Alleluia! Christ is Risen! The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia! Christ has broken the chains of sin and death and emerges victorious from the tomb! Alleluia! We are celebrating the greatest day of the year: the day of resurrection, when, like the Israelites in Egypt released to begin their journey to the Promised Land, we are set free from the tyranny of sin and death to walk with Christ in the light of resurrection life. This is the happiest day of the year. And yet, and yet…why do I not feel the usual sense of joy and exhilaration today? I think we all know the answer. I look out on the empty church and there is the answer. Has there ever been an Easter morning at St Barnabas like this?
It’s natural for us to look back to Easters’ past and remember. I wasn’t at St Barnabas last year, but I do remember the first Easter I celebrated as a priest: it was in the chapel at Ford prison in Sussex, England. I was there, I hasten to add, not as an inmate, but as an assistant chaplain. The reader of our lessons however – another priest – was an inmate. At Easter in the chapel at Ford prison, I remember telling the story of Jesus’ Passion, of how Jesus was arrested and tried and found guilty, and then I looked out at my congregation and then it hit me that Jesus is one of them – a fellow offender. It seemed at the time as though Jesus were more intensely present in that chapel than in the country church where I also served.
Easter celebrations that are out of the ordinary have something to teach us. Take today for example. There’s not a lot of people here to celebrate with, but when you think about it, that is closer to Jesus’ actual resurrection day. According the gospel reading this morning, one person – Mary Magdalene – went to the tomb and found it empty. It was the same Mary who saw the risen Christ: she was the first person to do so, and the only one at that time. Then the strangest thing: we hear that at first she didn’t recognize Jesus. It was only when he called her name, “Mary”, that she recognized him.
I think today, with most of us at home on the most important day in the Church Calendar, there is an opportunity for us to receive the resurrection in a more intimate, and more personal way, like it was for Mary Magdalene. So my question to you is, what will be the experience of resurrection like for today, away from the church? Your answer may reveal to you more than you want to know, especially if it is this, “I don’t feel any different at all.” So, with all that has happened to us recently, let’s take a little time to recall what resurrection means.
First, resurrection is an event in human history – Jesus was raised from the dead nearly 2,000 years ago. This was not simply an old dead body coming back to life. Jesus was raised to new life, and the risen Jesus was not immediately recognizable as the old Jesus. He had changed. One of the mysteries of the resurrection is, how has he changed? The gospels do not say how – the only thing we know about the physical appearance of the risen Lord is that he carries the wounds of crucifixion on his body. These wounds are a perpetual witness to our failure as human beings to treat him with justice or mercy. But, at the same time, they are a reminder that Jesus is still one of us – our wounded offender returns to heal us, as he did before, with love.
Second, by being resurrected to new life, Jesus is present to all his beloved people through time and in every place. Well, that was God before the incarnation and that is God after the incarnation, but the difference is that God, having become human, understands us in every respect, and in his human life gives us an example of holy and right living.
So we are called to share in his resurrection life. What does that mean? It has a different meaning for each person. Obviously, at the moment, because we are in lockdown, it feels like we are still in the tomb – we long to break free and walk out into that clear air and light of his resurrection. I know of another priest who has told his congregation that Easter will be delayed until they assemble again in church. That will be interesting if he has to wait until Advent! Although it sounds a crazy idea, there is some logic to it – with being in lockdown, we aren’t particularly feeling like a resurrection people. It feels like Easter is happening somewhere else, but not in our own lives.
So here’s the answer: be open to a more personal resurrection, like that experienced by Mary Magdalene. Speak to Jesus and hear his voice; Jesus will call your name because your name is precious to him; you are precious to him. Make this year’s Easter more personal than it has ever been before.
I would go so far as to say that the only way to understand resurrection is to have personal experience of it. I don’t mean that you have to die. I mean that you have to experience new life and let the old life pass. Think of resurrection not as a grand event on a cosmic scale, which it is, but as something happening in your life which changes you from being one person to another. To illustrate what I mean, I want to share with you a couple of examples from real life. These are friends of mine who have had an experience of resurrection. I have changed their names but not their stories.
The first example is Adam. He had a job which paid well, and he lived a relatively comfortable life. However, Adam had a taste for wine and women, and his budget didn’t quite match his spending, so he took money from work, as and when needed, each time a little more. Then one day, the police showed up at work and Adam was arrested for embezzlement. He was found guilty and sent to prison for three years. When he came out, he had nothing: he had lost his job, his marriage, his home, and his reputation. He was saved because he knew that, even though he got what he deserved, God never stopped loving him. The Rector at church gave him a job in the church office. Adam joined the AA and then became an excellent mentor to others. He found a new circle of friends at church. His life was very different than before – much more humble, not so many girlfriends – but now it had a depth to it which was missing before. Adam had experienced a resurrection.
My second example is Cathy, who was a regular at church. She and her husband used to worship in the evangelical wing of the church, with its emphasis on Scripture and music and hour-long sermons, all of which should have left her feeling on a spiritual high. And it did; however, she always felt there was more to a life of faith that this type of worship could provide. Cathy was drawn to the contemplative, spiritual life, although at the time she didn’t know it. It was only when she and her husband began to attend a weekly prayer and study group that she discovered that God was calling her to a different kind of life – one where she had to learn to let go of her pre-conceived ideas of God and find a new experience of God in meditation and silent prayer. She became that most valuable of persons – a lover of God. Her growing closeness to God made her prayer more alive and deeper than before. In her life, she too had experienced a resurrection.
Jesus spoke of resurrection in this way: “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” (John 12:24) Jesus was speaking of his own death. The tree which bears much fruit is the cross. Our personal resurrection begins when we let go of what is dying in us, and find new life and meaning in Christ who calls us by name. Our new life grows as fruit of the resurrection, at least for now. We will have another resurrection when we die, but resurrection life is a present reality, because Jesus, by rising from the dead, is a present reality.
After seeing Jesus alive, Mary Magdalene went and told the other disciples. Her personal experience of resurrection confirmed in her heart what she knew all along. That Jesus is alive, and so are we – alive, to glorify God, in his wonderful life of resurrection.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.