Think back to the last time that someone surprised you. What does surprise do to you? Some people love surprises; others like surprises as long as they know exactly what the surprise will be! Our common experience is that surprise is highly disorienting; we don’t know where to turn or what to do next. Even pleasant surprises, when unexpected, can throw us out of step.
I think we can see the hallmarks of surprise all over the different gospel accounts of the resurrection—they haven’t even bothered to tie in all the details to give us a narrative where everything neatly fits together. Each of the gospels offers their own perspective on this surprise. In Mark’s gospel, the women run from the tomb and don’t tell anyone (in which case, how does Mark have a story to tell?!). Even being retold many years later, the gospel accounts still capture the sense of surprise. Not only was their the surprise at the resurrection, but this sense of surprise keeps unfolding. Not only is this Jesus the Messiah for the Jewish people—it turns out he is saviour for the whole world. The first generation of disciples are constantly caught out by the surprise of the new thing that God is doing. Peter in the house of Cornelius, Paul on the Damascus Road—hardly an expected encounter—and Paul himself carrying this good news across the whole known world.
It is all such an unexpected surprise. So does Easter Sunday catch you by surprise? As winter is followed by spring, so for us Good Friday is followed by Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday. I don’t suppose anyone woke up this morning and cried out ‘Easter Sunday—I wasn’t expecting that!’ As the seasons roll on, the church calendar helps us in many ways, but I wonder if in this regard it doesn’t serve us well. You probably expected Easter Sunday, expected an Easter egg, expected to come to church and perhaps even expected to hear this reading.
Yet the message of Easter is not (as David Cameron claimed a couple of years ago) about taking responsibility, and hard-working families, and doing your duty—nor is it particularly (as Jeremy Corbyn has just claimed) about welcoming refugees. Easter is about the unexpected thing that God does—that he surprises us with his grace. No-one was expecting this. No-one was expecting one person to be raised from the dead, now. Of course, faithful Jews were looking for the resurrection of the dead—but this was going to come at the end of the age, when (as Isaiah prophesied) the heavens and the earth were going to be wrapped up like a worn-out garment, and there would be a new heaven and a new earth—and the dead would be raised, and all would be judged. That is what they were expected—but this, Jesus’ resurrection, caught them completely by surprise.
It caught the women by surprise. In the narrative of John 20, the writer focusses on Mary Magdalene, but we know she went to the tomb with the other women—no-one would have gone to the tomb with the spices to prepare the body on their own, in the dark (and note the tell-tale ‘we don’t know… in John 20.2). They needed to roll away the stone, to unwrap, embalm and rewrap the body. This was a team task. These were women who had travelled with Jesus, many of whom (Luke tells us) had provided for him and his ministry from their own means. These were the women who had not deserted Jesus—the ones who, when the men fled, remained standing at the cross. These were the ones who had witnessed the final brutalities of his death. When they came to the tomb they expected to find death and indignity—to find a broken body, not even given the dignity of proper preparation for burial.
But the unexpected surprise was life in place of death. ‘He is not here—he is risen!’ He is no longer the broken, bloodied mangled and undignified body that you were expecting—he is alive! That was God’s unexpected surprise.
It caught Peter and John by surprise. Peter and John, called to the tomb by Mary—what were they expecting? Peter and John—the first to be called by Jesus, to hear that word ‘Come, follow me!’, the first to leave their nets to follow him, he first for whom their hearts began to beat faster at the hope that the longed-for kingdom of God was at last at hand in the ministry of Jesus. They were the first to become ‘fishers of men’, the ones who, in this end-times judgement, were going to catch up God’s people and sort the good from the bad. Peter, the impulsive one, who always blurted out what others were thinking but dared not say out loud. John, the beloved, the one who leaned against Jesus at the meal to ask about his betrayal. They came to the tomb—expecting what? Expecting all their disappointment to be confirmed, for the final seal to be put on their despair. Perhaps for Peter, to be confronted with the result of his own failure and betrayal. That’s what they expected.
But the unexpected surprise was hope—not yet certainty, as John comments ‘We had not yet understood the Scriptures we had not understood that this was foretold,’ we had not understood Jesus even though he told us at least three times that the Son of Man would be handed over—and yet on the third day would be raised again…as Paul adds ‘according to the Scriptures…’ And yet, they saw hope—they saw the clothes lying there. They saw that the strips that had been wound around Jesus’ body were still in place, where his body had been—and that the head cloth that had been wrapped around his head was still in the place that his head had been. This body had not been stolen! It had been raised from death—there was hope; there was an answer to their disappointment and their despair.
And then we come to the story of Mary—the climax of this episode. Now there is lots of speculation about who Mary was, and what she had done, and her relationship with Jesus—all of it unfounded. This is in fact the longest account of her in the gospels. But she had known Jesus’ healing and deliverance; she had known his presence; she had known his touch on her life. Three times she laments his absence. She runs back to Peter and John and says ‘He has gone—I don’t know where they have taken him.’ To the angel she says the same thing, and even to Jesus, before she recognises him, she expresses her desperation at his absence.
She longs for his presence—and that is the unexpected surprise. Jesus, there, present, in front of her. ‘Don’t hold on to me—because I am going to be present with you, by the Spirit, in a way you do not yet understand.
This is what they expected at the tomb: death, disappointment and desperation. And yet God’s unexpected surprise—his ‘Boo!’ to the first disciples—was life, hope and presence.
And why did they keep telling this story—why tell it again and again—why, when this first generation were reaching the end of their lives, did John and the others write this down? Because it is not just their story—it is our story too. Into our experiences of death, God brings unexpected life. Into our experiences of disappointment and failure, God brings unexpected hope. Into our desperation in the face of loneliness, God brings his unexpected presence.
He did then—and he wants to do it again today. Christ is risen—he is risen indeed! Hallelujah!
This article began life as a sermon and a talk at an all-age service with illustrations involving gherkins, pickled onions and beetroot in 2015.
Much of my work is done on a freelance basis. If you have valued this post, would you consider donating £1.20 a month to support the production of this blog?