Sermon given at Sung Eucharist on Easter Day 2013
31 March 2013 at 10:00 am
The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster
The little band of Jesus’ followers had no idea what was going on. A raggedy little band: just twelve men and a handful of women. Everyone else had deserted Jesus. The great crowds who had shouted Hosanna as he rode into Jerusalem: they had no idea what was going on either. Later, their cries turned to Crucify him, crucify. The thousands in Galilee who had hung on his words and celebrated his miracles: they were just a distant memory.
The little band: they alone had stayed with Jesus more or less to the end. Most had run away, just as Jesus had said they would, rather than face the end. Judas Iscariot had betrayed him to the religious authorities. Peter, the chosen one, the so-called rock, had denied three times he ever knew Jesus. He was to hear the cock crow, and, remembering, go out to weep bitterly. Perhaps only Mary his Mother and John his beloved disciple had stayed with him to the very end, and a few others who crept out to give his body a hasty burial.
Where had they all gone, when they fled for their lives? Most of them went to hide in the Upper Room, the safe place in Jerusalem, where they had eaten the Last Supper. The Roman authorities would deal with any threat to their power ruthlessly. So they fled and locked themselves in, terrified that they too might be arrested and crucified. After a little time, some of them hoped to sneak away, back to Galilee, back to obscurity.
It was all over. Their high hopes of a new and godly rule overcoming the Romans and re-establishing an independent Israel had come to nothing. What was there left to do? Slip away hoping not to be noticed. They were all afraid.
The women had more guts than the men. They could do nothing but weep on the Sabbath. But early on the Sunday morning, they crept out before dawn to honour the body properly, to anoint it decently with spices and herbs. At least he deserved that, the man they had trusted and loved but whom they must have seen now as their misguided, a failure. They took the risk of leaving their safe place. But they were terrified too.
Most of the Gospel accounts of the Resurrection of Jesus are surrounded by amazement, terror, fear and confusion. St Mark gives the earliest Gospel account. He tells us that Mary Magdalene, with other women, came early to the tomb. As they walked, they wondered who would roll away the stone in front of the tomb. When they got there, they found the stone already rolled away and a young man in white sitting inside the tomb. St Mark tells us they were amazed, frightened: when the young man had told them that Jesus was not there because he had risen, they went away trembling with fear.
St Matthew recognises the fear. The first words of the angel to the women are ‘Do not be afraid’. But they run away. Then suddenly Jesus meets them. His first words too are, Do not be afraid. Go and tell my disciples. St Luke tells us that the women go and tell the disciples what they have seen and heard, but the raggedy little band are shocked and dismiss the idea as nonsense. When Jesus appears to them in the Upper Room, still locked for fear of the authorities, they are startled and terrified and think they are seeing a ghost, until he reassures them and eats some fish with them.
The account from St John’s Gospel that we have just heard told us of the Beloved Disciple’s hesitation before going into the tomb. He fears what he will find. And we hear of Mary Magdalene’s wretched sadness as she stands by the tomb weeping.
Do not be afraid, says the angel. Do not be afraid, says Jesus. But of course they are. The disciples have at least three good reasons to be afraid. They are afraid for their lives; at any moment they could be arrested, tried and condemned to a dreadful death. They fear an uncertain future, the unexpected, the unknown. They must also know that they have let Jesus down; they feel guilty and ashamed, and fear at least his disappointment, if not something worse.
During his enthronement ten days ago, the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, recalled another occasion when Jesus had said to his followers, ‘Do not be afraid.’ He remembered the moment when Jesus had called Peter to walk towards him across the Sea of Galilee. At first Peter had done so, but then his faith failed him and he began to sink. St Matthew tells us that he cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’ Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?’
There are good reasons in this life to doubt, to be of little faith, and good reasons to be afraid. Many people in our world face the future with uncertainty and fear the unexpected, the unknown. Many people in our world live with the effects of the harm others have done them or the harm they have done others. Many people in our world suffer the effects of violence and insurrection, the loss of homes and livelihoods, the breakdown of familiar landmarks and the loss of civilisation, the suffering and death of children and parents, relations and friends.
Into the reality of this fear and suffering, we hear the words of Jesus. Do not be afraid. The Jesus who speaks these words to us today speaks with authority. He has faced his own fear. ‘Father, let this cup pass me by. Yet not my will but yours be done.’ This is the apparently defeated and dejected Jesus who was betrayed and denied, flogged and mocked, nailed to the Cross. This is the Jesus who experienced so powerfully not only his physical suffering but also the spiritual agony of separation from his loving Father, who cried out on the Cross, ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’ This same Jesus, who suffered and died, is the Jesus whose resurrection from the dead we celebrate today.
There may be good reasons for fear. And the fear reaction in humans and other creatures exists to protect us. But Jesus says to us, Do not be afraid. His Beloved Disciple was later to acknowledge the one thing that can and does drive away fear. ‘God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgement, because as he is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.’ [I John 4: 16-18]
Perfect love casts out fear. The only perfect love is God’s love, God’s love so intense, so powerful, so creative. God’s love for the creation and for humanity, the love that conquers sin and death, the love that brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus Christ: God’s love is what makes fear almost irrelevant, robs it of any real meaning.
In the Apostles’ Creed, which we say here every day and which expresses the basis of our faith, there is a clause not often discussed but I believe to be powerfully meaningful. It comes after the familiar words about Jesus Christ, that he ‘Suffered under Pontius Pilate; was crucified, dead and buried.’ These are the words: ‘He descended into hell.’ The Creed goes on to express what we celebrate today: ‘The third day he rose again from the dead.’ He descended into hell. That speaks of what happened during the time between Jesus’ death on the Cross and his Resurrection. He descended into hell. The power of those words is that the sin and death that seem so often to have the ultimate victory and which cast such a long and terrifying shadow over so many lives are themselves defeated. Jesus can go with his offer of salvation even to the lost souls of every time, those sunk in sin and overwhelmed with grief. The death of our Lord Jesus Christ on the Cross, a victory confirmed by his glorious Resurrection, offers new life and fresh hope to everyone.
It took a little time, but in the power of the Holy Spirit, that raggedy little band of people who had locked themselves away fearing for their lives became the ones who risked everything, even death itself, to proclaim to the whole world that their beloved Lord and Saviour was truly alive. Were it not for them and the power of what they proclaimed, we would not be here. We would never have heard the Good News. Thank God for the raggedy and fearful band; may God bless us and empower us too, however raggedy and fearful we each may feel, to believe and trust in the love of God that conquers everything.
Hear these words of St Paul.
I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. [Romans 8: 38-39]
Do not be afraid. Alleluia, Christ is risen. He is risen indeed, Alleluia!