The readings on which this sermon is based can be found at:

s023g14     Easter Day  20/4/2014

(For the first time in many years I will not do a separate sermon for Good Friday and Easter Day.   In some ways I suspect most of us have but one sermon - it just has different words each time.   This year I’m finding these two feasts go together and these words are a meditation on the whole.)

'suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it’  Matt 28.2

Did we miss the angel in Christchurch these past three years?   It is hard to say this, particularly in the light of the more massive destruction in Sendai and more recently in Chile.

I have been moved to think about the appearances of angels in the gospel - angels announcing Jesus’ conception (1) and birth (2), in the wilderness following Jesus’ confrontation with the devil (3), in the garden of Gethsemane prior to his passion (4), and today at the empty tomb.

If I was to meet an angel I suspect I would consider it a significant event in my life, determinative.  I would feel precious, privileged, unique.   But these appearances each point to something else entirely, they point elsewhere - to others.

The angels at Jesus’ conception and birth point to the divine becoming incarnate, they point away from the status of Mary, Joseph and Jesus - toward humanity to be blessed.   The angels in the wilderness again focus Jesus' determination to not achieve the kingdom by magnifying himself - not bedazzling the audience but befriending them.   The angel in the garden serves to highlight that the ultimate display of self-denial - the Cross - is to serve others.   And at the empty tomb the angel appears when the risen Christ has already left - not to heaven - but to others - to Galilee.  The appearance of one or more angels indicates movement and change.

Much of the gospel for Good Friday portrays Jesus in control of the events.   Jesus even had to take charge when those who came to arrest him 'stepped back and fell to the ground’ (5).   Christian theology struggles with the concept of a powerless Jesus; God who is at the mercy of humanity.   But of course those who had Jesus crucified were precisely those who loved the Lord their God with all their hearts and minds and souls and strength (6).   Jesus portrayed God at the mercy of the devout and the orthodox.   Jesus' resurrection is not to resume his power and authority over anyone and everyone, but to be present to others.

Having experienced earthquakes over the past few years, we continue to see the awful destruction they bring each and every day.   Those churches built of stone and brick were the worst affected.   They did not have the strong mortar and reinforcing that is common these days.   Wooden structures and long-run iron roofs survived much better.   Broken buildings abound still in Christchurch.  

But thinking of broken structures metaphorically, I think of other things that constrain and confine us - entomb us - things that separate us off from others who happen to be different.   Things like the Bible, the Tradition, the Theological edifices, Synodical and Episcopal authority, the Anglican Communion; all were once so elegant, but now for the most part, broken.   Their power to enthral and motivate us has been shattered - yet power, like matter, cannot be lost.   Their power has been given to others, to humanity at large, to society.   Where things like the Bible, the Tradition, the Theological edifices, Synodical and Episcopal authority, the Anglican Communion are misused to marginalise, alienate, condemn or lynch others they have ceased to be instruments of the gospel - and God and the risen Christ have already fled.

I have been reminded - thanks Peter - to a long history of larrikanism which is a characteristic of both Australians and New Zealanders.   This has its history, if not before, in the world wars, where antipodeans found themselves cannon fodder because of British military blunders.   We have embraced egalitarianism, sometimes to the extreme of xenophobia which might disturb this.   As the descendent of the Church of England, the Anglican Church now suffers because many people associate us with a history of assumed superiority and entitlement - the opposite of egalitarianism.

The earthquakes for me have pointed to the shattering of the eternal truths of the sort of conservative christianity which values compliance and subservience (particularly from others :-) - the precise opposite of egalitarianism - and the corresponding grasping of empowerment, liberation and enquiry by society.   And that empowerment, liberation and enquiry cannot be constrained again - the genie cannot be put back into the bottle.   As the Pharisees said to one another: ‘‘You see, you can do nothing.   Look, the world has gone after him!’’ (7)

A recent item on the radio mentioned neuroplasticity, the discovery that the brain is not fixed and immutable, but can develop even into adulthood.  (8)   It suggested that probably this only ends when dementia sets in.  I struggle to learn to play the cello in my old age, and while it is a lot easier for young people, it is certainly not impossible for adults.   So none of us needs to stay fixed and immovable.   As my own father used to say: ‘The day you stop learning is the day you die.’   I would rephrase this to say ‘The day you find a limit to those you can love is the day you die.’    For the conservative evangelical any form of evolution, change and neuroplasticity is something to be denied - to be resisted - because all wisdom comes from the past, is fixed and immutable.  The conservative evangelical essentially cannot embrace egalitarianism.

The angel sitting at the empty tomb from whence the risen Jesus has already left into the real world, points us in the same direction.  ‘He is going ahead of you to Galilee’ is the invitation to re-enter secular life, to grasp empowerment, liberation and enquiry, to grow, to learn and to broaden (if need be) those in whom we can find the presence of the risen Christ.

The egalitarianism that is so much a part of our antipodean makeup is not rocket science; the people we are called to affirm and include are not far away.   We only resist egalitarianism when we think that our pretensions to superiority will suffer, yet in the end it will be those who have these sorts of pretensions who will miss out.

Egalitarianism is something for which those from a history of class structure yearn (9).     As the 1969 5th Dimension song Aquarius poignantly and presciently proclaimed:
'Harmony and understanding, sympathy and trust abounding
No more false hoods or derisions, golden living dreams of visions
Mystic crystal revelations, and the mind's true liberations’ (10).

I suspect even angels mostly come in very human form, and it is only later we recognise who they really are (11).   They masquerade as humans and so point us to community.

1. Matt 1.20, Lk 1.26
2. Lk 2.9
3. Mat 4.11
4. Lk 22.43
5. Jn 18.6
6. Deuteronomy 6.5
7. John 12.19
9. Matthew 13.17
11. Hebrews 13.2