Sermon for Easter Sunday 2012
‘Early on the first day of the week, whilst it was yet dark’
What can prepare us for Easter?
Today we celebrate The Great Feast of the church’s year. Easter Day. Christ is Risen. He is risen indeed!! Alleluia -The church is Full of Glad triumphant shouts - we Celebrate the Resurrection of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ . . . but . . . today is just the first Day which the church in her wisdom gives to us for this celebration of Easter - this Season of Easter is six long weeks long - and it needs to be. For this message of Resurrection takes a long time to sink deep into our hearts and minds wherein it might ignite the fire of death defying faith. This is clearly revealed in the gospels as Jesus appears again and again and again to his disciples, teaching Rebuking, forgiving - it will be six weeks before he has prepared them to receive within themselves that concrete Assurance of the Resurrection, the Holy Spirit. We do not find Peter rushing from the tomb to declare ‘Christ is Risen and preaching boldly to all who will hear. No, bold Peter will not be seen until Pentecost. Today is Just the beginning? We are not yet ready.
I know the church is more beautifully bedecked on this day than any other, yet there is a sense in which we actually need to build the flowers up gradually over six weeks, until this Resurrection message has sunk deep into us - that over the six weeks of Easter the church becomes brighter and brighter. The message is Too big - we cannot receive it ALL at one go. We are not yet ready or prepared. It is early on the first day of the week, it is yet dark. John in his gospel makes much of light and darkness, Nicodemus comes to Jesus in the dark - he doesn’t understand. ‘For as yet they did not understand’ Here John reveals that Easter Brightness is So bright that it blinds and dawns only slowly in the hearts and minds of Christ’s disciples as their hearts and minds are transformed by this Reality. While it was yet dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb
Of course we have the benefit of having gone through Lent and Holy Week and Easter many many times - We might think we do not need time for the message to dawn in our hearts, we know the story. ‘Of course Christ is Risen!’ Yet are we Alive with indestructible life and faith? We look back to the early church that had taken those six weeks to absorb the message and see what became the most incredible missionary movement the world had ever known, empowered by the Truth of the Resurrection. We think of the many many martyrs of the church in those early years who went fearlessly to their deaths because the Knew that Christ was Risen, and a whole New Reality had been ushered in, in which one might live lives of Bold faith, Lives without fear. And now almost one in 4 of the population of the world in some sense other own the name of Christ. Will this day send us out to do likewise? Have we yet entered into the Deep Magic of this story, to use CS Lewis’s phrase - have we Particpated in it - or have we been mere observers? Has it become Our Reality?
It was Maundy Thursday in 2001. As was my custom I went to the Diocesan Chrism Eucharist - but I went with a very heavy heart. 2001 was a Very bleak year for some of us in England - it was the year of the terrible foot and mouth epidemic. Our TV screens were full of scenes of burning mountains of cattle and sheep - and for me it was very personal. Just a couple of days before, a farm adjoining my uncle’s farm had had a case of Foot and Mouth found on it - we knew what this meant. In the policy enforced at the time, there had to be in the clinical language of death, a contiguous cull. In an effort to stop the disease spreading, not only the stock on the affected farm, but all stock on all adjoining farms had to be culled. As I went to church that MAundy Thursday, I knew that the stock wagons and the men from the Ministry with their rifles would be rounding up my uncles stock and shooting them. His prized wild fell cattle, the eldest of which was born the first summer they’d gone to the Lake district farm 31 years earlier, all of them were to be slaughtered in an effort to stop the spread of this terrible disease. So I was in tears as I left the mass that morning - barely able to shake the bishops hand as I walked out of church.
Only to return home to hear of the cruelest of twists. My uncle’s farm is remote and the track up to it deeply rutted and overhung with ancient trees - the stock trucks hadn’t made it up to the farm that day in time to carry out the cull. They would return the following day, Good Friday. It was Appallingly bleak - and I was due to preach on Easter Day, to a church full of good and smiling folk, wanting to celebrate the Resurrection of Christ - How can you preach Life in the midst of Death? Humanly speaking?
What can prepare us for Easter? It is So outside our categories - the terrible reality of life often denies any sense of hope that we might know for ouselves. To have grieved with my family in that most terrible of days and then to preach resurrection?
What can prepare us for Easter, I was speaking to someone earlier in the week who told me that they found joy on Easter Day all but impossible, for on Good Friday it felt to them like their best friend had died - ‘and now three days later He is Risen?? Excuse me, but it will take time’ - when someone in whom you have invested you life dies, very publicly and before your eyes - and then in the space of only 40 hours or so, you hear a whisper, a rumour of life, are you suddenly going to shout Aloud - He is Risen indeed Alleluia!! When you’ve gone through Hell, Rumours of Life can only first come as a whisper. And a shocking whisper at that. Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; - but there isn’t widespread rejoicing. No, it is a total shock to the system - the gospel is silent about the reaction of the disciples - Shock - Silence - what can this mean?? How, humanly speaking could they have ever begun to speak of this? In the face of Death it is an Utterly shocking message - almost Mocking our senses - HOw Can this be!! It will take time and great gentleness - the Risen Christ does not burst onto the scene - compelling people to believe - Grief and darkness must be fully known, because this is not a message of life, but of New Life. The old life must die before the word can come that awakens to this New Life
On Good Friday, the hope of the disciples did not merely die, it was put to death. He was their hope . . . their hope had died. Unlike in our liturgical cycle - Easter was not going to come around. He was their Life and their hope and He was dead. Their hope had to die, because it was inadequate, their faith had to die, for it was inadequate, their dreams had to be smashed, because they were inadequate. It was only those who lost their life whom he said would find it. Humanly speaking all the lights had gone out - ‘it was early on the morning of the first day of the week - whilst it was yet dark.’ And it was Thus He had prepared them for Easter.
They had in their hearts and minds spent Holy Saturday in the tomb - he had died and in a real sense they had died with Him. And so they were as Ready. Ready to Hear the voice of the Risen one,for there were no other voices now. All was silent. But even so, ready as they were, it would be a a long six weeks of constant appearances and reassurance before they were ready to declare boldly and confidently ‘They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; 40but God raised him on the third day’
But, How does that Life come alive in us?
Two of the characters from our Gospel give us each give us a clue. Firstly there is the disciple whom Jesus loved - we tend to think this is John himself, but John uses this elusive term, the disciple whom Jesus loved. This disciple outruns Peter to the tomb, he sees the folded grave clothes but does not go in - then we can imagine Peter - still full of remorse and now terrible shock desperately pushing him out of the way - seeing - but perhaps his eyes blinded still by his weeping, John uses one word for See - When the beloved disciple then goes into the tomb, he Saw and believed - John uses a different word - he Sees beyond the empty tomb - he sees beyond the evidence to its meaning - but as yet they did not understand.
The beloved disciple can stand here for the Church. In our failure to believe - in our slowness to understand, she leads us for six weeks through account after account of the resurrection, gently teaching us as Christ did his disciples the Reality of the Resurrection. When we as individuals struggle to come to terms with this all, it is the Church in faith which holds us, and leads us through the six weeks of Easter, from the darkness of this first morning into ever increasing light.
How does this Life come alive in us?
. . . then there is Mary Magdalene - The first Apostle - the First witness to the resurrection. She sees the Lord but does not recognize him - no but she Hears him. As Lazarus had lain in the tomb and been awoken by The Voice - that called him by name, Lazarus - Come Out!, Mary too comes to life and faith by hearing one word - she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” 16Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher).
How is this Easter Joy awoken in us? We diligently search the scriptures thinking that in them we may find life - we from our modern ever so well informed, and at times deeply skeptical viewpoint look at these ancient texts and think that this is just to incredible for words - we want a story we can make sense of - we want some neat proofs that we will believe - How can we believe? How did MAry believe??
Why do so many millions now believe? ‘Mary!’- ‘Rabbouni!! Why do so many believe Because down through two thousand years, the Risen Lord has spoken their name, Mary, Simon, Cornelius, Saul, Irenaeus, Felicity, Monica, Augustine, Benedict, Clare, Francis, Theresa, Ignatius, Martin, John, Theresa, Dietrich, Dorothy, and millions upon millions more - like a Great Wave of Life and Faith - He has come out from the tomb - he has been calling us by name out from ours - Come out and Live!!
Rabbouni! Teacher - Lord - I have seen the Lord - I was in the dust of death and he has called my name! He is Alive - Life HAs triumphed over death - Death is defeated My Lord Lives - Our Lord Lives!
Christ is Risen - Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia
And the church responds in faith ‘He is risen indeed!’ Alleluia, Alleluia Alleluia
May we by the Grace of God follow this journey through Easter with ever increasing Joy and Hope and Life and may we hear His voice ever and Ever louder - till it is as clear to us as it was to those first disciples - and now as with those first disciples on the road to Emmaus - may he be known to us in the breaking of the bread. Amen