Preacher Canon Robert Titley
Well, it’s good to see you all, though I should warn you that being associated with a place like this may not do much for your reputation. ‘To call yourself a Christian,’ laments Michel Gove in the current number of The Spectator (Why I’m proud to be a Christian (and Jeremy Paxman should be ashamed)), is ‘to declare yourself intolerant, naïve, superstitious and backward.’ He continues:
Where once politicians who were considering matters of life and death might have been thought to be helped in their decision-making by Christian thinking – by reflecting on the tradition of Augustine and Aquinas, by applying the subtle tests of just-war doctrine – now Christianity means the banal morality of the fairy tale and genuflection before a sky pixie’s simplicities.
So there will be a moment shortly when you can slip away – before the collection! – if you feel the reputational risk is a bit high.
No simplicities, pixielated or otherwise, that first Easter morning, not for the women who come to the tomb to do the last things for the body of Jesus. Comfort, reassurance, all that stuff religion is supposed to do for you, they feel none of these as they run away in fear from the news from a mysterious young man, ‘He is not here’.
That is where Mark’s gospel ends – at least the version we have. Some say you couldn’t end a book about the good news of Jesus like that, and there are various theories about how the real ending might have been lost. Perhaps the author was suddenly arrested; perhaps the last page got chewed up by mice (which used to happen in those days). Or perhaps this was where our writer wanted to leave us on Easter Day. Better to spend a little while with the fearfulness of Easter before the joy – just in case you get the idea that Christianity is for the naïve and the superstitious. Here, then, is your psychological crutch, your opium of the people: ‘They ran away and didn’t tell anyone – they were scared, you see.’ But what were they scared of? Let’s postpone that question for a moment.
One day last month I went to see Richard III – the body, not the play – or (to be more precise) the coffin containing his bones in Leicester Cathedral. Now I’m not a Ricardian, one of those zealots trying to get the world to change its mind about Richard, though I met a jolly one, specially over from Australia, in the queue. I was struck, though, by this piece of distant history surfacing in the middle of our own time, and struck also by how this body of Richard, lost for so long, was for a little while the most important corpse in England. In 1485, Henry Tudor put the body briefly on display in Leicester, as proof that Richard was dead and gone and a failure – a phoney king, and a warning to others. If he’d won, Richard might have done the same with the body of Henry.
The women at the tomb that morning fourteen centuries earlier live in a similar, brutal world; and if you were among the crowd – a thousand? two thousand? more? – who saw the extraordinary Richmond passion play on Friday, you will have caught a glimpse of that world. You will have seen a matter of life and death in which Jesus was nailed up on a cross – an act of display as well as punishment – hung up like a scarecrow, with a sign above his head – ‘the king of the Jews’ – another phoney king whose publicly dead body should be a warning to others.
For the women that morning, to see Jesus’ body is in the tomb will be unbearable, but at least it will be understandable: Pontius Pilate, King Herod and the rest have won, and the death of Jesus is proof of that. That’s how it works. But if his body is not there – what does that mean? That does scare them. Sometimes the unknown is scary, even when it offers hope. What they and their friends will discover is that Jesus has won, but the victory of God is not like the victories we often strive for.
This land where Richard and Henry once strove for victory would be all but unrecognisable to them, but they’d recognise some of the things that still drive our world. One of those things is what someone has called the myth of redemptive violence: the idea that, when you think you see people doing bad things, you can redeem the situation, stop the evil, through some destruction of your own. It’s a powerful myth. At its most perverted, it drives the barbarity of al-Shabab (the killers of over a hundred Christian students last week) and the co-called Islamic State. But many of us believe in a version of it, at least some of the time.
Our action films are soaked in it. The likes of Sylvester Stallone and now Liam Neeson have built careers around playing characters who get so angry, so impatient with the injustices of the world that they just cut violently loose – and it seems to find an echo in us, because millions of us go to see them. And meanwhile the social media have their keyboard warriors, whose violence is in their language and who take no prisoners in pursuit of whatever their idea is of goodness and truth.
Today we see how God does it.
Jesus comes and speaks God’s Word, and it is a word that is forgiving, welcoming, sometimes rebuking, but above all a peaceable word. The killing of Jesus is the way the world tries to shut him up. The raising of Jesus is God’s answer and God’s victory, but it is a strange victory: no reprisals, no revenge on those who tried to destroy Jesus: Herod’s crown stays on his head, Pilate will stay in his job a while yet. God doesn’t destroy them but bypasses them, renders them increasingly irrelevant to his deep purposes. And if any of the crowds that shouted, ‘Crucify him’ (I was one of them on Friday), are still in town, they get a sermon from Peter (we hear part of it this morning) but nothing worse than that. What is this victory without violence?
Like the women at the empty tomb we too find the opposite here of what we generally expect. If the body of Jesus is not there, then the story of Jesus and his love is not over, and we can be surprised, not just that Jesus’ story does not end with a dead body (his own) but also that in this greatest victory of God there are no other bodies either. There is only one victim – and he is alive.
You may be here this morning because you got one of our cards – Experience Easter it says on the front was called. And how do you experience Easter? It will be possible to go away from here and say, ‘That was a rather good experience. Great flowers, lovely music, decent coffee and a hot cross bun. Really nice.’ But may experience something beyond that. Something may find you this morning, something may take root, so that you begin to see that life is not in the end about standing over beaten enemies, whether your weapon of choice is a sword or a spreadsheet.
Today we pay homage to an unlikely king, whose throne is a gallows and whose crown is made of thorns. He looks like a broken king, yet he lives beyond all deaths, and wins victories that naked power never could. And as we worship him, he will teach us to use better the power that is in our hands. We are slow learners, though. We forget easily, and old habits die hard. That is why he invites us back here Sunday by Sunday, as guests at his table, to know him better and to celebrate his life that has no end.