‘Alleluia! Christ is risen! He is risen indeed. Alleluia!’ These words are echoing today in many churches, in many congregations, in many languages throughout the world as we greet the risen Christ on this most special of festivals.
Some time ago I spent Holy Week and Easter at a monastery in Yorkshire. The monks started the celebrations for Easter Day, similar to what we did this morning, in the middle of the night so that they could greet the resurrection at first light. When first light appeared and the resurrection was announced, the whole church erupted into celebration. Icons that had been covered were opened up, the bells were rung, there were crashing chords on the organ, the monks started blowing party whistles and ringing hand bells. It was great. But although it was very dramatic, the joy and laughter was a little bit synthetic, a bit genteel, not very real. However, that changed when one of the monks became a bit too enthusiastic with his hand-bell and as he swung it, the clapper broke loose, whizzed across the sanctuary and hit the monk conducting the service on the head. Then there was real joy and real laughter, though the celebrant was a bit dazed by it all.
But joy and laughter were not the first responses to the resurrection. St. Mark tells of how the women, when told that Jesus had been raised, ran away, frightened out of their wits. In this morning’s reading from St. John’s Gospel, Mary Magdalene’s first response was to run away. When the disciples reached the empty tomb, one understood what was going on, but the others, including Peter, returned home, probably quite dazed by all these events. Mary Magdalene remained there…..weeping. Joy and laughter, the kind that we can experience today, were certainly not the first response to the resurrection, but rather fear, surprise and puzzlement. But there is more.
Mary Magdalene remained. She had assumed that the body of Jesus had been taken away, probably by his enemies and detractors. Then, although she first mistook him for the gardener, Mary eventually recognised Jesus and wanted, out of sheer joy, to throw her arms around Jesus hold on to him in the way that she would have done in the past. But Jesus would have none of it because things had changed and could not be the same as before, ‘Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.”’
There was such a wide range of reactions on that first Easter morning and the predominant ones were fear and puzzlement. Isn’t that surprising?……Or is it so surprising? It is easy to forget that new life can be frightening. When a baby is born into a family, there may well be excitement at having this new, little life, but whether we admit it or not, there is also fear and apprehension as we realise that things will never be the same again: we have to relate in a different way. When we move into a new relationship, we may do so with excitement and happiness, but if we are to take the relationship seriously, there will at some level also be apprehension and fear as we realise things will have to be different. Mary Magdalene thought things would remain the same when she tried to throw her arms around Jesus…….but Jesus told her ‘no’. Things were now different. Resurrection life meant changes. She should not try to hold on to the past. Her new role was to tell others that he had risen.
We are people of the resurrection – not a people of revival. Revival expects things to continue into the future in the way they were in the past. We are a Church of the resurrection – not a Church of revival. Revival expects things to continue into the future in the way they were in the past. Even though we are people and the Church of the resurrection, the future into which God is calling us may still be puzzling and frightening. We can be tempted, like the people of Israel in the wilderness, to want to turn back to familiar ways and the familiar places in Egypt. As people whose faith is based on the resurrection, we are being called into God’s future, which will be different from the past, but God’s future is always about a life which is fuller and richer and deeper than we have experienced before and like the commission given to Mary Magdalene, our role is to tell others about it.
Over the last few days, I have had a wonderful time in both Sundridge and Ide Hill, meeting some remarkable people committed to God, to each other and to the Church. I would like to thank all those working so hard to ensure that the worship and mission of this parish continue and flourish. And I thank God for you all. I’ve got to know the churches in both villages – and the pubs in both villages. I will happily recommend all of them to anybody. One point that I have constantly heard being made is that people are looking forward to the future, to the next chapter in the life of the parish. My hope and prayer is that the resurrection, which we are celebrating today, will be the basis on which this next chapter will be embraced. We are all people of the resurrection (remember resurrection and not revival) and we are called to make the resurrection the basis of our living as well as our dying. What today teaches is that the future adventure into which God calls us will be different from the past. It teaches us that, if we embrace the resurrection, we can be sure it will be about life, a life which will be fuller and richer and deeper than we have experienced before. It also reminds us that by our example, and sometimes by our words, it is our role to communicate to others the good news that Christ has risen, not just for his followers, but for all of society. As somebody said to me yesterday, Christians have a particular responsibility for the poor and those whose voices are not being heard and all of our churches constantly need to ask how we are fulfilling this responsibility.
This is a day of great rejoicing and celebration. We have much for which to thank God. We are celebrating the resurrection and we pray that God will help us, the people of the resurrection, to make sure that our lives reflect the resurrection.
St. Mary’s Church, Sundridge
31st March, 2013.