A Sermon by The Rev’d Canon Jenny Wilson
In the name of God, creating, redeeming, sanctifying, … Amen.
Rowan Williams, in the book, “Candles in the Dark”, we have reflected on in our Cathedral community during Lent, wrote the following about Easter:
“One of the things that Easter declares is that our world of time and change has been transformed by the event of Jesus’ resurrection. When we say that Jesus is risen, we mean that there is no sense in which he belongs to the past; his life is never over. When we celebrate the Eucharist, we don’t put flowers on a memorial slab; we meet a living and active presence. And if his life is not over in time, neither is it confined in space. The Easter stories in the New Testament suggest that, again and again, the disciples are startled to meet Jesus, he turns up in unexpected places.”
… again and again, the disciples are startled to meet Jesus, he turns up in unexpected places.
And so this evening, on the Second Sunday of Easter, I thought we would wonder a little about the startled-ness of those disciples … and whether there are times when we might be startled, startled by Jesus’ presence, God’s presence too.
Our New Testament reading is from the first verses of the 24th Chapter of the Gospel according to St Luke. This passage is Luke’s version of the story of the empty tomb. Knowing how the story goes, it is difficult for us to put ourselves in the places of the women coming to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body with spices and ointments. They were expecting a closed tomb, they were expecting a body laid there. They were expecting tears and a final farewell to this one who had given life to them, hope to them. They were expecting death.
They find the stone rolled away from the tomb, and when they go in, they do not find the body. While they are perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stand beside them. The women are 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.
They are startled. It is not that they understand, do you see, this is not about understanding. It is about new sight. It is about not seeing what they were certain they would see. A body, a death. And seeing, hearing, about life. The women go and tell the eleven apostles. Only Peter responds to the women. In Luke’s version of the story. Peter gets up and runs to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he sees the linen cloths by themselves; then he goes home, amazed at what had happened. Startled, too. Peter too does not understand anything. The world is changed.
Rowan Williams says that our world of time and change has been transformed by the event of Jesus’ resurrection. The women, Peter, the disciples, could not have articulated that. Certainly not that day. Perhaps never. But they were transformed. They were startled. In the snippets of stories that we read in the four gospel accounts we see Jesus meeting the disciples in different places, meeting their different needs – fear, doubt, guilt – every time transforming them.
The Old Testament has its startling stories too. This evening’s Old Testament reading from the book of the prophet Ezekiel tells the story of the dry bones. Ezekiel tells the story:
The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all round them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, ‘Mortal, can these bones live?’ I answered, ‘O Lord God, you know.’ Then he said to me, ‘Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.’
As the prophecy was told, the bones came together, and then the sinews and then the flesh. But there was no breath until the prophet prophesied again and then the breath came. And the bones lived. The dry dead bones came to life. And the point of it, as it related to the life of the people Israel. The point of it was that they came back to life yes, but the point of it … that they knew … that the Lord, the presence of the Lord in this giving of breath, this bringing to life. Where breath is given, where life is restored, it is the work of the Lord.
And when we look on, startled, when we listen wondering, almost in disbelief, at such a prophecy, we might allow ourselves to wonder, to be startled, to know the presence of the Lord. As the women did, as Peter did. Not trying to understand. Just knowing that they were in the presence of the Lord, that only God, the one Jesus called Father, could have done this.
So what of us? How might we be startled by the resurrection, this year, this Easter?
Our psalm, Psalm 115, helps us know what gets in the way, what gets in the way of being touched by the resurrection. The psalm speaks of idols, the idols of those who do not worship God. And it speaks with such insight.
Wherefore shall the heathen say
Where is now their God?
… Their idols are silver and gold
even the work of men’s hands.
They have mouths, and speak not
eyes have they, and see not.
They have ears, and hear not
noses have they, and smell not.
They have hands, and handle not; feet have they, and walk not
neither speak they through their throat.
They that make them are like unto them
and so are all such as put their trust in them.
It’s not only the heathen who worship idols, we all have a go at that at times. We all have things that we put in the place of God, when God gets too difficult, seems too far away. When we are baffled, puzzled, startled, lonely for God perhaps.
But listen to what the psalm says of those who worship idols – the idols that have mouths that speak not, eyes that see not, ears that hear not … it says those who put their trust in idols are like those idols with mouths and eyes and ears that do not function, that neither speak, nor see, nor hear.
In the presence of resurrection truth, it is so easy to turn away. The psalm is hinting to us that we need to use all our senses if you like. To see, to hear … to allow the resurrection stories to niggle away at us, to ponder them. For it may be that it is when we are walking on the beach that something of the stories will cause us to wonder. We may see them hear them in a new light. It may be that, when we are listening to the choir sing, that the beauty of the music helps the newness of resurrection reach us. It may be that when we are struck by the kindness, an unexpected kindness, of another human being, that this kindness somehow has new life woven into it. Resurrection has many guises. The key is to allow it. Not to sit with our old idols, the things that seem easy to worship, with the unseeing eyes and the unhearing ears. But to allow the mystery of the resurrection stories to reach us. To allow a sense of the risen Jesus to encounter us. To find ourselves startled, as we meet Jesus turning up in unexpected places, as Rowan Williams said.