Alleluia Christ is Risen
“Alleluia! Christ is risen!”: A Sermon for Easter Day
Texts: Acts 10.34-43
[1 Cor. 15.19-26]
+ May I speak and may you hear, in the Name of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Alleluia! Christ is risen! ... Yes, he is, but what does that mean exactly. What are the implications, what are the consequences for you and for me that Christ is risen? Take a look at the post card of the icon which you were given. It is an Eastern Orthodox icon of the resurrection of Christ. This particular icon looks to my eye as a fairly modern production, but of course it is written according to an ancient and stylised pattern. Christ stands in the centre, enveloped in a blue light. According to a very ancient Jewish tradition the throne of God was a certain shade of blue. Directly below Christ are the ruined doors of the realm of the dead, Hades. They no longer stand on their hinges barring the way out of Hades, but lay prostrate at his feet. Below the doors you can see into Hades itself. And the realm of the dead is empty, note that empty, except for the chains and fetters, locks and keys which once kept humanity bond in the realm of the dead. On either side of Christ stand the righteous of the past, many of the very long past. To his immediate left one can see Moses holding the tablets of the Law and on his far right is a man with a crown and white beard--probably King David. The little below and to each side of Christ are an elderly man and woman; Christ grips each by their arm and pulls them up from out of their graves. They are none other than our first father and our first mother, Adam and Eve. Although the style of icons is to our western eyes a bit stiff and wooden, the over all impression of this icon is one of action and vibrancy and dynamism. When I look at this icon, I am reminded of an Orthodox hymn which is one of the most joyous hymns, Western or Eastern, that I know. I will not attempt to sing it for you, but its words run:
Christ is risen from the dead,
trampling down death by death,
and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.
I would not want to suggest to you that this icon is a literal depiction of what actually occurred on the first Easter. But it is a fair realisation of the resurrection of Christ means: The realm of the dead is emptied, death itself is defeated, the chains and fetters which enslaved humanity are crushed and riven into fragments.
Sometime in late antiquity, probably in the fifth or sixth century, an unknown Christian sat down to compose a narrative of the events depicted in this icon. His or her work has been preserved in an apocryphal text called Gospel of Nicodemus. This delightful, if curious, text claims to have been written by the two sons of the aged Simeon, who according to Luke’s gospel had, in the temple, received the infant child Jesus in his arms and blessed him. These two men had died prior to Jesus’ crucifixion and found themselves sitting in the darkness of Hades on that fateful night of the first Holy Saturday. Suddenly around midnight the place was lit up with a mysterious light which shone with the brightness of the sun. Looking around they could, for the first time see one another. There was Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and all the prophets. Suddenly into their midst comes and man they describe as “a desert ascetic.” He turns out to be John the Baptist who tells them of the coming of the Messiah, of the latter’s baptism in the river Jordan, the descent of the dove and the divine voice out of heaven: “This is my beloved Son.” While the patriarchs, prophets and other righteous dead are rejoicing at all this, Satan arrives and has a conversation with Hades--who is not just a realm, but also a person. Satan tells Hades of this Jew, named Jesus, who, at his instigation, has just been crucified and whose arrival should occur any moment now. “He caused me much trouble in the world above,” Satan says, “for wherever he found one my servants, he cast them out, and all those whom I had made to be crippled or blind or lame, leprous and the like, he healed with only a word, and many whom I had made ready for burial he also made alive again with only a word.” Hades responds with doubt that if this Jesus is as powerful as Satan says, he may not be able to hold him in the realm of the dead. Hades then recounts how one named Lazarus was recently taken away from him and how it hurt terribly when Lazarus was ripped out of his belly. And he says to Satan, “I think” the man who raised Lazarus from the dead “is the one of whom you speak.”
Just as the argument between Satan and Hades begins to be heated, there is heard from just outside of the gates leading into realm of the dead a thunderous sound which says: “Lift up your gates, O rulers, and be lifted up, O everlasting doors, and the King of Glory shall come in.” (You Biblical scholars will note the allusion to Psalm 24!) Hades tells his demons to bar the gates and not to let him enter. The patriarchs and other righteous dead mock Hades and Satan who are cowering in fear. Again the voice is heard, “Lift up your gates and the King of Glory shall come in.” Hades asks, “Who is this King of Glory?” From outside they hear angels of the Lord sing, “The Lord strong and mighty, the Lord mighty in battle.” With that the gates of bronze bursts into pieces and the chains of iron fall off all the inhabitants of Hades. Christ enters, the realm of the dead is illumined with a heavenly light, Satan is bound until the second coming, and Christ leads all the righteous dead, beginning with Adam, to Paradise, where they meet Enoch and Elijah, who, of course, never tasted death, and the repentant thief to whom it had been promised “Today you shall be with me in paradise.” Our two story-tellers are then commissioned to go to the earth, to enter Jerusalem and tell their story. Thus, the Gospel of Nicodemus.
Again, I would not take this text as an accurate historical account of the events of the first Easter. But it is, if you will, a colourful cartoon in words to the meaning of Christ’s resurrection. In a way which none of us fully understands, in the life, death and resurrection of Christ, God took into Himself all the evil, all the hatred, all the inhumanity of which we are capable and defeated them. Satan is defeated, death is defeated, sin is defeated. The realm of the dead lies empty, its chains and fetters have been broken. Christ’s victory is real and thus our celebration of it this Eastertide can and should be profound and joyous.
In a moment we will, each of us, be called on to renew our baptismal vows. We will be asked to reject, to renouce and to repent of those entities and realities which Christ by his resurrection defeated once and for all: The devil and all rebellion against God, the deceit and corruption of evil and the sins which separate us from God and our neighbour. By his death and resurrection Christ has defeated them--once and for all. And the followers of Jesus, those who in our baptism have died with him and have been raised with him, we share in his victory. But the very fact that you and I need from time to time and, indeed, if we are honest, day by day, need to renew those vows demonstrates how little we actually share in Christ’s victory over Satan and all rebellion against God, over the deceit and corruption of evil and over the sins which separate us from God and our neighbour. The fact that we from time to time and day by day need to renew those vows, shows how little we have really died with Christ. And if we have not died with him to Satan and all rebellion against God, to the deceit and corruption of evil and the sins which separate us from God and our neighbour, then we will never be raised with Christ. Christ’s victory is for most of us very much still a work in progress.
One would have to be pretty gullible to think that Christ’s victory over Satan and death and evil had completely eradicated the effects of Satan and evil and death in our world. Look around and you will see plenty, plenty of evidence that they are still very active in our world. But that is true only because you and I and the rest of humanity have not yet allowed God to make Christ’s victory a reality in our lives. We have not yet allowed God to re-makes us into the people we were intended to be, into the victors he intends us to be. We have not yet died to the deceit and corruption of evil, to rebellion against God and to the sin which separate us from Him and from one another. Christ’s victory is finished, it is complete and the day is coming with all will have to acknowledge it. But when that day comes there will be no more time for God’s work of re-making us, there will be no more opportunity to put to death in us those things of which we are ashamed, and the evil which still resides in our hearts will be consumed in the flame of His presence, in the furnace of His holiness. In the meantime, Christ’s victory over Satan and sin and death assures us that we will one day share in that victory, but only, only if we now permit God to have His way in us, if we allow him put to death in us all that separates us from Him and our neighbour. And so we make these vows today, not in despair, but in hope and in confidence of Christ’s victory. Alleluia! Christ is risen! ... Yes, he is. And because he is our renewal of our vows today can mean the defeat of Satan and evil and death in your life and in mine. Amen.