Easter Sermon by Kenneth Padley
Acts 10.34-43; I Corinthians 15.1-11; Mark 16.1-8
I want to say a huge welcome to this most jolly of feasts: Happy April Fools’ Day! Doubtless you will have seen spaghetti growing on the trees as you came through the churchyard. And below those trees chocolate rabbits have been laying chocolate eggs. It is quite astounding. And for the poor few who think they have better things to do this morning than come to church, down at Bunnings they can buy tins of tartan paint. What a wonderfully silly day.
My friends, at about this time of year nearly two millenia ago, a dozen country bumpkins visiting the great city of Jerusalem began to put about a new April Fools’ joke. They said that their friend who had been killed a few days earlier had come back from the dead. What a funny thing to say! How they must have laughed. But who would have thought the joke would catch on? Soon they found that others were laughing with them!
In fact, this April Fools’ joke was so good that it rapidly spread. It became more and more popular – not just for a season – but year after year Christian jokers have kept telling the same joke, kept laughing at the same ridiculous idea, that a nobody, a rustic carpenter, convicted of treason, executed in barbaric pain, had returned from the dead, and is reigning in heaven as nothing less than God’s own Son. How they must have laughed.
We’ve just heard one of those early Christian comedians, a chap called Paul, sharing the prank with friends in Corinth. ‘I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins … that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day.’ Paul thought that this joke was so good that it was of first importance.
Paul goes on to compare himself with others who were sharing the resurrection joke, before concluding that it doesn’t really matter from whom the Corinthians heard it, because ‘whether it was I or they, so we proclaim and so you have come to believe.’
So you have come to believe. And here we are, two thousand years later, Easter Fools together, the living link in the chain which people like Paul began. Here at St Michael’s we like the resurrection joke so much we tell it not once a year, but week by week, every Sunday at 8am and 9.30am and every Wednesday at 9am and 10am. We too have heard the joke about Easter and in turn can share it with others, maybe with someone who will find it faintly amusing – or even life-transforming.
So let’s remind ourselves why this joke is so good, why it is worth retelling, and why jesters like Paul even think it is true.
We heard in the gospel reading that some women found Jesus’ tomb empty. The body was not where it had been laid. This need not be remarkable; grave robbery was not unknown. However, the empty tomb is the first pointer to something odd going on.
The writer of Mark’s gospel was a bit of a tease. He clearly believed that Jesus has been resurrected but did not record, as others did, the second piece of evidence for the resurrection, namely that Jesus was seen again, raised from the tomb. That’s what Paul passed on to the Corinthians: ‘Jesus appeared to Cephas [that’s Peter], then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time… Last of all, as to someone untimely born, he appeared also to me.’
Paul’s account is the earliest written record of appearances of the risen Jesus. It would be followed by more Christian documents, including the Acts of the Apostles from which we heard that ‘[Jesus was put] 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.’
Acts is clear that the risen Jesus was not a ghost or a conjuring trick: Jesus ate and drank – and elsewhere we read that he walked and talked and allowed his followers to touch his body. And because of this, we arrive at the third and most startling piece of evidence for the resurrection joke, the fact that his earliest followers were convinced. They had seen their master and teacher seized, tried, tortured and brutally executed just three days earlier. Had that happened to me, I would have scarpered PDQ back to my village to resume my career as a fisherman. But the disciples were so convinced that Jesus had been resurrected that they changed course, and became missionaries. They knew there were killjoys who wouldn’t get the resurrection joke, who would rather torture and kill them – but they were so convinced that it was true, they risked their lives to share it. My friends, this is the most important piece of evidence for the resurrection; something utterly astounding must have happened at Easter to convince the disciples that Jesus had defeated death and lives forever.
The tomb was empty, Jesus was seen again, and fearful fishermen became global evangelists. This is why people keep telling the joke about the resurrection and why each of us is called to do the same today.
But I wonder what the joke actually means? What difference does it make? The answer to that question lies in the heart of God himself. For although it was country bumpkins who first chuckled the joke around the ancient world, the originator of the joke was none less than the creator of earth and sea and skies, the author of everything that is.
In an earlier part of his letter to the Corinthians, Paul wrote that the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom. Paul wrote this to explain why the almighty would be so crazy as to enflesh his Son in a human body and let that human be killed on a cross. God did this because such a death is a joke – a joke by human standards. The cross turns on its head all our received ways of doing things. It is the last thing anyone expects God to do. But, Paul realised, this extraordinary unforeseen action demonstrates the extent to which God goes for you and me, opening the gate of heaven where there is no longer any price to pay for our entry. ‘I handed on to you as of first importance … that Christ died for our sins … that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day.’
In the Middle Ages, people celebrated Days of Misrule, Feasts of Fools, when everything got turned on its head. Participants danced naked in church, brayed liked donkeys, boys were made bishops, the first became last and the last first. On Palm Sunday we saw Jesus overturn received ideas about government and religion. On Maundy Thursday he overthrew what his disciples thought about service and greatness. On Good Friday, he overturned perceptions of glory and sacrifice. And today, he flips the tables on death itself.
If we are foolish, then God is more so. He risked everything for my heart and yours. Fellow Fools, Easter is the ultimate inversion, the overturning of all expectations, of death by life and mourning by laughter. Happy Easter. Christ is risen. He is risen indeed. Alleluia.