A sermon for Evensong on Easter Day, Sunday 4 April 2021
Preacher: Canon Robert Titley, Treasurer
Please scroll to the bottom of this page for a video of this sermon.
Without today there would be none of this. No exuberant music by Richard Shepherd, no Handel’s Messiah or African American spirituals (all of which have featured here during these three days). More than that, no Martin Luther King; no Florence Nightingale.
Why no Florence Nightingale? Because that instinct she personified, to care for those in need, even the unrich and (in the world’s eyes) the unimportant, those virtues we have celebrated in our Health Service this past year of pandemic, virtues that we may regard as natural but which are anything but – without today, they would have lived on in the rich humanitarian tradition of our Jewish brothers and sisters in faith, and we would have learned them by a very different route. Or we might have failed to learn them at all. The teaching of Jesus – even the bits admired by sentimental atheists, who reject the Christian account of reality but applaud ‘Christian values’ – but for today, that teaching would have stayed, and probably faded away, in one small patch of the Middle East.
Easter Day – all that burst from it and spread even as far as this small, offshore European island – the Easter eruption has formed much of the reality we now inhabit. But what is this volcanic moment for which I am claiming so much?
There is a riot of variety in the Easter stories, as we have heard in today’s services. At dawn, Mark’s gospel told how the women go to the tomb, don’t see Jesus at all, but are told that he has been raised and gone ahead of them. Later, John’s gospel showed Mary Magdalene lingering at the tomb and meeting Jesus – and mistaking him for a gardener. Soon, says John, Jesus will appear to some of his male disciples, apparently materialising in the room where they are hiding; much later, he will appear again, take Peter back to the dark night of his betrayal of Jesus, and promise him that he has a future. In our second reading, Luke’s gospel tells how two disciples walk to a village and a stranger – so it seems – falls in with them as they go.
What sort of a figure is it who is solid and physical, but who can appear and vanish at will? And who on one occasion is known at once, but who can remain unrecognised throughout a long walk?
The gospels as we have them were written over thirty – perhaps well over thirty – years after the events. So this is not raw data straight from the scene. But wouldn’t you expect the passing of time and the labours of the authors to deliver a clear, worked-out account of this, the event that launched Christian faith upon the world?
Everyone has known that it’s good to get your message clear, long before the Mad Men of the advertising world brought us their peculiar wisdom. What we get here, though, is a marketing headache – an inconvenient kaleidoscope of stories. Inconvenient, but compelling. And so, as people had asked of Jesus in his ministry, we now ask, ‘Where did all this come from?’ Another principle of good advertising is to mix the novel with the familiar. You can see how they might tell a story about Jesus ascending into heaven – there were already other stories like that – but there is nothing in the Hebrew scriptures quite like these Easter scenes.
These stories suggest dazzled, confused people trying to put into words experiences for which nothing had prepared them, not their own Jewish faith, not even Jesus himself. And these are not the only stories around. St Paul, writing long before any of our gospel writers, tells us what had been passed on to him: that Jesus died for our sins, that he was raised from the dead, that he appeared to Peter, then all twelve apostles, and then was seen by five hundred of the faithful at once. What was that about? Paul says some of them are still alive at the time of his writing.
So the gospel writers give a selection of these stories. They can be believed or not, they can be interrogated, but they cry out to be heard, as an act of witness: something happened when the friends of Jesus saw him die and thought that they and all things were lost; something happened, and it was something like this; or this.
And they choose these stories, I think, because there is something about each one that will be useful for those who will follow. It’s not that experiences just like this will always be part of the package of Christian faith, but they show us different men and women looking to Jesus to find themselves – or be found – again; and each one does, according to each one’s need. Peter failed Jesus; he needed to see he was forgiven. Mary Magdalene had lost the person she loved; she needed to know that the ache of loss was not the last thing she would feel in this life. And this evening’s pair of disciples have a rather modern problem, they are disappointed with God. Jesus has let them down – ‘We thought he was the one who would redeem Israel’ – so they need, not pretence that the world is fine when it isn’t, but assurance that this is how it has to be, for now; but God will succeed in doing what God has working so long to achieve, because God’s energies to remake and renew are inexhaustible.
How will he meet me? Or you? It depends on what you and I need. Easter is a season that lasts fifty days, in which God invites each of us to bring the stuff of our lives, especially those parts that have gone dead, where you feel like the people of Israel in the prophecy of Ezekiel (and haven’t we felt like them this year?), when they say, ‘Our bones are dried up.’
Bring them into the presence of the God who raised Jesus from the dead. Bring your need to be forgiven, bring the ache of loss, bring your disappointment with God. And may Jesus meet you, not abolishing all the ills of the world, but making your heart burn within you as you walk with him along the way.
For the thoughts at the start of this sermon I am indebted to Dominion by Tom Holland.