A sermon preached online by Nikolaj Christensen on Easter Day 2021.
The hymn we’ll be singing this morning compares the death and resurrection of Jesus to a solar eclipse, among other things. You may recall that on Good Friday a darkness fell on the earth, which has led some to try to date the crucifixion based on the dates of solar eclipses. Although it may not have been an eclipse at all! But if you’ve ever had the privilege of experiencing a full solar eclipse, you’ll know something of the mind-bending quality of the first Easter Sunday.
Hannah and I went to see a full eclipse in Wyoming in 2017 – we were living not too far away at the time. It’s hard to describe the experience, but I’ll try. One moment, the sun is still blinding – although almost covered up by the moon. The next, it slides behind a black disk. The perspective is completely changed, in an instant. But you don’t get the whole experience if you simply stare at where the sun was. There’s the eerie light, the corona, emanating in waves from behind the moon, much further out than you’d think from the photos. Then look across the sky, and there are the planets, visible in the middle of the day. A giant shadow covers the ground, and the birds suddenly go quiet. And the people around you are perhaps the best part: they’re utterly amazed. Now imagine how stunned they would be if they hadn’t expected the eclipse!
And then, after just a couple of minutes, the blinding sun comes out again, and somehow it’s simultaneously become more tangible and more awesome and powerful. And I can’t think of a better description of the resurrected Christ.
The Christian tradition talks about his death and resurrection as a mystery. Just like the solar eclipse it is best appreciated by looking not just at the thing itself but at its effect on everything and everyone around it. And that’s how the first Christians preferred to describe the resurrection, as we can see from our two readings from the New Testament today.
I’ll begin with the last one we heard: the Gospel, which focuses on the reaction of the three women who come to the grave. They are quite naturally expecting the grave to look exactly as it did when they last left it, with a huge heavy stone separating them from Jesus’ body. When they found the grave nothing like they remembered it, they were – what? – relieved? No, ‘they were alarmed’. And when they were told what had happened – ‘He has been raised; he is not here’ – then they were – what? – glad? No, they were ‘seized’ by ‘terror’ and too ‘afraid’ to tell anyone. They were freaked out.
You see, ancient people were not as primitive as we make them out to be – they knew perfectly well that dead people don’t come back to life – and the fact of their utter shock at the resurrection is as good an argument as any that it really happened. Again, the resurrection is best understood by considering how people reacted to it.
And notice carefully what the young man says: ‘go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.’ Peter who had so publicly denied being a follower of Jesus out of fear of being arrested and put to death himself – Peter is explicitly included among the ones Jesus wants to see again. Peter is offered a fresh start: he is no longer defined by his failure.
And so, in our reading from the Book of Acts we see something of the effect that the resurrection had on Peter, a Jewish fisherman, who would have had no business going into the house of an enemy officer. And yet, there we find him in the house of Cornelius. He has experienced a second or perhaps a third conversion: now ‘I truly understand that God shows no partiality’ – the good news of the resurrection is not only for Peter’s – and Jesus’ – countrymen, the people of Israel, but for ‘every nation’, for every human being.
In my early twenties when I first spent time seriously studying the Book of Acts with a group of other theology students, I had what I can only describe as a new conversion experience, an experience of being turned outward towards the world. Like Peter, I had a whole new perspective on what consequences the Good News of Jesus have for the whole world. I would probably not have been sitting here now, a long way from home, if it hadn’t been for that. And I’m deeply grateful.
I wonder where it is in your life that you feel in need of a fresh perspective, or even a fresh start. What heavy stone needs to be rolled away for you?
In the resurrection of Jesus we find the promise that we will be raised with him. The sun may look the same after an eclipse as it did before, but it will never be the same. New life starts at the empty tomb. ‘This is the day that the Lord has made; we will rejoice and be glad in it.’