Alleluia! Christ is Risen – Sermon delivered by Chris Hancock, Easter 2014

 

Alleluia, Christ is Risen!
He is risen indeed, Alleluia!

How do you react to the Easter Greeting?

My father used to make it his first words to me on Easter morning.

As a blurry eyed and somewhat stroppy adolescent I would stumble into the kitchen eager for tea and Frosties and be greeted by him: “Alleluia, Christ is Risen …”   He awaited my reply.

My father was a teacher and it seemed as much a test as it was a greeting –did I know the right answer?  Was I a proper Christian?

In a way the Easter greeting is a good test – it is like a very short Creed. I am stating my faith:

“Jesus Christ is risen” is shorthand for:

“I believe in Jesus – a man – who was the Christ, the anointed, the Messiah foretold in the Jewish scriptures (Isaiah 53 etc.), the suffering servant who served us, prayed for us, healed us

That he was fully human – to the extent that he died

That he was special, loved by God and so rose again

And he remains risen – “is” risen – is in the present tense

If Christ is not in some real sense alive and so relevant then what are we doing on a Sunday morning?  Just acting out, in some rather bizarre ritual, the final meal of a man executed by the Romans for sedition 2,000 years ago and singing songs together.  Very nice – but what is the point?

Instead we are saying that Christ is active in the world such that he remains a loving, caring, healing servant who is accessible and available to us all, for love and support, whoever we are and whatever we have done .  That is pretty exciting and to that I say “Alleluia”!

That “Christ is risen” is therefore essential to and the essence of the Christian faith. Or as St. Paul said “if Christ be not raised, your faith is vain” (1 Corinthians 15)

 

What was the nature of Jesus’s resurrection?

Resurrection (Greek: anastasis) – literally means getting up – it is normally used for the kind of getting up that you do in the morning – i.e. waking up (though it seems waking up and getting up are not the same if you are a teenage boy – they may be several hours apart)

In the bible we have a variety of different accounts of how Jesus “woke up” – as usual the Gospel writers portray a range of perspectives.

In Mark’s original Gospel we do not meet the risen Christ at all – a young man tells the three women (Mary Magdalene, Mary the Mother of James and Salome) that he has “risen” and they will meet him in Galilee.  The women flee trembling and bewildered.

In Matthew’s Gospel everything is very physical – there is an earthquake Old Testament style – the earth shakes and the stone is rolled away  – Jesus actually meets the women and says – “Greetings”.  They recognise him immediately and hold on to his feet and he tells them he will meet them in Galilee.

In Luke’s Gospel, two disciples meet Jesus on the road to Emmaus – away from Jerusalem.   Here the disciples do not recognise him by sight – but discover him in the breaking of bread and wine.  Later he shares a meal with all the disciples in Jerusalem.

 

In today’s Gospel reading, John, the complex symbolic evangelist, tells of a resurrection full of mystery and slow revelation

Mary Magdalene is the first to visit the tomb but the stone has been rolled away and she assumes Jesus’s body has been stolen

Then there is a race between two of the disciples to see who can find him first but Jesus is indeed gone – the grave clothes have been shed and lie discarded.

This appears to be in deliberate contrast with the story of the raising of Lazarus earlier in John’s Gospel – if you remember when Lazarus is raised they had to roll the stone away for him and when he comes out he still has the funeral bandages on him – like some sort of zombie mummy.

In today’s story, Jesus’s body seems to have passed through the grave clothes leaving them behind.   This is different and Jesus is different – when he appears  – Jesus is not even recognised – he is mistaken for the gardener – until he calls Mary by name

The disciple whom Jesus loved needs no more evidence or information – he stands in the tomb, sees that it is empty and believes.

 

I think we can see in the different resurrection stories allegories of the different ways in which we find the risen Christ

We can meet him in Matthew’s earthquake and instant revelation – as Paul did on the Road to Damascus

Some times it takes longer – we need to move through a period of fear and confusion as described by Mark before we meet jesus on our life pilgrimage as in Luke’s Gospel – with our friends on our own road to Emmaus

Like the unnamed disciple in this story, we can read the bible, weigh the evidence and come to faith on our own

Or like Mary Magdalene – after some searching on our part, he calls us by name – we find Jesus when we find ourselves.

 

What these accounts have in common is that Jesus is not the same as he was before he died but that he continues to communicate with, give comfort to and have meaning for his followers – that is true for the disciples and it is true for us.  This is what it means for Christ to be risen today

 

Why did Jesus have to die?

(I hope you have not booked an early lunch)

Easter is a time which leads us to consider the deepest mysteries of life and death, the relationship between God and man, where we find meaning of our lives

Easter asks its own particular, difficult question: Why does anyone, let alone an innocent like Jesus, have to die a painful, premature death – surely the question on the lips of the South Korean parents whose children have died in this latest ferry disaster.

 

It is a question I found myself asking recently when I learned of the death of the son of a friend of mine, just before the boy’s first birthday – a nicer, happier pair of parents you could not imagine – it seemed so unfair

 

People rightly have difficulties with a God who is meant to be all powerful, all loving and yet allows this kind of death in the world

This is epitomised at Easter when we remember the gruesome torture and execution of his own son – what kind of parent allows this?

 

We struggle, but perhaps we should not be surprised

After all God appears to like sharks – for 420 million years these efficient predators have fed on those who share their waters

Hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanoes; malaria, appendicitis, wasps:  creation has a lot of horrors built into it

We understand, do we not, that you cannot have day without night, summer without winter, life without death.

Nor do we think that God is some celestial railwayman in his signalbox deciding which train goes up the main line and which is withdrawn from service to the engine shed.

Moreover, the justice of man is not the justice of God.  This is fortunate as it would have changed out of all recognition over the last 500 years in which we have said good-bye to the divine right of kings, to the legal subjugation of women, to slavery and to execution for anything from witchcraft, blasphemy and homosexuality to petty theft – all of these were the justice of man and have changed dramatically.

We should not look for justice on human terms from God – Christ himself was not saved on the cross

Indeed, as God and Jesus were one in the Trinity, it can be seen that God was himself crucified.  Though there are some doctrinal complexities if we say God suffered, there seems to be no avoiding this disquieting thought.

Part of being a Christian is about understanding and submitting to suffering – as has been observed: “we are in the suffering business”

In fact our experience, like the biblical Job, is that suffering brings holiness and wisdom – we are never closer to God than when we are suffering

By way of an example, about this time last year I was diagnosed with a gall stone – at night it would occasionally get stuck somewhere and I would wake up with a sharp pain in my stomach.  I would take myself off downstairs so as not to disturb my loving wife and spend up to 4 or even 5 hours rolling around on the floor of the living room until it shifted – it hurt so much, all I could do was pray.  This is a common spiritual experience of those in pain – though given the choice I would suggest you go on a retreat rather than cultivating a gall stone!

Like Christ on the cross, pain strips us naked of all our pretense and surface and brings us into direct contact with God, the ground of our being. We are changed by suffering – we are cleansed by it – we learn from it

We are also united in it.  In the same way as we are united with one another and Christ in the celebration of the Eucharist so we are united with one another and with Christ in our experience of suffering and ultimately of death.

This is what is meant by atonement – “at-one-ment” – at one with God in life and joy and suffering and death

So what happens when we die?

You see I am not dodging any bullets here!

When I was a stroppy teenager – I used to blithely quote Bertrand Russell to my parents “when I die I rot”  a quotation which has now been taken up by our friend Richard Dawkins. [1]

But now that I am a stroppy middle aged person – I am not sure it is as simple as that

Scientists are still rolling back the boundaries of our understanding of the universe.  A number of things are, however, becoming clear

– it is very complicated and profoundly chaotic, unpredictable

– the butterfly flapping its wings in Tokyo does change the weather in New York

– everything is interconnected –each electron in the universe effects the energy of every other electron in the universe (strange but apparently true)

– which means that everything and everyone matters

– that interactions and inter-relations between objects and between people continue to affect us long after the proximity is gone – in fact forever.

– how much more is this true when we deliberately renew those links in our thoughts and in our prayers

– in our acts and artifacts of remembrance

This Church is itself and is full of such “artifacts of remembrance” – whether it is the memorial tablets along its walls of those who are buried in the churchyard – the memorial in the chancel to those who fell on distant battlefields in two world wars, the stain glass windows remembering the lives of Jesus and the saints

Or even in our list of dedications for the Easter lilies  (special thanks to the flower team)

As I knelt here before the cross on Good Friday – I found myself looking down the list of names and saw the name of my grandmother – Ruby Richards

I visited her grave recently and she has been much in my mind

Though she died in 1986 I still see her frequently …

I see her whenever I see one of those friendly winter robins which she cared for every year, feeding them with scraps of bacon rind and crusts of bread in the snow

I hear her when I hear the words of the 23rd Psalm which she loved,

I see her when I see her face in that of my daughter when she smiles in a certain pouty way (which she does a lot).

Somewhere, somehow, in some way, Ruby is still very much alive

 

“When I die I rot”?   I don’t think so – much scarier than that – what I firmly believe is that what we do lives on and continues to have an influence on the world – for all time – every single little action makes a difference and continues into eternity.

And that applies to the lives of those little children who die in their cots having lived for just a few months as much as to those who have lived for eighty, ninety or a hundred years.  I believe it applies even to those whom we have lost before they were ever born.

Conclusion

In our reading from Jeremiah we heard: I have loved you with an everlasting love;

Today we celebrate the victory of that everlasting love over death

The love that operates at God’s pace, in God’s way

This faithfulness of God is the principal message of Easter – though sometimes we may struggle to see it – that in the darkest hour there is hope

Even after the greatest sadness there will be joy

Just as the disciples and followers of Jesus found him again in various forms and various places though he had surely died on the cross

The stone will be rolled away and the grave clothes set aside

Day will follow night, calm will quell the storm, peace will end war, new life come in spring, and resurrection triumph over crucifixion.

By our acts of remembrance this morning – when we, like Peter in our reading from Acts, eat and drink with Jesus at the altar of his resurrection,  as we “do this in remembrance of him” – we celebrate Christ’s example of suffering and service and his continuing ability to transform the world.

By celebrating and remembering him, we, the body of Christ, his pilgrim people, strengthen him and continue his work in the world.

This is our responsibility as Christians, as followers of Jesus which is why to the greeting “Alleluia, Christ is risen”

We should reply with confidence:  “He is risen indeed, Alleluia”.

 

Sermon delivered by Chris Hancock at St. Mary the Virgin, Headley, Easter Sunday 2014

 

Bibliography and further reading

1. Dawkins, R., 2006. The God Delusion. London: Transworld Publishers.  (p. 397)

Tomlin, Graham (2013) Looking Through the Cross (The Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent Book 2014), London: Bloomsbury

 

 

 

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