Sermon preached on the First Sunday after Easter (15 April) by Prof Peter McCullough, Lay Canon

Today at the Cathedral View More
7:30am Morning Prayer
8:00am Eucharist
8:30am Doors open for sightseeing
12:30pm Eucharist
4:00pm Last entry for sightseeing
5:00pm Choral Evensong

Sermon preached on the First Sunday after Easter (15 April) by Prof Peter McCullough, Lay Canon

Professor Peter McCullough, Lay Canon, looks at 'Low Sunday', and why we should 'savour' the Easter peace in the weeks following all the drama of Holy Week.

Depending on which tradition of the Christian church you happen to find yourself in, today is the 'Second Sunday within Eastertide', or the 'First Sunday after Easter', or, more poetically, 'Divine Mercy Sunday', or, more prosaically, 'Low Sunday', or, very technically, the end of the Octave of Easter – all of which are the same thing.(To confuse matters even further, if you are an Eastern Orthodox Christian, today is Easter itself – which is of course not the same thing, but beyond my scope and probably your patience for me to explain).

But regardless of what title we in the Western Church might give to this Sunday after Easter, what we shouldn't do is think of it as an anti-climax (and how could we, after that 'Easter Anthem'?). Today may be a 'Low Sunday' in comparison to all the drama of a week ago, but perhaps precisely because of that we should savour it all the more. Certainly for the clergy, choirs, and laity who labour so hard to mark last week's feast day with fitting, and usually multiple, Easter celebrations, it may only be today when they find anything like the joy of Easter peace.

For all those who have travelled the Way of the Cross in the liturgies of Holy Week, these weeks of Eastertide are an invaluable chance to scrutinise, to test, those mysteries in a way less crowded with emotions which, though genuine, can cloud rather than clarify. And most urgently, it is now that the work begun by the women at the tomb begins again for all: to carry the angels' message, "He is not here, but has risen." 

Here at St Paul's in Shakespeare's day, this Sunday after Easter was just such a time of retrospection, stock-taking, and consolidation of Holy Week and Easter – if in a form that we could hardly imagine. For far more popular than play-going as a past-time in the London of the sixteenth and seventeenth century was, in fact, sermon-going, particularly at the great outdoor pulpits here in St Paul's Churchyard and at St Mary's Hospital – then in fields outside the City walls, and now somewhere under Liverpool Street Station.

On Good Friday, and Easter Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, Renaissance Londoners in their thousands would throng around those outdoor pulpits - like modern fans filling stadiums for cup quarter-finals - to hear star preachers expound Christ's Passion and Resurrection in orations which lasted about as long as a match, or, for that matter, a Shakespeare play – two hours. And then Low Sunday was the final, when a particularly skilled preacher was appointed to come to Paul's Cross to preach what was called the 'Rehearsal Sermon', that is, a whole new sermon which 'rehearsed', or recapitulated, the first four sermons in the series, while at the same time weaving them into his own summary exposition of the salvation story – giving the punters, as one contemporary put it, five whole sermons in one!

The footprint of the old preaching cross at St Paul's is marked in paving stone in the gardens just outside the north doors, and it may be an open question whether it will ever again find the audience, much less the preachers, to revive an outdoor Easter sermon series. But tonight's second lesson, St Luke's account of the empty tomb, is in itself a powerful 'rehearsal' or recapitulation of the Easter message – sharp, condensed, dramatic, pointed – perhaps more like an unsettling modern poem than a florid, baroque sermon – and as such, is something which speaks directly to an age which too often confuses faith with reason, and to a Church sometimes seemingly reluctant to claim the full prophetic inheritance so vividly realised in the first witnesses who carried the Good News that 'He is not here, but has risen.'

Emphatically in Luke are those first witnesses to the Resurrection named: 'Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles'. Apostolae apostolorum. Apostles to the apostles indeed. And if Apostles, then surely deacons, priests and bishops?

But why were they privileged to be ‘apostles to the apostles’? Not out of ambition, or for the sake of joining an exclusive men's club. Nor, for that matter, were they winning any prizes for their belief in the promises which Christ had made so clearly to them – turning up to anoint a dead saviour was hardly evidence that they believed what he had said very clearly about becoming a risen one on that very day. Belief per se – being able to assent to an article of faith, or assert an article of a Creed, was neither the women’s motive nor their claim. If they believed anything in a factual, rational sense, on the evidence of their actions it was no more than what the rest of the population of Jerusalem believed: that the man who had called himself King of the Jews had been executed and buried. In coming to that tomb, something else was their motive, something superior, indeed something anterior to being able to quote chapter and verse of prophecy or affirm articles of belief – it was simply, that they loved.

As the very earliest Christian writers recognised, it was for their love that the women were deemed worthy of the vision of the angels, worthy to be the first witnesses of the resurrection, and worthy to carry that good news to, we might say, the other Apostles. In English, the word ‘love’ is of course capaciously vague. In their visiting the tomb, the women exemplified so many of the constituent virtues that are Love: by attending the tomb of one they loved, they showed the companionate amorthat is the love - stronger than death – the love that cannot be buried in a grave; by bringing ointments and spices which were superfluous to any real need they showed the bounty that is charity, the love that does not stop to count costs, the love that others woulddismiss as pointless waste;by rising so early and proceeding with such hastethe women showed how loving properly means being urgently attentive, assiduous, and why one of the many Latin words for love gives us the word ‘diligence’; and in their rushing ahead with their whole enterprise, in spite of that stone which they knew they could not move, they showed zeal, the true love that does not admit impediments.

All of these loves the women showed before they found the tomb empty, before the angels gave them the good news, before those same angels then tactfully reminded them of the promises that they had so soon forgotten. So, in some ways the women were misguided, but does that mean that they were wrong? No. Because they manifested belief in its superior antecedent form, which, as St Paul famously put it, is not faith, nor hope, but love. Love keeps things alive, and in this sense before even arriving at the tomb the women were already the first witnesses to the resurrection love of Christ. As one seventeenth-century preacher said of them: ‘though He be dead; to their love, He liveth still.’ Even when their faith in his promises had failed by thinking Him dead, their love anticipated the Resurrection by keeping him alive in their hearts.

There are comforting lessons here for all of us, then, who wrestle with the challenges of faith and belief. One is to act on and act out of love first, to know that believing starts with seeking and loving diligently like these Gospel women, and learning as they did that belief and faith flow from and follow love – not vice versa.

And there is also a lesson even in the dubious response of those eleven male apostles to the women’s news, which, Luke writes,‘seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.’ Only Peter has love, or faith, or hope, or perhaps only curiosity enough, to dash out and see for himself; but even that amount of spontaneous initiative, that burst of fervent seeking, is rewarded: ‘stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves’. But even then, all he can then manage is to stumble home,‘amazed at what had happened.’

For the others, even glimmers of understanding of the rationally unbelievable miracle of the Resurrection haveto wait longer still;– for hearts to burn with the expounding of Scripture on the road to Emmaus; for recognition and revelation there in the breaking of the bread; even for the incredulous thrust of a finger into the wounded Christs’s side. Belief, faith, trust, comes incrementally, in different forms, to different extents at different times, but must always be rooted in the encounter of loving, or being love, by an other. And like Peter, we should be amazed by it, wonder at it, be humbled by it – celebrate that love that is beyond human understanding – by loving one another as Christ love us, giving ourselves to Him, to others in Him, a living sacrifice to God. And in the joy of that creating love, can we make our Easter acclamation:

Allelujah, Christ is Risen.
He is Risen indeed, Allelujah.

But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb taking the spices that they had prepared. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they did not find the body. while they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, "Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again."

Then they remembered his words, and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened.