April 20 NOTES FOR REFLECTION Easter Day
Texts: Acts 10:34-43; Colossians 3:1-4; Matthew 28:1-10
Theme: I'm preaching at St Barnabas, Warrington on Sunday and I have already chosen my theme: it is "The Easter Experience". And I have already come up with a little introductory prayer: "Send your Holy Spirit that Easter may be for us the personal experience of the Risen Christ, and that we, filled with his Spirit's grace and power, may be renewed for the service of your kingdom." I have, of course, pinched most of that from the epiclesis on page 423 of our Prayer Book, so feel free to pinch it from me.
Introduction. The Lectionary offers us some choice of readings for Easter Day, insisting only that we use the passage from Acts as one or other of the Lessons. That requirement means that we must choose between Jeremiah 31:1-6 and Colossians 3:1-4 for the other Lesson. Jeremiah would be an interesting possibility, concerned as it is with the return of the exiles. No doubt, the idea here is about the ultimate vindication of the people of faith; but if you were choosing this reading it might be worth exploring the application of the theme of the returning exile directly to the Resurrection. Who is the returning exile – Christ or the believers? Similarly, we are offered a choice of two gospel passages, the other option being John 20:1-18. As a preacher I would have been tempted to go with John: as with everything in this gospel his account of the resurrection is profound, nuanced, the product of years of prayerful reflection and thought. More than enough material for a good sermon! Put Matthew's version alongside John's and the contrast could hardly be more stark. Matthew's version is raw, uncooked, even jumbled. And therein lies the reason that I am glad the choice wasn't left to me; for it is precisely in its rawness that this earlier account strikes its note of authenticity. It reads like a stunned attempt to describe the unimaginable event of the Resurrection. Reflection on its significance comes later, and John provides it. But first, let us try to savour the experience as the earliest witnesses did. That seems to me what Matthew is trying to help us do.
There's that word "experience" again; and here surely is the reason why we need this reading from Acts to get us under way. What we have is a brief homily from Peter, but one borne out of his own experience. And what a pity we always stop at verse 43. Why not continue through to the end of the chapter (only 5 more verses, after all): isn't that precisely the sort of response we should expect when the gospel is preached well? And here we need the short sharp lesson from Paul's great letter to the Colossians. To experience the resurrection means to enter into an entirely new life – to adopt an entirely new outlook – to put everything else in a new perspective. Of course, it doesn't happen overnight: it will always be a work in progress: even the great mystic who wrote the Fourth Gospel had only got so far along the road. Paul assures us that there is so much more yet to be revealed.
Background. One of Bishop Kelvin's great gifts is an ability to speak about his own spiritual experiences in a humble, almost self-deprecating way. I have seen and heard him preach in this way on a number of occasions, the latest being at the Te Harinui Regional Event held recently at St John's, Waikouaiti. He spoke about "a chance" meeting with 2 young men who "happened" to arrive in Dunedin one day and turned up in the Cathedral, where they met Kelvin's wife, Clemency. On learning that they had nowhere to spend the night, Clemency invited them home to the Vicarage in Roslyn, even though the Wrights were already late shifting out of the Vicarage following his appointment as Bishop. As the story unfolded it became a wonderful account God's providential care and guidance of the young men and of the Wrights, and of how slow Kelvin was to recognise God's involvement in the whole thing. Kelvin described himself at this point as "not the sharpest knife in the draw"!
Doesn't that exactly fit St Peter throughout the whole wonderful tenth chapter of the Book of Acts? And doesn't it exactly fit so many of us who either do not notice what God is doing all around us, or only notice when God is gracious enough to keep at it until we finally do? One thing that perhaps distinguishes the Bishop's stories from those surrounding St Peter is their ordinariness. Peter's vision is pretty overwhelming: at least, it would be for most of us. Far from being overwhelmed by it, Peter entered into a debate with God about the orthodoxy of its message! But look what is happening on the periphery. While Peter is still trying to get his head around the vision, three strangers turn up at the house where Peter is staying, with a somewhat improbable story. Who were they? Should Peter have been more prudent – checked them out before letting them in, and certainly before heading off with them? Should Clemency and Kelvin have been more careful with the strangers who "found" them in the cathedral?
That was the fun part of the Bishop's proclamation. Then came the more disturbing part. We all have experiences like this from time to time, don't we, he said in a cheery offhand way, and we all suddenly found the ground deeply fascinating. We have them but we don't want to talk about them, do we? In fact, one of the reasons why I have been struck by Bishop Kelvin's willingness to talk in this way is that in my experience he is almost unique among clergy, including bishops. Some have been great raconteurs, always ready with a story drawn from their time in ministry. But most of their stories are about human foibles, their own included. I can't recall an occasion when a bishop or priest referred in a sermon to a personal experience of God in the sort of way that Bishop Kelvin does.
Yet isn't this what Easter is all about? I was astonished to read an article by Ian Harris the other day that I agreed with: even he says that "something must have happened" to transform the disciples from a bunch of scared failures into apostles of such power that their message still reverberates around the world 2,000 years later. So please join me in my Easter prayer this Sunday: "Send your Holy Spirit that Easter may be for us the personal experience of the Risen Christ, and that we, filled with his Spirit's grace and power, may be renewed for the service of your kingdom."
Acts. We really do need to read the whole chapter to get what's going on in this extract. Notice how the story is "worked up" from both sides of the great divide – Gentile and Jew. Cornelius is a soldier and a devout man of prayer. Peter is, well, Peter! But each is given a vision, and a set of instructions. Cornelius obeys without question – Peter argues; but in the end God brings them together. And here is a classic example of theology in action. Blessed be Christ the prince of peace, who breaks down the walls that divide, as our liturgy puts it; and of course St Paul has much to say about "making the two, one". But here is all that theological and liturgical stuff worked out at ground level. And both sides know that something momentous is going on. And so Peter starts there, in verse 28, identifying the elephant in the room. He then hands over to his "co-presenter": perhaps at this point each is really speaking to his own constituency. So when Peter starts his homily, he can assert that God shows no favouritism, not as something he has been taught by a theologian, but as something that he and Cornelius have experienced. Having established that common foundation, the rest is pretty simple and straightforward – a brief summary of the story so far. But please read verses 44-48 as well: in particular, note verse 45. Despite all that has already happened, and what Peter has just said, the support team still hadn't understood the message! Clearly, they were not the sharpest knives in the drawer.
Taking It Personally.
- Recall one of those experiences where you became aware that God was up to something in your life. How long did it take for the penny to drop? Have you ever told anyone about such an experience? Why might you be reluctant to do so?
- Has anyone told you about such an experience of theirs? How did you react?
- How would your local church react if, while the preacher this Sunday was still speaking, "the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word"? How would you react? Would you be thrilled, or would you prefer the Holy Spirit to fall somewhere else? Why?
Colossians. The first two chapters of this epistle are always worth reading; but if you really are pushed for time (even in Holy Week) at least spare a few minutes to read verses 20-23 of chapter 2 by way of introduction to today's brief passage. Now notice the past tense in this passage, which is such a feature of this letter, and indeed of so much of Paul's writing. We have already died; we have already been raised with Christ; our life is already hidden with Christ in God. Only the final and full revelation of the completed Body of Christ still remains in the future.
Taking It Personally.
- There is so much in this little passage, it is hard to take it all in. It might be time to head for the bathroom mirror and tell yourself, phrase by phrase, what Paul is saying to the church at Colossae.
- And what about extending the traditional Easter proclamation, thus: Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! And we have been raised up with him! Alleluia! Alleluia!
- Then set your mind on things that are above. What might that mean for you in this coming week?
Matthew. As I said earlier, this is a very jumbled account of that first Easter morning. Here the women are not going to anoint the body but simply to see the tomb; they are not going under cover of darkness but as dawn is breaking. Suddenly there is an earthquake, not noted in the other gospel accounts, and rather surprisingly attributed to the angel. It is the second strong earthquake in three days (27:51), but this time there is no report of tombs opening up. The guards are so terrified they become catatonic, but the women hold it together well enough to hear the angel's instructions to them. Do they take up his invitation to have a look inside the tomb? We're not told. They set off to find the disciples, only to be intercepted by the Risen Christ. They prostrate themselves, taking hold of his feet, and worship him. Then he gives them the same instructions the angel had already given them. Matthew seems rushed, anxious to get on to his account of the chicanery and corruption of the guards (verses 11-16). Perhaps he suspects that it is not the empty tomb that is of primary importance: it is the encounters with the Risen Christ that will kick-start the whole mission and ministry of the Church. Those encounters could have worked without the tomb being empty: the reverse is not the case.
Taking It Personally.
- What importance do you attach to the fact that the tomb was empty? Do you agree or disagree that that would give rise to questions rather than answers?
- Notice the involvement of three senses through which the women experienced the Risen Christ – they saw him, they heard him, and they touched him. Why is touch so important here?
- When you next receive Communion, how many of your senses will be involved?
- Pray that this Sunday you will truly be aware of the Risen Christ in your midst and within you.
- Who will you run to tell?
And a final grumble. Fewer and fewer of our churches seem to be holding Maundy Thursday services. The Triduum seems to have become the Biduum. Can we no longer spare the time to pray with Christ in Gethsemane? Will we soon give away Good Friday as well?