The Easter story begins in the dark in the gospel narratives. ‘When it was yet dark.’ Maybe it was dark when the women went to the tomb, but even if it had not been, the writer would have made it so. Not that the writer is interested in changing the story for its own sake, or that he wanted to deceive us. On the contrary, he was interested in telling us the truth as he had experienced it. He was not writing a history of events in the style of a modern history book. That was neither his style nor the style of other writers of the period. He had a point to make and the events in his story spell out his beliefs.
He is saying to us that, when the women and the other disciples came to the tomb, they did not know what was going to confront them. Although Jesus had been with them for some years teaching, preaching and healing, they still hadn’t grasped the main thrust of his message.
I heard a woman say last week that one day she returned home to find her husband and all his possessions had disappeared. All that remained was a note to say that he had left her. We have been married for twenty years, she said, how can it be that I know him so badly?
Well, often we have our own agendas; we are not really listening to the one we are with.
Clearly the disciples were confused; they were not geared up to the idea of resurrection. Most of them had run away. Peter had vigorously denied knowing him. They were all very frightened and had cause to be. Some had gone back to Galilee in order to take up their old jobs of fishermen. They must have thought the experiment of peaceful revolution had ended in failure. Like the deserted woman, perhaps they didn’t know him.
John is making the point for us — ‘When it was yet dark’ in other words: When the women and the disciples came to look for Jesus after the crucifixion they were still completely in the dark as to what was going to happen and what had happened.
When I was at school, I had a maths teacher who was very short-tempered and didn’t like to explain things too often. If you did not understand a particular theorem, say in geometry, you had to grit your teeth and ask him to go through it again. He always did, but with a high degree of irritation in his voice and, when you finally understood, he would throw his arms up in the air and shout out ‘the light has come.’
Seeing, that is understanding, and the light are closely connected. ‘When it was still dark’ says John, ‘they came to the tomb … but the dawn was breaking.’ Indeed it was. When you can see, then you can believe. When you believe, you share in Jesus close connection with God the Creator and call him abba, father. The word made flesh now raised to a new level of life. This is a new creation.
John wants us to truly understand that we are talking about a new creation as great as any creation. Jesus is the second Adam.
Like Henry Newman says: A second Adam to the fight and to the rescue came. The setting of the first Adam is in the Garden of Eden so John recreates the garden by the tomb. In the second garden it is Mary not Eve. Supposing him to be the gardener, who else can it be but the gardener who is God in the story of Adam and Eve. Now it is Jesus who is the gardener, who is God, and it is he who breathes on them his own spirit to make them come alive just like God breathes in Eden and on the bones of the Ezekiel story in the valley of dry bones. The story ends with Thomas, the doubter, looking at Jesus and seeing God.
Have you ever been caught up in a series of events that you know is going on and yet, at the same time, is completely unreal, as though you are living in a storybook. It is like that for many people who are about to get married. All this activity, all this planning and all this excitement, but is it me? You can get the same effect when going on holiday, particularly if you go a long way. I remember the first time I went to America, I could not believe that I was there in New York and then San Francisco. Just a few days before, I had been in London going daily to work just as usual. It was all predictable and familiar. Being in California was not, and I didn’t know what was to happen next.
It must have been the same for the disciples. They were living in a story right from the time that Jesus picked them out but since they didn’t know how the story was supposed to end they didn’t recognize the end when it came. John spells it out for us ‘They didn’t yet know the scripture that he must rise from the dead.’
The early church identified the ministry of Jesus with the Exodus story. In the first Exodus God defeated chaos and brought his people through to the promised land out of slavery and into freedom. The Egyptians believed in the gods of the Nile who were benevolent and brought water to cultivate the land. Beyond the reach of the water was sand where no man could live — this was chaos.
If the Israelites were to escape from Egypt they first had to cross the dessert, they had to cross chaos. It was achieved by the living God whose symbols were fire and cloud. In Jesus God defeated death the greatest of the chaos makers.
The Israelites, as the crossed the desert, did not understand the cloud and pillar of cloud, they were frightened of it. Nor did the disciples really understand what or who Jesus was when he was alive and, in many ways, I think they were frightened by him too.
We have to remember that they were not well-educated people and though many of them understood and knew by heart the Hebrew Scriptures it did not give them the facility to work out the true significance of it all. That was left to another man. A man who was, for his day, highly-educated and a Roman citizen as well, whom we know as Paul of Tarsus. He was the one who worked out step by step, the meaning of the resurrection.
The resurrection as it had happened in their life; and the future resurrection of God’s people.
Do not underestimate the importance of the resurrection. With it we have the renewal of all things, a new creation. Without it, we have not much more than wishful thinking, maybe even self-deception.
If our Messiah … that is the person selected by God to bring us this news … was not raised, then our good news, our gospel, is null and void. That means for us that, if the Messiah was not raised, then the question of sin has not been dealt with and we are, in fact, in our old state.
Every piece of early Christian literature is full of joy. That was only because these new Christians were convinced that Jesus had risen. They were so confident in this hope that they were prepared to give up anything and suffer anything for the faith.
- Stark contrast to today’s Christians in Britain who won’t be put out about anything if it is slightly inconvenient for them.
Converts were won for Christ because they brought a completely new kind of morality and style of living. They were making a genuine attempt to make earth into God’s kingdom and to achieve this by peaceful means. No matter how many were murdered and tortured, they didn’t fight back, they just came back for more. They knew their cause was right.
If God is for us who that matters can be against us?
God’s new world has begun and God will bring it to completion when he raises us also into new life. They had come through the chaos of the new Exodus to the brink of the new creation. It is being held out to us also.
That is the challenge of life. Can we take up the same cross?
Can we drink from the same cup?
If we can and do, we shall have the chance to wear the glorious crown that we celebrate for Jesus today.