Easter Sunday 2015 – Rev Dr Phil Wall
Reading: John 20:1-18
Today is a day of celebration and praise. Today is a day for sharing stories, time with loved ones and food. Today is a day of great news. For just as the angels declared to the shepherds at his birth, the day on which we celebrate Christ’s resurrection is a day of ‘good news of great joy for all people’. In a world in which we’re bombarded with bad news spreading panic and fear, talk of austerity measures and political spin, stories of Isis and Ebola, isn’t it great to be able to say that there is good news?
Of course, not everyone tells such a story at Easter. Earlier this week, there was the traditional Easter story reminding us of the link between chocolate, sugar and fat as we were told that parents cannot spot childhood obesity. And then there was the story in which supermarkets were accused of being ‘anti-Christian’ by not stocking Christian Easter eggs. In fact, the ever-cheery former Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey said that all other Easter eggs are ‘rubbish…all they are trying to do is get more money out of people. It saddens me, “ he goes on, “because we are living in a land that is completely losing contact with its religious roots and is out of touch with the Christian message.’
Do you think he has a point? After all, we do spend over £300 million on Easter eggs in the UK (which is nothing compared to American where they spend over 2.1billion dollars on Easter sweets)…money which could be put to better use in a world in which children still go to bed hungry. And the Christian understanding of Easter is perhaps being ignored today, a poll conducted in 2012 claiming that only 17% of respondents thought the religious meaning of Easter was important.
So…who is to responsible for all this? Who can we blame for eroding the popular understanding of the Easter story? Well, if our obsession with, chocolate is taking centre stage in our supermarkets and in our homes this time of year and if Santa gets the rap for stealing the true meaning of Christmas, perhaps we can blame some other old white guy who is said to give treats, encourage good behaviour and employ people of restricted growth. [Slide]. That’s right, perhaps the Candyman himself, the owner of the chocolate factory, Willy Wonka, and all that he stands for is to blame for so many forgetting about the true meaning of Easter!
And yet, I like chocolate. I like Easter Eggs. And, this will shock you, I’m not sure that there’s anything wrong with celebrating today with food. After all, Jesus seemed to take joy in eating and drinking with friends, so much so that he was accused of being a glutton and a drunk!
What’s more, unlike some of our sisters and brothers, I don’t think that Easter is a time for negativity or blame but for celebration, joy and praise. A time of resurrection, redemption and renewal. So this morning, on a day when we are here to celebrate that Christ is risen, on a day when more chocolate will be eaten than on any other day in the UK, perhaps you will allow me to redeem the story of Willy Wonka and use it to help us further reflect on our Bible passage. [Slide]
In Dahl’s stories, Wonka, like Jesus, is a charismatic, enigmatic man who engages and frustrates through his use of stories and riddles. Rarely do either respond to a question with a straightforward answer. And in the 1971 film, Wonka has led his followers, those who were invited to ‘come and see’, to a small entrance where they have to stoop. As they are waiting to enter into the room, a room which they will soon discover, contains the most wonderful revelations, some are frustrated, some are scared, some are excited….and as Wonka invites them in, they hear the words ‘Hold your breath; make a wish; count to three…”
Two thousand years ago, the followers of Jesus had been led to a small entrance way where, we are told, they had to stoop to look in. They had been led to Christ’s tomb where the rolled away stone caused them to be fearful, to be frustrated, to be excited….for what, whom had been able to roll the stone away? Peter and the other disciple, whom we believe to be John, had raced each other to get there after they had been told about the stone by Mary and the questions must have been ringing in their heads. Could it have been grave robbers? Could it have been the Temple leaders or Roman soldiers? Could it have been something or someone far greater? They were breathless from the run, wishing for some good news, heads spinning with possibilities…and John not able to enter…
“Hold your breath. Make a wish. Count to three.”
One by one, Peter, John then Mary stepped into the tomb. One found linen wrappings where Christ’s body had been; one saw no body and believed; one encountered messengers of God…before meeting with the risen Christ himself. Years before, they had all been invited by Jesus to come and see, had witnessed great healings and mighty miracles along the way but this was something more wonderful, more amazing then they ever could have imagined. Jesus was alive!
Back in the chocolate factory, as the group is discovering the wonders of Wonka’s creation, a garden of lollipop flowers and chocolate rivers, Wonka sings the song Pure Imagination and the words ‘We’ll begin with a spin travelling in the world of my creation, what we’ll see will defy explanation.’ And no explanation could be given to what Mary experienced in the garden in Jerusalem as her leader, her saviour, her friend, spoke her name as his identity was revealed…prompting more questions that it offers answers. Why didn’t Mary recognize him at first? What form does the post-resurrection body take, especially if Mary is asked not to hold on to Jesus? Was Jesus raised by God the Father, or did the miracle spring from himself? ‘What we’ll see will defy explanation’. Christ’s resurrection was a miracle and to try to give it an easy explanation would be to betray the mystery of God.
What we are told, however, is that, starting with that first encounter with Mary, the risen Jesus was said to appear to travellers on the road, scared disciples in a locked room, the church gathered in Jerusalem. We are told that the disciples sacrificed their reputation, their freedom and their lives in telling others that they saw Jesus alive. And we are told that in unpacking scripture, breaking bread together, serving the poor, we too, might catch a glimpse of the risen Jesus today. To believe in such a thing might feel like quite a leap, might be something that requires more than intellectual assent or pure imagination…to believe that the God-man came back to life requires faith. And some here might want to ask for that small spark of faith to grow. Others, that our faith might transfuse and transform our thoughts, words and deeds. Still others might want to cry out ‘Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief’. For our journey of faith doesn’t always run smooth. We may encounter mountain top experiences, valleys of the shadow of death, the humdrum of everyday pilgrimage…but throughout all, the risen Christ walks beside us and before us, inviting questions, welcoming dialogue, encouraging us on our way.
Wonka’s song continues ‘If you want to view paradise, Simply look around and view it Anything you want to, do it Want to change the world, there’s nothing to it.” As he was dying on the cross, one of the men who was crucified on with him asked Jesus to remember him when he came into his kingdom to which Jesus replied, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise’. Jesus was crucified between two criminals on the Friday. On the Sunday, his clothes were found between two angels. Perhaps this is more than simply coincidence.
But either way, those of us who were able to come to Monday evening’s reflection may remember that the word paradise is derived from Persian and means ‘walled garden’ or ‘place of blessing’. In the book of Genesis we are told that God first meant man and woman to live in a garden where they would work the land and live in harmony with God, only for the first man, Adam, to rebel and render separation from God. And in this morning’s reading Jesus, the second Adam, is raised in a garden and is first seen as a gardener by Mary.
Our relationship with God was broken in a garden by us; our relationship with God was restored in a garden by God. This morning, we are invited to step into this garden, to discover the Paradise of restored relationships and new beginnings. Simply look around and view it. The vacant cross, the empty tomb, the new Eden. This doesn’t mean that we live in some kind of perfect, heavenly existence for God knows life can be hard – even in the new Eden, Christ carried the wounds of his suffering. But if we look through the eyes of resurrection, we will see that no situation is hopeless and no person irredeemable, no land is barren and no act is impossible! With God’s blessing, our faith can move mountains, transform valleys, renew communities. Want to change the world? With God’s blessing, we might just do it!
There’s more that could be gleaned from the stories of the chococlate factory and, of course, more to take from Christ’s resurrection than we could possibly learn in a lifetime. But time is escaping us. There are songs to be sung, bread to be broken and eggs to be eaten! Peter and John are yet to encounter the risen Christ; Mary is still to experience the outpouring of the spirit; we are yet to meet Jesus by the shore. There is more to come, more of the story to tell. But, for now, we must stay in the garden of resurrection a little longer. For now, we must linger by the rolled away stone, we must let our heads spin and legs tremble, our hearts flutter and spirits soar as we peer through the darkness and rediscover the wonder of the empty tomb together.
So hold your breath. Make a wish. Count to three…