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Related Bible reading(s): John 20.1-18

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In touch: Marking a festival day

Up-to-the-minute jumping-off points for sermons, linking the reading to the latest news and global issues.

By any standards the resurrection was an extraordinary and unexpected event.

Context

The biggest news story is, as it has been for months, Covid-19. But among the other issues which have grabbed my attention this week have been the gradual shifting of the huge container ship which got stuck across the Suez Canal and issues around riots and policing in Bristol.

The stranding of the MV Ever Given in the Suez Canal was, by any standards, an extraordinary and unexpected event. How did that huge ship end up blocking a key world shipping route stranding, among other things apparently, 110 containers of Ikea furniture and 80 containers of tea?

Bristol is around 40 miles from us in North Dorset. As I read the conflicting accounts of riots given by the police and by some Bristolians, I was reminded of the different, and not entirely compatible, accounts of the resurrection in the Gospels.

 

Ideas for sermons or interactive talks

One of the ancient hymns of the church begins ‘Hail thee, Festival Day’ (Salve Festa Dies). Can we, even in these strange times, make our service into a festival?

Nothing we might do in worship, even in the strange days as we continue in partial lockdown, will be anything like as extraordinary and unexpected as the resurrection. The resurrection was such an extraordinary and unexpected event that it is worth considering doing something unexpected to mark Easter Day. For example, there is the story of an elderly priest who on Easter Day climbed the steps of a high pulpit but, instead of beginning a sermon simply said ‘Alleluia! Christ is risen’ and then, having said all that needs to be said on this day, climbed back down. It is certainly important to emphasise how extraordinary and unexpected are all the resurrection stories.

We have witnessed the extraordinary ability of many scientists across the world to create vaccines against Covid-19 in record time. It would, of course, be good if we could share those Covid-19 vaccines more evenly around the world. It would also be good if most of the makers were not aiming to make huge profits out of their vaccines. And it would be equally good if the technology could be applied to common diseases which are mostly experienced by the poor of the world (ebola, malaria and river blindness come to mind). But despite all those caveats the extraordinariness of the underlying achievement remains.

One of the features of the resurrection narratives is their variety. Some of that is because the Gospel writers learned about different events experienced by different people. But some of it also surely flows from the fact that different people who experience the same event will describe it differently. Such differences may arise because of a different view of the scene, a literal different perspective. Some may arise because of different expectations, some because people’s memories can be fallible. Whatever the reasons underlying different accounts of the riots in Bristol, the full story may never be known. Although there will doubtless be thorough research into the reasons why the MV Ever Given got stuck across the Suez Canal, we may never hear the whole story. Do the resurrection narratives, taken together, give us the whole story? Perhaps not. For example, Paul refers to an occasion not mentioned in the Gospels when more than 500 people met the risen Jesus (1 Corinthian 15.6). Perhaps there were more stories of this extraordinary event and we now have just a selection.

We can also stress common features of the various resurrection stories which include

  • the surprising and unexpected role of women, including Mary in today’s Gospel;
  • the element of surprise (even shock) when Jesus appears (in the garden in today’s Gospel but also at Emmaus and on the sea shore);
  • that Mary is just one of several who, encountering the risen Jesus, fail to recognise him initially;
  • the fact that several of the stories include evidence that this was no ghost (he ate and drank for example). In the title of one of his books Tom Wright calls the resurrection ‘Life after Life after Death’ embracing the thought (among many others) that, in an age when many people believed in a ghostly after life, many of the resurrection stories emphasise that this was no ghost but new life, even a new creation.

 

Questions for discussion

  • How extraordinary and unexpected is the resurrection story for you? Or has familiarity with the Gospel accounts blunted any sense of the extraordinary and unexpected?
  • What aspect of the resurrection do you find most extraordinary and unexpected? Is it the fact that the Gospel writers record that women were the first witnesses? Or is it something else?
  • Some of our liturgies refer to the Pauline notion that Jesus’ resurrection was a foretaste of the general resurrection at the end of time. Do you find this a helpful notion or not?

Dudley Coates is a local preacher in the Yeovil and Blackmore Vale Methodist Circuit and a former Vice President of the Methodist Conference.

 

Check-in

Connecting faith with everyday, real-life issues for young people.

Across the UK lockdown restrictions are lifting, many have been able to go back to school, and tens of millions of people have had at least a first dose of a vaccine. How does this make you feel? Excited? Happy? Nervous? Worried? This week’s Gospel shows us that different emotions are natural. 

The passage is all about emerging – from mourning and sadness into celebration – from darkness into light. The women see the empty tomb and at first are afraid, but then come to realise what has happened. Jesus’ body hasn’t been taken – Jesus has been raised from the dead! 

The Easter story is amazing. First and foremost, it is amazing as one of the most important passages for the Christian faith: Jesus lives – life and love are stronger than the powers of evil and death. This is a powerful message. But so too is this passage a source of encouragement for those facing change – for it shows us that it is natural to be confused and emotional when change comes at first. 

Like the women at the tomb, we are all experiencing change at the moment: in our lives and in the world. But good things are coming, and we can allow ourselves to look forward with hope to what we have missed. Why don’t you write down what you’re looking forward to this week? Next week? Next month? This summer? After so long spent in lockdown with our normal lives interrupted, we are allowed to be excited and look forward to the future! Why? Because the Easter story shows us that all the death and suffering in the world cannot last forever – life and love win in the end. 

Joe Allen is an undergraduate student studying Theology at the University of Exeter. The son of an Army Chaplain, he was born in Lancashire and has lived across the UK. 

 

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