Easter Day, Evensong, Sunday 27th March 2016
Preacher Canon Robert Titley
‘We are an Easter people,’ said St Augustine, ‘and alleluia is our song.’
Before Easter, this day of alleluias, comes Good Friday: a day of dereliction and death that will lead to joy, with a Saturday of emptiness in between. Three days to take us from death to resurrection. Real life, however, is rarely that neat, and follows its own timetable. Take the weather, which seems to have missed the Easter memo this year: Friday afternoon, which the gospels say brought three hours darkness while Jesus hung on the cross, was all sunlit radiance; this Easter morning, we gathered to celebrate the dawn of joy under drizzle.
Likewise the weather of our lives. Worshippers in the churches of Brussels will be singing their alleluias with us today, but for many this it will feel like one long Good Friday since last week’s atrocities. For others, the day we remembered Jesus’ death will for ever be a day of complete joy - nearly two thousand babies will have been born on Friday in England and Wales. And, whatever the calendar says, the routine of life carries on with its ragbag of stuff, the workaday and the weird.
After the stark worship of Good Friday the thing to do is to go and be quiet and reflect on that impossible idea, that God can die; but three of us spent the afternoon and beyond trying to help a bird escape from the huge wire mesh hare sculpture outside the Cathedral (you may have admired it as you came in) then blocking up its various wiry orifices to stop others getting in. So the day that had taken us to the foot of the cross ended at the back of a giant hare.
All of this means that the gift the risen Jesus gives his disciples that first Easter evening, if it’s worth having at all, must be pretty tough. What gift is this? ‘Peace be with you,’ says Jesus.
Peace is a much sought-after guest on a Sunday afternoon and a Bank Holiday weekend, especially when accompanied by her softly-spoken sister, Quiet. ‘Peace’ here means the absence of things, like trouble or noise, it’s what’s supposed to be left when you strip away the layers of busy life, but if this were all there was to peace, Jesus could have said ‘Peace be with you’ after his time away from it all in the wilderness. His gift of peace would be a matter of calm purchased by rest and refreshment. But what a fragile kind of peace that is, easily shattered by your next-door neighbour’s taste in music, or eaten away by the worms of worry in your mind. The peace Jesus has in mind, however, is not the kind that depends, like a hothouse plant, on controlled conditions. It is of another, hardier kind.
After he says, ‘Peace be with you,’ Jesus shows them his hands and his side, the wounds he suffered when he died. This, it seems, is to show that he is the same person who died in the cross. By the way, none of the four gospels makes any attempt to answer our big question here, which is how someone who was plainly executed and buried can appear, alive, forty-eight hours or so later. They just show it: they say, ‘This is what these people experienced. Now see what experience you have.’
There is more here, though, than just proof of identity. Jesus now repeats himself, ‘Peace be with you,’ which suggests that his gift of peace is bound up with those wounds and what caused them. It seems to be some sort of blossoming out of all the gone wrongness of that Friday afternoon.
The peace that Jesus holds in his scarred hands and offers his friends, is what our Jewish cousins in faith call shalom: a many-sided thing that’s personal and political, and that speaks of abundance rather than stripping away. Shalom means rich and fruitful human living, and - first of all - the rooting up of what might hinder this blossoming of life.
Jesus can give this peace only because he has been to hell and back, because he can now show that the love of God, made flesh in those wounds of his, is not to be snuffed out even by the worst of our unpeaceable world, not even by the worst you or I can suffer - or do. Jesus has bought this peace at a very dear price, and it is not the kind that is at the mercy of the winds of our world. Rather, it is the heart of a new world, planted here in the middle of the old one. And for those who can receive it, it brings real toughness, a strength that comes from the knowledge that, in the face of failures and mistakes - your own and others’; in the face of loss and of pain; in the face of humdrum days and the sheer cussedness of life that make you ask what it’s all for, you can say, ‘I am so loved; I am accepted - no matter what - because he died for me; and the life that was breathed into the dead Jesus is now breathed into me.’ And so, in the teeth of the wind or in the doldrums you can - at heart - be at peace.
Isaiah knew something about this long ago, when he told his bedraggled, exiled people,
Thus says the Lord, he who created you; Do not fear, for I have redeemed you, I have called you by name, you are mine.