Scripture Readings: John 20:1-18

1 Corinthians 15:19-26

Rise and shine!

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

In a world in which churchgoing is no longer de rigeur, many people have very little knowledge of the meaning of even basic Christian festivals such as Easter. School assemblies, therefore, the church a chance to talk about what our festivals are really about, to young people who may well not be very aware of their meaning.
On Thursday, I led an Easter Assembly for third and fourth year pupils at Inverness Royal Academy. I’d been asked to do so at the last minute- their usual chaplain was off sick- and so I elected just to tell the story of Easter, and attempt to explain why it was important to Christians. Assuming, as I always do, that the children in front of me had very little idea of Easter, beyond that it is a kind of spring festival with chocolate eggs.
One of the key things we have to try to understand in the story of Jesus’ death and crucifixion is the question, ‘How did it come to this?’ If we imagine (as sometimes people do) that Jesus went around being nice to people and telling them that God loved them, if we have a picture of gentle Jesus, meek and mild, a Christ who is basically inoffensive- how on earth did he end up on the cross. Why would you execute, in that horrific way, such a nice person? It’s as if Alan Titchmarsh were to be arrested and sentenced as a danger to public safety.
The answer is, of course, that Jesus was not nice to everyone. Jesus was a threat to some people. He was executed on the cross because the Roman civil power believed he is a threat to public order. Or, as I saw it described the other day, the headline for Good Friday, had the Romans had a TV news channel, might have been: ‘BREAKING NEWS: Ex-refugee sentenced to death for alleged terrorist offences’[1].
So when I retold the story of Holy Week to the third and fourth years, I wondered what event could encapsulate the sort of thing Jesus did and said which so upset the Jewish authorities so badly, they eventually decided to hand him over to the Romans for execution. And I decided to mention an incident, which Luke, Matthew and Mark say took place during that last week in Jerusalem (although John puts it earlier in Jesus’ ministry). Luke says this happened:

Then [Jesus] entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling things there; and he said, ‘It is written,
“My house shall be a house of prayer”;
but you have made it a den of robbers.’

Nothing like causing a scene in a hallowed place of worship to cause controversy- think of the outrage from the Russian government and Orthodox Church caused by the ‘Pussy Riot’ affair, when a feminist punk group demonstrated in the Cathedral of the Christ the Saviour in Moscow in 2012- the head of the Orthodox Church in Russia said they were doing the work of the devil[2]. Luke says that that immediately afterwards that this heightened the tension between Jesus and the religious leadership:

Every day he was teaching in the temple. The chief priests, the scribes, and the leaders of the people kept looking for a way to kill him; but they did not find anything they could do, for all the people were spellbound by what they heard.

Matthew mentions that the merchants were money changers and sellers of doves. Animal sacrifice was a central part of Temple worship. But to make a sacrifice, there were two hurdles you had to go through. There were various currencies in use in Palestine at the time, so first you had to change your money in order to buy the animals for sacrifice. And the dove sellers had a monopoly- only their birds were approved as being perfect enough, so you had to buy them from them. Poor people were being charged a fortune to worship God. Jesus objected to obstacles placed in the way of people worshipping God- and did so in dramatic fashion.
When you protest, you make enemies. And not only on this occasion, but in many other ways, Jesus made clear his protests about the state of religion in his day. Before long, as the Gospels make clear, his enemies sought a way to get at him, and to destroy him.
It was interesting to speak to the school pupils about all this- though I did not do in it such detail as I have just now. What I told them was that the Temple worship included animal sacrifice, and that people were being prevented from worshipping God by the need to change their money and buy animals. I told the young people of the legend related in Matthew and Mark that, at the moment of his death, the curtain which hung in the Temple, which separated worshippers from what was known as ‘the Holy of Holies’ was torn in two[3]– a vivid symbol of how the divisions between God and humanity were torn down by Jesus. Now, after the death and resurrection of Jesus, no-one can seek to separate us from God. And so I told the youngsters- because of Jesus, nothing can separate you from God.
It’s difficult, of course, to explain Bible stories quickly to youngsters, first thing in the morning, when they might be worrying about other things. There are cultural matters in the Biblical text which are very foreign to them- and to us. One thing I realised was that I hoped they understood what I meant when I spoke about the Temple being used for animal sacrifice.
We do talk about sacrifice, still- especially about people who give us something for others. But the original idea is something far removed from our modern existence. There are few places left where animals are sacrificed as part of worship. When we think about, the idea that killing an animal might somehow please or placate an angry god is about as a far removed from what we do here on a Sunday morning as it is possible to get. Physical animal sacrifice has never been part of the Christian tradition, as the Church seemed to decide immediately after the first Easter that there was no longer any need of it. Indeed, the first Christians were accused of atheism for refusing to take part in sacrifices of Roman religion[4].
I’m sure many of those teenagers would be surprised to discover that animal sacrifice had ever been part of the Biblical tradition- but it is (there are pages of regulations about it in the Old Testament). But the reality of animal sacrifice as part of religion is a long way from their- or our- experience. We find it hard to imagine killing animals purely as part of a religious ritual. We hardly understand the mindset of first century people who were willing to pay over the odds to buy a bird or an animal to sacrifice to their God.
Yet oddly, the language of sacrifice still comes up in Christian preaching, hymns and prayers at this time of the year. Sometimes we speak quite glibly about ‘Jesus’ sacrifice of the cross’, as though it was self-evident what that means. But think we should be very, very careful when we do so. For such language makes hardly any sense to many people today. Worse, it can be very misleading.
Here’s why.
Occasionally, the New Testament writers use what was, for them, familiar language about sacrifice as they attempted to come to grips with the meaning of the death of Christ. St Paul, for example, sometimes speaks as though the death of Jesus acted something a sacrifice to take away sins[5]. Another New Testament writer takes things much further. The Letter to the Hebrews (we don’t know who the author was) constructs an elaborate scheme to show that Christ death is a sacrificial atonement for sin, which abolishes the need for further sacrifices[6].
Yet given that the New Testament was written in a time when sacrificial worship was widespread, it’s surprising how little the New Testament writers use the language of sacrifice to speak of the meaning of the death of Jesus. Perhaps that’s because they knew that if they pushed things too far, it began to sound a bit absurd. The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews certainly pushes things a bit too far. He speaks of Christ as a Son whose father makes him suffer, so that he will become the perfect offering to bring about salvation[7]. But this is almost to imagine the Father God as a divine child abuser, punishing his child all the way to death, for his own good and for the good of others.
The trouble with religious language is that it can only ever be metaphorical language, picture language. We struggle to find words to convey the deep truths about God. The idea of Jesus death as a sacrifice was something which some of the Reformers particularly pushed, and so in the English-speaking world we have probably overdone the metaphor of sacrifice in older theology and in our hymns. For some people have thought that God somehow needed the death of Jesus on the cross so that God could forgive our sins. They create a picture of an angry God who needed a human sacrifice to appease his wrath. But surely the gods of the Aztecs, who needed human sacrifices to keep them appeased, are unworthy of our worship. None of us would worship such gods. When you think about it, none of us should be willing to worship a god who needs even one human sacrificed to appease his wrath. For such a God does not seem like the God whom we meet in the Gospels.
Instead of spinning theories about the cross, I think we should just live with the story. At our Good Friday service we read Luke’s account of the betrayal, trials and death of Jesus. What comes through there is the sense that what happened to Jesus was something very, very wrong. Jesus was the victim of a fickle crowd, hypocritical religious leaders, and the weakness of a Roman governor who, for political reasons, shrank from doing what he knew was right. And so an innocent man was put to death.
Yet after that disaster, God does the completely unexpected. Mary Magdalene finds the tomb empty. When she brings the other disciples, they are at first mystified. And then the man Mary thought was the gardener turns out to be the one she had sought in the tomb. Mary becomes the first person to proclaim the good news of the Gospel, as she tells the friends of Jesus, ‘I have seen the Lord’.
The darkness, the sadness, the tragedy of Friday have turned to joy.
The God who was in Christ is not an angry god needed to be appeased. Our God is a loving God has come among us to bring reconciliation. Christ has been raised from the dead is a message with incredible implications. It’s the promise of life for us all, and for all creation. St Paul uses a lovely image of the ‘first fruits’. When the farmer sees the first fruits appear on the tree, he knows there will be a harvest to come. Incredibly, this is a ‘harvest of the dead’- new life coming for those whose lives had been stamped out. Impossible, improbable, yet that is the promise.
Last week we heard of terror attacks at an airport and in a metro station in Brussels, which killed 28 people[8]. In a town south of Baghdad, around 30 people were killed by a suicide bomber at a football match. In Yemen, at least 22 people were killed in an IS suicide attack in Aden[9], in a nation which has over 3,ooo people killed in the last year, 60% of them due to air attacks from Saudi Arabia, which may be using British-made bombs[10]. In Glasgow, a Muslim shopkeeper, Asad Shah, a popular figure in his local community, was killed in a brutal assault in his shop which police described as a ‘religiously prejudiced’ attack.’[11]

Image: BBC

Image: BBC

On Good Friday evening, hundreds of local people turned up for a silent vigil at his shop. For we do so wish and pray that evildoers will not triumph. We so do wish and pray for life and love and hope, even in the midst of death, fear, suffering and destruction.
I think we best understand the Biblical stories behind Holy Week, Good Friday and Easter not as a theory, but as a story of how God identifies with human suffering. Somehow, we humans manage to bring death to good and innocent people. And yet, as Paul says of the man who died on the cross, ‘God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself’[12]. It is not easy to bring reconciliation in our messy, deadly world. Those who seek to do so might even be seen as self-sacrificing. But God goes there. God is at work, even in the darkest, most painful places in our world, making reconciliation possible, making forgiveness possible, bringing goodness, hope and light.
And this God will surprise us. Expecting to mourn, we will sometimes find an empty tomb, and a kindly gardener who will call us by name. We will see the Lord, know that he is risen, and learn to have hope that this resurrection, is Easter, is only the beginning.
Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Thanks be to God! Amen.
Biblical references from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, unless otherwise stated
© 2016 Peter W Nimmo
[1] Andy Flannagan (@andyflannagan) on Twitter, 25 March 2016
[3] Matthew 27.51
[4] Frances Young, ‘Sacrifice’, A New Dictionary of Christian Theology (SCM 1983) p517
[5] e.g. Romans 3.25, which seems to refer to the Day of Atonement ritual, but which is fiendishly difficult to translate and interpret; or 1 Corinthians 5.7 where he makes, in passing, he compares Christ to the lamb sacrificed as part of the Jewish Passover ritual
[6] Hebrews 7.28, 9.11-28
[7] Hebrews 5.7-10; cf also 2.10
[12] 2 Corinthians 5.19 REB