Two years ago, I read all of the Agatha Christie “Miss Marple” novels in order. Miss Jane Marple is an old lady from a tiny village who watches everything, has an unusually sharp mind and deploys both to solve murders. In many of the stories towards the end, Miss Marple gathers all the characters together in a room so that she can explain her thinking and by doing so dramatically expose the murderer who is then dragged away by the police. Usually, this means that other characters can suddenly find a new lease of life and live happily ever after.
I have often wondered if humanity is inclined towards approaching the story of the death and resurrection of Christ as though it were a crime novel or film. The church, the gatekeeper of the event, more than at any other time in the year, focuses on a plot and a story. We forensically pick over the details of who did what and when. If you have been going to church for a number of years you build up layers of potential meaning and meanings, glimpses of possible implications. And yes, there is a cruel death. Perhaps we build ourselves up to need Easter Sunday to be the moment when, gathered in community, we hear someone explain it all.
One of the things which traditionally has been used to understand the resurrection of Christ has been the human experience of fighting and of warfare. So, we talk of Christ defeating, conquering, and triumphing over sin and death by the cross and resurrection. And theologians have built up an understanding that when Christ descended into hell He went there to triumph over it and so release all those imprisoned. We call it ‘The Harrowing of Hell’ from the old English word – to harrow or to despoil. One of the churches in the Diocese where I work sets off fireworks on Easter Saturday evening after their Communion service to symbolise the completion of the Harrowing of Hell. The resurrection of Jesus then becomes the final moments of His rise from hell and His bursting from the tomb as the all- conquering hero who has even defeated death itself.
Yet nowhere in the Bible do you find stories of Jesus after the resurrection acting like a triumphant hero. In Matthew’s account of the after effects of the resurrection there are earthquakes and powerful angels and experienced guards who are so frightened they run away. Jesus isn’t in those things. He isn’t even in the still small voice that tells the women who have been quietly watching and waiting, “don’t you be afraid’; as though to say to the people who are going to meet the resurrected Christ that they don’t need to be even a tiny bit scared of Him. That part is played by an angel. Jesus appears in stories where all the crowds are gone. The public stage has gone. These are stories of Jesus talking to individuals. Stories of Jesus in private rooms, on a deserted beach and on a road. This is not the story of a warrior hero who has conquered death, hell and sin. These are stories of love; unconditional, uncontrollable, unassuming love. Love which led Christ to die in solidarity with all the marginalised, unfairly treated, victims in history. Love which led Christ to somehow, let’s be honest – we know not how, spend time after His death with His friends, comforting them and giving them a sense of hope and of purpose which would sustain them for years to come.
I’ve been forced into thinking about this stuff; death and resurrection, more deeply than many other people. My life has been defined by a violent murder, committed some years ago one Easter Day, just as the sun was rising. I cannot escape that, any more than anyone else who has experienced a violent trauma can. There have been times when I have wished that it had never happened, when I have wished that the memories of that could be conquered, triumphed over, defeated by some hero figure. But gradually, over the years the distressing evil of that event has, on the whole, slipped into the background and what has taken centre stage is the presence of the unconditional, unassuming and uncontrollable love of God in how I have tried to understand it and live life to the full after it. It is there, just there, and any words beyond that are too thin. Somewhere in there is the true meaning of redemption.
This for me is the story of the resurrection – the revelation of the uncontrollable, unconditional, unassuming love of God for the world. Love which takes us all a lifetime on earth and then some more after death to explore and find the multiple meanings of. Love which is simply present, in the face of the most extreme evil, in the company of the most distressed, at the moments when anything beyond death and complete ruin seems impossible. And, so, history is reset, not by a process of tidying up and making sense, but by something; the resurrection, which is beyond all our frameworks of understanding, seeing, knowing and feeling. History, corporate and personal, is reset by the resurrection to give us the possibility of being, to borrow a phrase from a prophet, the people who survive the sword and find grace in the wilderness.
© Dr Esther Elliott
(this is an abridged version of a sermon preached at St Peters, Easter Day, 2017)