Event Name Sermon given at the Sung Eucharist on Easter Day 2017
Start Date 16th Apr 2017 10:30am

The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster

‘If anyone is devout and a lover of God, let them enjoy this beautiful and radiant festival. If anyone is a grateful servant, let them, rejoicing, enter into the joy of his Lord. If anyone has wearied themselves in fasting, let them now receive recompense.’ Those are the opening words of a famous homily preached by the patriarch of Constantinople St John Chrysostom, who died in the year 407. He went on to say, ‘Enter all of you, therefore, into the joy of our Lord, and, whether first or last, receive your reward. O rich and poor, one with another, dance for joy! O you ascetics and you negligent, celebrate the day! You that have fasted and you that have disregarded the fast, rejoice today! The table is rich-laden: feast royally, all of you! The calf is fatted: let no one go forth hungry!’

Our Lord Jesus Christ, who took upon him our mortal nature and died for our sins, is risen from the dead. He is alive. So, let us dance for joy; let us celebrate the day; let us rejoice. We who are gathered in this holy place, whoever we are, whether we are ascetics or negligent, whether we have fasted through Lent or neglected the fast, whether we are devout, practising Christians or just seeking or searching or just curious, we can all feast royally and all are welcome to the feast, on this beautiful and radiant festival, the queen of festivals.

For today we celebrate the most beautiful gift we could possibly receive, the gift of salvation, the gift of freedom, the gift of redemption from sin and death. The gift is free for us, but it is a costly gift, ‘costing not less than everything.’ The cost was paid for us by Jesus Christ, Son of God and Son of Man, our blessed Lord, who paid the price of our sin, as he was betrayed by one of his disciples, as he was given a sham trial and condemned to death, as he was beaten and mocked, as he was crowned with a crown of thorns, as he was made to carry his cross, as he forgave those who crucified him, as he gave his beloved disciple to his Mother as her Son, as he gave his last cry ‘It is accomplished’, as he died on the cross.

They took the body of Jesus down from the cross and buried his body in a new tomb in the garden and rolled a great stone to close the entrance. The civic authorities placed guards around the tomb to prevent grave-snatchers who might pretend Jesus had risen from the dead as he had said he would.

But when Mary Magdalene came to the tomb before daybreak, she found no soldiers but the stone rolled away. And when Simon Peter and John, the beloved disciple, arrived, they found inside the tomb the grave clothes lying where the body had been, but the body of Jesus had gone. Mary met the risen Jesus in the garden, but, failing to recognise him, thought him the gardener and addressed him as such. But Jesus said her name and she recognised instantly the beloved voice. The disciples must have been bewildered and were still terrified. They locked themselves again in the Upper Room where they had eaten the Last Supper with their Lord and Master. And now he came among them again, suddenly appearing in the room. He said, ‘Peace be with you’ and showed them his hands and his side. This crucified, raised body still had the marks of the nails and the spear. This was no ghost but the Lord, risen from the dead.

The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the central, joyous belief of all Christians. Although the crucifixion and resurrection of our Lord have been understood in many different ways, what is fixed and clear for all Christians to believe is what we shall recite in the Nicene Creed, after this address, ‘For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven, was incarnate from the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and was made man. For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried. On the third day he rose again.’

‘For us and for our salvation …’ ‘For our sake…’ ‘Our salvation.’ To free us from the pain of our sin and our death: that is why Jesus died; that is why Jesus was raised from the dead. Sin and death are an inevitable part of living. We get things wrong. We think, say and do the wrong thing; and we fail to think, say and do what is right. And we die. But the burden of our sin and the burden of our death are taken away as a result of the death and resurrection of Christ. That is what we believe. We sin, but in Christ our sins can be forgiven. Jesus said to his disciples when appearing to them after his resurrection, ‘If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them.’ We die, but beyond death we have the promise of eternal life with him.

And the promise is not just to us. In the Apostles’ creed, which we recite in the Abbey at Evensong every day, we say, ‘I believe in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord; who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried. He descended into hell. The third day he rose again from the dead.’

So, after the death of our Lord, he descended into hell, to the underworld, where were the spirits of all those, good and bad, men and women, who had died before his time. He visited them, and by tradition, he raised those had lived good lives up to be with him in heaven. In an early 15th century cycle of Mystery Plays performed in Chester, one of the scenes is called the Harrowing of Hell. We see Jesus arrive at the gates of hell saying, ‘Open hell gates anon, you princes of pain, every one, that God’s Son may in gone and the King of Bliss.’ Satan is hurled from his throne and the Lord takes Adam by the hand, ‘Peace to thee, Adam, my darling, and eke to all thine offspring and that righteous were in earth living; from me you shall not sever. To bliss now I will you bring; there you shall be without ending. Michael, lead these men singing to joy that lasteth ever.’ Michael the archangel replies, ‘Lord, your will done shall be. Come forth, Adam, come with me! My Lord upon the rood-tree your sins hath forbought. Now shall you have liking and lee, and be restored to your degree, that Satan with his subtlety from bliss to bale hath brought.’

Those who were bound in chains and eternal torment in the underworld were freed through the sacrifice of Christ, just as people today, bound by the cruelty and bitterness of lightning and tempest, of plague, pestilence, and famine, of battle and murder, and of sudden death, can be freed to new life through the sacrifice of Christ. The bond are free. Sin and death are themselves bound.

The Sistine Chapel’s Last Judgment, painted by Michelangelo, like many such paintings, shows the result of our Lord having harrowed hell. The dead are being raised from the underworld to the glory of heaven.

Michelangelo also began to sculpt six powerful images of slaves for the tomb of pope Julius II, two of which are complete and in the Louvre. The other four incomplete sculptures of slaves can be seen in the Accademia gallery in Florence where Michelangelo’s great statue of the young David is to be found. The four so-called slave sculptures, subsequently called the awakening slave, the young slave, the bearded slave and Atlas, with a great weight upon his head, are still partly encased in their block of marble but seem to be emerging therefrom. Michelangelo said that the way he worked was to liberate the forms imprisoned in the marble. He saw his job as simply removing what was extraneous. So, the men seem to be writhing and struggling to free themselves from what constrains them.

We can see this as an image for the human struggle for authenticity, to be ourselves. But I would rather see them as types of human beings enslaved by whatever it is that binds us, ultimately our sin and the inevitability of death. They long to be free. They struggle to liberate themselves from the marble, to become what they truly are. This is a metaphor.

In reality it is Jesus Christ, our Lord and Master, and him alone, who is able to free us from all that prevents us being the people God has made us to be. In Christ, we become who we are. In Christ, we find liberation from sin. In Christ, we discover that even death cannot bind us. In Christ, everything can be cut away that is extraneous, superficial, damaging. The resurrection of our Lord opens for us who live and believe in him the real prospect of new life through death, eternal life and eternal bliss.

Today, our Lord Jesus Christ says to us, ‘Peace to thee, my darling; from me you shall not sever. To bliss now I will you bring; there you shall be without ending. Michael, lead these people singing to joy that lasteth ever.’

I wish you and yours a very happy and blessed Easter.

© 2018 The Dean and Chapter of Westminster

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