Sunday, 27 March 2016

Easter Day 2016

I rose early and went out into the fresh, brilliant morning, between six and seven o'clock. The sun had already risen some time, but the grass was still white with the hoar frost. I walked across the common in the bright sunny quiet empty morning, listening to the rising of the lark as he went up in an ecstasy of song into the blue unclouded sky and gave in his Easter morning hymn at Heaven's Gate. Then came the echo and answer of earth as the Easter bells rang out their joy peals from the church towers all round. It was very sweet and lovely, the bright silent sunny morning, and the lark rising and singing alone in the blue sky, and then suddenly the morning air all alive with music of sweet bells ringing for the joy of the resurrection. "The Lord is risen" smiled the sun, "The Lord is risen" sang the lark. And the church bells in their joyous pealing answered from tower to tower, "He is risen indeed".

This is Francis Kilvert, the Victorian diarist and country parson, recording Easter morning the way we want it to be: bright, fresh, the sun risen, the lark singing into a silence then further broken by the pealing of church bells which declare “The Lord is risen!”

That’s the message we declare today. It’s a message which is true however late the sunrise, however dismal the weather, however disturbed may be our thoughts or wretched our outlook on life, however troubled our world and however fearful its peoples. “The Lord is risen indeed.”

Easter follows only after Holy Week. And Holy Week is a time of encroaching menace in which the forces of fear and terror close in upon that which is good and true to work violence upon it. Hailed as a King on Palm Sunday, Jesus on Good Friday will be reviled as worse than the criminal Barabbas and then crucified – and in between there are plots against him, betrayal by a disciple, desertion and denial by his friends, a record of faithlessness on the part of those who said they would follow him. In our world today, these days of Holy Week have seen still more horror and savagery visited upon innocent people in the atrocities committed in Brussels. The cause of the terrorists is a perversion of religion gone wrong. It’s a perversion not restricted to so-called Islamism as the conviction and sentencing of Radovan Karadzic for war crimes against Muslims in Bosnia reminds us. And should we be tempted to blame religion in general we then need to ask where lack of conscience and sensibility takes people when selfish desire and denial of humanity lead them to grooming and abuse.

The world can seem bleak, god-forsaken and far from the beauty of Kilvert’s Easter morning.

But the faith we declare at Easter is true. In the words of Archbishop Justin Welby, “On Good Friday terror and oppression are met by love, with Jesus praying for the forgiveness of those who caused his death.” Against savagery, bitterness and perverted reasoning there stands in sharpest contrast the sacrifice of Jesus. And on Easter Day we see the triumph of his love.

The sun was shining already for Kilvert as he walked out on Easter morning.

The women who went out to seek the tomb of Jesus on the first Easter morning left home at early dawn. You can imagine them leaving their home before it was properly light. They go with the expectation of finding only death – to do for the body of Jesus what they had been unable to do before his hurried burial, taking spices which should have been wrapped into his shroud. They find the tomb – but not the body. The stone is rolled away. The one they loved has gone.

With hindsight it may seem strange to us that their response is not of joy but perplexity. They don’t understand – in fact St. Luke’s Gospel tells us they were “terrified.” They find two men dressed in dazzling clothes – but there’s no ready assumption that these are angels. They can only be reminded that Jesus had spoken of his death – and that he would rise again. Now go and tell other people about it!

So they do. And what happens? The disciples don’t believe them. Only Peter goes off to see for himself. He finds no body – only cast-off grave clothes. We’re told simply that he is “amazed” – nothing more.

That’s something that may speak to us. Resurrection faith does not come about just because a grave is found to be empty. People don’t necessarily believe merely on the say-so of other people. Empirical evidence and argument only go so far. Knowing Christ to be risen is something that goes much deeper – it grows out of a sense of encounter and relationship… and in St. Luke’s account these are still to occur. The Resurrection needs to be made real in the hearts and lives of people called by Jesus.

The story doesn’t end at an empty tomb. Luke will take us on to relate how two disciples fail to recognise Jesus on the Emmaus Road until he breaks bread with them and shares his blessing. Mary Magdalene fails to recognise him until she hears him speak her name. The remaining disciples continue meeting in fear behind locked doors until Jesus comes to stand in their midst, to show them the scars of his wounds, to share food with them.

It’s been pointed out that if a first century writer had been making up the story of the Resurrection he wouldn’t have women be the first to discover that the Tomb was empty. With all the prejudices of the time and the value placed on the witness of a woman who would take them seriously? Who would believe them? It’s not the way the world worked then. It’s not the way it works now.

Bishop Michael Curry, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in the United States, reminds his people that the Easter story is not a fairy tale. Against all our efforts to be strong and keep control, the Resurrection is “the revelation of ultimate reality.” Let me use his words:

The truth is, the way the world very often operates is not working out. It’s not sustainable. It’s not the way to life. Jesus has shown us the way. He has shown us that unselfish, sacrificial love, love of God, and love of the other, is the way to life. That, my friends, is the ultimate reality. And that’s not a fairy tale.

When Jesus was executed, He was tried and convicted of crimes He never committed. He willingly gave His life. Not for Himself, but for others. And in so doing, He showed us what love looks like. That’s what we call the Way of the Cross. And that Way is the way of life and hope. And when He died, His closest followers feared that maybe the strong do survive. Maybe might does make right. And maybe we better look out for number one. ‘Cause maybe the world has won.

But three days later, something happened. Unexpected. Undreamed of. Unheralded. Three days later their world turned upside-down which is right-side up. God raised Him from the dead. And you could almost hear God thundering forth in that resurrection. Love, in the end, love wins! Love is the way! Trust me! Follow me! Believe in me! This resurrection is real! This is not a fairy tale!

This is a truth we need to lay hold of. We can start today with those women who went early to the tomb with no real sense of hope but would find their lives transformed.

Let’s make these words of Janet Morley our prayer:

When we are all despairing;
when the world is full of grief;
when we see no way ahead,
and hope has gone away:

Roll back the stone.

Although we fear change;
although we are not ready;
although we’d rather weep
and run away:

Roll back the stone.

Because we’re coming with the women;
because we hope where hope is vain;
because you call us from the grave
and show the way:

Roll back the stone.

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