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Bible readings:

Easter Day, Year A (April 20, 2014)                                                 St James’, Peace River

They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day [Acts 10:39-40]

A friend of mine in Winnipeg had a saying which he would drag out whenever people spoke too casually about starting over or making a fresh beginning. “There is only one precondition to resurrection,” he would say. “You have to be dead first.” That’s a profound truth, and it’s one which confronts us most powerfully on this day of all days, this great celebration of Jesus rising from the dead to make all creation new. It’s not there to damp down our joy, or to make us feel that into every parade a little rain must fall. It’s actually there to get us to see what Easter really is, and why it really does change the world, our perspective, and your life.

You have to be dead first. Last Sunday, and again on Good Friday, we read out loud the gospel accounts of Jesus dying. We were reminded of the hurt, the grief, the cost, the loss, the awfulness as well as the awesomeness of how Jesus’ life ended. For 48 hours, this church was stripped of all its show, cloths and candles, silver and brass, nothing left except for disciples huddled together as we mourned in the shadow of the cross – mourning not just a death two thousand years ago, but a universe in which it could happen, a universe of which we are a part. We did that, even though we know how the story would turn out – perhaps I should say, because we know how the story would turn out, but in order to remember the whole story: what happened, what had to happen, first.

Sometimes I think we blunt the full force of what Jesus went through, as though somehow he knew how it would turn out. Perhaps it’s too harsh, perhaps it’s just difficult to process the idea of Jesus not knowing. But if we really mean it when we speak of the Son of God laying aside all heavenly power and glory to live and die as one of us, then this is what we mean. When Jesus saw his life coming to a close, frighteningly and violently, I don’t think we can believe that he faced death as though he was just closing his eyes to wake up again on the third day. From all that we can tell, his attitude in the face of death wasn’t one of assurance or entitlement or even expectation, but rather of hope and faith. His last words, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit,” are all that any of us could say in that moment. In fact a great part of our comfort and our salvation is knowing that Jesus walked through the valley of the shadow of death in exactly the way each of us will have to, so that when our time comes, we will know that we are walking with him, and he with us.

But... and this is the biggest “but” in the history of creation... that is not the end. Jesus walked that path in faith to the last moment, his breath stopped, the light went out of his eyes, his life extinguished, his friends took his body down and buried it. And it was not the end. There was no way it could not be the end, everyone knew it was over, and yet... it wasn’t. What couldn’t be imagined, expected, or even hoped for, happened. When Mary Magdalene and the other Mary came to see the tomb, what they found instead was an earthquake, an angel, terrified guards, and an empty space where the body should have been. “He is risen, he is not here.” Jesus was alive, and already on his way ahead of them, which is where they would always find him from that moment on – moving ahead of his disciples, leading them into life, leading them into a world that did not yet know true life, leading them with a life that was much much more than the kind of life which ends in death.

That’s what resurrection is. Brand new life – a new kind of life, life which is not merely after, but bigger than, death. And because it’s that much bigger, and because the door to that bigger life has been opened once and for all, daylight is now pouring in the doorway, and the sounds of Jesus’ risen life are echoing inside the lives we’re living. St Paul reminds us of that in the passage from Colossians, when he writes, “So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is... for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” In some way, Jesus’ new life is something we all have a share in, just as his death is something we all have a share in. The life that is bigger than death is meant to touch us, and live in us now.

So have we got the sequence of things wrong? Was it a mistake to say that the only condition for resurrection is that you have to be dead first? How else can we experience risen life here and now? Well, I think my friend had it right. We do experience resurrection in the middle of the lives we’re living now, and it happens to us most of all when something in our lives ends or dies. Any kind of loss or ending like that, is hard and painful. It doesn’t become less real through the eyes of faith, perhaps in some ways it’s even harder. All that faith has for us is the conviction that what we have lost, or are losing, is in God’s hands. In the face of this kind of loss, there is no imagining better times ahead, or a happy ending. But as we keep walking, we discover God doing what God alone can do: doing exactly what we cannot imagine, creating new life where there was no hope, weaving a story out of our lives which includes, but is much bigger than, the story which we thought was over.

Some of us hearing this message will say yes, I have lived through that, I know. Some will say, I’m still waiting, still praying, still trusting, my life and my loss are in God’s hands. But more than a few of us will say, I don’t even want to go there; God save me from suffering that deep a hurt. Even if that’s you, though, I want to ask you if the pattern we’re talking about isn’t built into your life at another level – not the tragedy or the crisis that you understandably want to steer clear of, but the basic pattern of all lived experience. In every choice we make, in every goal that is pursued, in every success as well as in every failure, something is lost. And as those losses mount, every one of us finds something in our lives that we wish had turned out differently. You haven’t turned out to be the person you wanted to be; your ambition hasn’t been fulfilled; the habits you have formed aren’t the ones you would have chosen; you’d rather be somewhere else.

I believe one of our deepest prayers – within every one of us – is for a fresh start, or to put it more blatantly, a do-over. Something inside of us knows that life doesn’t work that way, and that’s why the prayer rarely rises to the surface. But if you’re feeling any of that kind of frustration with yourself, I recommend bringing it out into the open and having a look at it. Look at it in the light of Easter, in the light of God’s gift of a new kind of life, a life which is not limited by ending and loss, a life which looks impossible from where we stand. Remember that what you are asking for is to share in the risen life of Jesus, and that death comes before resurrection. Take your sense of failure or frustration, and place it in God’s hands. Instead of thinking you’ll try harder and it has to come right, let it go. Let it be gone. Accept that some things are never going to happen – but instead, walk the road to Galilee, where Jesus is going ahead of you, showing you other possibilities you could never have imagined.

This is not a recipe for self-improvement. In fact, one of the biggest things that has to die inside of us in order for new life to happen, is our focus on ourselves. The new life Jesus shows us is as much bigger than that, as it is bigger than death. It’s a life in which forgiveness really means something – costly, but life-giving. It’s a life in which risking my own safety or reputation for the sake of someone else makes sense, because resurrection life is bigger than anything I might lose. It’s a life which is always opening up in front of you, and always opening you up to the people right in front of you.

And all of this really is a gift. It’s not something you can choose, it’s not a capacity within you that you can develop, it’s not something you can live into. Because it’s a new kind of life from the one you’re in, the one that’s under your control. This new life is God’s gift to you, and God will only give it when you are ready to give up the old one. And that wouldn’t be possible either, if it weren’t for the door being opened, the stone rolled back, the light streaming in, and Jesus beckoning us out of the tomb to walk with him on a road that didn’t even exist until he created it: the road that leads us out of death, into life.