St James Fordham • Easter 2007 • Tobias Haller BSGDo you know the phrase people use when they want to talk about something being really important? They might say, Top Priority Rush. Or maybe, For Your Immediate Attention. But if something is of the very highest importance, the phrase people are most likely to use to describe the situation is, “it’s a matter of life and death.”
The men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”
Well, my friends, that’s what Easter is. It’s a matter of life and death. That’s what the Gospel is, that’s what the church is: a matter of life and death. Or perhaps it would be better to say, it’s a matter of death and life — for the death comes before the rising to life again.
And what a death it was. Not a peaceful falling asleep, surrounded by loved ones, saying some meaningful last words, something appropriate and suitable and memorable. That’s the Hollywood version of death, something out of a 50s romance in black and white — the Hollywood version — at least until Mel Gibson came along and shattered our sensibilities by showing us the horror of death by torture and abuse. For the death of Jesus Christ was not picturesque, it was not romantic. It was horrible. It was torture, slow and painful, drawn out for three hours. It was just as horrible as Mel Gibson portrays it in his controversial film; perhaps even more horrible to know that this wasn’t something unusual cooked up just for Jesus. No, this was the normal way traitors to the Roman State were punished in those days — state-sanctioned torture-to-death, publicly, nakedly, exposed and dying slowly in the hot baking sun, with a sign over your head saying, this is what happens to people who call themselves kings and set themselves up against Caesar.
So it was that Jesus joined suffering humanity in its most terrible form of suffering, as the victim of the wish to inflict the maximum of pain upon another person, wanting to make them suffer as an example and deterrent to others. And nailed to the cross, our Lord’s last recorded words were words of pain and suffering: “Why have you forsaken me; I thirst; it is finished.”
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Finished? Well, not quite. We know the story. For though this was a terrible death, out of it came a glorious rising to life again. Finished? Not at all — for it was out of death that the new life rose in glory on the third day. So, since death comes before life, in spite of the angels’ question, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” there was logic to the women’s search. They went to the spot where they had left him. Though now the stone was rolled away, that was the spot. Why did it look different? Why was there that unearthly light clinging to things. And who were these two men in dazzling clothes, with their challenging question: “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”
We know the answer: they weren’t looking for the living, but for the dead. They weren’t looking for the risen Lord, but the dead body of their dear, beloved friend, to do him the final honor of anointing his remains.
And yet there were no remains — no physical remains. What did remain? What remained of their hopes and dreams now? They came to the tomb with no hopes left at all, only spices prepared, but hopes dashed, dead and buried — the remains of grief. Surely they were prepared for death — and then they were surprised by life.
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How often have you been surprised by life? Haven’t there been times when you’ve given up completely on somebody or some thing, only to discover that change indeed was possible, that the unexpected has happened? That the person you thought so selfish suddenly does some generous act that sweeps you off your feet. That the spark you’d thought had gone out of a relationship suddenly catches fire in a blazing warmth and loving embrace? That the job you’d come to think was a dead end turns out to be the door to new opportunities you’d never expected?
Life comes out of death. It’s completely natural. The women came to an empty tomb, and found a message full of life. They came to ring down the final curtain on a chapter of their lives, to close the book with the burial of a dear friend and teacher, and found instead a whole new story just beginning.
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“Why do you look for the living among the dead.” You know, some cynical people might ask us the same question this morning. Not angels, but the devil’s cynical little henchmen so busily at work in our world today. It can take the form of the ad for the Sunday New York Times — you know the one with the couple lounging in bed on a Sunday morning saying how much they like the Arts and Leisure and the Crossword Puzzle. Whenever that ad comes on TV I want to shout, “Get out of bed and go to church!” Or it can take the form of the old story of the husband and wife waking up to the alarm clock on Sunday. The wife says to the husband, “Dear, it’s time to get up to go to church.” And he says, “Oh, I don’t want to go to church today. The service is so boring; and I hate the congregation.” And his wife responds, “Well, you have to go, dear, because you’re the minister!”
And then there are those more insidious devils, the ones that say, “Why do you bother going to church. It’s a dead institution, an oppressive structure from the past, it’s good for nothing and a waste of your time. The church is all tied up with its own issues, can’t seem to stop arguing about this or that , so that it’s hardlygood for anything any more. Why do you bother with the dead instead of getting on with life? Why bother with the church at all in this modern day and age.”
Well, I’ll tell you why I’m here — and it’s not just because I’m the vicar! I’m here because I know that my redeemer lives. I’m here because I know that death is not the end. I’m here because I know that the church can be like that empty tomb, that empty tomb that was not the end of the story but the start of a whole new one, a whole new life, a whole new world, risen and recreated — no longer dead, but alive. I’m here because I know that death is the beginning, not the end; that death is the prelude to new life. I know that the waters of Baptism may chill the body, but they quicken and warm the soul.
I’m here because of what remains — for it is out of what remains that new life springs. The tomb was only empty of what was dead; it was full of light and angels. That’s what I’m here for. I’m here because of all of you, all of you in whom the life of Christ lives and breathes and walks and talks and loves and builds and triumphs over death. You are all of you angels — messengers to me and to the world, that the end has not come, that the church is alive with the life of Christ. I’m here because it’s not the church that’s dead, but the world, dead on its feet and it doesn’t even know it, a dead world walking, and the church is its only hope for life.
I’m here because, dear brothers and sisters in Christ, it is a matter of life and death. Christ’s life, Christ’s death, and Christ’s rising to life again, for the sake of the world God loved so much that he allowed his only Son to give himself for us, to give himself up to death on the cross.
Beloved brothers and sisters in Christ, we share in Christ’s life, Christ’s death, and his rising again, every time we gather in this place, every time webreak the bread and share the cup. This is the life of the world; this is its living, beating heart; this is finally the only reason the world keeps on going at all. Christ has died. He was crucified, dead and buried. But Christ has risen. And Christ will come again. For the love of God, may we never lose sight of this truth, the only thing worth worrying about. It’s matter of life and death. +