St Bride's: Sermons

Easter Day

Easter Day

Immediately behind the house in Sussex where I grew up, was a railway line.  And I am just old enough to remember, as a very young child, waving to the drivers of the steam locomotives that travelled past.  (Yes, I really am that old!)  But in time that particular branch line was discontinued, the railway tracks were taken up, and my Primary School friends and I suddenly had access to a wonderful and uncharted new playground the other side of the old railway line - a large expanse of uncultivated land, which included a massive and rather mysterious crater - a source of particular fascination for us, because amongst other things it was a truly marvellous source of fossils.

Looking back, I am almost certain that that enormous hole in the ground was very recent, man-made, and in all probability of no particular historical or scientific significance whatsoever.  But my Primary School friends and I speculated endlessly on what might have caused it - perhaps a meteorite hitting the earth, or a bomb exploding during the Second World War.  The crater itself was there for all to see - but its origin was, for us at least, a complete mystery.

Interestingly enough, I can remember the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, using the image of that kind of crater when reflecting on the knotty question of the Resurrection of Jesus.  As I recall, what he said was basically this: imagine a massive explosion, which leaves a huge hole in the ground.  The first question that people will naturally ask is 'what caused it?'  Was it Semtex, or TNT, or a massive gas explosion, or something else altogether?  It is possible that there may not be enough evidence for us to know, conclusively what created it.  What we can be absolutely sure of, however, is the existence of the crater, which is proof that something occurred that had an absolutely massive impact.  That fact, at least, is indisputable.

Similarly, when thinking about the resurrection of Jesus, people have a tendency to get so bogged down in speculating about the details of what might have happened, and how, or whether, such a thing could have been possible, that they often lose sight of the rather more glaringly obvious fact that, regardless of what it was that actually took place, the impact of the resurrection of Jesus was of such staggering proportions that it blew a hole through history.  It really was 'earth-shattering'.  If you like, the evidence that it happened is there in the form of the massive 'crater' that it left.  But to try to speculate more closely on what actually caused it, may not necessarily get us very far.

Because although the crucifixion of Jesus was a very public event, the resurrection was not.  It happened in secret, and it was witnessed by nobody.  And although it is endlessly referred to in the New Testament (unsurprisingly, since the resurrection is the reason why we have a New Testament in the first place), interestingly, it is never properly explained anywhere.  Instead, we are presented with a series of stories about the encounters that a sequence of very different individuals and groups had with the Risen Lord.  These are described in various ways, by the different New Testament authors.  And all of them struggle to do justice to an event that was so utterly unexpected, so extraordinary, and so mind-blowing, that the usual categories of thought and language were simply not adequate to the task.

But despite the variations in their accounts of the resurrection appearances of Christ, the New Testament writers do have certain key themes in common.  Firstly, their absolute conviction that Jesus, the man whom the disciples had seen tortured to death and laid in the tomb - absolutely and indisputably dead - was in fact totally, utterly and inexplicably alive.  It was him - he was there!  And although the ancient world knew all about visions and ghosts and things that go bump in the night, there is no suggestion at all that what they were trying to describe was something like that.  This was something of a completely different order.  Jesus was alive.

But that is not all.  Because at the same time, all the descriptions that we have of the Risen Lord in the New Testament, also make it clear that Jesus had changed.  When speaking of the resurrection of Jesus, we are emphatically not speaking of a resuscitated corpse - this is not another Lazarus.  No, Jesus was recognizably the same, and yet profoundly different.

So, for example, St Paul in 1 Corinthians, emphasizes the spiritual nature of the resurrection, drawing a parallel with the way in which a grain that is planted in the ground, dies and rises again, but does so taking a different form altogether.  In the Gospels, a common thread linking their very different resurrection accounts is the fact that when the Risen Christ appears, the disciples do not immediately recognize him.  In St John's Gospel, Mary in the garden, mistakes the Risen Lord for the gardener.  In Luke, the disciples on the road to Emmaus share a whole journey with him before recognising the true identity of their travelling companion - and remembering how their hearts burned within them when he spoke to them.  Jesus had risen from the dead; but the Risen Christ was by no means identical to the earthly Jesus.  Something had changed.  Something new had been created.

But, hang on a minute - all this talk of Jesus being alive - can't it be explained away as little more than a mass outbreak of self-delusion and hysteria among a grief-stricken community - just as adoring fans are still claiming that Elvis lives?  Yes, in theory it could.  Except that that simply does not ring true when one takes account of everything else that one knows about the life of the people of God, and the way God is.  The Christian faith is all about profound truths that one learns, through experience, to be demonstrably the case, rather than being based of some kind of fantasy or delusion - because hope that is built on delusion is no hope at all.

The cross is central to the Christian faith precisely because it forces us to confront the worst excesses of human evil, and human suffering, and to take such horrors with profound seriousness.  Which is why, for Christians, there can be no ducking of the harsh realities of human existence, and no pretence that actually things are not really as bad as they seem to be.  Because frequently they really are that bad.  The point of Good Friday is its sheer, perverse, pointlessness. It confronts us, inescapably, with the terrifying possibility of utter meaninglessness in human life.  'My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?'

But the message of Easter is that, however deep and impenetrable the darkness and hopelessness may seem; however horrific the suffering; however absolute and final the death, that is not the end of the story.  New life can, and will, break through.  Love is, in the end, far, far, stronger than death.  We know that to be true.  We know that to be true, because of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Death could not hold him.

And we know that the Christian hope is absolutely real, because it is not a hope to which we cling in order to distract ourselves from the dark realities of life - on the contrary, it is a hope which has reached out to us from the very heart of that darkness, enfolding within it the sheer desperate hopelessness and despair of the cross.  The light shines on in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

Here might I stay and sing
No story so divine
Never was love, dear King,
Never was grief like thine!
This is my friend
In whose sweet praise,
I all my days could gladly spend.



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