A Sermon from Sherborne

Resurrection first and last

A sermon for the Parish Eucharist at Sherborne Abbey, preached on Sunday 17 February 2019 by the Rector, Canon Eric Woods


At his death, Jesus received the gift of a tomb, a rich man’s tomb, a tomb in a garden cemetery. Joseph of Arimathea had probably not intended it to be his own last resting place, but a transitional one. At the time of Christ, Orthodox Jews who believed in the Resurrection of the Dead – as the Pharisees did, and the Sadducees didn’t – were interred initially in a tomb where their flesh could decompose, until their bones were ready to be transferred to the family ossuary – a casket or indeed a whole room set aside for the purpose of keeping the bones safe for the Resurrection on the Last Day. The flesh, of course, represented corruption and sinfulness; the bones purity and goodness. But Jesus was without sin. There was no need for his flesh to decay. So the grave could not contain him. On the third day he was raised from the dead. The place of his burial became the place of his resurrection.

In the early 4th century, on the directions of the Emperor Constantine, a search was carried out for that tomb. Inside the third northern wall of Jerusalem, the Emperor’s archaeologists found underneath a Temple of Aphrodite a place both of crucifixion and of burial. That wall was built ten or fifteen years after Jesus died, the Temple later still. In Jesus’ day that place of crucifixion and burial was outside the city wall, the second wall which was then the city’s boundary. Then the site had been uninhabited, and its only other use was as a quarry. Modern stratigraphic excavations have confirmed all that Constantine’s archaeologists found. Most scholars agree that this site is very likely to be the authentic location of the death and resurrection of Our Lord.

Constantine ordered the Temple to Aphrodite to be torn down, and the one-time quarry that had served as both place of execution and of burial was transformed into a magnificent ecclesiastical precinct, containing a great church to be known as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The contemporary record tells us that ‘Royal generosity made it radiant with all kinds of adornment, embellished with choice columns and profuse decoration.’ It was a mausoleum fit for a king, and indeed Constantine was later to build himself something not dissimilar in Constantinople.

Often modified, refashioned and rebuilt, but still identifiably Constantine’s great basilica, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre remains a centre for world-wide Christian pilgrimage today. Six branches of the Christian Church (mercifully, not ours) still argue and sometimes fight over its control. But what does it commemorate? It looks and feels like the place of burial of an earthly king. Why does it not speak more loudly, more joyfully, of the resurrection of the King of kings?

Perhaps it is an unfair question. How does one celebrate the resurrection of the Son of God? I suspect that the finest architects who ever lived would be hard-pressed to design a fitting celebration of the resurrection of the King of kings.

But that was not what Constantine was trying to do. It is not how his mind worked. He was the first Roman Emperor to be sympathetic to Christianity and to make it one of the recognised religions of the Empire. An immediate effect of that was to make it respectable – fashionable, even – to be a Christian, and what had long been largely an artisan faith began now to walk the corridors of power. The proof of that is in front of you: the vestments I am wearing are not of religious origin; they are derived from the court dress of Byzantine noblemen of the fourth century. And emperors and rulers build mausoleums for themselves – and mausoleum-like basilicas for their gods. It is all to do with recruiting divine power in support of secular power, and identifying secular authority with divine authority.

But the effect of all those thousands of tons of marble deposited on the place where Jesus died, apart from advertising a warm relationship between Constantine and the Christian God, was inevitably to emphasise Jesus’ death rather than his resurrection. The very name of the basilica is evidence of that. It is not The Church of the Glorious Resurrection but The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and to many that seems more a memorial to his ‘deadness’ than a celebration of his ‘aliveness’.

Do you see the point that I am making? Even here, in Sherborne Abbey, tourists sometimes ask if services are still held. Try as we might, it is hard to make it clear that this building is no museum, but the home of a lively and vibrant Christian community. When we are not here in person, we need plenty of outward and visible signs of the life which this building sustains and nurtures. But more important still is that the world should be full of people who do not know the resurrection simply as something which happened to one man two thousand years ago in a far-off land, but who have experienced resurrection for themselves. We have to be Easter People.

For that is the real significance of the first Easter Day: not that one man rose again from the dead, but that he imparted the experience of resurrection, he gave risen life, to all his followers. In simplest terms, if we claim to follow a man who lived two thousand years ago, who was executed as a common criminal but who as God’s Son was raised from the dead, that might provoke a ‘Wow’ from our hearers – but there are a lot of ‘wows’ around. We live in a world where there are too many ‘wows’ for one more to have much impact. But if people can see resurrection happening in us, can see vibrant new life bubbling up in us, can see that the risen Christ is changing us and transforming us, then their ‘Wow’ is more likely to become ‘How?’ – ‘How can I have what you’ve got?’

I became a Christian at university very largely because I was aware that some of my fellow students had something that I didn’t have: an infectious enthusiasm, a deep sense of joy, an ease within their own skins. I wasn’t much impressed with religion that traded in dogmatic certainties and legalistic codes, that carried the whiff of deadness about it, as I think all religious fundamentalisms do. But sparkling eyes, peace of mind, a zest for life and a joy in loving and caring: these were all signs of a faith that was alive and had made those who possessed it more alive. They were signs of Easter People.

You have heard many times the words of St Paul in his first letter to the Corinthian Church, which was part of our New Testament reading a moment ago: ‘If Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain.’ [15:14]. What I am suggesting is that the reverse is true, too. If your faith is in vain because it has not made you more alive, more joyful, more loving and caring and sharing, then Christ was not raised. The resurrection of Christ must mean the transformation of us all, or it means nothing. What we need is more Christianity: not more theology or more liturgy or more preaching, but more Christianity. And the world needs it too, needs it desperately.

In St Paul’s Cathedral in London they like to say of its great architect, Sir Christopher Wren, ‘If you seek his memorial, look around.’ I want to be able to say here and now, as we approach the long sustained reflection on Christ’s passion and death which we call Lent and Holy Week, that ‘if you seek Christ, look around.’ Look around, not at this building, great and glorious though it is, but at the Easter People gathered here, full of resurrection life. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in all its marbled past and disputed present can be seen in Jerusalem. The Church of the Glorious Resurrection can be seen anywhere in the world where communities are being transformed by Christian people bringing Christ’s life and love, his justice and his mercy, to that world for which he died and for which he was raised to life again. If we live resurrection, then our constant proclamation, first and last, will be Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia! And for that, thanks be to God.

The Rector, Canon Eric Woods 17/02/2019
The Abbey Church of St Mary the Virgin, Sherborne