflict with each other but complementary – the positive and the negative, shaping Christian thought and experience.
What then of Easter?
The empty tomb is an absence; the event of resurrection remains for us, as for the Gospel writers, hidden from sight. All this is very much part and parcel of the ‘negative way’ that I have briefly outlined.
So what did happen?
The answer that Christians have given, is that what happened is the mystery called ‘resurrection’ – a mystery not in the sense of something that is obscure or needing to be solved, but a mystery in the sense of something too big to be explained.
It is an eternal act of God.
One person has suggested that we’re like ants crawling round the foot of an elephant trying to work out what’s going on.
Another person has suggested that it’s as if we’re standing at the foot of a waterfall trying to catch some of the water using a thimble.
I’m no scientist, but a suggestion that I find helpful is this: that black holes may be a possible analogy for the resurrection of Christ.
As I understand it we can’t see black holes, we can’t touch them, we can’t measure them since they have infinite density. But scientists know that they exist because of the influence they exercise on the objects around them in space.
And that’s not unlike the resurrection – that too is not something that we can see, touch or describe – but as with black holes, what is describable is the impact the event had and still has.
It transformed a group of despondent, downcast disciples into a vibrant, dynamic, joyful movement. We heard this morning how Mary Magdalene and the other Mary ran from the empty tomb with fear and great joy – it’s wild, unbound!
And what we know now is this – that there is a kind of life, a kind of love, a kind of unconquerable joy that is the very essence of Jesus’ identity and that is now available, set free, and coming to life around us, between us and within us.
Alleluia! Christ is risen.
He is risen indeed. Alleluia!