Easter Day 12 April 2020 (via Zoom) Acts 10:34-43
Gentiles Hear the Good News
34 Then Peter began to speak to them: ‘I truly understand that God shows no partiality, 35but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. 36You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all. 37That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: 38how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. 39We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; 40but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, 41not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. 42He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead. 43All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.’
The Resurrection of Jesus
28After the Sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. 2And 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. 3His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. 4For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. 5But the angel said to the women, ‘Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. 6He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. 7Then go quickly and tell his disciples, “He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.” This is my message for you.’ 8So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. 9Suddenly Jesus met them and said, ‘Greetings!’ And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshipped him. 10Then Jesus said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.’
So here we are on Easter Morning, having an Easter unlike any of us has probably ever experienced. Being a church-going child, this could well be the first Easter morning I’ve not been in church, ever, and it might be the same for you.
I’ve been thinking a lot about perspective. Perspective is something we don’t fully have the luxury of at the moment, as far as the corona virus goes, because we’re still very much in the middle of it. But I have been challenged to keep a healthy perspective on how it’s been affecting me every day. We’d be mere automata, and not human beings if we hadn’t felt we were losing our perspective at some point during the last three weeks of lockdown – I know I have lost it on several occasions. And I admit I’ve felt overwhelmed at times, with the fear of what might happen to people I love, to myself and my health, to the livelihoods of people I know.
Our world is a much more fragile place than we in the West like to admit and it takes a global pandemic to get back to a godly perspective on what is important and just Who has the whole world in Whose hands, as the song goes!
Being in the middle of a global pandemic and not having come out the end of it yet, gives us some cognitive dissonance, I think, particularly at this time of year. We’ve been, whether more or less than usual, travelling with Jesus on the Way of the Cross and, to a greater or lesser degree, we’ve accompanied him on his journey of waiting and suffering, which has now ended, whilst ours continues. There’s not the usual feeling of arrival, of resurrection and conclusion, that we might normally experience this morning, had we been gathered physically in our churches.
But that doesn’t mean we cannot enjoy the resurrection! In many ways, every Sunday is resurrection morning, so perhaps this year more than ever, we can hold onto the universal hope of resurrection that Christ has provided, because we know that the Spirit of the risen Christ is not limited to buildings. We have proven over the last few Sundays that fellowship in the Spirit is happening online and within our fellowship as we seek to keep everyone in touch Sunday by Sunday.
In their infinite wisdom the compliers of the lectionary have pointed us to Acts 10 this morning, coupled with the resurrection account from Matthew. What do these readings tell us about perspective?
What often happens when we have an Epistle preceding a gospel is that we see played out the ramifications of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, before we zoom (excuse the pun) back into the actual life of Jesus as we read the gospel.
When you have an OT reading first, you get the zoom in the other direction! In fact the word zoom, applying to a camera lens, is a great image for what happens when we juxtapose readings. From Acts this morning we see Peter standing before Cornelius and the Gentiles that have gathered as a result of the vision of unclean animals being lowered from the sky, and we see him realise the enormous implications of the resurrection of Christ, for the whole world.
The as-yet unbaptized God-fearers, members of Cornelius’s household and family, have gathered and are waiting on Peter’s verdict: will he be able to grasp the scope of what has happened in the Christ event, or will he fudge it? Will he see the universal salvation offered, or stay with the safe, tribal version?
‘I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.’ He gets it! At the same time, he goes onto say, ‘he is Lord of all’. Those two things we hold in tension.
It’s an important message for us as we live alongside people of other faiths in the parish of St John and St Stephen. When the lockdown was starting I messaged someone who’s been involved in the gas tower exhibition planning and asked her what sort of relief effort was underway, if any, for people who were isolated and vulnerable in Newtown. She said the Muslim community had put messages through doors offering help and a phone number to call. I felt humbled. The power of love that is active in the world, still flows out from the intercessory heart of the risen Christ, on behalf of the world he died to save.
Back to Acts, and Peter goes on: ‘They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead’. That is the beauty of perspective. Less than four decades after the resurrection, Peter is able to perceive the much wider range of God’s salvation than was possible to perceive at the time.
And he reminds his hearers that the resurrection gives perspective to the Old Testament too when he says ‘All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name’ (v. 43). That means the resurrection of Christ zooms back into the heart of the Hebrew Scriptures until they too are bathed in the light of that first Easter sunrise. Our fellowship is not just with each other this morning but with the whole company of God’s people going right back to the beginning of our faith story. And we’re united through the resurrection.
So having had the perspective of Acts, the lens of scripture zooms back, back in time, back in ambience, back into the immediacy of the garden tomb on that first day of the week, after the Sabbath rest, after the death of Jesus.
I don’t know if you have your favourite accounts of the resurrection; obviously there are four to choose from and they have significant crossovers as well as significant differences. Interestingly, I felt rather disappointed that it wasn’t John this year; I seem to have preached more Easter sermons on John’s account of tentative Mary Magdalene weeping and wondering if it was the gardener, than on any other of the gospels. I thought tentative and weeping might fit our times more.
Instead we have Matthew, the most definitive account of Divine fiat when it comes to resurrection. You might enjoy one year sitting down and comparing the four accounts and pondering what angle they emphasize and what kind of God they portray. Why do I feel least comfortable with Matthew’s account, I had to ask myself. Probably because it highlights the kingly, victorious nature of Christ and during the last three weeks of lockdown I haven’t really felt very victorious; rather, full of uncertainty.
Matthew’s is the only account with an earthquake, and a single angelic messenger, who is described as descending from heaven (in case you were in any doubt) and who actively rolls away the stone, there and then, and sits on it. In other accounts, there are young men wearing white, and the stone is always described as having been rolled away already, by the time the women arrive (passive voice).
Incidentally, Matthew’s account of the crucifixion also has an earthquake and tells us that ‘tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many’ (Matt. 27:51b-53). So Matthew’s crucifixion and resurrection accounts appear almost as one whole narrative of disruptive, conclusive, even military, victory over death.
Because only Matthew includes the material about the soldiers becoming like dead men as the angel overwhelms them with his presence. So you have a dead man coming out the tomb alive and living men becoming as dead at the entrance of the tomb. And the angel addresses the women with the words: “Don’t you be afraid” (implication: you can do better than them!).
Only Matthew has the extra material about how the soldiers went off and told their story and were given hush money to spread a rumour that the disciples had come and stolen the body.
So in these times of anxiety, maybe we did need Matthew’s definitive account after all. I’ve found my prayer life has been shifting from a settled, rather philosophical, intellectual, not-getting-your-hopes-up-too-much kind of prayer life – where we’re dealing with a God who doesn’t really intervene quite like he used to – and has morphed into a you-have-got-to-hear-our-prayers-please-I-beg-you-keep-me-safe-and-deliver-the-Prime-Minister-and-smash-the-virus-God!’ kind of prayer life.
It’s surprising what a national emergency can do to your images of God. I’ve decided after all that I do want a God of the breakthrough…and am praying accordingly!
When you’re going through hardship, suffering never makes any sense at the time. This has never been truer than for the women who entered that garden to anoint the body of their defeated friend, and found instead he was no longer in the tomb and was going ahead of them, as he said he would. And it’s probably true of us right now. But we will get perspective eventually and meanwhile God is very near to the broken hearted and the crushed in spirit.
At this Eastertide|||||| as we stay at home, protect the NHS and save lives together, may we be given grace to hold on faithfully until we can gain some perspective on our world and on our collective faith. But until then, the fact of a risen and triumphant saviour changes everything.