Death with life contended: Combat strangely ended!
Life’s own Champion, slain, yet lives to reign.
This 11th century verse sums up the reason we are here today. Death with life contended.
We ended church on Friday with Jesus’ limp and lifeless body taken down from the cross and laid in a cave-like tomb, its entrance sealed by a huge boulder that took a squad of soldiers to move into place.
At Pilate’s orders, Roman soldiers stood guard at the tomb around the clock to ensure that none of Jesus’ followers tried to steal his body.
A dead body. A sealed tomb. Roman soldiers standing guard.
It sounds pretty final, doesn’t it?
By any reasonable account, the story should end there.
But the reason we are here this morning is that something totally unreasonable happens next. At dawn Sunday morning, Mary Magdalene goes to the tomb and finds the huge stone moved and Jesus’ body gone.
Mary Magdalene has a reasonable response to this unexpected event. “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him,” she cries.
Her first thought is not of resurrection, but of more betrayal. Someone has stolen the one thing she has left, the body of her beloved friend and teacher.
It is not until Jesus calls her by name that she realizes what has happened, that Jesus’ death, which she had witnessed, is not the end of the story.
Life’s own Champion had been slain, yet lives to reign.
Jesus is no longer dead; he is risen. He is alive, but not in the same way he was before the crucifixion.
“The resurrection is not a resuscitation; it is the gift of a new kind of life, the life that exists on the far side of death and hell, of destruction and disintegration,” writes former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams.
Just days before his own death, Jesus raised his friend Lazarus from the dead. As miraculous as that was, the resurrection is different.
Jesus will not die again, death has no more dominion over him.
“Jesus is no longer a prisoner of the past,” Williams says. “He is not an historical memory, whose life is neatly tied up and put away.
“No, from now on he belongs to all people and all times; he is available to all. The empty tomb is our reminder that the life of Jesus is not over. He is with us always.”
“Death and life have contended,” says an Easter hymn. And life has conquered death.
We are all beneficiaries of this conquering of death.
Through Jesus’ death, God takes all death, all wounds and tears, into God’s endless life and compassion, Williams says. “The inexhaustible life of God meets death and eats it up.”
We often tend to think of the resurrection in terms of what it means for us when we die.
And certainly that is part of the good news that we celebrate this morning.
But the resurrection also has implications for how we are to live now.
Death no longer has dominion over us. And so we should live lives now that are free from the agents of death that are so much a part of our culture.
This year Easter is on April 16, which in our nation’s capitol is known as Emancipation Day.
On April 16, 1862, Abraham Lincoln signed the Compensated Emancipation Act, which ended slavery in Washington DC, nine months before the Emancipation Proclamation declared slavery illegal in 10 Confederate states.
The deathly ways of slavery are conquered and those who had been oppressed are given new life.
Emancipation Day is a good name for Easter. On this day we are emancipated from death, free to live the way God intends.
Life and death have contended. Life has conquered death.
As one of my favorite Easter hymns puts it:
“The strife is o’er, the battle done, the victory of life is won. The song of triumph has begun.