Easter Sunday Sermon - Nothing Can Be The Same Again
Jesus said to her, ‘Mary!’ This one word is the moment when everything changes, when the Resurrection becomes real. Up to this moment, it is the mystery of an empty tomb. The stone curiously rolled away; the body missing; the linen wrappings left lying; the cloth neatly rolled up. Up to this moment, it is a story of fear and confusion. A defeated group of loyal followers, whose loyalty broke at the last minute, whose hope dissolved, and who are now holed up in fear for their lives. Up to this moment, it is a story of a gardener who might just have some answers about where the body has been taken. Weeping outside the tomb, Mary is unable to grasp what is going on. Then, Jesus speaks to her. She recognises him, and nothing can ever be the same again. She rushes to the other disciples, hidden away. ‘I have seen the Lord,’ she proudly tells them.
Easter morning: when everything is shockingly turned on its head; when a great downfall is stunningly overcome; when death is implausibly transformed into life. The Resurrection is a radical reversal, a turning upside down, a paradigm shift. The worst of deaths becomes the most incredible of lives. The grotesque suffering and torture of the Good Friday cross becomes the unbounded joy of new life and hope. The paradox of the cross is that with the Resurrection, it is changed from a symbol of execution into a symbol of power.
The Resurrection serves as the lens through which we look at the rest of Jesus’ life and ministry. When we do this, we see that this pattern of radical reversal underpins such a huge amount of what Jesus says and does. Jesus’ ministry is about turning around the values and perceptions of society, challenging deeply-held, often institutional prejudices. We hear many times from Jesus that the ‘first will be last, and the last will be first’. In the Beatitudes, he shows us that those who are blessed are not the ones we might expect. They are the poor, the vulnerable, the abused, the tortured. Jesus starts to build his group of closest followers not with the rich and powerful, but with four fishermen casting their nets into the Sea of Galilee. He spends most of his time with the poor, the sick, the needy, the downtrodden, the outcasts, the excluded, the sinners of his world. He gives them all a place at his table, he cures them of the things that hold them back, he shows that they all have a place in God’s kingdom. He talks of a man offering a banquet. Those who are invited do not come, so he throws open his doors to everyone – including the poor, the crippled, the blind, the lame. Even before Jesus is born, his mother Mary proclaims:
‘He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.’
Radical reversal is something at the very heart of what Jesus shows us. In this respect, surely the Resurrection should come as no surprise? It is the ultimate expression and confirmation of what Jesus shows us through his life, his teaching, his parables, his miracles. It is the story of a new order – God’s kingdom – which makes us see everything differently.
I can’t talk on this Easter morning without referring to our current world crisis. A crisis which is pushing it to its very limits. In the past month in the UK, this novel coronavirus has affected all of our lives in ways in which we could never have imagined. So many are ill, so many are in our hospitals, and so many have already died. Our worlds have shrunk. Our movement is severely limited. Our contact with others is drastically reduced. Look at us now, only gathered virtually on YouTube to celebrate this our greatest festival. One way to approach this is, of course, to talk about hope – something at the core of the Christian message. This is hope that this situation will be transformed, that we will emerge from our own effective tombs into newness of life. I’ve spoken a lot about this hope, this Easter hope which we need to keep at the front of our minds. Whilst this is important, I don’t want to dwell on this today.
What I do want to talk about is how what we are facing is remarkably similar to the moment when Jesus says, ‘Mary!’ and she recognises him. Just as for Mary, life could never be the same again after seeing Jesus on that first Easter morning, so it is with this pandemic. When we emerge into newness of life after this, life for us should never be the same again. Just as the Resurrection was a moment of fundamental transformation, so this should lead us into a fundamental transformation of the world around us.
As we’ve entered into this unprecedented time in these last weeks, we’ve seen how different roles in our society have come to the fore. Whilst not exclusively so, most of these jobs are amongst the lowest paid in our country – they are often so-called unskilled roles. Hospital cleaners, supermarket workers, food producers, delivery drivers, funeral directors, rubbish operators, bus drivers, carers, social workers. We are waking up to the reality that these are roles our society heavily depends on. We also depend on roles which are skilled but which society has for so long undervalued and underpaid – our nurses, our teachers and teaching assistants. We depend so much on all of these. And it is they who are at the front line of this crisis, out there far more exposed to infection than most of us riding it out in our homes. On top of this, we are seeing just how many people in our country are vulnerable. Vulnerable through age and health; vulnerable in their employment; vulnerable through poverty; vulnerable in their mental health and wellbeing.
We need to do things differently in this country and beyond. The worth people have lies far more in who they are and what they contribute to the greater good than in their economic contribution and the amount of money sitting in their bank accounts. What we have come to value as a society in recent decades needs to be turned on its head. Rather surprisingly, but rather poignantly, our Prime Minister pointed out in a speech to the nation that there really is such a thing as society. This is something that we desperately need to rediscover as a result of what we are experiencing now. We need to know down the statues of the gods of our age, beginning with their brittle feet of clay.
Easter morning, then, is symbolised in Mary Magdalene’s moment of recognition of Jesus. This moment which changes everything, which compels her to run to the disciples to proclaim, ‘I have seen the Lord’. Mary Magdalene could not simply have walked away. When we emerge from the ravages of this disease, we must not simply walk away. We must learn from what we have seen and experienced. We must act. We must change. We must change the way that we do things for the sake of our world and for the sake of all our sisters and brothers. Easter is a radical reversal. May we have the courage to bring this sense of radical reversal to our world.