Bishop of Hereford's Easter Sermon

Published on: 2nd April 2021

Acts 10: 34-43; John 20: 1-18

One of the things to either to be revealed, or to be exposed by COVID, is an epidemic of hopelessness.  All measures of mental health are down after this difficult year. As social animals, we crave company, touch and affection, and the deprivation of these things has serious effects on us.  Even as restrictions are lifted these effects will last for many years. Yet at the heart of the Gospel, we claim a message of hope.  This is not a hope that our circumstances will improve, which is the currency of hope in contemporary culture.  Nor is it a form of wishful thinking or positivity, as if we Christians were all glass half full type of people.  The sort of people who really annoy glass half empty types! It’s a hope that can actually transcend our personal circumstances.  Its something that we can hold onto even if things are grim, with little apparent hope of improvement.

This is a hope rooted in the event we celebrate today. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is the undeniable evidence that a different order of things has broken into this one.  There are many signs of hope here, but I want to draw out four amongst many from the Gospel reading from John

The first is a hope of inclusion. In first century Palestine some of the Rabbis had a prayer that thanked God that they were neither a gentile or a woman.  Within their cultural legal practice was the understanding that a woman’s testimony was worth less than that of a man. These different accounts of that first Easter morning are constructed unmistakably like witness testimony.  There are subtle differences between the different gospels, each giving the perspective from different witnesses to the event from different vantage points at different times.  Some argue that this indicates unreliability.  But, any judge will tell you that too much coherence between witness statements often indicates collusion rather than accuracy.  The significant common point across these accounts is that the first witnesses were women.  The male witnesses were late to the scene and took some convincing.  In Thomas’ case, refusing to believe the accounts of others, but waiting for the evidence of his own eyes. Such a telling of the story, placing the women as it does at the centre, runs the risk of its dismissal by the disciples’ cynical contemporaries.  This is an inclusion that runs a terrible risk; a risk that this seismic event would be ignored on the basis of unreliable witnesses. This is a powerful story of hope to all who feel excluded by the structures of power, the poor and the voiceless. The resurrection declares that this good news is for everyone.  The community of the resurrection must find valued places for all, and perhaps the most important places to those who contemporary culture excludes and rejects.

The second is the hope of being known. Mary is called by name. One of the most moving moments in confirmation services happens just before the laying on of hands.  The Bishop say the simple words, after the persons name is stated, God has called you by name and made you his own.  In the scriptures, names are significant. They are not mere labels, but say something about the essence of a person.  In the Old Testament, the names very often signify something of the family or clans’ experiences at the time of birth.  God tells us not to take his name in vain, to indicate his character and person deserves appropriate respect. This resurrection hope is that the relationship that God offers us through Christ’s life, death and resurrection is not a generic spirituality, but a personal invitation. In the last supper narratives we hear Jesus say, “I no longer call you servants, but friends.” I know some people sneer at such a talk of a ‘personal relationship with Jesus’, but what other type of relationship is there? Surely the essence of the incarnation, the word made flesh, is that God in Christ dwells among us and invites us to dwell with him.  

The third hope is a hope in purpose.  In any episode of suffering, and COVID is no exception, we rehearse the age-old question.  How can God be a god of love and have control over the universe at the same time? Some peoples’ experiences seem so horrible and painful, surely A God of love would intervene to do something about it.  You may be carrying such questions yourself this morning, either through the loss of loved ones or through financial hardship. Given that our knowledge is limited we don’t know what such an intervention would look like.  Indeed, we may be seeing a world after divine intervention has already taken place, and things would be infinitely worse if GOD didn’t exercise some restraining action on the forces of evil.  Such philosophical or theological speculation is rarely helpful to those who ask these questions. What the combined event of the cross and resurrection shows us is that the greatest possible evil humans could devise – the judicial murder of the sinless son of God, is transformed into the greatest imaginable good – the potential reconciliation of humanity to its divine origin.  The resurrection tells us that there is no conceivable wickedness or suffering that cannot be woven by God’s providence into the good story he is telling.  As the old hymn says, “God is working his purposes out as year succeeds to year.” Mysteriously, inexplicably, sometimes in ways that baffle us or make us plain angry. But the resurrection declares unequivocally that not even death can have the last word.

The final hope is orientated towards the future.  “Do not hold on to me,” says Jesus to Mary, for I have not yet ascended to the Father.” The former Bishop of Durham, David Jenkins was often rather misrepresented as being a denier of the bodily resurrection of Jesus.  I’m not sure that is entirely fair.  When he talked about the resurrection being more than ‘conjuring tricks with bones’ he was pointing us to an important truth.  The resurrection of Jesus is not like the resurrection of Lazarus, who will have died again, this time of old age.  Resurrection is much more than a resuscitation. The resurrected Jesus rises to an altogether different quality of life, continuous with, but freed from most of the physical constraints of this one. Jesus words to Mary are of the eye witness describing an eternal destination.  Christian hope of the resurrection to eternal life is not a hope for the best denial of grief.  This hope is based on our glimpse of the new world breaking into this one.  The resurrection is God’s future intersecting with the present.  It was this hope and conviction that sustained these disciples through privation, and in many cases martyrdom, for their testimony that Jesus was alive.

So, on this glorious day we rejoice in the historical and eternal fact that Christ is risen.  We are people of hope, all included, not on our merits but on his. We are invited by name on a journey with Jesus that sustains us through the deep mysteries of life. And we look forward to an eternal hope, that this life is not all there is. Our physical death marks for those who trust in Christ merely a horizon to a far greater eternity.

Christ is risen: he is risen indeed Hallelujah!

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