Sermon preached on Easter Day (27 March 2016) at the Eucharist by the Very Revd David Ison, Dean

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Sermon preached on Easter Day (27 March 2016) at the Eucharist by the Very Revd David Ison, Dean

What’s been your experience in one way or another of having your own world changed for ever? The Dean asks.

It may come through a birth or a death; the failure of a relationship or a heart attack; a breakdown or a diagnosis or conversion to or from religion.  We know what it means to have life-changing news and experiences, and we know we need to respond by changing the way we live, whether it’s moving on, changing our habits, taking on commitments or letting them go, or facing our own mortality. 

But what we know as individuals through sometimes joyous and sometimes bitter experience, we find harder to do as a collective, as a community or a nation or a world. We don’t like change; and together we resist change rather more strongly than on our own. Sometimes it’s because we don’t know what to do – whether that’s voting about the European Community or responding to climate change.

Sometimes it’s because we disagree about the facts – and that’s often because we don’t want to hear the uncomfortable reality that demands that we change: it’s easier not know what life is like for asylum seekers or for disabled people or for people who are gay or black or living in poverty.  

Here in this great cathedral on Easter Sunday we proclaim the message of the resurrection. Christ is risen, and the world is changed. But has it changed our own world, yours and mine? And has it changed our collective world? Do we see it as the life-changing event it is, or do we prefer to ignore it? 

Let’s look at today’s Gospel reading [John 20.1-19]. I want to look aa few things which John doesn’t tell us. The first is that Mary Magdalene wasn’t alone: the other gospels tell us that, and Mary herself uses the word ‘we’ when she speaks to Peter and the other disciple. John concentrates on Mary alone and her experience, in a very human way, contrasting it with the experience of the beloved disciple who comes and sees and believes, because the grave clothes are tidy and undisturbed: the tomb hasn’t been robbed or desecrated. And so he goes home again with Peter –two male witnesses to the empty tomb as required by Jewish law. 

But doesn’t that strike you as odd?

Here’s a momentous event which has turned the disciples’ experience upside down – and they go home?! Why? John doesn’t tell us. Luke’s gospel says that the women go to the eleven disciples to tell them the tomb is empty and that angels have spoken to them, and the disciples don’t believe their story. Maybe as Luke’s gospel suggests, Peter and the beloved disciple have a change of heart and come to the tomb with Mary and go back wondering if it could be true: hardly daring to believe, they go home.

If they’d really believed at that point, wouldn’t they have spoken with Mary, stayed with her, comforted her? Run to gather the rest of the disciples to see this? But they leave this distraught woman as they left the Lord in his trials.  And perhaps for a similar reason. 

In his commentary on St John’s Gospel, Cyril the Archbishop of Alexandria in the early 400s, much nearer to the events and culture than we are, explains the action of the disciples in going home as being for self-preservation. They were wise, he emphasises, no doubt going to consult their fellow-workers about what to do next, because they were in hiding for fear of what the authorities would do to them if they were caught – hence they go to the tomb before it’s daylight and they can be recognised.  

Cyril realises that he must deny that this was unmanly cowardice, and instead calls it wise and expedient; but he gives away the point by saying the disciples had to wait for the gift of the Holy Spirit to change them into fearless and bold witnesses to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus – which is true both in John and in Acts.  

What neither Cyril nor John say is that we learn from the other gospels that none of the disciples, not even the beloved one, really understood what the resurrection was or meant until they’d met with the risen Jesus. Which is why Mary is the focus of the story. The beloved disciple has resurrection faith in his head but not yet in his life; Mary has love and longing and loss in her heart, wondering where Jesus’ body had gone. She wept abundantly, says Cyril, after the manner of women, and ‘like all womankind she is slow of understanding’. Cyril interprets according to his own classical view that men are rational and sensible, just needing a bit of evidence to change their minds, and women are untaught and ignorant – though of course the men had kept them like that.  

But even Cyril of Alexandria has to admit that it was Mary’s love and desire to follow Jesus that was rewarded by her encounter with the risen Jesus on that first Easter morning. It was the faithful woman who stayed behind, who acted on her distress and wept her heart out for love of him, who was the first to meet Jesus, the first to touch him, the first to learn that Jesus was to be loved and followed now in a different way, and the first to be sent by Jesus to proclaim the good news of the resurrection. 

Nearly 2,000 years later, here we are

... itself a testimony to the truth of the resurrection, in a world which has been changed by that first encounter of the risen Jesus with Mary Magdalene. A world which would on the whole rather not know about the resurrection, an event which turns upside down our understanding of God and the world is;  and a Church which has sometimes found resurrection faith too radical to deal with.   

‘My Lord and my God’ says an astonished Thomas to the risen Jesus seven days after the resurrection: the risen Jesus who treats women as friends, who loves all equally whether slaves or foreigners, Christian or Jew, pagans, patriots ortraitors; the risen Jesus who shows us that God would rather suffer out of love for us than condemn us for our sins and walk away; the risen Jesus so often denied or ignored over the last 2,000 years because his reality doesn’t fit with our male-dominated, violent, power-obsessed and self-interested world, and our male or female desire to live our life the way we want to.  

After 2,000 years, other faiths and none, even the Abrahamic faiths which accept a resurrection of the dead, deny the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  A world looking to science for salvation can’t get its head round a one-off, scientifically unprovable historical event like this.  And a world which lives in its head not its heart will like Peter and the beloved disciple come and look and go home and not be changed. 

Has our world been changed by the resurrection? Do we want to be.....?  

Come to the tomb, and see it empty:  love, weep, open your heart to the risen Jesus: come to the table of the risen Christ with open hands to match his own, to touch his body and be touched by his love:  come, in the name of the risen Jesus, to open our hearts to the Holy Spirit, to burn within us and make us bold to follow in the footsteps of Mary Magdalene and proclaim to the world:  ‘I have seen the Lord.’