A Sermon from Sherborne

An idle tale?

A sermon for Easter Day at Sherborne Abbey, preached at the Parish Eucharist on Sunday 21 April 2019 by the Rector, Canon Eric Woods


Some decades ago, the then Cardinal Archbishop of Paris was preaching in his cathedral church of Notre Dame and mentioned an incident that had happened in the cathedral years before. Three teenage boys had come in, and were being more than a bit rowdy, and mocking everything they saw. They clearly regarded the ‘story’ of our salvation celebrated in the cathedral in stone and wood and glass as what is called in today’s Gospel reading [Luke 24. 1-12] ‘an idle tale’. But their language was somewhat stronger than that.

At first they did not see a burly cathedral canon advancing upon them. When they did, they all fled, but the canon managed to grab one of the boys and drag him in front of a great crucifix in a manner which would not be permitted by today’s ‘Safeguarding’ rules and regulations. (I hope that the crucifix has survived the fire). And the canon made the boy look at the tortured and bleeding body of Jesus, and ordered him to say this: ‘You endured all this torture and pain for me. You were nailed to the Cross for me. You died an agonising death for me. And I don’t care.’

The boy simply couldn’t do it. He broke down and cried his eyes out. He left Notre Dame changed for ever. ‘And I know the story is true’, said the Archbishop quietly. ‘You see, I was that boy’.

Today is the most important day of the Christian year. Today’s message of the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead is not just Good News (which is what ‘Gospel’ means): it is the Best News. And yet if that cathedral canon had dragged the boy to an image of the resurrection, I wonder if it would have had the same power?

It’s not as though there was anything special about crucifixion in the Roman Empire two thousand years ago. It was a common method of execution until the year 337. It was used for slaves, rebels, pirates, enemies of the state and the most despised criminals. It was considered a shameful and disgraceful way to die, and therefore Roman citizens who had earned the death penalty were usually granted a more honourable method of execution. There were frequently mass crucifixions, especially after any major uprising, when several thousand crosses might be erected like some stark, bare forest. The Jewish historian Josephus tells us that on such occasions the Roman soldiers would amuse themselves by crucifying criminals in different positions. Seneca the Younger records: ‘I saw crosses there, not just of one kind but made in many different ways: some have their victims with head down to the ground; some impale their private parts; others stretch out their arms on the gibbet.’

So crucifixions were two a penny. But there was only one resurrection. Yet does it still have the power to change lives, or do people – including many Christian people and some of the clergy too – regard it as ‘an idle tale’?

I think the power of the crucifixion is that the dying Christ seems to identify so closely with suffering humanity. From our television screens we have all too clear a view of the suffering of our fellow men and women, in so many parts of the world. What would be the use of a god who could not identify with all that suffering, who did not suffer with us and for us? Good Friday is the only part of any religion’s message that has ever seemed to me to make any sense of human agony and human tragedy, whether it is the agony and the tragedy of a whole nation or people, or of someone in your family, your street, your own home.

But wait a minute. Good Friday can make sense of this and Easter Day cannot? What am I saying? To whom did the risen Christ appear first on that first Easter Day? To Mary, Mary of Magdala, and some of the other women who were followers of Jesus. And why? Because they needed him most.

We know very little about Mary, though she has been the subject of male fantasies for centuries. The only hard evidence comes from Luke’s Gospel, chapter 8, which names three of the many women who supported Jesus and the apostles in their mission and ‘who provided for them out of their resources.’ And one of them was ‘Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out.’ In his moving book Life conquers Death the former Dean of Durham, John Arnold, comments:

This almost certainly means that she was a woman with what used to be called a hysterical type of personality, whose rapid swings of mood and clinging nature men found difficult to cope with and therefore ascribed to demons. Of course simply labelling the condition in an analytical and objective way ‘hysterical’, or better still ‘mixed hysterical and schizoid’, may be just a modern equivalent of talking about demons – a way of keeping both the problem and the person at a distance.

But Jesus does not keep her or her problem at a distance. In Luke’s words, he ‘set [her] free from evil spirits or infirmities’ – or, as we might say today, he unifies the shattered pieces of her personality; he puts her back together again. The cost, no doubt, is that she clings to him at times of need, and when he is apparently taken from her, she is shattered again. So she stands outside the sepulchre, weeping: it is all that she can do. And the risen Christ comes to her first: he gives her back her name, her personality, her wholeness. But this time she is to cling no longer. The risen Christ does not simply glue the broken shards of her personality back together. Rather in him she is remade or, to use Jesus’ own words to Nicodemus, ‘born again’.

St Paul’s description of what it means to live and love in Christ now fits her perfectly: ‘if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation’ [2 Cor.5:17]. She is the first to know resurrection, and to receive it as Christ’s gift. And the power of God which raised Jesus Christ from the dead continues to work to raise the downhearted, to heal the broken and to restore the lost. He comes to Peter, who had lost a leader and finds him again; to John who had lost his dearest friend and discovers him again; to his mother (we can be sure) who had lost her son, and receives him back again. And through the fellowship of the Spirit, through the sacrament of Christ’s body and blood, through living and loving in the community of Christ, we too can be raised, healed, restored.

But note that Jesus does not appear to Caiaphas or Pilate or Herod or to any of the theological scholars of the day. There is no space for the risen Christ in those who are full of themselves; no place for the risen Christ in those who regard themselves as complete and whole and perfect; no room for the risen Christ in those who do not know their need of God. The resurrection Christ is for the broken-hearted, for the poor in spirit, for the humble and the vulnerable. The Easter Christ is for those who are empty, filling them with good things. Resurrection is the identification of Jesus with us in all our brokenness and all our need as surely as was crucifixion. But there is one difference. The crucifixion was a single event, one which changed the world indeed, but which happened on a given day in a given place and is fixed at a given point in human history. But the resurrection is for all people in every age and in every part of the world. Easter is for you and Easter is for me. Easter is now, Easter is always, for Christ is risen; he is risen indeed.

The Rector, Canon Eric Woods 21/04/2019
The Abbey Church of St Mary the Virgin, Sherborne