Sermon: Fourth Sunday of Easter, 17 April 2016, St John the Divine and St Mary’s, evening

Preacher  The Revd Neil Summers

Easter Day, with its liberating story of new life, is, I think, the most wonderful day of the Christian calendar, especially after the hard slog of Holy Week and Good Friday.  But we’ve now reached the fourth Sunday of Easter, three weeks after the day itself, with another three Sundays of the season still to come!  Easter can be quite a challenging liturgical season to live into, and part of the difficulty is that it is so long!  Forty days to Ascension and then another ten until Pentecost.  Not for nothing are these known as the Great Fifty Days: great in length, quite apart from being great for other reasons.  At least Advent, Christmas and Lent keep us busy with certain tangible activities and a sense of anticipation.  Easter, on the other hand – at least once the excitement of Easter Day itself is over – can just leave us with an odd sense of emptiness.  By the second week, the bubbles of Easter alleluias begin to fizzle away.  By the fourth week, we may have lost the initial Easter euphoria altogether – assuming, of course, we felt it in the first place.  Small wonder we might need an extra dose of chocolate or alcohol (or, perhaps, as we now learn, Del Monte pasta sauce!) for a kick to see us through this long season.  Even this morning’s Gospel reading leaves behind Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances, taking us back to an incident before the crucifixion.

But another reason it can be difficult is because resurrection isn’t an easy concept to grasp.  Somehow, it seemed easier to speak of Passiontide and Good Friday, with their resonant and much more human themes of fear, betrayal, pain and suffering.  Oddly, it seems easier to reflect on the death of Jesus than on his resurrection.  Perhaps it has something to do with that deep-down consciousness that we’re more familiar with pain and death – whereas we may not be quite so certain whether we are as familiar with resurrection.

But the paradox of the Easter mystery is that the risen life of Jesus must be fully lived out in the ordinary course of this life.  Resurrection is not a vague conjecture into after-life, something we have to wait for when we die. Rather, it must be part of the life we live here and now.  Like Jesus’ disciples long ago, touched by this awesome mystery, we too search for the meaning of Easter in the very ordinariness of our everyday lives.

Art galleries are full of images of the passion and the crucifixion.  These resonate, it would seem, with the artistic temperament in many different times and cultures.  You paint the cross, you paint the agony, and people know what you’re referring to. We stand in awe and wonder as we look upon the one who was as we are: at God sharing our human condition.  But it’s harder to find memorable images of the resurrection.  Of course, there are some – but in general artists haven’t found it as easy to depict what happened that first Easter morning as they have to depict Jesus’ passion and death.  But if you look closely in a gallery like Tate Britain you can find that resurrection is depicted in other ways, in paintings which may not be obviously religious at all, but which relate more to everyday life.  One that comes to mind is ‘The Awakening Conscience’ by Holman Hunt.  It depicts a Victorian drawing room in a place, I suppose, a bit like Richmond or maybe Hampstead, the smart drawing room of a middle class gentleman.  And the owner of the room is seated at the centre of the picture in a chair in front of his piano.  Rising from his lap, where she’s been perched, is a woman.  She looks younger than him – and you don’t have to be all that worldly-wise to realise that something has been going on between the two of them.  She’s definitely not his wife – more like a mistress, maybe a showgirl, someone he’s picked up and had an affair with.  He still has his arm across her lap – but the painting shows her in the very act of rising and breaking free.  Her face is a picture of awakening, of self-realisation.  It’s just dawned upon her who she is and what’s been happening, possibly how his man has been using her, diminishing her – it’s all come home to her with such force that she rises quickly from his lap and is entering into new territory.  The windows behind her are open, the curtains are billowing in, and outside all is bright and new and golden. You can see, you don’t need to be told, you know, that this is a moment of transformation for this woman.  It depicts what resurrection might look like in the context of ordinary, everyday life.  Easter is the season in which our curtains are drawn back and new light can stream into our darkened places, when we wake up and become alive to new possibilities, where life seems different, because life is different.

One famous artistic representation of the resurrection concerns Jesus making himself known to Mary Magdalene in what, for her, seemed to be the garden of despair. He called her by her name and awakened in her the realisation that her despair was now over.  That garden encounter was Mary’s experience of resurrection in the midst of her distress, hopelessness and loss.  The encounter was difficult to explain rationally (it seems she didn’t at first recognize Jesus), but it was real enough to make her run excitedly to tell the other followers of Jesus.

Mary’s experience says something which I think is crucial in terms of the events shaping our world today, and also for our own lives, especially when we can all too easily feel overwhelmed by despair, sorrow and the negativity of countless crucifying scenarios.  Most of the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ appearances after his death make it very clear that his wounds are still visible.  He actually shows his followers his hands and his side.  Resurrection is not a conjuring trick which miraculously takes way life’s pain or its scars, be they physical, psychological, emotional or spiritual.  They remain our reality.  I’ve often thought that the sheer horror of Good Friday throws a lifeline to those people whose world has fallen apart, whose lives are shattered by the coldness and despair they meet in life’s hardest places.  It relates to those who know what it is to feel utterly God-forsaken, who know how dark it can get in the middle of the day.  People who go through their own hour of emptiness and anguish need us to acknowledge the God of Good Friday before they can ever begin to experience Easter.  For them, perhaps sometimes for us, it may be some time yet before the earth shakes, the rocks split open, and the tomb really is shown to be empty.  But what Easter does say to all of us is that, even though we may have thought the opposite was the case, darkness, suffering, pain and death do not have the final word.  I may not always be able to find the words to explain what resurrection means, but I still think it is potentially as authentic a part of our lives as the cross.  And it is much more than a one-day wonder, which is why the church calendar gives us not just one day, but an entire season, to discover what this amazing, transforming event might mean.  I must admit, even three weeks after Easter Sunday, my heart still skips a beat when I hear the ancient Easter proclamation – not merely as a religious formula, but as a living reality  – ‘The Lord is risen: he is risen indeed. Alleluia!’ 

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