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Monday, April 18, 2005

+Tom Wright: Easter Vigil `05

This sermon was preached early (5:00 am) at the Durham Cathedral in Durham, England Easter morning 2005 as the Vigil sermon. This sermon is copyright material and will be published soon and may not be used in any other format or reprinting without the permission of The Rt. Rev. Dr. N.T. Wright. It is placed here by his permission.

Easter Vigil
Come and See! Go and Tell! (Matthew 28.1–10)

Dawn was breaking on the first day of the week; the Sabbath was over. Mary Magdalene, and the other Mary, had come to look at the tomb, when suddenly there was a great earth-quake. An angel of the Lord descended from heaven. He came to the stone, rolled it away, and sat down on top of it. Looking at him was like looking at lightning, and his clothes were white, like snow. The guards trembled with terror at him, and became like corpses them-selves.

‘Don’t be afraid,’ said the angel to the women. ‘I know you’re looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He isn’t here! He’s been raised, as he said he would be. Come and see the place where he was lying! Then go at once and tell his disciples that he’s been raised from the dead, and that he’s going on ahead of you to Galilee. That’s where you’ll see him. There: I’ve told you.’

The women scurried off quickly, away from the tomb, in a mixture of terror and great delight, and went to tell his disciples. Suddenly, there was Jesus himself; he met them and said ‘Greetings!’ They came up to him and took hold of his feet, prostrating themselves in front of him.

‘Don’t be afraid,’ said Jesus to them. ‘Go and tell my brothers that I’m going off to Gali-lee, and that they’ll see me there.’

If you asked people out on the street, or even perhaps here in church, which is the most frequently repeated commandment in the Bible, the answers you’d get would probably be in the range of ‘Don’t misbehave’, ‘Don’t tell lies’, ‘Always say your prayers’, and perhaps ‘Love God and your neighbour’.

But all of them would be wrong. Far and away the most frequent com-mandment in the Bible is what the angel says to the women, and what Jesus then repeats: ‘Don’t be afraid’. Yes, something new has happened. Yes, the world is never going to be the same again. Yes, your life is about to be turned upside down and inside out. Yes, God is going to be with you and demand new things of you. But don’t be afraid. It’s going to be all right. Easter proves it. That is the first great emphasis of Matthew’s account of the first Easter morning.

Of course, they had every reason to be afraid. An earthquake; an angel; the guards struck down as though they were dead. We tend to think of things like that as interventions within our natural order, but that’s not how they appear in the light of Easter. Some of us have been thinking, this past week, of the way in which Matthew’s gospel leads us from Palm Sunday to Good Friday, showing how, as Jesus goes to the cross, heaven and earth, God’s space and our space, are drawn together in a new way. The events that are unfolding carry cosmic significance. Jesus has gone to his death bearing the weight of evil, the evil that has infected and corrupted human life and the whole world, the evil which is symbolized both by what we call human evil, not least the evil of arrogant human empire, and by what we call natural evil, the waves and storms of the physical world. Now here, with the defeat of evil and death in the cross, the earthquake and the angel are, strangely, just what we ought to expect. And the guards, symbolizing here the political and military powers for whom they are working, are struck dumb. Pilate, Herod and Caiaphas and their henchmen don’t belong in this new world, the new world where heaven and earth have come rushing together in a fresh way, a fresh celebration, a world full of new possibilities, new power which leaves the powers of the world lying helpless on the ground. Don’t be afraid! God’s new world has begun, and you’re invited to be part of it. That is what Easter is all about. That is what baptism and confirmation are all about.

The invitation takes two forms, here in Matthew’s Easter gospel. First, ‘come and see’; second, ‘go and tell’. ‘Come and see.’

When the Christian gospel bursts upon your conscious-ness, all kinds of questions come up. Can it really be true? Mightn’t it all be imagination, or even wishful thinking? Well, come and see. Actually, any-thing less like wishful thinking it would be hard to imagine. When I’m half awake, what I’m wish for is that I could go back to sleep, not that someone would grab me by the shoulder and yank me out of bed, blinking into the morning light – an image that may be too close for comfort for some of you here just now. But that’s what Easter is all about. God’s new world has bro-ken in to the old one, putting the clocks forward so that the morning has come before we’re really ready for it. No, this isn’t wishful thinking. It’s re-ality.

But recognising the new reality is just the beginning of obeying the command to ‘come and see’. Come with your questions. Come and examine the evidence, the evidence about Jesus’ life and death, the evidence – which is wonderfully strong – about his bodily resurrection. The path ahead of you may look misty, but as you start to walk on it you’ll find it’s rock solid. Come and see for yourself what it means to live on the basis that two thou-sand years ago something happened by which death itself was defeated, that God’s power was unleashed in accordance with the great stories and prom-ises of scripture, that new creation began with a bang and that nothing has been the same since.

And of course the Easter invitation to come and see involves walking right past the sleeping guards. We have learned to be afraid of them: the outward forces that sneer at us, in public life, at school, in the media, maybe even at home; the inward voices that say you can’t live like that, you can’t actually live as though you were dead to sin and alive to God, as Paul says you are once you’re baptised, the secret whispers that say you know sin will trip you up again so you might as well give in at once. It is indeed possible for Christians to forget the angel’s command not to be afraid, and to allow the very sight of these guards to put us off from coming to the tomb and see-ing for ourselves, from looking long and hard at the fact that sin and death really are beaten enemies and that we can safely ignore the soldiers from now on. Don’t be afraid. Once you have come through the waters of baptism they have no rights over you; and they will only have power over you if you let them. That is why Paul insists that you must reckon, calculate, work it out, that because of your baptism you are truly dead to sin and alive to God in the Messiah, Jesus. Come and see. Work it out. Walk right past the guards and don’t be afraid.

But as soon as you come and see there is the third Easter command: don’t be afraid, come and see, and then ‘Go and tell’. At the heart of the mystery of God’s new creation is the strange truth that it happens, it spreads, when people tell others about it. From the very beginning of the coming together of heaven and earth in a new way, of the fact that knowing things in God’s new world is always an act of love – from the very beginning, God’s new creation happens when people tell others that Jesus has been raised from the dead. God wants new creation to happen through his renewed people, be-cause new creation is all about trust, all about new relationships, all about love. It isn’t as though the new creation were a great machine rumbling into action. It is precisely a new creation, and as with the first creation we hu-mans are called to play an active role within its developing life. Go and tell and watch it happen! That’s why we greet one another with the Easter greet-ing: Christ is risen; risen indeed, Alleluia! With that greeting, that telling, God’s new world happens, comes into being.

Ah, you may say, all that ‘telling’ business, that’s for the professionals. Not true. Notice who are the first, the very first, to be told to go and tell. Not the big strong leaders. Not Peter and the twelve. They are away, hiding, afraid. It is the unlikely people, the women – in that culture, the insignificant and untrustworthy ones! – who are given the ultimate trust, who are the first to see and hear and touch the risen Jesus. He repeats the angel’s command: don’t be afraid, go and tell. This is quite deliberate. Two or three frightened women won’t convince anyone by their own persuasiveness. The message will do its work through them. Go and tell! If they can, you can.

That’s why confirmation means what it means: because though all the baptised are commanded to go and tell, we can only ever obey if God’s Spirit works through us and in us. In confirmation we shall pray for that Spirit to come afresh upon you – not that the Spirit has not been at work al-ready in your lives, because otherwise you wouldn’t have come this far, but that as a church we pray together that God’s Spirit will indwell and work through you in new ways as a member of the body of Christ in this place. Confirmation is a kind of lay ordination, a commissioning in the power of the Spirit to become an agent of God’s new creation, an Easter morning per-son, someone who comes to see and goes to tell and who is learning not to be afraid.
That is why Easter is the ultimate right moment to baptise and confirm. That is why we all renew our baptismal vows this morning. That is why we are invited again to come and see, and recommissioned again to go and tell. And that is why we are commanded, gloriously, not to be afraid. Jesus Christ is risen from the dead; God’s new creation has begun; and you are sum-moned to be part of that, part of the new world in which earth and heaven have become one, and a new knowing, the knowing of love, is brought to birth to witness it. The scriptures and the power of God are now yours, your strength, your energy, your comfort, your guide; because they point to Jesus, the Jesus who died and is alive for evermore and who meets you this morn-ing with greeting and commissioning. Come and see; go and tell; and don’t be afraid.
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
He is risen indeed, Alleluia!

8 Comments:

Blogger Joe said...

Excellent. Thank you for sharing this...+Wright is a gem.

Grace and Peace,
Joe

10:18 pm  
Anonymous Kevin said...

Thanks, Jeff. I've linked this on the Wright page

2:59 pm  
Blogger Jeff said...

Kevin,

I was trying to contact you yesterday to let you know it was up so that you could link it. Send me a private e-mail with your address so I can add you to my address list. Thanks for your hard work on the Wright page. You have done excellent work and we all appreciate it very much!

Thank you!


Jeff

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