Posted: Friday 26th April 2019
Easter Day 2019
Death, New Life and Hope – Rev’d Simon Buckley
I read the story the other day of a woman who was part of the interviewing panel for a Christian organisation that had a vacancy for an evangelist. To each candidate who sat before the panel she asked “suppose you’re standing at the bus stop and the person next to you says “what do you mean by the resurrection?… and by the way my bus will be here in three minutes”. And she listened as one by one the interviewees tried to give clear, snappy answers about, hope, new life and the empty tomb. After the last person left one of the other interviewers from the panel turned to her and asked “so who gave you the answer you were hoping for?”. “None of them” she replied, “what I was hoping to hear was ‘If you want to hear my answer to that question… you’re going to have to miss your bus’”.
Now I know your bus doesn’t go in three minutes and we usually preach for longer than that here, but even within the time we normally assign to the sermon I can only begin to shine a light on the fullness of what the resurrection means.
But what I have no hesitation in saying is that I have absolute confidence that whatever I say and however helpfully (or not) I say it I’m shining a light on an actual event. The empty tomb is not a metaphor or symbol, I believe the resurrection happened. No-one in the two thousand years since it happened has come up with a more convincing reason for why the church is here. Nothing less than the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead could have turned the disciples from being disillusioned, disappointed people, wondering whether they had been conned into following Jesus for three years; from being locked away, frightened of suffering a similar fate to him and turned them into courageous, outspoken, joyful people willing to die rather than deny the fact that they had seen Jesus alive. So, when it comes to the evidence for the resurrection I need no more: people’s experience that Jesus was no longer in the tomb, the place he was supposed to be, but was instead everywhere he was supposed to be unable to be: in a garden, on a seashore, in a locked room, walking beside strangers, calling them by name, second guessing their thoughts and utterly changing the direction of their lives….. well, let me just say I need no more evidence.
But what does it all mean? For Peter the resurrection meant no longer feeling guilty for denying Jesus: it meant being forgiven and made the founder of the church. For Mary Magdalene it meant knowing the love and friendship she had with Jesus was unbroken and unbreakable. For the unnamed travellers on the road to Emmaus it was to have a new perspective on everything they had understood before.
But what does it mean for us- especially for us who have never heard the story of Good Friday without knowing what was to come? For few of us, I imagine, have ever had a time when we hadn’t heard that the tomb was declared to be empty- the astonishing twist in the story we know so well.
Well I want to say two things- firstly that Jesus is alive and so we can have hope. And secondly Jesus is alive so we can have hope especially in the face of death.
There’s a phrase often deployed in the laziest scripts in disaster movies, just before the plane starts to nosedive, the volcano whose crater is being explored explodes or the missing Tyranosaurus Rex reappears behind the explorers. It is that someone says, “Come on guys, what’s the worst that can happen?”. Good Friday seemed to be- not just for Jesus, but for the disciples, the Jews and arguably the whole human race- the worst that could happen. And yet, it turned out not to be so. And if God could turn that apparent disaster round, doesn’t it follow that he can and does do the same again? Sure, it might not happen in three days, and I don’t deny that some people endure seemingly endless holy Saturdays after the worst has happened, before even a faint glimmer of Easter light breaks through and a new day dawns. But without a hope built on the experience of all the witnesses to the resurrection who had thought their situation was utterly hopeless then we consign ourselves to doom and misery. A misery that may make us unable to see the sun when it rises.
Amongst all the tragedy we see in our world, whether the ravaging and pollution of our environment, the breakdown of relationships, natural disasters, or the destruction of great cultural icons, I’m sure we were all shocked by the sight of Notre Dame on fire earlier in the week. 850 years of a nation’s history going up in smoke, an artistic jewel and one of the most famous places of Christian worship in the world in danger of being utterly obliterated. As the present members of St Anne’s Soho, we should have a particular affinity with those who have seen their spiritual home being destroyed – though I’m not suggesting our original building, bombed in 1940, ever had a fraction of the splendour of Notre Dame: there have never been flying buttresses on Dean St. But there is a parallel and a parable here. Because the living Jesus and the 1676 St Anne’s which were both presumed to be consigned to history when they were suddenly and tragically cut down, were also both raised to a new life.
Only on Wednesday two visitors said to me, as they looked at the photograph of the original interior of this Church “oh, how tragic, I bet you wish you still had that”, to which I smiled sympathetically but internally thought “and if we still did, we would have no where to do any of the things we are currently able to do- we’d have that a 17th century building too big for our needs, but we’d have nowhere to host our Thursday pensioners’ lunch, 150 people a week would not be meeting here for AA meetings, there’d be no base for the Night Hub which is doing astonishing work… where, for goodness sake, would we put Lady Lambrini to help us raise money to support those who turn to us at times of crisis…” the list could go on and on. The new life of this church was made possible only by the death of the old building.
And the same will be true for Notre Dame. Already there is talk of creating a new spire rather than simply replicating the old one- which was a mere couple of hundred years old and which people who really know about these things regard as having not been up to scratch with the gothic masterpiece it sat on top of in the first place. And I pray that the fire has cleared a space for rebuilding that will give breathe new life into it as a true place of Christian worship.
The resurrected Jesus was not the resuscitated old one, but the original with extra glory. Just as Peter, after the resurrection, was no longer just the disciple who denied Jesus, but the disciple who knew he was forgiven- his ‘old spire’ of denial toppled as he was crowned with a new and better one. It’s the resurrection that gave him the new lease of life – the new life of Jesus enabling him to have a new life too.
The resurrection, means not only that the worst is not the end, but that what will be reborn- what God will bring to new birth- will be more glorious than whatever we had known (and probably loved) before. Jesus says to Mary in the garden ‘do not hold on to me’, don’t try and keep me as I was, don’t be content with what was before, be ready to change as I am changed. Many churches have been slowly strangled to death by an over-zealous preservation of the fabric of the building by keeping it exactly as they (often wrongly) thought it had always been. Yes, there’s comfort in keeping the status quo, most of us are made anxious by change and find reassurance in the familiar. But the resurrection tells us to have the confidence to let go, not to live in the past as a prisoner to nostalgia, but to live in the promise and hope of gain rather than the fear of loss.
I don’t know how many buses have gone down Shaftesbury Avenue while I’ve been speaking. (Probably none of the environmental protestors have had their way!) And I know there are many people who, just as Thomas did, will continue to say “unless I see for myself the wounds in his hands and the marks of the nails I won’t believe” and be happy to just get on the next 38 to Clapton Ponds as they always do. But the resurrection holds open the possibility of a bus that will take us a bit further, on a route we might not have chosen, might sometimes be bumpy, and with a destination we can’t begin to really imagine. You don’t need me to tell you the name of the driver, but he calls you to trust him, as countless others have over the last two millennia, to let him drive you in this life and, when our time has come, let him take you to the place where he has already gone before us.