While it was still dark – a Sermon for Easter Sunday

Did you see the Epsom Passion play on Friday?

Wasn’t it great?

You probably don’t recognise me without the beard

Certainly a lot of people did not recognise me with it.  I stood on a tube train next to a friend whom I have known well for 15 years and he did not recognise me.  It was quite fun.  Until my wife got back from the US and asked me to remove it as soon as Friday was done.

And somewhat reluctantly I shaved it off – it had served its purpose – to make a corpulent 21st Century Anglo-Saxon corporate financier look a little more like a 1st century Palestinian Jew, indeed the Messiah.

Our vicar, Nick, had said it added gravitas – which clearly I otherwise lack and whatever I may have gained in gravitas – I have now lost.  At any rate life is a little less interesting and a lot less itchy.

But it had served another purpose because it had brought home to me one of the features of John’s account of the resurrection and its focus on Mary Magdalene and her failure to recognise the risen Christ.

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark … Mary Magdalene comes to the tomb.

Perhaps it is because it is dark that Mary does not recognise him?

While it is still dark.

This is the line of scripture which is used to justify the Easter Vigil Holy Saturday

I have never been very sure about this

Saturday seems too early – surely it should be on Sunday morning (‘the first day of the week’)

There is something particularly strange – oddly numinous, dissonant – about a whole day without Christ in the world

But then we had the Maundy Thursday readings at Morning Prayer on Monday

We had the Passion readings including the crucifixion on Palm Sunday

We had a cross put up in church on Maundy Thursday evening

Friday’s Passion play went beyond the events of Good Friday all the way to ‘Thine be the Glory’ and the resurrection in case people are left too upset by the crucifixion, or could not wait for Sunday or perhaps don’t know how the story ends.

And what of these anachronisms – do they matter?

They cause a kind of dissonance that reminds me of the dissonance in music that we learned about in the Second Thoughts evening that Adrian and Paul led.  The dissonance which makes us pay attention and take notice – they inform other events to which they perfectly and imperfectly relate.

Like the dissonance in our stations of the cross – the juxtaposition of childish figures with very grown up suffering.  These figures are childlike but not childish – somewhat in the manner of the dolls which social workers use to help talk to abused children, the doll-like forms reveal real suffering.  They remind us that there are children suffering, somewhere every day.

Not least the suffering of 20 or so children in Syria who, while these stations have stood here, have died an agonising death poisoned with sarin gas.

Like the dissonance between the stations themselves and the much older memorials to much more recent deaths which adorn out walls – it forced me to look at these and read them for the first time.

Like the dissonance between the person who broke into my car parked in the church car park at St Barnabas and the fact that I was inside celebrating the resurrection of our Lord  inside – perhaps this was my punishment for attending an Easter vigil on Holy Saturday and not only that, but in a neighbouring parish!

When Adrian invited us to bring our sins and our prayers to join with the sufferings of Jesus on the cross on good Friday, I was reminded that somewhere in someone’s life it is still dark.

Like the focus which our celebration of a Seder meal put upon the Passover – which we learned has at its heart not looking back to the escape from Egypt but looking forward to a new freedom, a fresh liberation that is needed for each generation

That somewhere in someone’s life right now there is a person like Mary Magdalene, recognising Jesus as her risen saviour for the first time

Somewhere a new Christian – in fact many Christians are being baptised anew, knowing Christ for the first time – somewhere it is Christmas

And for someone somewhere it is a day of suffering and death – it is good Friday.

So in all of these dissonant relationships where is the resolution?

Well it seems to me that for God there is no time, and so the timing is not important – that time does not matter

This is a hidden feature of John’s Gospel – where we have repetition of key themes throughout the Gospel – not least of light and dark – and a repeated deconstruction of the Eucharist between the sayings ‘I am the bread of life’ and I am the bringer of ‘the living water’.  Where things happen oddly and out of time – Cena which prefigures the Eucharist is the first miracle yet there is no bread and wine at the last supper.

When there is no time then what we have to do is to live and act in the present

That we find harmony and resolution by focussing on some of the notes in life and not others.

By appreciating what is good.

This is the practice which we now call mindfulness, but which has been practiced for centuries by Christians in the saying of daily prayers of thanksgiving and, in particular, in the celebration of the festivals and none more so than this great festival of Easter.

We find a sense of meaning not through having a direction, a target in time – but rather through the relationships which we have now – right now – in relation to one another and to God

The importance of this is that it is what we do now which matters – it is the culmination of all of our past and the cause of all of our future.

This is why John does not wait for the sun to rise

The Easter story is that that the light shines while it is still dark  – that the light shines out of the darkness.

Right now

That Jesus is here when we recognise him and when we do not

Right now

And the time for us to proclaim the light of Christ is indeed now, while it is still dark

Right now

Walking down Epsom High Street carrying the cross – I imagined Jesus stumbling through Jerusalem – people shouting insults from the side-lines

Having watched his friends let him down, he must have felt – as I did – terribly alone.

On the cross, as the pain intensified, as he waited in vain for God to save him.  He must have felt even more alone.

But that is because we only see a part of the picture

Had I but looked back I would have seen a thousand people following me

Were Jesus able to look back he would be able to not thousands, nor even millions but billions of people following him

He would have been able to see us here to today following on almost 2,000 years later

We who are about to share this Eucharist this morning – some of us for the first time  – we who in Peter’s words  from Acts ‘were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead.’

We see only unclearly – in Paul’s words – ‘through a glass darkly’  – because it is still dark

But in that darkness a light has shone out and continues to shine and that light is the light of Christ.

We are called to be witnesses to that light – to recognise him – to call him out – to make him known to others as Mary did.

We are also called to follow him every day in the procession – the procession which leads to the cross – to follow him to Calvary, to the tomb and ultimately, in a final resolution of the dissonance which is our lives, to a resolution with the Father of all, our creator.

But today, on this great day,  we are called to follow him who came eating and drinking

To eat and drink in his honour and to celebrate his glorious resurrection.

Amen

Sermon given by Rev’d Christopher Hancock St Martin’s Epsom, 10:00 Eucharist Easter Sunday, 16th April 2017

 

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Come and See – the Glory of God in John

Psalm 86

Jeremiah 31:27-37

John 12:20-33

Those who know the Gospel of John will be familiar with its frequent references to light and dark, to seeing and being blind, to people asking to see Jesus.

These Greeks brought to Jesus by Andrew in Christ’s last days on earth mirror the very first meeting between Jesus and Andrew, who was then a disciple of John the Baptist.

‘Behold the lamb of God’ said the Baptist predicting Christ’s sacrificial death.

‘Come and see’ said Jesus in reply

Now these Greeks say they want to see Jesus

I have been inviting people to come and see, come and see the Epsom Churches together Passion play and I have been getting a variety of reactions

In a world used to special effects does the sight of a slightly portly Anglo-Saxon walking past Macdonald’s and being strapped – not nailed I am assured –  to a piece of wood outside Marks and Spencer become just faintly ridiculous?

Is that not just a bit amusing, a bit silly – what insight can that offer into the divine narrative

Well I have been doing my best to get into the part

I have taken Lent seriously and lost almost a stone.

I have grown a beard – to a variety of views …

Still my family tell me it will be embarrassing

Embarrassing like the decline in numbers in the church – it just doesn’t cut it anymore, doesn’t speak to people the way it perhaps once did

I already have some experience of this – I have carried a cross in a Good Friday walk of witness on Headley Heath

People walking their dogs look at you as if on the loose from a psychiatric institution.  (As if taking an animal for a walk were not also actually a rather bizarre thing to do?)

So why do we do this?

Why do we witness to Christ’s passion in public?

Well certainly we are not at the time that Jeremiah spoke of when ‘no longer will a man need to teach his neighbour to know the Lord’

I think people are a bit uncomfortable about the whole Idea of religion, especially Christian religion.

Which brings people face to face with suffering and shows them that they are responsible for it

This is clearly one of the Gospel messages of the passion – that there is suffering in the world

And that through the incarnation God is in it with us

The ultimate in kenosis is for the immortal to die

Not only that,  but we participate in the killing – ‘Then “Crucify!” is all our breath’ …

It is disturbing – not easy

There are elements of Greek Tragedy

We suffer in watching – are we cleansed by it – does Aristotelian catharsis work in us?

There is something deeply uncomfortable in watching someone be deliberately killed.

It is not and was never meant to be an easy ride to take up your cross and follow me

And how far is this from the glory of God of which Jesus spoken so often?

Now is the son of man glorified and God is glorified in him (Jn 13:31)

This Glory which is a theme through John’s gospel being mentioned over 20 times.

This was also the glory of which Jesus had spoken on the death of Lazarus, the story in the Eucharistic lectionary for today

The story of Lazarus which sets up the story of Calvary, helping us understand it

This sickness will not end in death – no it is for God’s glory – so that Gods son may be glorified through it  (Jn  11:4)

But the first mention of Glory comes earlier, with the first miracle:

Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him. (jn 2:11)

And was set out as John’s purpose at the very beginning of the Gospel

The word was made flesh and dwelt among us and we have seen his glory – the glory as the only begotten of the father (Jn 1)

God’s glory was a theme of the old testament – we had it in our Psalm

All the nations you have made shall come
    and bow down before you, O Lord,
    and shall glorify your name.
For you are great and do wondrous things;
    you alone are God.

So what are we to make of this glory and how to reconcile it to the ridiculousness of the cross which Paul acknowledged:

 Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom,  but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength. (1 Cor 1 22-25)

The message of John is that bad things happen so that God can show his glory, that glory can only come after dishonour

Sometimes you have to go down in order to come up

We had a graphic depiction of this at the St Martin’s school end of term service here on Friday

It began with five candles alight on the altar – each representing one of the key events of Holy Week.

Five candles for Palm Sunday with its hope of triumph

Then one was extinguished leaving four candles – I resisted the temptation to make any Ronnie Barker jokes – this was a representation of  the four cups of the Seder meal which begins Passover

Then three candles – for the prayers in Gethsemane – the three central characters – Jesus with Peter and Judas – the best friends who let him down

Two candles for the trial before Pilate – a chance to plead innocence and escape – a chance not taken

The final candle – a red one for crucifixion on Calvary

And we then we relit them all – for Easter Sunday – five candles – a light divided but undimmed[i]

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. (Jn 12:24)

A dramatic and challenging idea – but an idea that we have no problem telling in literature

In the story of Aslan in Narnia

In the sacrifice of Harry Potter’s parents

As Obi Wan says in Star Wars:  ‘You can’t win, Vader. If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.’

Even in Game of Thrones we hear that ‘what is dead can never die’ – that death is a prerequisite for immortality

That is what we believe in as Christians – in God’s incarnation as a human being and its corollary that he suffers with us

In an immortality – in a glory – that comes through suffering, through self-sacrifice even to the point of death

That is why we should invite people to come and see the Epsom Passion Play

Since a part of the glory of God is in his suffering with us

When I am lifted up I will draw all men to myself (Jn 12:32)

We behold his glory on the cross – here above us

A stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles

And so we who have beheld his glory say to others – ‘Come and see!’

 

Sermon given by Christopher Hancock at St Martin’s Epsom on Sunday 2nd April, 2017.

[i] From the Exsultet