This time last year, some of us had just concluded a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. On our last day in Jerusalem, we were at the Garden Tomb, one of the possible sites of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. On the door of the tomb itself, there is this sign:
‘He is not here; for he is risen.’
The Christian faith is squarely built on the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Soon after his horrible execution on the cross, when his disciples were at their lowest, he appeared among them, and they were transformed.
‘He is not here; for he is risen.’
These of course are the words Matthew includes in his story of the resurrection, words spoken by the angel to Mary Magdalene. In the NRSV of our pew bibles it is
He is not here; for he has been raised …
He is not here. Not here where?
In Matthew’s Gospel, the two Marys go to see the tomb. They are expecting to see a closed tomb which contains the corpse of Jesus. That’s where a dead person belongs. Safely tucked away.
The two Marys are expecting to see that the dead is among the dead.
That’s the way it is, isn’t it? I visited my dad’s grave the day after his funeral. I didn’t expect to see that he had risen. And he hadn’t.
But Jesus is risen. And that turns everything upside down.
Now Jesus is risen, death is defeated. The risen Lord Jesus Christ brings life and healing to all people. In him is eternal life.
This life is for all. Jesus died as one of the rejected and excluded of the world so that the rejected ones might be included in the new humanity that he has brought to birth. That’s what Peter found out when he saw that vision of the unclean animals. No one is left out, everyone is included in the offer of eternal life.
We’re curious about death and what’s beyond the grave. So it’s not surprising that recently there have been a couple of dramas on TV which have been about people returning from the dead. We might confuse the Resurrection of Jesus with these other stories of people coming back from the dead. And that just won’t do, because stories of people returning from the grave can be quite disturbing.
Let me tell you about these TV shows.
One is a French show on SBS called The Returned. It is set in a beautiful place, a small village in the French Alps, in which people who have died start walking the streets again, coming home as though nothing has happened. At first, ‘The Returned’ don’t know they’ve been dead; but their families’ reactions leave them in no doubt.
The second program is from the USA, and it’s on a commercial station. It is simply called Resurrection. (I’m always quite amused when it starts by saying, ‘Resurrection, brought to you by Mazda 3’. I mean, we had The Resurrection long before Mazda 3 was ever thought of!) In Resurrection, a small town in the USA is the venue for people to return bodily from the dead. Again, they don’t know at first that they should be six feet under.
In both these programs, those who come back from the grave don’t realise at first what is happening. They look normal. You could pass them in the street and not know anything unusual was happening.
The people who come back in The Returned and Resurrection aren’t zombies, but there’s one thing that these shows have in common with zombie stories. It is this: the dead are nothing but trouble when they come back. Unlike the risen Lord Jesus, they don’t bring the gift of life. Instead, uncertainty and fear attends them at every step of the way.
In The Returned, the French program, the dead seem harmless at first. A lot of people are glad to have their loved ones back. But then the cracks appear. People whose loved ones have stayed dead are jealous. And we find that there are many more people back from the dead than we initially knew about. The situation becomes ominous. We wonder what their intentions are.
Resurrection is similar. Some people rejoice when their loved ones are back, others don’t know what to think or do. Some of those who’ve been resurrected want to settle old scores. Or they have knowledge about the past that the living preferred to stay buried.
People who come back from the dead are just trouble. Some of the living may welcome them at first, they may even feel they are answers to prayer, but it’s not long before most of them start having second thoughts.
In both of these shows there is a priest or pastor. Neither of them knows what is going on. (Fair enough—neither would I, to be honest!) Despite this, these pastors do provide a point of contact with the Resurrection story of our culture, the Resurrection of Jesus our Lord.
Do the writers of these stories think these resurrections have anything to do with the Resurrection of Jesus? We’ll have to wait for an answer to that question for series two of The Returned, and for Resurrection to commence again after the Easter weekend.
But don’t hold your breath for serious theological or spiritual insights. They’re just TV shows, after all.
When we take a careful look at the Resurrection of Jesus, we see that it is very different from stories like The Returned or Resurrection, or zombie stories. They really aren’t about the same thing.
For one thing, Jesus did not ‘come back from the dead’; Jesus broke through death, he defeated death.
It’s not the same thing as coming back from the grave. It makes the world of difference that Jesus conquered death.
It’s because Jesus conquered death that he gives us life in all its fullness. In TV programs like Resurrection, people who have been ‘resuscitated’ are still bound by the same limits of time and space as we are. They may have come back, but they are still living among the dead. Death is not defeated by them.
Some are still wanting ‘payback’ for things that happened to them before, and they want revenge against those who have wronged them in their previous life. It seems they have learnt nothing at all from being dead. They are still their same old selves.
There is a real ‘us vs them’ thing in stories of the dead returning. ‘They’ are different. ‘We’ are under threat from ‘them’.
Something else is happening when we come to the Resurrection of Jesus. We don’t have to live among the dead. Jesus defeated death, death has no power, life has come. As St Paul says,
Death has been swallowed up in victory.
Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?
If death has no power, we can live without fear. Death becomes a comma, not a full stop. Our Uniting Church funeral service says that
while death is the end of mortal life,
it marks a new beginning
in our relationship with God.
But it’s not all about what happens after we die. It’s much more about how we can live now, today, before we die.
Christ is risen. Christ is risen to bring life to all people, no matter who they are. It doesn’t matter who you are. Trust his promise today.
Christ is risen, and he has brought a new kind of humanity into being. Jesus has not set up a new ‘us and them’. He has brought a new ‘us and us and us’ to birth; a new, inclusive humanity united in him. The Easter story itself is an example of this. Who first encounters the risen Lord? Mary Magdalene. Not one of the important male disciples, not even his mum. Mary Magdalene sees him first of all. She becomes the Apostle to the Apostles. 2000 years ago, women were very much second-class people. A woman is first to meet the Risen Lord so we may see that there are no second-class citizens in this new community.
Jesus brings new life to you, to me, to everyone. He calls to us today: Do not be afraid—be Easter people!