According to St. Matthew, on the first day of the week, as soon as the Sabbath was over, the two Marys went to the tomb. They expected only to mourn there, but some very unusual things happened that changed everything. First, there was an earthquake due to the descent of an angel, who immediately proceeded to roll away the large stone that had been placed at the mouth of the tomb. If that weren’t enough to change their minds about how their day was going to go, they saw the guards at the tomb standing stock still in fear of the angel whose appearance was like lightning. The angel then spoke to the women, telling them that Jesus was no longer there because he had risen, an announcement they now were to go and make to the other disciples. As Matthew tells the story, they did go to tell the other disciples. They did so quickly, but also, he says, “with fear and great joy.”
That is an odd combination of emotions. Fear precludes joy, and joy we normally suppose drives out fear. Yet, odd as it may be, each of those emotions in the women is understandable, even if we puzzle over the combination. Surely, they must have felt fear, given what they had seen – an angel, for example. Although we tend to think of angels as smiling, benevolent beings, until they were recently domesticated, angels were thought of as cosmic powers. They were capable, for example, of causing an earthquake by simply descending. The guards’ experience of the angel caused them to stand like dead men. None of that would have given the women peace of mind. But, at the same time, this surely was a moment of great joy, too. Whereas on Friday all the hopes and deepest held beliefs of these disciples were shattered, as the one that they had confessed as the Son of God died an unjust and ignominious death, now all those hopes must have come flooding back. All the strange and cryptic teachings about death and eternal life that Jesus had laid out during his ministry now could suddenly be seen in a new light. Could it be that something like this was what he had been talking about? Who could have known? But, in any case, hoping against hope, he was alive.
The strange emotional combination is understandable for these reasons. All the awesome things they witnessed and all the hopeful things that they had believed came together all at once. But that is the way it is with the Resurrection. For the Resurrection is something that by its very nature puts together at one time some very strange and different things: fear and awe and great joy, indeed, but even more important, it joins together a death that lies at the heart of existence itself and new life.
Now, it is for this reason hard to put your finger directly on what the Resurrection is, central as it is to our faith. It is not like anything else we know, and so comparisons inevitably fall woefully short of the mark. As I look back on sermons that I have preached on Easter, I realize that many of them, in trying to say anything at all truthful about what happened on that first Easter, had first to say what the Resurrection is not about. It is not about, for example, anything like the rebirth of the earth each spring after a hard winter. For trees and tulips have not come back from the dead when they bloom each spring, they were only dormant. Jesus, however, was dead on Friday. And trees and tulips, after they bloom, will die completely sometime sooner or later, whereas after the Resurrection, Jesus will not die, nor will any of those who have been willing to die with him and who are now raised with him. Now, that sort of warning is helpful, but only to a certain degree; it only keeps one from making certain kinds of mistakes. But by itself it doesn’t always tell what the Resurrection is, and what it is really about.
So, let me say something more positive and discerning. Indeed, the Resurrection is not like anything else we have known or could possibly know. That is because it is something radically new. It is not simply a new set of clothes for how a worn-out world has always gone. It is not just the fixing of things that are broken, that are now made “like new.” It is not a policy change. It is something unheard of, and it is the beginning of a whole lot of new combinations. It means nothing less than the beginning of eternal life achieved by a death; it is something awesome and frightening, and it brings us our greatest joy. It is an overcoming of so many oppositions and contradictions, and their attendant violences, that we have up to now used to mark our way in the world.
Think about how St. Paul talks about it. In his letter to the churches in Galatia, he addressed a church that was deeply divided over whether or not Gentiles could be admitted to the kingdom promised to Israel. He tells them simply: “In Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith... There is no longer Jew nor Greek, there is no longer slave nor free, there is no longer male nor female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” When Paul lays out this list, he is marking out the greatest and deepest divisions that he or his readers can think of in human life. These divisions are not crossable for the people to whom he is writing, not even in imagination. For example, God’s promise was given to the Jews, not the Gentiles. It was the Jews who had been given the Law so that by keeping it, they might be as holy as God wanted them to be, “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation,” as Exodus puts it. Thus, they would not, could not, associate with Gentiles, not because they thought they were better than the Gentiles, but because they actually were better. They had a separate destiny, and it would be an insult to God to say that it didn’t matter. So, they enforced separateness. Similarly, slaves and free people were different. The Romans had a saying that claimed that the day one became a slave he lost half his soul. The division between slave and free was thus a division between those who had souls and those who didn’t. Similarly, with the division between men and women. These were all the markers that indicated where life was and where life wasn’t. If one kept them fixed in one’s mind, one could stay on the right road. That the Christian church was not observing them was precisely why Paul had earlier found it a good and holy thing to persecute them. Clearly only a benighted and demonic people would have confused them!
But when the risen Christ appeared to Paul, he had to see it all differently. The old signposts no longer worked. In the Resurrection all had changed as death had given way to life. The divisions and powers that ruled over human life, including sin and death, and that were responsible for the divisions were overthrown. Thus, as Paul came to understand it, for Christian
faith, and Christian faith is faith in Christ’s Resurrection, there could no longer be any distinction between Jew and Gentile, slave or free, male or female. All the old contraries had suddenly ceased, and the two opposing sides were joined. The two sides which had been enemies were now in Christ’s resurrection, reconciled. They had become one in Christ who made them new.
Preeminently, this reconciliation is seen in the cessation of the enmity that existed between God and human beings. But it is more than the disappearance of enmity; it is the beginning of a new intimacy. In the Resurrection we were reconciled to God because we became brothers and sisters to Christ, and thus we also found in God our Father. In being reconciled, God and humans could find friendship, which is what God always wanted. As St. Athanasius famously claimed, “God became man so that man might become God.” So even this greatest of all divides, the one between creatures and Creator, sinner and holy, was crossed in the Resurrection. We who are not gods have now become one with God through the mediation of Jesus Christ. That is a matter for great joy.
But, it can also be a bit frightening because we don’t quite know how to operate in the new and unexpected. We often prefer the old -- we know how to work it. The great Spanish mystic, St. John of the Cross, is famous for a phrase describing one of the steps of the spiritual life, namely, “the dark night of the soul.” Often, he is taken to mean by that a time of something like depression, a time when we can’t see the light and don’t know which way to go. But John also uses the phrase to refer to a time when we are blinded by the light, and for that reason don’t know which way to go, as all the old signposts no longer work in the sunlight. For example, because of the Resurrection it is no longer possible to count on there being an “us” and a “them.” That is disorienting when our very sense of self depends upon defining oneself against an enemy and a foreigner. That sense is rampant. It is the sum and substance of our current identity politics, left and right. It is at the heart of our needing to blame the foreigner for, well, whatever. It is at the heart of a need to express loudly what we take to be our pure and righteous anger, or just to be ideologically pure. That is how we make our way these days. Imagine how baffling it would be to no longer have these markers and to think only about the common good! Light blinds, indeed! No wonder so many resist it.
The Resurrection really does mean as Paul said that there is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, male or female. That doesn’t mean that Gentiles are made into Jews, or women into men, or blacks into white. It doesn’t mean that we are reconciled to others because they have now come to see the light, and come over to our side. Reconciliation doesn’t mean that we win others over; it means God wins. It means that we all get changed. It means that there is a transformed creation, and that we all get transformed. It means that we all get remade into God’s image as revealed in Christ Jesus. That can cause fear simply because we will have to live a new way.
But the fear and the awe need not paralyze us the way it paralyzed the guards at the tomb who were put there to make sure that everything stayed the same, and that the dead would stay dead. The new can also bring a sense of great joy and great hope. It ought to do so. Think about how so many of the divisions that we have counted on in life ever came to be in the first place. These divisions are not natural ones, for clearly God did not mean to create them, and, obviously, God has no intention of keeping them. Rather, each of these divisions is not only the source of strife and struggle and violence, they are born out of strife and struggle and violence and sin. It is almost always sin and violence that keeps them in place. Think only of the greatest divide that exists in the American mind--the division between the races. It was born of violence, and as our history has shown us time and time again, whenever we try to overcome the division it is violence that tries to keep it in place. Until violence is no longer a way of life, it will continue; mere reason will not change it. That it will change is a matter for hope and joy. And while the same deep-seated situation may not yet be the case with growing income inequality in American life, that issue still has prospects for violent divisions that could become a lasting feature of our life together. If so, then we ought to welcome something new, even if the new thing that the Resurrection promises is disorienting, Something new ought to be cause for great joy for all women and men of conscience, for it means nothing less than God’s victory over the power and dominions of violence that oppress and destroy human life.
Perhaps what the joy of the Resurrection really is about in its fullest sense is something that we still do not have a full grasp on. Yet, I would dare say, even if we do not fully understand what the great joy of the Resurrection means in its entirety, most of us do have some sense, some taste of it, and that is why we are here today. After all, who among us has not experienced enmity and had it overcome? Who has not experienced loss and through patient endurance discovered hope and joy? Who has not felt, often with good reason, sinful but still experienced grace? Who has not experienced anger and resentment, finding that they easily take over your life, and yet then found forgiveness and reconciliation? And even if those experiences are rare, who among us has not experienced enmity, loss, sin, anger and resentment, and at least hoped that things might be different? Who has not hoped that the world will be made new?
Well, in the Resurrection the world has been made new. It has not been made new in Washington, or Moscow, or Pyongyang, or even New York. Neither is it in worldly progress, political, scientific, or technological. It is made new here in this church and in every gathering of the faithful across the world, for, in the Resurrection, there is no American or Chinese or Mexican or Syrian, black or white. You are God’s new creation; all of you. Celebrate that new creation with each other, and then go out to love and serve the Lord. Serve him in your refusal to accept the old divisions, the divisions of us and them, the divisions of fear and resentment, privilege, race, nation, wealth and power. Serve the Lord in the full freedom of goodness that he has given you by making you part of his life on this day. Go out and tell the world in all your words and your deeds that Christ is risen, for Christ is risen, indeed.