Easter Sunday: If it's not ok, it's not the end
Sermon by the Revd Dr Brutus Green
Based on readings: Isaiah 65:17-25, Acts 10:34-43, John 20:1-18
It’s a story every child knows from the age of Sunday school. The lead character is forced out into the wilderness, gathers a troop of odd followers, before being betrayed by someone they should have been able to trust, and left for dead. Then when all seems lost and the body is laid out for death - the miracle of love brings resurrection.
The handsome prince kisses Snow White back to life, the twelve, sorry seven dwarves rejoice, the wicked step-mother, whose serpent-like apple betrayed Disney’s first princess, falls off a cliff, and she marries the handsome prince.
The story of Jesus’ death and resurrection has stood at the heart of Western culture for two thousand years. That’s two thousand years of stories growing up like vines around it, repeating its shape, twisting the plot a little, shaping the imagination of children and adults alike, from the medieval mystery plays to The Matrix, from Mallory’s Morte D’Arthur through the Lord of the Rings and Narnia to Christopher Nolan’s epic Batman conclusion, The Dark Knight Rises.
On that note - my favourite joke of a couple of years ago - What do you call it when Batman doesn’t turn up to church at Easter? Christian Bale.
All of which is not to say that Warner Brothers are secret evangelists trying to convert the world to Christianity with hidden Christian messages; if anything it’s the opposite - the deeper resonance of the resurrection story gives these films a sense of authenticity and a wider cultural reference - like this poetic turn of phrase from the Brothers Grimm:
‘it seemed as if a stone had been rolled from [the huntsman’s] heart since it was no longer needful for him to kill [Snow White]’.
More and more these days we hear of the fading impact of Christianity on culture. In 2014 Oxford City Council shut down a theological college’s Passion Play because they thought it was a sex show. The Daily Mail attacked Health and Safety culture quoting anonymously, "You can’t hold a crucifixion these days without a licence.” The organisers apologised that the crucifixion would not take place this year due to ‘an intractable situation’. The local vicar said, “it’s very upsetting because so many people were looking forward to it.” I’m not sure if he was talking about Christians or those coming along for the sex show.
Perhaps this suggests that the lasting impact of two thousand years of Christianity will be the enduring shape of romantic comedies: a romance building slowly over time - think When Harry met Sally - culminating in a triumphant Palm Sunday moment - probably when they first kiss - followed by the total crucifixion crash of misunderstanding and falling out - resolved in the joyful resurrection of an engagement.
But despite Oxford, the Passion and Resurrection are not really about sex. Nor are they really about Batman being thrown down into a hellish prison, then getting super-buff and saving the people of Gotham in a self-sacrificial act. They are not even about Aslan getting shorn or Gandalf overcoming the Balrog.
The resurrection is not even really about Good overcoming Evil. The Bible is less mythic — it knows that the bad things that happen in the world are about justifiable choices. The resurrection is not about the judgement of evil, but the judgement of politics.
So in all those superhero stories, all full of echoes of the Messiah — Superman, Batman, She-Ra whoever — you have clearly identified forces of evil, just like the orc hordes who as ugly, stupid creatures must be evil — right?
But in the Gospel, as in life, it’s not so clear — if anything, everyone’s a little bit evil. So even the wicked High Priest - a textbook villain — Disney would have him overweight with purple trousers and narrow yellow eyes — the High Priest only says that Jesus must die because he has heard from God that it’s ‘expedient that one man die for the people’. And who are we to fault him on this?
I used to do a moral experiment with soldiers in their training. I’d tell them that there’s a train coming down a track and about to plough through six people. If they pull a lever though, the train will deviate to another track and just kill one person. Most pull the lever.
Interestingly, If I change the scenario and say there’s only one track but they can stop the train by pushing a large man off a bridge onto the track to slow it down, the majority wouldn’t do it. Same consequences but most don’t have the stomach for it.
This is the nature of all politics. If you’re making decisions that affect hundreds, thousands or millions of people, there will be those who suffer grievously as a result. Those who slip through the net. And they’ll probably be others who’ll profit enormously at very little effort.
And this is also true of our decisions. The ever fragile balance of human relationships means that saying yes to one means saying no to others. You only get to marry one person. And even then that means two mothers to try and keep happy. And in all the mess of work, friendship and family we make mistakes, get our priorities wrong, end up living in different countries from our wives, and end up letting people down.
The resurrection doesn’t really make this any easier. It is in its own way a happily ever after. But it’s deferred — it’s only a foretaste, a promise of what’s to come. It’s a sign of hope that for all the chaos of life there will be a restitution in the end. Peace at last. Like Fernando Sabino wrote, quoted in the charming film, Best Marigold Hotel: “Everything will be okay in the end. If it’s not okay it’s not the end.” This isn’t necessarily an easy thing to live with. But it is the business of faith — So when the beloved disciple runs to the tomb in today’s Gospel, we’re told “he saw, and he believed”. But what did he see? Just some wrapped up linen. He saw nothing, and he believed.
And when in the next sequence doubting Thomas finally believes only when he sees the marks of Jesus’ wounds and places his fingers inside them, Jesus says, “Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet believe”. But not seeing and believing isn’t always easy. As one anxious royalist wrote to the Times: “Wednesday’s paper did not have a photograph of the Duchess of Cambridge. I do hope she’s alright.”
For some faith comes easily, almost as a kind of vision. So Blake famously wrote:
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.
It’s about seeing the world as more than just stuff — material; seeing creation as something which has a purpose and so will not be forgotten or lost; seeing what is eternal in what is ephemeral.
The resurrection does not do away with the injustices of life; it doesn’t diminish the ills of politics on a large or a small scale. Christ has still been crucified and bears the wounds to eternity. We take our scars and our experiences — for better and worse they make us who we are. But the resurrection means that all these things are held before God. They are understood, forgiven, and we will be given the wisdom to forgive and move from a world of compromises, of politics and imperfections to a world of love — as we move from seeing in a glass darkly to seeing face to face.
So, while fairy tales are a bit like Easter; Easter is not like a fairy tale. It doesn’t have real fairy tale justice. The resurrection doesn't make the crucifixion worthwhile, like some Herculean endurance test.
The resurrection does away with justice and replaces it with love. And unlike fairy tales it asks that we truly believe. That we rise above the people of Oxford and the more dull and ignorant servants of secularism. We may not escape the politics of this world for now, the squabbles over the lamb at the family Easter table, who to send out to buy the missing mint sauce. Nor will issues in the Sudan or Brexit be resolved over a lovely Easter Sunday, the Notre Dame will not be rebuilt in three days.
But Easter is about hope, and the belief that love is stronger than death. It is the reminder that if it’s not okay, then it’s not the end. And in Jesus coming back to share the peace with the disciples, it is the ancient promise that despite our troubles, despite our griefs, there is a happily ever after.
This morning we awoke to the terrible news in Sri Lanka, where the people of God have been thrown violently back into Good Friday on this day of celebration of Christ’s victory. I’m not even going to guess at current numbers. Even one, deliberately murdered in church, is a horror to contemplate on this day. We cannot hope to explain such acts, but we can pray for them and with them. And in solidarity with all who have suffered through acts of terror, in faith and love, we still dare to hope in the promises of Easter resurrection.