The past few weeks have filled our TV sets with some of life’s darkest moments. Our diocese is linked with the Diocese of Seoul in South Korea and the children who died on the ferry disaster on Wednesday are from a school in Seoul. We are straight away linked with a heart rending news story which is almost too distressing to watch or read. Thursday brought some of the text messages sent from the children to their parents just before the ferry sank. They are messages of love and good-bye. A couple of weeks earlier Peaches Geldof died of what is at present an unexplained cause. Two small children have been left without a mother, a husband is in deep grief, as is her father and are her sisters. It may be high profile but there is a human story there that can’t help but move us deeply, whether or not you know the people involved and since I conducted her mother’s funeral I do know some of them. I feel genuinely saddened by this. My thoughts and prayers will be for her family on Monday and for my successor as she conducts the funeral.
We can add to these stories local ones of the death of a young man in Russell Street and two men are being held on murder charges, the death of a pensioner in a house fire in Hampton, and then there is the worrying crisis in the Ukraine, with a far from certain outcome. These are just a few samples of the dark events on international and personal scales. Before we know where we are we are not filled with the joys of Easter and spring.
We are used to Easter. We expect it to come. Before we have even commemorated Good Friday, the flowers and chocolate eggs have been bought, the service papers printed, all is ready to move from tragedy to celebration. Despite the crowd on Friday at the walk of witness, most don’t acknowledge Good Friday at all. Easter has become so expected and natural that we don’t really feel it; we don’t feel the radical change of gear that it brings. But that is not how Easter really comes to us or how it came to the first disciples. Matthew’s account (28:1-10), which we have just heard, brings us an earthquake and the guards are so frightened by what is happening that they are like ‘dead men’. They don’t know what to make of it and are scared stiff. The women are also shaken by this because the angel tells them not to be afraid, probably with little effect. I expect a talking angel in that situation is even more frightening.
We can’t know how much the events of that first Easter morning happened exactly as described and how much picture language has been used to try to put it over in a way we can get hold of. A clear point is that they weren’t expecting anything other than the dead to stay dead and grief to run its course. Far from being a comfort to them, the first Easter is frightening. The natural order has been disrupted, disturbed, and they are left shaken and stirred by it.
The real Easter is not an easy day, despite the chocolate and flowers. It takes some working out and thinking through to begin to understand it. We say to the grief stricken, to those whose lives have been shattered by tragedy that the lives lost to us are not lost to God. We say to those anxious about civil unrest and unstable security that hope is never lost however dark the clouds that are gathering at the moment. Surprising things can happen which are beyond anything we dare expect or even hope for.
We affirm this because Jesus rose from the dead. The disciples didn’t understand it at first and it took several weeks for them to catch on. Our Church year gives us 50 days to allow this to sink in until Pentecost for a reason. It takes time for it to dawn on us, to replace the grief, for the shoots to sprout that build liberation and a new dignity. The sign that it did dawn is that those who were shattered, broken, frightened and confused became champions of the faith, ready to even die for this seemingly crazy belief in Jesus risen from the dead. From brokenness to bravery, despair to hope, Easter when it does dawn changes us completely.
The faith it brings is that there is no darkness that cannot be overcome by God’s life and love. Even death itself does not have the final word and it looks like it should with the natural order of decay and recycling of the elements which we see before our eyes. The power and purpose behind creation, meaning that there is anything rather than nothing – whatever the science of its progress, lies at the foundation of who we are and this shapes our ultimate destiny. Life, which is truly mysterious and wonderful is not futile and pointless. It is fashionable to belittle faith and sneer at religious practices and convictions. But what is offered by these sneerers instead is utterly pointless, futile and doomed; it is nothingness. Most people it would seem don’t agree with this picture, despite the high profile exponents of it and the frequency with which the view is repeated. Linda Woodhead, a sociologist of religion, has carried out research into those who respond to census questions as ‘no religion’. What she has found is that far from being irreligious they are not; they just don’t sign up to a particular narrative or institution.
There is work to do in telling the story of Christ and that is what the church is for. The question we need to ask is how we are doing that in ways that can be heard and which make sense. One of the ways we do this is through the cycle of our worship which helps us tell the story, or at least reminds us what it is. When congregations are low at major festivals and days, when key moments of that story are told, as on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, we are going to have some large gaps in how we live this. But we need other ways of telling the story too, because clearly most people aren’t present.
It has to be said though, that Easter doesn’t make sense. It is outside of normal experience. The dead stay dead and it is only when Easter’s power captures our imagination that we can believe it. This comes when we see situations that seemed hopeless being transformed; lives that were lived like the soldiers guarding the tomb as if ‘dead men’ come alive with joy and purpose;, when grieving hearts find peace in knowing their loved ones are held by God and so are they. There aren’t fancy arguments here, but there are lives set ablaze with joy and which seem to have ‘alleluia’ written deep within them. The best proclamation of Easter faith is lives that exude it.
So today is the most important day in the year. It is the day we say that life is not futile and pointless, but filled with purpose and treasured. This may take time to work out and doesn’t come easily to us but it does come and when it does changes lives. Christ rose from the dead and that is the faith we proclaim in lives that sing Alleluia.
Easter Day sermon at Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 20th April 2014