“as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead”. John 20:9
Each of us copes with grief in very different ways. When we read the Easter Gospel, we see that it was always so. The women in Easter the story take things calmly; they are busy, they get on with things; the men, they sit and fret, and then they get excited. Perhaps there is a little of them in all of us. It is only slowly that they come to understand that Jesus has risen from the dead.
But were we in their place, how might we have responded? Would Saint John not write of us that as yet, we did not understand? How well would we have coped with the grief they faced?
Being honest, I don’t cope with grief very well. I remember the death of a man I knew well.
Tom was a good friend to me. Thirty years my senior, he was more like an uncle than a parishioner. He kept open the little church where he and his wife and a small number of others worshipped Sunday by Sunday. Tom always smiled, always laughed; always had an encouraging word.
Tom became ill and had to go to hospital, he wasn’t pleased to leave his little village but he took everything with the same good cheer. But then we had good news, Tom was getting better. The day he was told that the tests were clear, he waltzed his wife around the hospital ward.
A few days after the good news, Tom died. It was a cold, bleak winter’s Saturday evening and Tom was the second of my parishioners to die that day. I drove back through the Ulster countryside feeling numb. There was no time for feeling sad, it was Sunday the next day and the show would go on. Tom’s loss was a bitter blow, but clergymen aren’t allowed tears.
Tom’s funeral took place on a bright, chilly Tuesday afternoon in the little church he loved so much. There was not space for the community that gathered to bid him farewell. Tom had a daughter in her 20s, bright, articulate and pretty, she was her parents pride and joy, getting to college and becoming a teacher. She took Tom’s death with a gentle grace and asked to read at the funeral, choosing the passage from Ecclesiastes, “There is a time for everything”.
I buried Tom close to the churchyard wall, a spot he had chosen for himself, laughing when he showed me it. Neither he nor I could have suspected that the grave would be opened so soon.
I arrived back at the Rectory with a heavy heart. There was nothing cheerful to be said. The telephone rang, “Ian Poulton”.
“Mr Poulton, I am phoning to complain that nothing has been done about the trees at the bottom of the Rectory garden. If they came down in a storm, they would hit our house”.
“Mrs Smith, the trees have been there for centuries, they are not tall enough to hit your house, and do you know what? I have just buried a good friend and I am not interested in silly conversations about trees. Goodbye.”
I slammed the phone down. Tom would probably have frowned at me for not being more diplomatic, but Tom wasn’t there anymore. I don’t cope well with grief and I don’t think I would cope have coped if I had been in Jerusalem on that first Good Friday; I would have been the slowest of all to understand that Jesus must rise again from the dead.
Sometimes I have wondered about people to whom I have ministered, how would I cope in their place? I find it hard to imagine even a fraction of the pain that some have endured. Years later, and I still shed a tear for my friend Tom, how many tears must have been shed by those of us who have been through tragedy?
Easter is about understanding; it’s about life and it’s about hope. It’s about Jesus destroying the power of death and hell.
It’s about my hope of seeing my friend Tom again and if it’s about little things like that, how much more is it about the big things in the world? How much more is it about having the chance of a life that is not filled with tears?
I remember seeing a gathering of Christian young people some twenty years ago or more and seeing a girl wearing a T shirt upon which was printed, ‘I asked Jesus how much he loved me and he said ‘This much’, and stretched out his arms . . . and died’.
God loves us enough to send his Son to die on a Friday afternoon and to rise from the dead on this Sunday morning; that is the measure of God’s love for us.
How do we respond? God gives the most precious thing he has, what response can we make? What Jesus has done is given back to us our lives; he has made it so that we don’t need to be afraid, ever again. There is no possibility of repaying what we have received, nor does God ask us to. What Jesus asks is that as he has loved us, so we also love one another. What he looks for is a very practical, down to earth, caring love.
Jesus looks for people who care. Jesus looks for people who take him seriously; people prepared to be generous to others because he was generous to us.
This Easter Day, may he replace our own grief with joy and may we bring that joy out into our world, into the whole of that world. On that first Easter morning, the disciples as yet did not understand that Jesus must rise from the dead. May God bless us with understanding this morning.