Sermon by The Dean of Salisbury, The Very Reverend June Osborne DL
20 April 2014
Acts of the Apostles 10 v 34-43 and John 20 v 1-18
When I was a relatively new ‘vicar’ with a congregation full of young families and no Easter Egg hunt to entertain the smallest children I can remember doing something on Easter Day which I don’t intend to do ever again. I ate a daffodil as part of my sermon. There are several good reasons why I know I’ll never repeat it.
Firstly, someone had told me that daffodils were edible. Well, it depends what you mean by ‘edible’ but I wouldn’t recommend you put them in a salad!
Secondly, eating the flower arrangements doesn’t endear you to the flower arrangers. We have a fantastic group of volunteers who, as you can see, have decorated the Cathedral magnificently as part of our celebrations of this day. They wouldn’t appreciate it if I started prowling around looking for daffodils to devour.
My third and more substantial reason is that behind my gimmick I was trying to convey to the children in the congregation that you can see unlikely, even unbelievable things, and just because other people might not believe it happened doesn’t mean to say it isn’t true. Seeing is believing as we like to say. The problem is that I was conveying something which the great story of the resurrection morning in John’s gospel, which we’ve just listened to, contradicts. How we see things is an important theme to the writer of this account of Jesus’ life and he thinks it’s rather more complex. Seeing with our physical eyes isn’t necessarily believing.
The literary critic Philip Toynbee, I guess better known these days as the father of the journalist Polly Toynbee, wrote a biography towards the end of his life which was a kind of spiritual diary. This was a somewhat surprising publication as he had, I think I’m right in saying, been the first Communist President of the Oxford Union. In his book he says this,
“The basic command of religion is not ‘do this!’ or ‘do not do that!’ but simply ‘look!’”
And John who gives us the best information about what happened on the first Easter Day would have liked that. After all, he started his account of Jesus’ life by recording that the very first things Jesus said to would-be recruits was ‘Come and see’. And then at the end of his gospel, when he has to describe the events of the resurrection, he uses three different words to describe how the empty tomb is seen. Let me describe to you the three ways of seeing.
As we heard a moment ago, Peter and John, summoned by Mary Magdalene, run to the place of Jesus’ burial to see what’s going on. John is fitter than Peter and gets there first but he then hesitates as many of us would if we were entering into a burial chamber. Peter is more forthright and he’s not going to be spooked by dead bodies or worried about any morbid sensitivities. He barges past John and sees the physical evidence. The wrappings used to give Jesus’ body some dignity and contain his remains including the cloth which had been round his head wrapped separately. Notice the details were given. So there is the first way of seeing. Seeing as observing facts. Peter saw it and then he went home. Don’t forget that only a few days earlier Peter had failed Jesus claiming when put under pressure – ‘I don’t even know the man!’ Like all of us when we’re hurting he was well defended. It was months, even years later, before Peter could articulate the confident faith in the resurrection in the way we heard him quoted in our first reading.
John meanwhile, the one who’d arrived first, pauses to wonder before he enters the tomb. The word used to describe what he saw implies that a penny has dropped for him. ‘He saw and believed’ meaning that his seeing is associated with grasping something in a way he’d never done before. He was open to a new awakening, very much as Philip Toynbee described in his personal journey. Spiritual matters changed for him, not because the facts or evidence had changed but because his inner self had gained new insight.
John also went home, ready to understand more, but with only an empty tomb to ponder.
Which leaves us with our third way of seeing and the person who becomes our role model of faith. Mary Magdalene sees through tears. She’s not after evidence or answers. It’s God himself she wants. Something in her willingness to stay at the tomb and the quality of her faith means that she gets to see angels and encounter Jesus. Not only to see his risen body but he calls her by name and in conversation he starts to explain to her what’s happening. So when Mary Magdalene finally returns to her community she is able to declare, not that she’s seen the evidence, not that she believes he must be alive, but the much more transformative ‘I’ve seen the Lord!’
Now it seems to me that the way these three people ‘see’ the resurrection of Jesus is entirely consistent with the way God operates in our lives. He invites us to know him present with us. He waits on our own willingness to see his gifts and his grace. He never commands or coerces. If Peter wanted to go home that was fine. He leaves room for faith rather than certainty. If John is going to take time to absorb it all that was equally fine. We can see or we can decline to see the realities which are on offer:
- The involvement of God in our material world;
- The interaction between the human and divine;
- The absolute primacy of love which we’ve been remembering in his sacrifice on the cross;
- The triumph of life over death.
All of these things are planted deep in our everyday experience. If we want to find a sense of purpose and the meaning in our existence then we have to look, to see with the eyes of faith: with Mary’s eyes.
Just one more thing about John giving us three ways of seeing the resurrection morning.
When people do look at communities of faith with fresh eyes they’re often afraid that what they’ll find is bad religion. There’s much more good religion than bad religion in our world but it’s right to own up to when religious faith becomes fundamentally untrustworthy. One of the ways in which religion distorts the truth of its tradition and heads swiftly into disaster is when it promotes just a single vision of the world. In our day, from religious radicals to new atheists, a ‘single vision’ approach is being promoted which tries to pretend that there’s only one perspective on reality, only one saving path, and that their opponents are irredeemable.
Isaiah Berlin, the distinguished philosopher, commented in his book ‘Liberty’ that the belief that there is one and only one true answer to the central questions which have agonised mankind has been responsible for ‘oceans of blood’. He then went on to say that there’s only one antidote:
“Compromising with people with whom you don’t sympathise or altogether understand is indispensable to any decent society.” (‘Liberty’ p.345-346)
That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be confident in our faith and hope others to be likewise confident. But three different words for ‘seeing’ reminds us that Peter, John and Mary took different routes to their conviction of a resurrection faith, that conquering by God of darkness and death. And so will we.
It is in the generous and expansive nature of God that we, like them, are invited to share in the bread and the wine of God’s kingdom and thus to better see our salvation.
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
He is risen indeed, Alleluia!