Here is the sermon from Easter Evensong.
Introduction – Holy Week
Like churches around the world and as we do each year in the Itchen Valley, we have spent the past week hearing, re-enacting and participating in the story of Jesus’ Passion: last Sunday we walked behind the donkey and waved our palms as we remembered Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem and how the crowds welcomed him with cries of ‘Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!’ (Luke 19.38)
At Compline we sat in St Swithun’s and heard some of Jesus’ teaching to his disciples and had time to ponder his message. On Thursday we washed each others’ feet (or in our case hands) and shared the bread and wine together as we followed his command to ‘do this in remembrance of me’. On Friday we followed the Way of the Cross and experienced something of Christ’s journey to Golgotha as the cries of the crowd turned from ‘Hosanna’ to ‘Crucify him!’ Later we sat at the foot of the cross for the Last Hour and meditated on the enormity of what Christ did for us.
Then yesterday we paused…Holy Saturday is that day when nothing appears to happen…when life seems to return to normal. For those who loved Jesus it was a day of hopes dashed…of doubt and despair…of fear and darkness.
But then eventually Saturday ends and the new day dawns…’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.’ (Luke 24.1-3) The women who had seen the tomb and how Jesus’ body was laid there on Friday, returned on Sunday once they had observed their Sabbath rest. They came in order to anoint Jesus’ dead body with the spices they had prepared. Rather than finding the body of their Lord, they discovered an empty tomb and angels telling them that Jesus had risen from the dead just as he had told them he would.
Telling the story: why does it matter?
The events which we have been recalling and reflecting on are at the heart of our faith. The story they tell was of course famously dubbed by Hollywood – for once with no exaggeration – as ‘the greatest story ever told’, They tell the story of the enormity of God’s love for the world and how he redeemed all his creation
It is important that we tell this story because we need to know it; we need to grow in understanding of it; we need to let ourselves be transformed by it.
So today we gather to celebrate the triumphant ending of the Holy Week story, to remember that Jesus conquered death and rose from the dead. This is not the final end of the story of course…there is still Jesus’ Ascension and the coming of Holy Spirit on Pentecost and indeed the day when Jesus will come again to look forward to, but the events of Easter Sunday do transform how we look at the events of Holy Week.
The week began with Palm Sunday when the crowd welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem as their long awaited King but then it all seemed to go wrong. The crowd that had shouted ‘hosanna’, cried ‘crucify him’. The King of the Jews was executed with common criminals. The Messiah was placed in a borrowed tomb.
Yet three days later the tomb is empty and we gather to celebrate because the empty tomb is the evidence we need that Jesus is indeed who he said he is: he is the king and the saviour of the world. As the angels say to the women when they arrive at the tomb: ‘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.’(Luke 24.6-7). If his death on the cross was the end then he would have been just another rabbi, another misguided or deluded man claiming to be the Messiah. However death is not the end as Jesus has defeated the last enemy, death (1 Cor 15.26). The resurrection not only means that we too can be made alive in Christ (1 Cor 15.22) but gives us the confidence we need to follow Christ and believe in him. We can be confident that the Resurrection happened because of all the witnesses we read about. Not only the women and then the apostles, but later hundreds of other followers, many of whom went on to die because of their belief in the Risen Lord. There was also the evidence of the grave cloths which Peter saw by themselves in the tomb (Luke 24.12). This is significant: grave robbers tended not to bother unwrapping the body they were stealing let alone carefully folding the cloth that covered the corpse’s head. So if thieves were to blame for the disappearance, the linen wrappings would probably have be missing too. The position of the grave clothes also tell us that Jesus had not just come back to life. When Lazarus was raised from the dead he emerged from the tomb still wrapped in his grave clothes and had to be helped out. No, the grave clothes look like as though the body has just evaporated…they have collapsed like a hot air balloon…for Jesus has gone through death to new life beyond. He has not been resuscitated as Lazarus was but resurrected….he is not a figment of their imagination…a ghost or spirit…but someone who not only walks and talks, but can be touched…he breaks bread…he eats and drinks.
So Easter Sunday tells us that Jesus is who he claimed to be and assures us that the cross was not an accident but part of God’s plan for the salvation of the world. The Jews had expected their Messiah to ride into Jerusalem as a military conqueror, overthrowing their imperial oppressors and establishing his rule over an earthly Israel. In fact their king rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, he preached a message of Good News for all people, and came to establish his eternal kingdom. The empty tomb is proof that he accomplished this. It is evidence that the cross represents a victory and not a defeat.
As he hung on the cross on Good Friday, Jesus revealed the enormity of his love…of God’s love…for the world. He also demonstrated what real love looks like…real love is not about desire or happiness or self-fulfilment though it may include all these…real love does not look like the films where two people love each other as long as it makes them feel good, as long as they gain something from the relationship…this is a poor and selfish imitation of love. Real love involves commitment and service and selflessness. Real love involves putting others first. The old advertisement use to say ‘do you love someone enough to give them your last Rolo?’…although it is a trivial thing, there is an element of Gospel truth in this strapline…real love involves sacrifice and being prepared to give everything for the other person. Real love looks like a cross.
On Maundy Thursday, Jesus gave his disciples another demonstration of what real love looks like when he willingly undertook the task of a slave and washed their feet. Having served his disciples in this sacrificial way, he says to them: ‘You call me Teacher and Lord – and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.’ (John 13.13-14). He then commands them that once he has gone back to his Father in heaven they should ‘love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’ (John 13.34-35). The events of Holy Week remind us how we are called to respond to our Risen Lord. We are to love him and love one another. We do this by serving him and serving one another.
So as we gather to celebrate our Risen Lord, we return to where we began on Palm Sunday. We gather again to praise God and proclaim ‘blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord’. Only, because we have passed through the events of Holy Week, we hopefully have a richer understanding of who our king is and what he is calling us to do. We bow at the feet of our Servant King and hear his challenge to do as he did and love one another and we do so with confidence because the tomb is empty, because he has Risen. Hallelujah!
Revd Rebecca Fardell