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Easter Sermon, 2016

by glynch — last modified 27 Mar, 2016 05:49 PM

The Bishop of Salisbury, the Rt Revd Nicholas Holtam, preached at the Sung Eucharist in Salisbury Cathedral on Easter Day, 27 March 2016.

Readings: Acts 10.34-43; John 20.1-18

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed.... “

Thanks to daylight saving time it was early this morning when people came to the cathedral for the lighting of the Paschal candle, the light of the risen Christ. When it was brought into the cathedral it was the only flame, lighting the whole space. Then everyone lit their candles and the people of God lit up the church in the joy of the resurrection.

But I want to begin in an altogether darker place because our world is struggling with what it means for us to belong together.

“Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed.... “

‘How have the bombings in Brussels affected your faith?’ That was the question from a radio interviewer yesterday.  It’s not God I blame but people. The terrible things we do to each other now are like the crucifixion of an innocent man. We are either stupid or wicked in thinking that violence breeds anything other than violence.

But the death of Jesus is different. In Him, death is not the last word.   

The Gospel of Jesus Christ begins at an empty tomb and what happens is not about life after death so much as life in all its fullness, life abundant. It has an impact here and now. Even the wicked can’t keep a good God down.  

It means there is always hope, even in the darkest moments of our lives because in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, 

Goodness is stronger than evil;
Light is stronger than darkness;
Love is stronger than hate;
Life is stronger than death. 

A fundraiser once told me I needed an ‘elevator speech’ – what I would say if I got into a lift with a wealthy potential donor and had less than 30 seconds to make the pitch.

On the evidence of today’s reading from Acts for the Epistle this morning St Peter would have done pretty well. “You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all.”

“Jesus is Lord” was the briefest of proclamations in the early Church.

But Peter did go on to say a bit more because it’s not enough to come up with a series of propositions about someone. We need to know what was important to them, what they did, how they spent their time and who they kept company with. So Peter went on to tell the Gentiles,

how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him...They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead.... [for the] forgiveness of sins.

What happened in the resurrection of Jesus is that in order for people to know who Jesus is, his disciples had to tell the stories of his life, death, resurrection and ascension into heaven. They are the Gospels.

In Christ we see what it is to be fully human, as well as fully divine. He heals the sick, makes people feel better. He gives sight and insight, and teaches what it means to love God and love our neighbour as ourselves. Just as h kept company with the outsiders – women, Samaritans, lepers, the lame – so the Church at best includes all. He showed what it is to serve and give his life for others. This way of sacrificial love is costly but it is the way of life: the more you give, the more you get.

His followers showed how all this fitted with the Hebrew Scriptures: Jesus was as promised, if not exactly as most people expected. They went on to tell stories about God’s gift of the Holy Spirit and its impact on the early Church. This wasn’t just about the Jesus of history. It’s about Jesus in the present tense and with hope for the future.

On Good Friday I walked the Stations of the Cross with a few hundred people in Bridport through the town and down to the coast at West Bay. Local artists had painted the 14 stations. The brief said that they should be set in places that locals would recognise with people in contemporary dress.  These stations are about Christ come among us in the present day.

When as bishop I licence clergy to the ministry of a parish priest, I tell them they must ‘seek the mind of Christ’.  This isn’t the responsibility of the parish priest alone. Jesus when two or three are gathered in his name he is present. We find Christ in community and His truth is between us in our God-given creative diversity.

It’s relatively easy to search the scriptures and see what they say he said; and to research the teaching of the Church down the ages. It’s a lot more demanding to find what this means in the present day in circumstances that are never quite the same as what went before.

We disciples of Jesus Christ need to work out how to seek the mind of Christ, for ourselves and the Church, as well as for the sake of the world Christ came to save.

It means that a healthy Church is constantly changing and expressing old and deep truths in new and life-giving ways.

From very early days Christian graves, and especially the tombs of the saints, were thought to be places where heaven and earth touched and prayer was easy.  By the same instinct our churchyards will be decorated today with Easter flowers that speak of the resurrection of Jesus Christ and our share in it. That reflect a belief we share in the resurrection of Christ in which life and death are both.

Nowadays many churchyards are witnessing to the resurrection of Jesus by being nurtured as places of biodiversity and the care of our common home. ‘Living churchyards’ which if added together are the size of a national park. It’s what might be called faithful improvisation on a resurrection theme.

Some change is complex and controversial and takes time. Bishop Karen’s arrival as Bishop of Sherborne reminded me that the first Anglican woman priest was ordained priest in 1944 in Macau by the Bishop of Hong Kong. The Church of England was not swift to follow but for over 22 years we have had women priests, our Dean senior among them. Now we have 9 women bishops and 1 more soon to be who was named on Maundy Thursday. That women have been admitted into all three orders of ministry is now the Church we are.

“Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed....”

What was broken open revealed a new reality, something quite different.

A living and healthy Church has the experience of what it means to seek the mind of Christ, to live as people of the resurrection.  The quality of relationships of those who are ‘in Christ’ means that we have been able to negotiate significant change. As St John says, “perfect loves casts out fear”.

This is a gift for the wider world which feels so torn apart at present with war in the Middle East and the largest refugees crisis since the Second World War; in which the care of God’s earth feels more and more pressing; at a time of austerity when some are doing very well but we don’t seem to know what it means to belong together and care for each other, what it is to be English, British, European, Global. In these circumstances there is a fear which breeds mistrust and anxiety which will cripple us.

The good news of the resurrection is that there is a new reality, not just for Church but for the world. The risen Christ makes a new community, brings us back together in love, light, truth, peace, the things that are eternal and are the hope of the world. As a Church we witness to this for the sake of the world.

The stone removed to open the empty tomb creates new relationships free from fear with all the possibilities of love, light, truth and peace that we find in Jesus Christ. We need not be fearful. The joy of the resurrection is for all the world.

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