A sermon recorded in the Vicarage dining room by Canon Eric Woods, for the Sherborne Abbey Easter Day Eucharist 2020
A retired Bishop used to tell some amusing stories from his time as a young man doing National Service in the Army. At the Basic Training Unit were a variety of specimens, mostly from the human species. One of them gradually developed a peculiar habit. He went around the camp picking up bits of paper lying around on the ground, looking at them, and saying “That’s not it”, and putting them down again. And it got worse. He did it everywhere, even going into the offices and picking up confidential documents, looking at them, saying “That’s not it”, and putting them down again. They tried everything. They even put him on a charge, but he just did the same to the charge sheet: “That’s not it”. He got worse and worse, and after doing the same in the CO’s office, “That’s not it”, they considered that the end of the line had come and sent him for a Medical Board and an Army Psychiatrist. After close examination the Board decided to discharge him, and the senior officer wrote up the necessary release form and pushed it across the desk for him to read. The young soldier picked it up, looked at it and shouted “That’s it!” – and disappeared to freedom.
In a very real way, Easter is our “That’s it!”. It is the event, the happening, the release to freedom, which we and the whole world have been looking for throughout human history. It’s the “That’s it!” that Moses and all the prophets, all the people of God until the time of Jesus, had been looking for. It is the end of the prophetic trek; the end of the mere legality road; the gate out of the imprisoning camp of religious anxiety and fear. It is as much a new creation as the very beginning of the world. Seven days of Holy Week are a divine remaking of the world. Because of them, the world is taking part in a God-given re-creation. And on Easter Day God picked up his Son, as it were, and hence his world, and said “That’s it!”
Just as his “That’s it!” brought our young soldier his freedom, so Easter confers freedom on humanity, the responsible freedom of released sons and daughters. We are released from the shackles of sin. We are released from the compulsive authority of law. We are free to go out into a new land. The hymns of Easter rejoice in that land. They burst into song as springtime comes to creation and to our souls: “‘Tis the spring of souls today, Christ has burst his prison”. Even grouchy old St Paul waxes lyrical about it. “Christ our Passover has been sacrificed for us,” he shouts, “so let us celebrate the feast”. “Christ once raised from the dead dies no more, death has no more dominion over him.”
The important thing to remember and rejoice in, though, is that we have no more earned our release by good behaviour than the young soldier did. He was no better, as far as we know, than his mates. He picked up the offer put in front of him. It would have been foolish to do otherwise. And it’s the same for us. Freedom and Easter are inseparable. We haven’t earned our freedom: Jesus has earned it for us. The stone is rolled away from the tomb, the gate into liberty and new life is open. All we have to do, but it is all, is walk through.
One other thing about that National Service soldier. He wouldn’t have got anywhere without searching. He was constantly searching amongst the ordinary, amongst the risky – NCOs especially are notoriously risky – constantly searching anywhere, everywhere. He was always looking. Easter is both a once and for all event, but it’s also an ever-recurring opportunity and invitation. If we are honest with ourselves about ourselves, we are forever re-locking ourselves into the camp. We are forever marching back into confinement. We are always convincing ourselves that life under law is easier, even preferable, because we know where we are. There is a never-ending chorus in Church and State for rules. We want safety inside the camp that we know.
At the moment we are in physical lockdown because of the Coronavirus. We understand the reasons, and most of us obey the rules. But that does not mean that we are in spiritual lockdown too. Our “That’s it!” Lord invites us again and again into his “That’s it!” kingdom outside the gates where our release was achieved at such cost. There the rules of living are nowhere near as clear as they are inside the prison of legalistic religiosity. The only clarity is the risky rule of resurrection life and resurrection love. But there is little known land. There are no defined perimeters. We explore that land as we travel in heart and mind towards the light, in company with the gloriously scarred Lord of light and love and life. It is risky. It can seem threatening. But then freedom always is.
When the disciples were told of the empty tomb, St Luke shows them reacting with incredulity. The story seemed to them an idle tale. Or, as another translation puts it, “It was too good to be true”. We are not only, in Luke’s words again, “Slow to believe”. We are also quick to disbelieve, over and over again.
“Love bade me welcome, but my soul drew back”. Constantly we need to go forward, to pick up our resurrection release, and put on the new uniform of resurrection glory and resurrection joy.
And for that, thanks be to God.