A Sermon by Rev Chris Williams – Rector
23 April 2017
Acts 2 v12, 22-32, 1 Peter 1 v 3-9 and John 20 v 19-31
What would it have been like for the disciples on that Saturday after Good Friday?
For three or four years these people had left everything to stake their allegiance to Jesus. They had eaten, slept, travelled and talked with him and seen and experienced so many things. They had seen Jesus happy, sad, angry, excited, laughing, crying. They had experienced things they could not explain. They had heard him speak of deep and mysterious things of God. Each of them had experienced his perfect love for them and each had chosen to follow this radical and revolutionary man, believing that, somehow here was someone (perhaps the one), who could make a difference to their world and their lives. They had put all their eggs in one basket (to use an Easter metaphor!). Indeed, for them, there was no alternative basket. Remember when some of the disciples left Jesus he turned to the twelve and said will you leave also? And they said ‘to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life’
So what must they have felt when Jesus was arrested, tortured and executed before their eyes? What of their hopes now? What of their future now? The one they thought had the words of eternal life was lying stone dead in a tomb.
And how did they feel in those long, long hours between the cross and the resurrection? Holy Saturday, the day before Easter, is probably the darkest day of the Christian calendar – maybe that’s why we avoid services on that day –there is simply nothing to say because it is so bleak and utterly hopeless.
And then we come to that morning. Never were two days so different.
This was the morning that was to change the world – and the reason we are all here this morning.
For me, it’s the account of Mary Magdalene that captures so much of the drama at the heart of the Easter story – and we heard this story on Easter day.
We find Mary weeping outside the tomb on Sunday morning – still in a state of grief and shock. Her grief was so great that even the presence of two angels seemed to have little impact on her. She only wanted to know where the body of Jesus was. She then turned around and there in front of her was the gardener – or so she thought. Still with only one thing on her mind she says ‘Sir, if you have carried him away tell me where you have laid him’ Then we come to this poignant moment that always sends shivers down my spine. Jesus simply says ‘Mary!’
Have you ever woken up in the morning after a long period of cloudy, wet and windy weather and opened the curtains to be hit by the warm sun streaming into the window. (yes, I admit it’s rare!). Suddenly the world has changed. Now, there is the potential for warmth and light and sunshine and all the hope that comes with it.
This was Mary’s ‘open curtain’ moment!’
In the one word – “Mary!” – her life was transformed forever. The implication of the resurrection would be worked out for the rest of her life, but at this moment she just saw Jesus before her – alive.
I don’t think you could imagine two more different journeys than Mary’s journey to the tomb and away from it. I expect the only similarity would be tears – first of utter grief and then of complete elation. We are told she arrived in the dark. I imagine she ran home with the sun rising ahead of her – both literally and metaphorically.
She arrived back and announced to the disciples the dramatic words – ‘I have seen the Lord!’
And the joy she experienced was shared with others and gradually, the small community of people who followed Jesus were transformed from frightened, hopeless people to joyful, excited and hopeful people because he who had the words of eternal life was indeed alive.
The death and resurrection of Jesus is, surely, the greatest event in the whole of history.
But that was then and this is now.
What does the resurrection mean to us today? What do you think of the resurrection?
Well, do we believe in it for a start?
Vikki Beeching the writer, broadcaster and Christian songwriter asked on Twitter last week if people thought the resurrection was literal and physical or…
The responses were many and varied but it was interesting to note that the majority believed in a physical resurrection – even though many of them would identify as liberal.
A number of people cited Paul in I Corinthians 15:14 ‘And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain.’
For me, the best response was: ‘If Jesus didn’t embrace Mary, walk along the Emmaus Road, break bread, let Thomas poke him, and cook fish on the beach, then count me out.’
For me, the greatest ‘proof’ of the resurrection is that every one of the disciples spent the rest of their lives sharing this amazing news around the world. So convinced, were they, that most of them died for that belief. It would be inconceivable that these men and women were prepared to risk their lives for something they knew was a lie.
Rowan Williams says “Today the calling of every Christian is to be a witness to the Resurrection. It is the calling of the church, as a body, to testify to this event as the event of history, the second big bang”.
Do you see this as your primary calling?
I like the comparison of the resurrection to the big bang. No one can explain how this ever-expanding universe came into being. A universe so large that we are simply unable to imagine it. Light travels at the speed of 600 million miles an hour – that’s 7.5 times around the earth every second. The furthest galaxy is 13 billion light years away. Can you comprehend that? No. Can you comprehend the resurrection? No. But, given the data, I’m prepared to believe both things. At the big bang a new reality was created. At the resurrection, a new reality was created – a reality that says death is not the end, that life can come from darkness, hope from despair, joy from sadness.
The Archbishop of Canterbury (Justin Welby this time – not Rowan Williams) said in his Easter message last week “Everything we are and own and see is to be lived, and held and understood through the resurrection.”
The resurrection is the defining point for every Christian. It’s actually the defining point for the world and the universe if they only knew it.
Christians are people who have encountered the risen Christ.
Like Mary, it’s an encounter that changes everything.
Like the other disciples, it’s an encounter that changes everything.
Like Thomas in our reading today, it’s an encounter that changes everything. He was sceptical. He knew no one comes back from death and said unless I put my hands in his side or touch the holes in his hands I won’t believe. And then he had his own ‘Mary’ experience – except this was, of course, a Thomas experience: Jesus appeared to him and said put your hands in my side. Do you think he did? I doubt it. He fell to the floor and said My Lord and my God. His life would never be the same again
Thomas could never be the same again. Doubting Thomas became Believing Thomas and tradition has it that he travelled to India sharing the good news of the resurrection
Jesus said something very important at the end of the encounter with Thomas in John 20: Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
He is referring to every Christian who has ever lived following his return to heaven. That includes you and me. We are called to make the same confession as Thomas: My Lord and my God – without the physical evidence. To quote the writer to the Hebrews: Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. Today we walk by faith and not by sight.
And listen to the exciting words at the end of the Peter reading this morning – written to people who never saw Jesus: Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy (is that your experience this morning?) for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.
And, look at the last sentence of our gospel passage today: These things are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.
Fortunately for us God is prepared to work with whatever level of faith we have.
There’s a lovely story in Mark where a father comes to Jesus with his epileptic son and Jesus says “Anything is possible if a person believes.” To which the father replies I do believe, but help me overcome my unbelief! That may sometimes be the best we can say. (The boy was healed by the way).
So what do you make of the resurrection this morning I wonder?
We cannot tell others that God transforms lives, unless we are transformed ourselves.
We all need a similar experience to Mary. It may not be in such dramatic circumstances, but that moment when God speaks our name and we know he’s alive. And if he’s alive that has implications – exciting and important implications. The resurrection means that we can know the transforming power of God in our lives today.
Nicky Gumbel in the Alpha course quoted CS Lewis (and I used these words in last month’s parish magazine): ‘Christianity, if false, is of no importance, and if true, of infinite importance. The only thing it cannot be is moderately important.’
The first followers of Jesus experienced the death and resurrection of Jesus with all its raw emotion. Today we, also, can experience the reality of the resurrection in our lives.
Mary was sent to go and bear witness of what she had seen and the disciples after her. Today we are the latest generation of those called to go in confidence and share the good news that Jesus is alive and that death has been defeated and that others can know the same transforming power at work in their lives.
Lent is over and we move forward from Easter. 2000 years ago, the resurrection heralded a new age and a new hope for the world. Let’s be a church that moves forward confidently and boldly in the power of the risen Lord Jesus Chris.