If I were to ask you, ‘When was the resurrection?’ you might tell me AD33, or that it was ‘about 2000 years ago’ (1978 to be precise). Just like if I asked you where it took place, you might say ‘The Holy Land’ or very specifically, ‘the garden where Jesus had been buried’.
But the trouble with that is that although you’d be right, and the actual resurrection did indeed take place in a garden in the Holy Land 1978 years ago, nobody actually saw the resurrection happen. There was the world-changing event when Jesus came back to life and showed once and for all that the light and love of God were stronger than all the evil and death in the world, and nobody saw the actual moment when it happened.
Would it have been better if Jesus had burst out of the tomb in front of a huge crowd of 5000 people? For me, the way it actually happened – in the secrecy of the early hours – is better, more powerful, more dramatic. If it had been a public event, and you’d missed it, that would have been it. But because it was unveiled gradually, Jesus was able to seek out and meet a whole range of people in as many different ways as they needed.
The first part of John chapter 20 tells the story of how Mary Magdalene was the first to see Jesus after he has risen from the dead. She didn’t even recognise him at first, thinking he was the gardener, but there was a moment when he called her name and in that moment she knew who he was and that he was alive. For her, that was the moment of resurrection. That was the moment when she ‘came to life’ again, as it were. When the love and life and light of God broke through her grief and confusion and brought in hope and joy again. In that moment, the resurrection happened for Mary.
The second half of John 20 tells the story of the rest of the disciples, and how the resurrection happened for them. They’d already heard some rumours. They knew that Jesus’ body was no longer in the tomb where he’d been buried, but they didn’t really know what to think. They hadn’t seen him for themselves, and frankly, the rumours flying around had got everyone a bit on edge, and they were afraid that there might even be repercussions for those who had been associated with Jesus – if the authorities thought there was a conspiracy of people trying to spread the word that Jesus had come back to life, then the first thing they would do would be to round up and silence the people who had been closest to him. No wonder they were meeting behind closed doors! The resurrection has taken place, Christ is risen, but his best friends are still trapped in their own Good Friday world – trapped by their fear.
Fortunately for them, a locked door doesn’t present a problem for Jesus. He walks right through it. At first they think they’re seeing a ghost, and are more frightened still. But then there’s a moment when Jesus says to them , ‘Peace be with you’ and that’s the moment when the resurrection becomes real for them. That’s when the life and love and light of God break through their fear.
And of course, as we know, Thomas misses it. And he ends up stuck in his own Good Friday world – trapped not only by his doubt but also by his sense of disappointment, and that horrible feeling of being left out. All around him, his friends are experiencing Easter. But it’s not real for him yet.
Fortunately for him, Jesus does after his resurrection just what he did throughout his ministry, that is, meet people as they are, where they are, and confront them with the love and life of God. It’s to Thomas’ credit that he was with the other disciples the second time – he hadn’t given up. But I like to think that Jesus would have found him somehow, wherever he’d ended up. At the moment when Thomas sees Jesus’ hands and feet and side, and cries ‘My Lord and my God’ – that’s the moment when the resurrection happens for him. That’s the moment when the light and life and love of God break through his doubt and disappointment.
We could go on: if we read ahead in John’s gospel to chapter 21 we see Peter trapped by his guilt at having denied Jesus three times, and then we see Jesus meeting him over a breakfast of barbecued fish, and giving him three chances to say ‘Lord, you know that I love you’ – that is the moment of resurrection for Peter, the moment that his guilt is replaced by forgiveness, new purpose and trust.
In a way, what we see in these stories and in many others at the end of the gospels is a lot of resurrections. The Resurrection – the moment when Jesus actually rose again from the dead – was undoubtedly a world-changing, one-off event. But each one of these stories, the moments when the resurrection became not just true objectively, but true for real people, were not just world-changing, they were life-changing. Those were the moments when the friends of Jesus changed from being Good Friday people to being Easter people.
At the beginning of this sermon I asked, ‘When did the resurrection happen?’ When I asked that at an all age service on Thursday at my old theological college the first answer I got was from the children, and they told me the resurrection happened last Sunday. They didn’t give me a historically accurate answer, they told me the profound truth that actually, yes, the resurrection happened last Sunday. Just as it happens every Easter, every Sunday. For our worship is not just about remembering Jesus, but is about celebrating that we are people of the resurrection, and that God is still breathing his life into this world.
What we see in the gospels is that the resurrected Jesus sought out his friends and made the resurrection real to them, each according to their need, and that after that he sent his Holy Spirit to keep on creating those moments when people could experience and be changed by the light and life and love of God. And for the rest of us: the same holds true. The children on Thursday at my theological college were spot on when they said the resurrection happened on Sunday. The resurrection didn’t just happen once a very long time ago. If the resurrection is the light and life and love of God breaking into all the fear and doubt and disappointment that can so easily trap us in a Good Friday world, then it happens every time one of us hears God call us by name. It happens every time our doubt gives way to faith, our fear to peace, every time our disappointment turns to hope, every time our guilt is replaced by new purpose and redemption. Every time all the things that can trap us in our own Good Friday are defeated by the light and love and life of the resurrection.
My prayer for all of us, is that we will be open to those moments of resurrection in our lives and in the life of the world, that we will have the faith to hang around like Thomas did, not giving up when it seems that we’ve missed the key experience that those around us have found so life-changing, but trusting that God will find a way through the locked doors to meet us exactly where we are, and with just what we need to see and hear for it all to become real to us.