A young man rose from poverty and obscurity, to a place where he was known throughout the land, to a place where he had prominence and influence. Crowds of people gathered wherever he was. They were fascinated by the things that he said, fascinated by the message behind his words.
The authorities felt threatened, it seemed like all of the old ways were up for grabs, it seemed like the old certainties were not quite so certain, that there might be a new way of doing things. Families quarrelled over what he did, there was national debate about what was happening. Those devoted to him saw a new era of hope and change emerging. Then, well before he reached old age, he met a tragic death. His abused body was laid to rest. All the joys which he brought, the message which he symbolised, the hopes of release and new life were on the brink of coming to a tragic end. Those who were closest to him were lost in tragic grief, those followers who knew him only from a distance felt that their lives could not go on.
But then reports started to circulate that he was alive again. People familiar with his appearance saw him in one place, and then another. He always took them by surprise – utterly by surprise. I speak of course this morning of Elvis Presley. Elvis is alive!
You have heard the stories about him, the reported sightings, the conspiracy theories about what happened to him, what would we do if he walked in here this morning, singing his rock and roll? My guess is, that after the initial shock we would claim him to be an imposter, we would doubt the truth of what we saw before us. And if there was a way of us knowing that it really was Elvis, and not an impersonator, who stood before us singing away, we would be utterly astounded and surprised. I know for many Christians the example of Thomas, the one who doubted first and later believed is a re-assuring model and mirror of our own lives.
Is it possible, that in all our celebrating and ritualising and reflections on this great Easter story which we do indeed (with great joy) celebrate this morning, that we have missed one of the central ingredients of this story which is at the heart of our faith? I think that it is. I think that we have forgotten to be surprised.
It is difficult for us this morning to feel the same feelings as the first disciples did on the morning of the resurrection: not because we do not believe in it; not because the resurrection does not fill our hearts with joy and gladness, not because it does not lead us (each time we contemplate it) into a deeper longing to serve Our risen Lord – but because we are unable to be surprised by it any more.
That is why new Christians and those who seek to enquire about our faith, are and must continue to be a crucial part of the life of the Church. And as I reflect on the last twelve months with you, I rejoice at the number of new people who have visited us here for our major festivals and for the sacramental ministry of the Church, and particularly for baptism. Because without people who will be surprised and excited by the story of Jesus (perhaps even because they are hearing it for the first time) this faith community will lose its way very quickly.
Many of us have known the good news of the resurrection for the whole of our lives, and those of us who are members of this congregation celebrate that resurrection every Sunday as we come together for worship. The resurrection challenges us, but it does not surprise us, not like the surprise which we would feel if Elvis came through the door. Because it is hard to be surprised about the message of Easter when we have planned and prepared for it for many weeks now, and because the memory of last Easter is not all that distant in our minds (at least for some of us!).
So let me ask you a slightly different question this morning: if you are not surprised,(as those first disciples were)when they found that Jesus was no longer dead (that death could not hold him) and that he was alive, are you surprised by God’s resurrecting power in your own life?
I need to tell you that I have gone through periods in my life when I have not been surprised by anything at all, when there have been long periods when nothing was surprising, or at least nothing good was surprising. And I can tell you from experience that that is a lifeless way to live. I know that I am truly blessed by God to have three young boys around me at home who surprise me constantly, and some of you will be going through that same experience with your own children, and grand children and great grand children. It is wonderful to be surprised!
Let me ask you if I may, if God spoke resurrection into your life this morning, would you hear it? Through the restoration of a relationship, or through the beauty of the world around us, or through the knowledge that you are loved and special to God. If God spoke a word of resurrection to you, however surprising it was, would you be ready to hear it today?
In C. S. Lewis’ little book, “Surprised by Joy” he recounts the story of his own journey to faith when he was a young man, a literal journey which took place on a red London bus on the way from his home to London Zoo; and he describes how thinking about the Christian faith, he got on to the bus as an agnostic and in his mind on that bus something mysteriously happened that changed his life forever, and he arrived at his destination at London Zoo utterly convinced of the reality of God, and of the resurrection of his Son, Christ Jesus our Lord. Surprised by joy!
We need to work especially hard on this Easter Day to clear our minds of the pre-conceived ideas which we bring to our Gospel reading this morning if we are to experience any of the surprise of those first disciples. We must put out of our mind all of the anticipation which we have felt during the fasting days of Lent, and during our Holy Week observances, we must put those things which have prepared us for today, out of our minds for just a few moments, and instead focus on a young woman startled by the emptiness of a tomb.
Saint John describes for us, not a surprise of joy, but a surprise of deep horror, and bewilderment. The stone has been rolled away from the tomb, and we presume that she hesitantly looked inside, and finding nothing ran back to Simon Peter the one who had denied Jesus and the other disciple, whom John describes as the one “whom Jesus loved.” The disciples responded in surprised horror and shock as well, and ran as fast as they could to the tomb to investigate for themselves: was Mary delirious? Had she mistakenly gone to the wrong tomb? Or was it true, had someone really moved the body?
It was true, the horror was real. If it was not enough that Jesus, their Teacher, had been killed on the Cross, now they had found that his body had been stolen; and all that was left was the linen which he had been wrapped in.
For the Jewish people bodies are very important: they are the literal vehicles for resurrection on the last day. Even today in Israel and the Palestine, Orthodox Jews will collect body parts after explosions or accidents in order for bodies to be buried whole. Jesus was dead, and without his body his death would be permanent.
After Simon Peter and the other disciples have returned home, Mary Magdalene makes her way back to the tomb, weeping and in great sorrow. Jesus had become everything to her ever since he had released her with the encouragement that her life could be transformed: her Lord was dead and his body was gone. But she was soon to be surprised a second time. As she looked into the tomb, into the sepulchre, she saw (not an empty space) but two angels where Jesus had been laid the previous evening, one where his head had been and one at the other end.
The angels, knowing the good news, asked her why she was weeping; and she explained to them, that hew Master’s body was missing and that she did not know where to find it. And as she turned she could see through her tears the figure of a man standing by her, and supposing that he was the gardener, and that he might have moved the body, she asked him if he knew where the body was, so that she might take it away. And the man spoke, and in speaking came the greatest surprise of all.
“Mary,” she heard God’s love again, that love which she had heard, and felt, and seen in Jesus.
“Mary,” that love so great, that it could not be bound by death, and which, (as the disciples were soon to find out), could not be destroyed by betrayals and doubts and fears.
“Mary,” that love which is not found amongst the clothing of the dead, but in the ongoing life of the resurrected Lord, spoke to her and brought her wholeness.
Alleluia! Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!
The Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in his Easter message to the world writes this: “Alleluia! Our Easter song is more than a word. It is, as Saint Augustine tells us, a way of being ‘from head to toe’. Christ rises in every particle of our being and through baptism we are part of him: limbs and members of his risen body and ministers of his deathless, reckless reconciling love.”
The risen Elvis (from what I have heard), in his manifestations in shopping malls and fast food restaurants, seems to make no more than a visual impression, a memory from the past. The risen Christ invites his disciples to inspect his wounds, to eat and drink with him, and most importantly to carry on living with him, not as a memory but as a future. Which is perhaps the greatest surprise of all: that the life of Jesus lives on in us, the Spirit of the resurrected Christ is entrusted to us for the sake of the whole world.
He calls us all by name – like Mary – to share in his life, to be his body, to join with all those who have gone before us, and the many millions who will come after us in the ongoing procession of his work in this world. Through our baptism we have entered into his life, and through his resurrection we are made ready for a life which will be everlasting. A life of ongoing surprise, as we journey with him and each other, and as we are touched by his grace in our lives.
So we celebrate today, with those first disciples, and with Christians throughout the ages, the joyous surprise which was the greatest news of all, that Jesus’ words were true, that God had never died, and that the gate was open, through the risen Lord, for humanity (that’s you and me to know that love and forgiveness and acceptance which Jesus had talked about, and which is at the very heart of God).
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”
Alleluia Christ is risen! He is risen indeed alleluia! Let us celebrate the Feast!
Let us celebrate the Feast with the whole company of heaven, and as we prepare now to meet God who raised Jesus from the dead, at this Holy Table, and to feed upon the body and blood of the risen Lord let us be open to be wonderfully surprised by him.
Surprised by the one who met with his disciples on the first Easter Sunday and transformed them from a group of mourners to the fearless of the Early Church; the one who meets with each of us, and calls us by name, calling us to surprise others with his love, calling us to surprise ourselves as we trust in him for our future.
Words to finish this morning from another John, not John the Baptist, or John the Evangelist, the writer of our Gospel; but John Chrysostom, who preached his Easter Sermon celebrating the good news of the resurrection, in Constantinople, around 370 years after the resurrection of Christ. A sermon which is regarded by the Church as perhaps the greatest Easter homily ever proclaimed:
Let no one grieve at their poverty, for the universal kingdom has been revealed.
Let no one mourn that they have fallen again and again; for forgiveness has risen from the grave.
Let no one fear death, for the Death of our Saviour has set us free.
God has destroyed it by enduring it… O death, where is thy sting? O Hades, where is thy victory?
Christ is Risen, and you, O death, are annihilated!
Christ is Risen, and the evil ones are cast down!
Christ is Risen, and the angels rejoice!
Christ is Risen, and life is liberated!
Christ is Risen, and the tomb is emptied of its dead; for Christ having risen from the dead, is
become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep.
Alleluia! Christ is risen! He is risen indeed. Alleluia!