Bishop Nigel’s Easter Address at Arbroath
Easter Day Arbroath 2015
What do you say to the families of the German airliner which crashed recently in the French Alps, to the families of those holiday travellers on board, to the families of the schoolchildren, to those emergency workers who battled the elements to retrieve bodies and wreckage? And, above all, what do you say to the family of the Co-Pilot, who, it disturbingly turned out, deliberately flew the aeroplane to its destruction?
It sometimes takes a shocking moment, a shipwreck in our lives, to shake us out of our secure categories to realise that things are not as we assumed. The Easter Story tells of such a catastrophe with enduring consequences. The unfolding story had everything: heroism and human failings, courage and cowardice, horror and hubris. Proud leaders anticipated triumphant headlines. But the unthinkable happened: Jesus was killed. The catastrophe of Calvary.
Fearful friends fled. Women wept. The disciples didn’t really understand what was happening to Jesus. By the dawning of the first day of the week a loss of hope and meaning and a profound sense of the absence of God hang over the followers of Jesus. An emptiness.
At first, all that the disciples see is an empty tomb. Mary Magdalene assumes that the body has been taken away. In Marks’s gospel the women run away and do not tell anyone. In Luke’s gospel the disciples make their way to Emmaus, convinced that Jesus had failed. Matthew manages to encompass lightening and earthquakes and fear and joy and confusion. In John’s account ‘They saw and believed, but as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead, and the disciples returned home.’
The surprising last word of Mark’s gospel account of Easter morning is ‘afraid.’ Stark and thin, even good news can leave us fearful. Despite reassurances, questions remain. The resurrection and its meaning are difficult for Jesus’ friends to grasp. But what were they looking for, hoping to find?
The disciples cannot recognise Jesus because they misunderstood what it meant for him to be the Messiah. They still thought of him as a warrior who would liberate Israel from the Romans. They had half-grasped that he was the chosen one of God but could not reconcile that with an ignominious death upon the cross. People are not just recognising Jesus as the man they knew was killed. They are recognising him as the man they sort of knew and thought they knew, but didn’t really know until now.
The resurrection does not just happen. Rather it is ‘revealed.’ It uncovers a new way of seeing the world in which death and hatred are defeated. It shows up all the ways in which we collude in seeking victims and loading on them our fears and hatreds. It invites us to cleanse our eyes of rivalry and complacency, so that we may recognise not only Jesus but each other and ourselves for the first time.
This is not some mental rationalisation after the event. The tomb is truly empty and Mary, Peter, John and the others did encounter Jesus arisen from the dead. But this is more than just meeting a man who was dead and now lives. It is finding oneself in a new world, in which death’s power is broken.
So the encounter with the risen Lord begins, paradoxically, with absence. For the early Church this was a struggle, their world turned upside down, yet Jesus gone. The Church endured persecution - the apostles Peter, a witness of Jesus life, death, and resurrection and Paul were martyred - but where was Jesus? So after the initial excitement of Easter and Pentecost the Church experienced a sense of anti-climax, of void and emptiness.
We see in the Gospels signs of the Church’s struggle to make sense of this absence, above all in the disciples’ initial inability to recognise Jesus.
This speaks to our situation too, living in a society in which God seems sometimes to have gone missing Secularism haunts us with an apparent absence of God. Christians are challenged by those who want an arid correctness that eliminates religion from public life.
And yet faith won’t go away. The Archbishop of Canterbury confidently sound-bites, the Pope exudes human warmth and even politicians – a the run up to the most uncertain General Election for decades - are careful to do faith again. The media remains critically curious about the beliefs and behaviour of the Church. Newspapers regularly applaud the voluntary contribution that Christian service makes to local communities.
It seems that the hunger for personal spirituality and the public expression of religious instincts have not quite deserted society. In the 21st century, Britain has blossomed into ‘a Christendom of faiths’ in which Christianity enriches public affairs - as well as providing solace and meaning to its followers and fresh insights into the mysteries of the human condition. Maybe the Church still has a unique selling point: the transformation of people’s lives.
The story of Mary Magdalene and angels and a gardener whom she cannot recognise evokes the absent presence of Jesus. The empty tomb with angels guarding the empty space, reminds us of the Ark of the Covenant in the Temple, and is transformed into the holy space for God’s presence.
Jesus’ death was no suicide, yet throughout history we have struggled to understand why God and his son Jesus colluded in such a terrible sacrifice. Why did it have to happen this way?
St Paul tackled the scandal of the Cross head on: in Christ death is destroyed and our burial in baptism enables us to walk with newness of life. The body cannot be there because the place is now the throne of God. In our Liturgy we speak of ‘Christ, raised from the dead, proclaiming the dawn of hope, filling emptiness with life.’
Mary fears emptiness and wants to make sure that Jesus does not go away again. Like Mary Magdalene we are desperate to cling to Jesus. Like lovers saying farewell at the airport who do not want to be apart. But she must lose him if she is to keep him. He must be absent if he is to be more present still.
Mary Magdalene, afterwards doubting Thomas each struggle with the absence of Jesus’ body. Mary because the tomb is empty. Thomas because he was not there when Jesus appeared to the other disciples. They are like us - querying, searching people. They misunderstand the nature of his apparent absence and weep and argue. This is part of their journey of faith.
They too foreshadow our awakening. ‘Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believed.’ We live with the apparent absence of Jesus’ body. We have no apparitions, no empty tombs nor clothes mysteriously wrapped up in bundles. However, our doubts are not signs that we are ‘bad Christians.’ The resurrection story is for those who struggle with emptiness, loss and regret and anxiety - the fearful moments when we feel out of our depth. Which is all of us at some time during our lives.
The resurrection story is about recognising light, hope and eternity in our faith in God. Whose Son defeated the darkness of death in a daybreak awakening, that we might receive life in all its fullness. Even R S Thomas, the quintessential poet of the hidden God appreciated this when he wrote:
Not the empty tomb
but the uninhabited
cross. Look long enough
and you will see the arms
put on leaves. Not a crown
of thorns, but a crown of flowers
haloing it, with a bird singing
as though perched on paradise’s threshold.
[from ‘Crucifixion’ Counterpoint 1990]
May I wish you a happy and most blessed Easter.
Rt Revd Dr Nigel Peyton Bishop of Brechin