Sermon given on Easter Sunday 4th April 2021 at Sherborne Abbey by the Revd. Christopher Huitson.
“Mummy”, asked a little girl, “Do men ever go to heaven?”. “Why yes, of course dear,” answered her mother. “Why do you ask?”
“Because I’ve never seen angels with whiskers.”
“Well”, replied her mother, “Some men do go to heaven, but they only get there by a close shave”!
The relationship between this world and God’s kingdom of eternal life is not easy to define. When we look at this world, we see a physical world of great wonder and beauty but also one of risk with vast natural forces which take no account of the structures and plans of human inhabitants as the current pandemic clearly shows. We see love and friendship and the delight of relationships but also see the evil that human beings can wreak upon each other. This world is a great mixture and we ourselves contain good and evil elements.
The afterlife, we imagine, will be a place of beauty, love and truth and the beings who populate such a place will be purged of all that would mar it or blight their relationships.
The glimpses we are given of the life of resurrection come to us through the eyes of Jesus’ friends and disciples as they begin to take in the extraordinary events of that first Easter Day. It is noteworthy that Jesus was not seen by the Jewish leaders who had condemned him, not by Pontius Pilate who had pronounced sentence nor even, in St. Matthew’s gospel, by the guards who were sent to patrol the tomb in case the disciples stole his body away. Those guards fell into a mysterious deep unconscious sleep. No, he was seen only by those who had followed him and supported him through thick and thin. It is clear that in some undefinable way Jesus was different. A common theme is that they don’t initially recognise him mainly because they were not at all expecting to meet him, alive. Their knowledge of life and their expectations were just the same as ours even after a 2000-year interval. They were not expecting to see Jesus alive in this world after his obvious death on the cross. So it took some well-loved and well-remembered action by Jesus – or word spoken by him.
Today’s gospel gives us St. John’s moving account of the first of those appearances to Mary Magdalen and it was when he called her by name “Mary” that she looked more carefully through her tears and recognised him. She told the disciples but some of them still seemed sceptical, perhaps thinking that her emotional hopes and expectations were colouring her perceptions. The writer of the fourth gospel though clearly regarded her narrative as reliable for he gives it the prime position. Other appearances followed. “Shalom”, “peace be with you” he said to the disciples gathered together in the locked room – such a familiar greeting. He broke the bread and said the blessing an action he must have done so many times.
Then they knew.
But it was not a straight forward return to this world or this life. He appeared and disappeared. He spoke to his friends; he ate with them; he showed them the marks of crucifixion. And yes, as he is pictured in his glory by so many artists, he does, in some of them, have whiskers. All that defined him as the person he was, is comprehended by the resurrection. In time he was no longer seen, after the event we label the Ascension.
But these were special times. Before he was no longer seen, the disciples had to know for sure that his resurrection was real and that he was truly alive. The spiritual world seems to have come so close to this material world that the barrier between them was temporarily translucent enabling Jesus to inhabit both for a time until that special period came to an end.
The inference is that what makes us the special individuals each one of us is, will also be taken into the life of resurrection. Evil will be banished but the goodness of each person will shine out in life eternal.
And, you never know, some of the men who dwell in the heavenly domain may have whiskers.