Sermon given at Sung Eucharist on Easter Day 2014
20 April 2014 at 10:00 am
The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster
Easter breaks upon us with an outburst of joy and singing and Alleluias. Alleluia! Alleluia! Christ is risen; he is risen indeed, Alleluia! Alleluia! On behalf of the whole Abbey community, I wish you a happy Easter!
The six weeks of Lent are over for another year. That will probably be a great relief. 40 days of effort, taking on extra devotion or acts of service or of almsgiving; or perhaps 40 days of austerity, some serious or not-so-serious giving up; or perhaps feelings of guilt at our failure to live up to our own expectations: those days are gone. But we cannot just forget them. If we failed to do what at our best we had intended, we should reflect on the lesson of our failure. On our own, in our own power, relying on ourselves, we really can do not very much; what little we might achieve would turn back on us in destructive pride. We need a Saviour. We need his life in ours.
We have a Saviour: Jesus Christ our Lord, who took upon himself our fallible human nature and, though he himself was without sin, bore the burden of our sins in his body on the Cross. His arrest and trial before the Jewish authorities and the Roman governor, his flogging and crowning with thorns, his carrying the Cross to Golgotha and being nailed to the Cross, his bitter agony and his death on the Cross: all these were real suffering, borne for the sake of the salvation of the human race.
‘For us and for our salvation’ we shall soon say in the Creed ‘… he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried.’ He really died and his body was buried. If that had been the end of Jesus, the Jewish prophet, rabbi and healer, we should never have heard of him; we would certainly not be gathered here today in this holy place, as people have been year after year at Easter for over a thousand years. But sin could not defeat him; death could not overwhelm him. He rose from the dead; the tomb was empty. This great truth, that sin is vanquished and death is conquered, is at the heart of the Christian faith: a sign of hope for the world.
But sin has not gone away, nor has death. People still sin. You and I sin. ‘I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?’ St Paul saw it in himself.
And people still die. The power of death and destruction seem just as great as ever. Later this year we shall be marking the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War. It was supposed to end all wars, but in the last century death has stalked the world with only a little less devastating effect than during the 14th century’s Black Death. Then six out of ten Europeans lost their lives. And this 21st century offers no sign that people are at last willing to beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks.
So, what do we say: that in reality we have no Saviour; sin and death will for ever triumph? No! We have a Saviour. But we must accept salvation for ourselves. He will not make us accept. His gift is a gift of love. Love never constrains. Love never imposes. Love has to be received and made our own. But first we have to see and believe. No one can do that for us: we have to see, or not seeing, believe, for ourselves.
St John’s Gospel shows us how those close to our Lord came to see and believe in his Resurrection. Mary Magdalen is the first to find the tomb empty. She can only suppose that the body of Jesus has been removed. When she meets the risen Lord Jesus in the garden, she thinks him to be the gardener and assumes that it is he who has moved the body. It is only when he says her name, that she recognises that this is no gardener but Jesus, her teacher and Lord.
And then, Peter and the beloved Disciple: Mary Magdalen, the apostle to the apostles, has brought them the news of the empty tomb. The beloved Disciple arrives there first but hesitates to go in. The older Peter gets there a little later and goes into the tomb. St John tells us that Peter ‘saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself.’ But of the beloved Disciple, St John says, when he finally goes into the tomb, that ‘he saw and believed.’ Does Peter see and believe too at this stage? We are not told. We are told that ‘as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead.’ Later he will believe for sure. It is only when the disciples have seen him for themselves that evening and after he has shown them his hands and his side that we are told they rejoice. Finally, they see and believe.
And what of us? After Thomas, not there the first time, has also seen the Lord, Jesus says to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’ Do you believe? Or half believe? Or want to believe? We cannot see, except with the eyes of faith.
Salvation is ours in the Death and Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. That is his gift to us, a gift of love, so amazing, so divine; a gift that demands my soul, my life, my all. We could not possibly deserve it, could not possibly earn it: a gift of free grace, pure love.
What does the gift really mean for those who are in Christ? It cannot mean that we do not sin, do not fail. It does mean that our sin can be forgiven, is forgiven, when we recognise the sin and repent of the evil.
Nor does the gift of salvation mean that we avoid human death. It does mean that death is not the end, not the final conqueror. We can receive, by faith and through grace, the gift of eternal life, life in Christ for eternity, life in the presence of God himself with the whole company of God’s faithful people, the heavenly host.
Here today, as every day, we celebrate the Holy Eucharist, obeying the instruction of our Lord Jesus Christ the night before he died, to do this in remembrance of him. Here we receive in Holy Communion, in the bread and wine which are for us his Body and Blood, a foretaste of that heavenly life. By this means, by this wonderful gift, our risen Lord feeds us with his life, fills us with his love, enables us to live our lives in and for him.
Yes, we need a Saviour. Yes, we need his life in ours. And we have a Saviour. Through his Holy Spirit, we have his life in ours, not for our sake alone, but that we may be his hands and his feet, spreading his love abroad in the world he died to save. And there we find ourselves meeting God at work already, through his Holy Spirit, bringing good out of evil.
Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of your dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his blood, that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body, and our souls washed through his most precious blood, and that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us.