The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster
How do human beings recognise each other? It seems that it's not the whole face that we recognise but people's eyes coupled with the nose and mouth. The nose and mouth on their own may well not be enough. Of course there are other features, such as size, build, colour of hair, but we generally focus on the eyes first and then the nose and mouth, or just on that area of the face that contains the eyes, nose and mouth. I read recently of someone being recognised at a distance just by their walk. And the nape of the neck, and the back: we do easily recognise people we know. We are thought to be able to remember 10,000 faces. And, in an experiment, people could recognise 90% of their former classmates thirty five years after leaving school.
So, should we be surprised or even disturbed that when Mary Magdalene saw the risen Lord Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane that first Easter morning she thought he was the gardener? Does that throw doubt on the truth of the Easter story, the accounts of the Resurrection of Jesus? After all, Mary Magdalene is said to have been with Jesus for most of his adult ministry and was devoted to him. She must have been able to recognise him. At least, so we might think.
But in the gospel accounts themselves, Mary Magdalene is not alone in failing to recognise the risen Jesus. In St Luke's Gospel we hear the beautiful story of two disciples on the day of Resurrection, Clopas and a companion, not having received the happy news that Jesus had been raised from the dead, returning home disconsolate. A stranger joined them on the road out of Jerusalem, and when they reached Emmaus towards the end of the day, they asked him to stay with them. He had been explaining to them on the road how all the ancient prophecies pointed towards the Resurrection. They said later how their hearts had warmed within them as they heard him talk, but it was only when he broke the bread that they recognised the stranger as Jesus. Again, in St John's Gospel, the disciples had gone fishing on the Sea of Galilee. Jesus was on the seashore and invited them to come and have breakfast. But it was some time before the first of them recognised him as the Lord.
Once they saw, they knew and there was no doubt. Mary Magdalene knew who Jesus was when he called her by her name, Mary. It must have been how he said it, in the old familiar way. She responded, Rabbouni, my Teacher. And Clopas and his companion ran all the way back from Emmaus to Jerusalem to tell the others that they had seen the Lord and that he was alive. And on the Sea of Galilee, some of the disciples were so keen to reach Jesus that they jumped into the sea and swam rather than wait for the boat.
In the same way, the apostle we know rather unfairly as doubting Thomas saw the holes made by the nails in Jesus' hands and the hole made by the spear in his side. He doubted no longer but believed. In fact, he went further and recognised Jesus not just as teacher and master. 'My Lord and my God,' he said. Jesus said to him, 'Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.' That of course means us. We have not seen. Nor can we know just what it was like to see the risen Lord. He must have seemed different from how he was before his passion and death but not so different. His disciples had no doubt that it really was he: the one they had been with all this time; the one who had suffered and died on the Cross. They decided.
How do we decide? How do we in fact make decisions? I don't mean whether we'll have porridge or granola or an egg for breakfast, or come to that an Easter egg. I mean the big decisions: the ones that matter, that make a real difference to our lives. I reckon however we decide, a great deal of the decision is a matter of instinct, of feelings. We might say, We just know. Of course, some of us like making decisions so much that we go on making them for ever and find we never quite make up our minds.
So, have you decided whether Jesus was really raised from the dead? Do you believe and trust in him, in the words of St Thomas, as Lord and God? Do you recognise the risen Jesus? Can we recognise him even though we have never seen him in the flesh? And if so, how? Can we really come to know him?
One starting point is to note the very fact of the universal Church, that is, from such small beginnings, the two billion Christians around the world who, sometimes in conditions of terrible oppression and persecution, believe and trust in him. The example is inspiring of the Christians overtaken by Islamic State determined not to deny Christ and to maintain their faith even though it means fleeing from their homes and livelihoods into refugee camps and an uncertain future. They are with us part of the universal fellowship of Christians, the Church.
And the Church offers us the apostles' teaching about Jesus Christ. The apostles and other disciples endlessly repeated his teaching and stories about him; they became a familiar part of the legacy; and their followers wrote them down. We read them in the New Testament, God's word.
So, in the fellowship of the Church and through the apostles' teaching we can learn and come to know what there is to know about Jesus. But there are two further steps we must take. We can truly recognise Jesus. We can come to know him intimately, personally. It may take our whole life. And we shall still only be part of the way there. But because Jesus was not defeated by death but himself conquered death, returning to a new and risen life, we know that death cannot defeat us. Through the gate and veil of death we who believe and trust in him will be born again into a living hope, into the resurrection of the dead, into eternal life. Though we see through a glass darkly now, then we shall see him and recognise him; we shall know him as he knows us; we shall love him as he loves us.<
What are those two steps? The first is prayer, which is not so complicated. It means speaking to God through our Lord Jesus Christ. A good start is, Lord, I believe, help my unbelief. And prayer will develop; it may even become like the old couple sitting on the park bench knowing and loving one another at a level so deep that words no longer matter.
The other step is the one we take here today. The disciples at Emmaus recognised Jesus in the breaking of bread. We meet to break bread together. Jesus took, blessed, broke and distributed bread to his disciples at the Last Supper. And he blessed and handed round the cup of wine. He said of the bread This is my Body and of the wine This is my Blood. He also gave a clear instruction, Do this as often as you drink it in remembrance of me. So today, as every day, we obey this command of our Lord Jesus Christ. We receive in Holy Communion the very life of Jesus in ours. In this Holy Eucharist, we are truly united with him who suffered, was crucified, died and was buried, who on the first Easter Day was raised from the dead and now lives and reigns for ever. In this Holy Eucharist we have a foretaste here on earth of the banquet of heaven. This day of days we have such joy, so much to celebrate.
Alleluia! Christ is risen. He is risen indeed, Alleluia! On behalf of the whole Abbeycommunity, I wish you and yours a richly happy Easter.