Sermon given at the Sung Eucharist on the Second Sunday of Easter 2023
Peace be with you.
The Very Reverend Dr David Hoyle MBE Dean of Westminster
Sunday, 16th April 2023 at 11.15 AM
When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week. That is what we just heard. When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week. It is story-telling: St John was putting us in the claustrophobic house with the locked doors—at evening, on the first day of the week. And he was the laboring the point. It was that day, he told us—on that day, the first day of the week. We are supposed to wonder why the first day of the week is called that day.
The first day of the week is a theological landmine. Bump into it and it explodes. In Genesis, remember, God divided the light from the dark and it was the first day. Now, after the crucifixion of Christ, it is the first day of the week all over again. Behind bolted doors a new creation begins. This is St John’s story and the story we have been telling ever since. It is the Cross and Easter, Christian Faith and Hope, and it is the Last Supper, the bread and the wine, the story that gives us this service. It is the story we tell to explain all the other stories.
We have our story before us. And it is very odd, because that night, in the locked house, the story had categorically collapsed. That evening, that first day of the week when they bolted shut the doors for fear, the story had died. The past had betrayed the disciples, the wrong ending had arrived and the future had faded out of view. Christ lives, the Kingdom comes, creation is renewed, and the disciples lock the doors and try to keep it out. They had lost faith in the story.
Now I like stories. I am a historian, I have been making stories all my life, weaving the evidence together, one thing after another. I tell stories about the Abbey. We live by stories, but today we meet to remember evening, on that day, the first day of the week, when there was no story at all.
Into that despair, nowhere to turn, nowhere to go, steps the Risen Christ saying, ‘Peace be with you’. Now, if I find you down on your luck, I might suggest a drink a raise a glass to better days. That’s a wish, I hope you will have better days. When Christ says, ‘Peace be with you’, it is not a wish. It is a statement. At the Last Supper he had said,
Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you (John 14: 27)
So, this is the moment when that lost future begins again and the story starts. The disciples are not to grieve for a lost past or fear a frightening future as that day breaks, they are to be at peace. The story broke, the story is back.
Then Jesus shows them his hands and his side. Let’s be clear, this is a strange story—it focusses on the wounds in Jesus’ hands and side. We see a dead body. Jesus died on the cross. And he did not come back to life. His life ended. It is a dead body they see. This is not a classic fairy tale happy ending. It is very different from that. Jesus died. Even after the resurrection the dying does not stop. Easter, does not turn the tragedy of the cross into a comedy. The peace of Easter is deep and real, but it is mysterious the story really did break. He really did die.
And then Jesus breathes the Spirit. It is the first day of the week remember. We are making things new. In Genesis, God breathed life into Adam, now Christ breathes new life into the disciples. The Old Testament kept promising new life and a new creation—Jeremiah and his dry bones, Ezekiel and a new heart. This is it; this is that day. The man who lives slain breathes life. What a strange story this is.
And this morning that is the point I am trying to make. It must sound very puzzling. It should. We must notice the sheer angular, awkwardness of what we are saying. We need to notice the breaks and ruptures, the paradox of life in death, the strangeness and fragility of this story. The old story that is made new. We are not nearly as good at noticing the awkwardness as we should be. Have we, even yet, got the measure of these disciples who have stepped dazzled and bewildered into the new creation. We hear that Jesus breathed on them and said ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’. It is sounds so gentle. Yet, it is nothing of the sort. We turn that word ‘spirit’ into spiritual and when we say something is ‘spiritual’ we mean it is not a thing, not legs or ear lobes. We imagine a spiritual moment in the peace that Christ breathes. In the Bible though that is not what spirit means. Spirit is not the opposite of things; spirit is the opposite of death. And this breath he breathes is wind, it is gale. That is what gets past the bolted doors in this story, life, vitality and in rushing force. The peace of the locked room is robust, a passion and a love that is stronger than death.
You probably know that poem of Auden’s that became so famous thanks to Four Weddings and a Funeral, with the line
I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong.
The poem ends,
The stars are not wanted now; put out every one,
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun,
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood;
For nothing now can ever come to any good.
That is where our gospel reading began, in the story that never ends as it should, the plans that will forever unfulfilled, the recalcitrant wrongness of things. That is an experience we all know, the loss of bereavement, the frustration that things are not what they should be. But St John tells us, the story takes the strangest of turns as the disciples are blown by breath and tumbled into life.
It is not just that the man Jesus lives. Jesus insists we pay attention to his body. He shows his hands and side. Thomas, is made to look, told to touch. The spirit is spirited, lively, and it is not something that has to be separated out from flesh, bone and blood. In fact, we must not make it spiritual and ethereal. Easter is the real human life of flesh, bone and blood. Our Christian faith is not spirituality, and other worldliness, it is life, all of life, this life. That is why what we do with our bodies; what we do to one another’s bodies matters so very much. Easter is life, God’s life, Risen life, your life, mine.
Life and Peace get behind the bolts and the barred doors. All our attempts to set religion and some truths apart, our pious determination to make faith spiritual and the thing we do in places where it can be managed are misplaces and wrong-headed. Easter is not a concept for a book and for a liturgy, it is the life of God blowing a gale in creation. Easter is the mission of God and Easter is life, real life breathed into real bodies.
Our story is a strange one, it not tame, it is certainly not spiritual. The disciples at the resurrection were bewildered; they ran away. When the risen Christ stood before Mary Magdalene, she did not know him. After the news of the resurrection broke, they were still afraid, hiding in locked rooms. The future dawns and it is unsettling, mysterious and strange. Jesus lives, but he has not come back to life, and nor is he just a memory.
What are we to say about all this? We should say this. Jesus said, ‘Peace be with you’ in the bolted and the barred places where men and women still fear death and pain. ‘Peace be with you’, when the great mission of God is announced and we are summoned to go out, not stay here, clutching the mystery to ourselves. ‘Peace be with you’, when the doubts rise and despair clutches at our guts. ‘Peace be with you’. When death comes those same words—‘Peace be with you’. The strong peace of God that is life and is Easter and is here. We should say that ‘Peace be with you’.