He is risen! A sermon for Easter Sunday evening

Readings: Acts 10.34-43 and John 20.1-18

 Like many people, I have been enjoying watching the third and final series of Broadchurch. Although I have actually managed to watch all the episodes so far – a rare achievement for me – I am still not sure who committed the awful rape of Trish. I have been trying to piece the evidence together and decide which witnesses are reliable, but I am still not sure who did it. I am hoping that tomorrow’s final episode will reveal the truth and enable me to make sense of the story…it better!

We have been telling another story over the past week, dwelling on each scene in turn and trying to make sense of it. We began last Sunday when we walked behind the donkey, waving our palms and singing ‘All glory, laud and honour to thee, Redeemer, King!’ We then sat in the candlelight at St Swithun’s as we listened to accounts of some of the events of Jesus’ last week on earth and pondered their meaning in the peace of compline. Then came Maundy Thursday when we gathered to share bread and wine together as we followed our Lord’s command to ‘do this in remembrance of me’. On Friday we followed the Way of the Cross and experienced something of Christ’s journey to Golgotha as the cries of the crowd turned from ‘Hosanna’ to ‘Crucify him!’ Later we sat at the foot of the cross for the Last Hour and Bishop David led us in meditations on the enormity of what Christ did for us. Then yesterday we paused…Holy Saturday is that day when nothing happens…when life seems to return to normal. After the tragedy of Jesus’ passion and death we return to our normal tasks as the disciples returned to their fishing nets. We look at the cross and see the enormity of the love of Jesus but on Holy Saturday we are left with the questions of why? and is it true?

But then Sunday dawns and we can proclaim:
Alleluia, Christ is risen
He is risen indeed. Alleluia.
for ‘early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark’ (John 20.1) the women had gone to the tomb and found it empty. Jesus had risen and in doing so has proved that he is who he said he was. The resurrection is good news because it is the proof that Jesus’ death was not another case of pointless suffering inflicted by people on another human being. The resurrection is good news because it is the proof that Jesus was not another deluded man with a messiah-complex. The resurrection is good news because it is the proof that Jesus is indeed the Saviour of the World. The death of Jesus is a guarantees that he loves us. The resurrection of Jesus is a guarantee of his truth. As Fr Raniero Cantalamessa, the preacher to the papal household puts it, the resurrection ‘is the testimony of God about Jesus Christ…it is God’s powerful ‘yes’, his ‘Amen’ to the life of his Son Jesus Christ.’

When we say ‘Amen’ at the end of a prayer or in response to something someone has said, we are saying it is so, or so be it. We are saying that we agree that something is true and affirming that we wish to see it come to pass. When God raises Jesus from the dead, God is saying Amen to what Jesus has said and done in his life and death; God is saying that Jesus is who he said he is; God is saying that his death conquers sin; God is saying that true peace is available to all who believe in him; God is saying that Jesus is indeed Lord of all.

St Paul wrote to the Corinthians that ‘if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain.’ (1 Corinthians 15.14-19) The resurrection is the event that makes sense of Holy Week; the event which allows Jesus’ ascension into heaven and the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. It is as Cantalamessa puts it ‘the seal of Christ’s authentic divinity’.

So how can we be confident that the resurrection did indeed happen? Like Hardy and Miller and all good detectives, we need to look at the evidence and listen carefully to the witnesses. Like many others, I believe that the evidence is irrefutable and the witnesses are reliable. First there is the empty tomb with the grave clothes lying in place where Jesus lay: if someone had removed Jesus’ body, they would have taken it still wrapped in its linen strips. Removing them would have been unpleasant and time consuming. As Alex reminded us this morning, burglars are not known for leaving a place neat and tidy. They certainly wouldn’t have rolled up the head cloth and placed it carefully apart from the other line wrappings. An empty tomb was not in the interests of the Romans or Jewish authorities. The disciples were not trying to stage a resurrection as, although Peter and John believed that something miraculous had taken place, they did not on that Easter morning understand what it was or what it meant. We are told that as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead’ (John 20.9) which is a reassuring detail as it means that they did not invent the empty tomb to fulfil Old Testament prophecies.

If you were making up a story, you would not have included this confusion, and you certainly would not have had women as the first witnesses to the resurrection. The witnesses are reliable because they are consistent, because they tell the facts as they saw them and do not succeed in understanding what they mean until they have spent time with the risen Lord Jesus and been empowered by the Holy Spirit. And there are lots of witnesses: St Paul notes that over 500 people saw the risen Jesus. During the time they spent with them they touched him, they ate and drank with him so they knew that he was no ghost but their Lord and friend, resurrected from the dead. These were people who had known Jesus well and were known at the time; they were witnesses who people could ask about what they had seen; these were people who were prepared to die for the truth of what they testified to and many of them did.

So as we gather to celebrate this Easter Sunday we can do so with joy and with confidence. Jesus Christ is risen today and that truth enables us to believe that Jesus is the Messiah he said he was; it tells us that his death on the cross was a victory and not a defeat, a beginning and not an end. That truth not only gives us cause for deep joy but also gives us hope. It is because Jesus is risen that we can look forward to the resurrection of the dead. Jesus promised the repentant thief that he would be with him in paradise. It is because Jesus is risen that we can be united with him for all eternity.

So this Easter evening we proclaim with joyful hearts:
Alleluia, Christ is risen!
He is risen indeed. Alleluia. Amen.

Revd Rebecca Fardell

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