Martin Fletcher's Sermon, Easter Sunday

Easter Day                                                                                             
16 April 2017
(Acts 10:34-43;  Colossians 3:1-4;  John 20:1-18)

Hear the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to John.

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 from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, ‘They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.’ Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went towards the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. 10 Then the disciples returned to their homes. 

11 But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; 12 and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. 13 They said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping?’ She said to them, ‘They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.’ 14 When she had said this, she turned round and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15 Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?’ Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.’ 16 Jesus said to her, ‘Mary!’ She turned and said to him in Hebrew, ‘Rabbouni!’ (which means Teacher). 17 Jesus said to her, ‘Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.”’ 18 Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

 

On Good Friday some of us joined the Walk of Witness through Hersham. Those who did may remember that in the short service at the end I used a new £1 coin as a visual aid. I suggested that death and resurrection are two sides of the same coin. Like doubt and faith.

 

Well, here’s that same coin… It took some getting hold of, I can tell you! The shop I persuaded to part with it had only seen one, and this is it! And like any other British coin it has the initials ‘F D’ next to the image of our Sovereign, the Queen, the ‘Supreme Governor of the Church of England’. ‘F D’ stands for the Queen’s title in Latin:  ‘Fidei defensor’, ‘Defender of the faith’.

 

I said on Friday that by being part of the Walk of Witness we also had been defending our faith. We were showing we believe in the One who suffered and died on the Cross for us, and after three days rose again.

 

And three days on, here we are again, defending our faith this time by attending public worship. But whereas on Good Friday the coin was ‘death’ side up, today it is very much ‘resurrection’ side up. To mix some metaphors, we are saying ‘‘heads up, we win’ thanks be to God’.

 

This is the Good News that we – and the whole world – desperately need to hear right now.

 

The last seven days have spanned the most important week of the year for any Christian. In Holy Week each year we deliberately take time out to slow down and think about the sense of desolation, of godforsakenness, that Jesus felt, a feeling that is normal for so many people. Desolation is what Jesus felt as he journeyed towards the Cross: even his closest friends had denied him. Godforsakenness was what he felt on the Cross: we know because he said so. His disciples felt the same way after he died, and had been buried in the tomb.

 

And in the last forty days – Lent – we have made some kind of effort to enter the Wilderness with Jesus, and there to remind ourselves as he did of our total dependence on God.

 

Recently, I heard our Bishop Jo offer an interesting insight into a ‘wilderness experience’, whether from the point of view of Jesus, or ourselves in the forty days of Lent, or so many people in normal life – often for years rather than days.

 

She pointed out that for forty years the Israelites had journeyed through the wilderness, from Egypt to the Promised Land, often simply going round and round in circles. She described the wilderness for them as being the ‘place of already but not yet’. For them, the ‘already’ – the here and now – seemed even worse than their previous situation, which therefore in turn seemed preferable to the idea of freedom in the Promised Land. As Bishop Jo put it, ‘living by sight seemed preferable to living by faith’.

 

And we should acknowledge that to the Isrealites forty years of living in limbo would have felt permanent.

 

But. It wasn’t permanent! For them, the side of the coin in their sight was ‘doubt or  ‘death’, but that same coin had always had another side. Turning from doubt to faith, from death to life, can only come from within the sense of desolation, of godforsakenness, that the Israelites felt, and that we all feel at some point in our lives.

 

Today, Easter Day, is when we affirm that this is so. We hear again about the ‘turn-around’ experienced by Mary, Peter, and the other disciple, and we know that their experience is offered to us, too.

 

So dare we take that leap of faith? Or do we deep down prefer ‘living by sight’, even if all we can see is whatever it is that enslaves us? Because if we dare instead to ‘live by faith’ then we will really live: the experience awaiting us is true freedom. The freedom that comes from knowing for certain that we can depend on God.

 

Faith and doubt; resurrection and death; freedom and slavery: all two sides of the same coin. In order to know the liberation of the ‘up-side’ we have first to experience the ‘down-side’. Remember the lesson that any ‘wilderness experience’ brings: to learn that we are totally dependent on God. The Israelites learnt it; Jesus was willing to learn it; we have learnt it again this Lent. We must pray that others, near and far, are learning it in their personal suffering. However we learn the lesson, all we have to do then is open our hands in faith and receive God’s freely-given gift of eternal life, life in its fullness.

 

So, we do indeed have Good News to celebrate today! And to share. But our journey of faith continues, just as the personal suffering of so many continues. As we await the fulfilment of God’s kingdom here on earth we are still, like the Israelites, in that ‘place of already but not yet’. There is more than ever a need for us to be living by faith. Therefore let each of us seek, like the Queen, to be a ‘defender of the faith’.

 

Thanks be to God. Amen.