St Francis, Terriers - Easter Day (16.04.2017)

Tony Dickinson

There’s a moment of crisis in “The Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” when, among other weird happenings, the earth starts moving upwards and the sky starts moving sideways and folding up. Everyone is beginning to panic, except for Marvin the paranoid android. He simply looks at the chaos that is developing all round them and remarks, “Oh dear. I think you’ll find reality is on the blink again.”

There’s a touch of that in our Gospel this morning – or at least a sense that reality is not so much “on the blink” as being broken into by another, deeper reality. That sense of another reality breaking in is marked by what some have called “Matthew’s supernatural stage-effects”. “Suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men.” That is Matthew’s way of signalling to his readers that something different is happening here; that God is acting, and acting decisively. His description of the events surrounding the death of Jesus includes some very similar elements. Then, you may remember, “the earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised.”

That slightly bizarre detail foreshadows what is to happen a little later. “After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many.” The resurrection of Jesus is accompanied by what we might describe as a “trailer” for the general resurrection at the last day. Here, in other words, is a reminder that what has happened to Jesus is a foretaste of what will happen to us and the whole of humanity. St Paul puts it slightly differently. Reflecting on the transformation brought about by baptism, he assures his readers that “if we have been united with him in a death like his [through our baptism], we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his”. That’s the long view. But there is also a short-term consequence relating to this life rather than the life of the world to come.

Let’s return to those “supernatural stage-effects” and what they meant for Matthew’s first readers – and for us. They are a sign that in these events God has acted decisively, that another reality has broken into the reality that we perceive in our everyday life – the reality that most people take for granted.

In that reality, when you are dead, you’re dead. A recent survey has found that a large proportion of the people of this country, including many who would describe themselves as “Christian”, believe that death is the end of everything. In that reality, it is acceptable to marginalise or reject those who are “different”, whether in skin colour, or language, or belief, or sexual orientation, and it is OK for a nation’s government to shut its borders against people who are desperately trying to escape conflict and deadly violence. In that reality, what matters is gaining and keeping control of more and more of the world’s resources. In that reality the only things that matter are things that can be measured, things on which it is possible to set a price.

The resurrection of Jesus points us to a completely different reality, a reality in which, as Desmond Tutu has said, “Good is stronger than evil; love is stronger than hate; light is stronger than darkness; life is stronger than death.” And Bishop Tutu knows whereof he speaks. His ministry in apartheid-era South Africa – a tyranny as cruel as Pharaoh’s – included being arrested, having his office burgled and (on one occasion at least) fire-bombed, leading worship surrounded by hostile security forces. It would have been, I suspect, very easy to repay like with like. But because Desmond Tutu was (and, thanks be to God, still is) in touch with that deeper reality he survived the worst that the apartheid regime could throw at him and, after its peaceful ending, took a leading part in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission which was tasked with healing the wounds inflicted on the people of South Africa during the previous half-century and more.

And so, today, as we celebrate the resurrection, we celebrate the triumph of the One who is Truth, the one who brings reconciliation, even at the cost of his own life. We celebrate the reality that “Good is stronger than evil; love is stronger than hate; light is stronger than darkness; life is stronger than death.”

Above all we celebrate the deepest meaning of the resurrection, a meaning expressed in the words which end that quotation from Desmond Tutu. “Good is stronger than evil; love is stronger than hate; light is stronger than darkness; life is stronger than death.” All of that is true. And it has a consequence, which is this: “Victory is ours, through him who loves us.”

In the face of the sabre-rattling in Washington and Pyongyang, in the face of the horrors which are still being visited on the people of Syria, in the face of murderous attacks in London and Stockholm and St Petersburg, the cruelties inflicted on refugees and other migrant people and everything that diminishes human beings, we affirm in the name of Jesus Christ that another world is possible, that another reality breaks into the world we experience, as Jesus Christ broke the bonds of death. “Good is stronger than evil; love is stronger than hate; light is stronger than darkness; life is stronger than death. Victory is ours, through him who loves us.” Alleluia! Christ is risen! He is risen indeed. Alleluia!