Tomorrow’s Sermon: Resurrection Now
Two weeks ago, Reuters reported this story:
The mayor of a village in southwest France has threatened residents with severe punishment if they die, because there is no room left in the overcrowded cemetery to bury them.
In an ordinance posted in the council offices, Mayor Gerard Lalanne told the 260 residents of the village of Sarpourenx that “all persons not having a plot in the cemetery and wishing to be buried in Sarpourenx are forbidden from dying in the parish.”
It added: “Offenders will be severely punished.”
Sounds like Mayor Lalanne could do with the resurrection of the dead now! Confounded by a court decision forbidding his village from buying some private land to extend the cemetery and doubtless complicated by traditional Catholic preference for burial over cremation, the seventy-year-old mayor said, “It may be a laughing matter for some, but not for me.”
Today, we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, the resurrection that promises the emptying of cemeteries and with it God’s kingdom with new heavens and a new earth. It gives us vision and hope for the future.
But it also affects the way we live now. What did it mean for Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, those first witnesses of the empty tomb, according to Matthew?
One of the things we’ve tried hard to teach our children is that it’s important to keep your word. If you make a promise, you keep it. I can’t say we’ve always been successful, and sometimes it has been hard to live up to our ideal, but we have wanted to teach them that it is good to be known as someone whose word can be trusted.
The Resurrection is the event where God supremely shows his people that he can be trusted. He gives his word. He keeps his promises. Notice how the angel’s first word to the women is one that says, look, God has kept his promise in raising Jesus from the dead:
The angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay.” (Verses 5-6)
Wow! What kind of promise keeping is that? It’s the fulfilment of a promise that has gone down to the wire – and beyond. It’s a promise made in the teeth of death. What faith it took from Jesus to give himself up to death, knowing that his Father had promised to raise him up on the third day. And it is that promise Jesus himself had relayed to his friends several times as they headed for Jerusalem.
How many of us have struggled to believe in the faithfulness of God, because everything has gone pear-shaped? The Resurrection is testimony to the fact that nothing can stop God keeping his promises, not even death. God is faithful. He makes and fulfils his promises.
Our friends in the circuit at Christ Church, Braintree are facing that very challenge, to believe in such a promise-keeping God right now. As some of you know, next to their building is a doctor’s surgery. The surgery is moving to a different part of town, and the premises have been up for sale. The location means it would be an ideal opportunity for them to expand their ministry, especially as they want to implement a lot of social care and community initiatives. After a lot of heart-searching and prayer by the leadership team and the congregation, they put in a sealed bid for the property. They were certain God had led them to do so. They based their bid on a survey they had commissioned. It was a huge amount for the size of their congregation.
However, they lost the sealed bid auction. So are they giving up? No. they believe God spoke to them, so they are holding on. They believe in a God who keeps his promises. The God of the Resurrection can certainly raise up a property deal, if it is his will. The church has not thrown in the towel. Who knows what God will do?
Are there aspects of our lives where we are waiting and longing – perhaps in desperation – for God to intervene? Yet is that situation still tending towards a cold tomb? The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is the God of Resurrection. That means he is the God who keeps his promises. The Easter message says that it is always worth holding onto our trust in him.
The evangelist D L Moody had a list of people for whom he prayed that they would find faith in Christ. Many of them did. When he died, two of them still had not. But after he died, they did. Death can never have the final say in the face of the promise-keeping God. That’s what it means to believe in the Resurrection.
Something flows from the angel’s assurance that God in Christ has kept his wonderful promise:
“Then go quickly and tell his disciples: ‘He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him.’ Now I have told you.”
So the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples.
‘Go quickly and tell his disciples.’ Which they did. They have good news – no, amazing news – for downhearted, discouraged disciples. Jesus is back, and he is still interested in those who denied him. He wants to see those who didn’t believe his word, and who failed him out of fear. The Resurrection is Good News to be proclaimed. Whatever our fear, whatever our failure, ultimately the Resurrection of Jesus brings us the joyful truth that Jesus still loves us. How is it each one of us has let him down? Whatever it is, whether it seems serious or trivial, we hear the Easter proclamation that he is going to meet us. Jesus counters the lie of the enemy that our sins mean God no longer cares about us, and we might as well sin boldly and make a complete wreck of our lives, and those of others. The Resurrection is the turning point. Receive and believe the Gospel!
So in that sense, the Easter Proclamation is something to be received. It is healing news for failed disciples. But the proclamation of the Resurrection is not only to be received: it is also to be shared. Perhaps our fear sent us undercover, and that is the reason for our shame. When we receive the Good News of Christ risen from the dead that heals our failure, we are also liberated from behind closed doors to share that Gospel with others, to be public about our faith, just as Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were on that first Easter morning.
This last week, the newspapers have reported the story of one famous person who kept his faith secret for years. However, now he has gone public about his belief in Jesus. He visited the tomb of his spiritual hero, Francis of Assisi, and prayed there silently on his knees for half an hour. He said that Francis had brought him to the church, and had played a fundamental part in his life.
Whom do I mean? Mikhail Gorbachev, former leader of the Soviet Union.
Ben Witherington, the American Methodist New Testament scholar, made an Easter connection with the story of Gorbachev’s faith. He quoted a communist who had once said, “I’ll believe Jesus rose from the dead when the atheist leader of the Soviet Union becomes a Christian.”
Gorbachev has gone public. It’s an Easter thing to do. That’s why I can never use part of the intercessions in our Easter communion service. The liturgy prays for ‘those who have confessed the faith, and those whose faith is known to you alone’.
What might happen with us if we truly heard the Easter Gospel again, and it quickened our hearts? Would it not be the first step in the reinvigoration of our witness? Let us pray that we may receive the healing knowledge of the risen Christ who forgives our failures, and inspires our testimony.
Off go the women. According to Mark’s Gospel, they went away from the empty tomb afraid. But Matthew has a punch line:
Suddenly Jesus met them. “Greetings,” he said. They came to him, clasped his feet and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.” (Verses 9-10)
The Resurrection means that the disciples will meet the risen Lord. He wants to meet with his friends. The Resurrection means that our faith is not a theory or a philosophy. It is about a real experience of the living God. We can come up with all sorts of reasons to believe the Christian message, and it is good to engage the brain in the service of Christ. However, if it remains no more than an intellectual conviction, then it is not the Gospel. The Gospel is that the risen Lord is present to meet with his followers. A recent survey shows that thirty percent of Britons believe that Jesus rose bodily from the dead. But whether that same thirty percent claim a personal experience of Christ is, I suspect, rather doubtful.
No, the Easter Good News is not simply that Jesus rose from the dead bodily. It is that when he rose, he sought out his followers. The Easter faith is that Jesus is alive, he is present, and he meets us. Don’t accept any account of Christianity that is less than a meeting with the risen Christ.
So where might we experience his presence? In church? Well, I hope so! I believe we hear his voice in the preached word as it seeks to interpret Scripture. I believe we meet him at the Lord’s Table when we come in obedient faith. I believe we meet him in the midst of our fellowship, and especially as we pray together.
But is that the only place we meet him? Is the gathering of God’s people the exclusive or even the privileged place of finding the presence of our risen Lord? No. All the angel asked the women to tell the male disciples was that they would see Jesus in Galilee. Yes, Galilee. Not only Jerusalem, the religious and political capital, but backwater Galilee, the ordinary place from which they came. The location of their upbringing and their working lives as fishermen. ‘There they will see me.’
Why should we expect it to be any different for us? At school: ‘there they will see me.’ At the office: ‘there they will see me.’ In a conversation with a neighbour: ‘there they will see me.’ At the petrol station, the newsagent’s and even in the supermarket: ‘there they will see me.’ Jesus is alive, and he cannot be restricted to church gatherings and buildings. Where is Jesus going ahead of us? Where might he surprise us with his presence? Can we open up our expectations and our vision so that we encounter him in more places where he wants to meet us? Places where he is on mission, and he is inviting us to join him, not just our religious events. He isn’t sending us to do his mission: he’s already on the job, and is calling us to participate. The risen Christ’s presence in the world is the primary strategy of God’s mission. As one minister puts it:
Heaven forbid we should ever do community in such a way that our main avenue for people coming to Christ is hearing the Gospel preached from the mouth of one person, rather than hearing the Gospel preached from the mouths (and lives) of the whole community. If, in your community, more people are becoming Christians on Sunday than during the rest of the week, I think you may have a problem.
So let us hear the Good News again this Easter Day. Be encouraged in your dark times that ours is the promise-keeping God who keeps his word, even in the teeth of death. The grave cannot thwart his promises. If we are failures, receive the Good News and go public with it to others. Finally, expect to meet the risen Christ everywhere, as much in the world on mission as in the gathering of God’s people at corporate worship.
I might not like the intercessions in our Easter communion service, but I like the way it ends. I say, ‘Alleluia! Go in joy and peace to love and serve the Lord’, and you reply, ‘In the name of Christ. Alleluia!’ However, I want to go further: don’t just go in joy and peace to love and serve the Lord. Go in joy and peace to meet the risen Lord.
 Methodist Worship Book, p 166.
 Ibid., p 173.
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