Sermons


This is the basic text of a sermon at Ripon Cathedral on the eve of the Queen’s funeral.

The Death of Queen Elizabeth II

Ripon Cathedral

Sunday 18 September 2022

While emptying my office in Bradford before moving to Leeds in 2014 I found two brown file boxes marked simply ‘1936’. So, while my colleagues carried on shifting boxes and furniture, I opened the boxes and found in one the speeches of the then Bishop of Bradford, Dr Alfred Blunt, and in the other the correspondence that followed one such speech.

On 1 December 1936 at (what we would now call a Diocesan Synod) the Bishop of Bradford reflected on the nature of King Edward VIII’s imminent coronation and the nature of what this would mean for the new king. Expressing some concern about the King’s Christian commitment (as expressed in his attendance at worship), he famously said this:

“The benefit of the King’s coronation depends upon… the faith, prayer and self-dedication of the King himself; and on that it would be improper of me to say anything except to commend him to God’s grace, which he will so abundantly need, as we all need it – for the King is a man like ourselves – if he is to do his duty faithfully. We hope that he is aware of his need. Some of us wish that he gave more positive signs of such awareness.”

That observation ignited the abdication crisis and provoked the green-ink correspondence that then came the bishop’s way. (Plus ça change!)

But, the subsequent decision by Edward to abdicate the throne set in course the events that led eventually to Queen Elizabeth II ascending the throne in 1952 following the death of her father, King George VI.

Now, this might seem an odd way to begin a sermon on the eve of our late Queen’s funeral. But, it sets in context what I think is key to understanding her understanding of her role and responsibilities, her example and her commitment. In a world in which the autonomous self is king, the late Queen was a counter-cultural icon of different virtues.

It is against this backdrop that we hear the broadcast she made on her twenty first birthday in 1947 when she said this: “I declare before you all that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong.”

The world has changed beyond recognition since then and, among other things, there is no longer an ‘imperial’ anything (let alone ‘family’). But, her commitment wasn’t to being ‘relevant’ to whatever cultures would emerge in the aftermath of the Second World War, the nuclear age, the bipolar global hegemony, and so on. No, rather she was held firmly to a set of virtues and commitments that rooted her securely while everything else moved around her – in the wider world as well as in her personal and family ambit. Only so could the then young Princess Elizabeth’s commitment be made in ignorance of what might lie ahead.

At the heart of her commitment was, I believe, one word: grace. Before flying to Kazakhstan last Monday (I got back yesterday afternoon), I attended the House of Lords for the second day of parliamentary tributes (and to swear allegiance to the new King). Many speeches were long and anecdotal; mine was very short and about Her late Majesty, not me. I simply observed what I want to repeat here today: she could reign with grace because she first knew her need of grace. She did not need to be persuaded of the need for confession in Anglican liturgy; she didn’t need to be argued into some sort of religious role-playing; she didn’t need to be preached into submission to a religious demand. At the root of her convictions and conduct lay a fundamental awareness of her need of God’s grace.

Now, as I observed in the Lords, this is what enabled her to fulfil her obligations as a constitutional monarch with such grace and wisdom: being unashamed of one’s own need of grace opens the door to an unashamed inhabiting of accountability.

When the monarch sits on the throne in the House of Lords to deliver the ‘Speech’ at the commencement of a new session of Parliament, she (and now he) looks out at the assembled three legs of a parliamentary democracy: the executive (behind the bar), the legislature and the judiciary. All their work is done in the name of ‘Her Majesty’ – Her Majesty’s Government, Her Majesty’s Courts, and so on. But, she read the Speech (which sets out the government’s proposed legislative programme) in the name of God. And, as she did so, she would look up she sees the statues of the barons of Magna Carta between the windows around the chamber.

When in the chamber I always feel I am physically inhabiting the British Constitution. And you get the point: the monarch saw herself as not the ultimate authority. Accountability beyond oneself or one’s powerbrokers, beyond the immediate fashions of political or social shaping, beyond the satisfying of political egos or passions: it is this accountability that keeps a monarch honest and rooted in more than expediency or self-fulfilment.

And it is this accountability, rooted in and born out of a conviction of need – of grace – that enables us to understand why the seventy-year reign of Queen Elizabeth matters so much. Whether we were conscious of it or not, her commitment to this humility of understanding and praxis has shaped and coloured our culture, our language and the assumptions underlying our gratitude for an honourable and peaceful polity.

Politicians might be driven by different factors and even Prime Ministers might be able to get away with poor behaviour, but our late Queen quietly and confidently held herself – and, therefore, the country – to a different standard of accountability. We all benefitted from this, whether we recognised it or not – whether we acknowledge the Christian roots of it or not.

The Apostle Paul, in our reading from Romans 14, puts it like this: “We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. … For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God.”

This sense of grace and accountability – which I think goes to the heart of who the late Queen was and permeates the stories that have been replayed on loop since her death – must, as part of her legacy, speak to us in our own lives as we navigate ever-changing circumstances and pressures. Through the Covid pandemic we have learned – rather rudely in some cases – that we are not in control of everything; that life can change in an instant; that “anything can happen”; that we need to sort out what holds, roots and steers us through whatever the particular circumstances of our world and our lives.

The Queen was explicit about what this meant for her. This is what she said in a broadcast following her coronation on 2 June 1953:

“When I spoke to you last, at Christmas, I asked you all, whatever your religion, to pray for me on the day of my Coronation – to pray that God would give me wisdom and strength to carry out the promises that I should then be making. Throughout this memorable day I have been uplifted and sustained by the knowledge that your thoughts and prayers were with me. I have been aware all the time that my peoples, spread far and wide throughout every continent and ocean in the world, were united to support me in the task to which I have now been dedicated with such solemnity.”

Humility is strength.

And it is this faith that sustained her during the seven decades that she reigned in the United Kingdom and Commonwealth.

Again, in 1992 in the wake of her children’s marital breakdowns and various scandals, she spoke openly of her ‘Annus Horribilis’, commenting that it was “not a year on which I shall look back with undiluted pleasure.” But, she thanked those who had prayed for her and her family, referring to those “whose prayers – fervent, I hope, but not too frequent – have sustained me through all these years.”

At Christmas 2014 she boldly stated that “For me, the life of Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace, whose birth we celebrate today, is an inspiration and an anchor in my life. A role model of reconciliation and forgiveness, he stretched out his hands in love, acceptance and healing. Christ’s example has taught me to seek to respect and value all people of whatever faith or none.”

In her Christmas address of 2016 she was even more explicit about her personal faith: “Billions of people now follow Christ’s teaching and find in him the guiding light for their lives. I am one of them because Christ’s example helps me to see the value of doing small things with great love, whoever does them and whatever they themselves believe.”

At the last covid-restricted inauguration of the General Synod for the next five years, the Queen was represented by Prince Edward who read her address. Commenting on the more than fifty years since she and her husband had attended the very first General Synod, she said this: “None of us can slow the passage of time; and while we often focus on all that has changed in the intervening years, much remains unchanged, including the Gospel of Christ and his teachings. The list of tasks facing that first General Synod may sound familiar to many of you — Christian education, Christian unity, the better distribution of the ordained ministry. … But one stands out supreme: ‘To bring the people of this country to the knowledge and the love of God.’“

Which brings us back to the point. Today, before her funeral tomorrow, we rightly give thanks for her faith and witness, for her commitment to democracy and the rule of law, for her discipline and selfless service, for her resilience and humour, for her love of God and his world.

As we watch events unfolding on the TV loop – even in Kazakhstan this week – we see played out the truth of Shakespeare’s observation in Henry V: “Let us our lives, our souls, Our debts, our careful wives, Our children, and our sins, lay on the King.” Millions of people might project their hopes and fears, their fantasies and failures, their griefs and joys onto a monarch; but, we then need to go through these experiences to examine who we are and what fires our own commitments. That is a legacy worth honouring.

May our late Queen rest in peace and rise in glory.

God bless and save the King.

Amen.

This is the basic text of the various sermons preached in Ripon, Leeds, Bradford and Wakefield at civic services for the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee over the last weekend.

Did you notice the words in the reading from Proverbs 8: wisdom; understanding; prudence; intelligence; noble things; right; truth; righteous; and so on?

Virtue matters. Still. Knowing our need of grace and wisdom is a mark of strength, not of weakness.*

Legendary guitarist and musician Jimi Hendrix famously said “knowledge speaks, but wisdom listens”. Hermann Hesse, in his Siddharta, observed that wisdom cannot be imparted; he wrote: “Knowledge can be communicated, but not wisdom. One can find it, live it, be fortified by it, do wonders through it, but one cannot communicate and teach it.” Wisdom, then, has to with virtue and character, honed through experience and offered to those who listen and watch and learn and grow.

Today we celebrate how a young woman, surprised by events, face to face with mortality, accepted the role thrust upon her by circumstance and history. She is also the woman who, because of her awareness of her need to learn wisdom, grew in it over seven decades of commitment. Wisdom grows out of facing whatever the world throws at us – navigating the torments as well as enjoying the blessings of plane sailing.

The monarch whose platinum jubilee we mark today is the Princess Elizabeth who, on her twenty first birthday in 1947, made a speech in which she said this: “I declare before you all that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong.”

Yet, she could have no more idea than anyone else what might lie ahead for her.

It is a remarkable statement of personal commitment. But, it is more than a mere noble sentiment.

Having emerged from the Second World War and the devastation it wrought across the world – over 50 million people dead – the divisions between the Soviet Union and the Western Allies were already evident. Peace was not a given and there was little certainty about what the future might hold for an exhausted people. So, Princess Elizabeth’s commitment was made in ignorance of any political or economic developments that might occur.

In other words, she was ready to face whatever the world threw up, and to do so with one single aim: to serve not herself or her own interests, but, rather, her people and their best interests. This was not naïve; it was rooted in a clear understanding of virtue.

Of course, the years that followed saw considerable change and challenge. Just think of the creation of the Welfare State and the National Health Service – rooted in a radical vision of mutuality (for rebuilding a nation and state) which should never cease to draw admiration and never be taken for granted. Yet, this was also the beginning of the end of the British Empire (which she refers to in her statement); the intensification of the Cold War; the development of the nuclear threat (remember Mutual Assured Destruction – a nightmare with which many of us grew up as children or young people?); the swinging sixties, pop culture, drugs, American cultural hegemony; the eventual end of the Cold War, the growth of the European Union, and the hubris attached to the ‘monopolar world’ – the so-called New World Order; the optimism of the new millennium, and the rise of neoliberalism, followed swiftly by 9/11 and its response: invasions, war, the decline in public trust of institutions, regime change, terrorism, and so on; the digital revolution and its impact on communications, economics and politics; and then Brexit, the rise of the Far Right in Europe, a global pandemic, and challenges to the norms of public life and discourse. Afghanistan, Ukraine and the mass migration of humanity across the globe.

And I bet none of that was in the mind of the young princess when she made her personal commitment to service.

So, her accession to the throne in 1952, ahead of her coronation in June 1953, was not a predictable outworking of a series of convenient events that culminated in some fairytale “happy ever after” dream. Personal trauma, the shock of a different life irrupting into the stability of an emerging world. What matters is that, although not in control of events, her commitment to service proved through time and circumstance to be the leitmotif, the strong guiding hand that steered her and steeled her, come what may.

It seems to me that this is pertinent to us in our own lives as we navigate ever-changing circumstances and pressures. Through the Covid pandemic we have learned – rather rudely in some cases – that we are not in control of everything; that life can change in an instant; that “anything can happen”; that we are mortal and we all shall die; that we need to sort out what holds, roots and steers us through whatever the particular circumstances of our crazy world and our lives.

The Queen has been explicit about what this means for her – never fearing mortality or contingency. This is what she said in a broadcast following her coronation on 2 June 1953:

“When I spoke to you last, at Christmas, I asked you all, whatever your religion, to pray for me on the day of my Coronation – to pray that God would give me wisdom and strength to carry out the promises that I should then be making. Throughout this memorable day I have been uplifted and sustained by the knowledge that your thoughts and prayers were with me. I have been aware all the time that my peoples, spread far and wide throughout every continent and ocean in the world, were united to support me in the task to which I have now been dedicated with such solemnity.”

Note the passive tense there and what it suggests about dedication being mutual.

There is a slight irony with this. Until the then Bishop of Bradford set off the abdication crisis on 1 December 1936 with a narky dig at the uncrowned King’s lack of awareness of spiritual need, Elizabeth was set for a very different life as the niece of the monarch. Edward VIII’s abdication changed everything. And Elizabeth knew from the beginning God’s wisdom and strength and the support of disparate peoples. Humility is strength.

And it is this faith that has sustained her during the seven decades that she has reigned in the United Kingdom and Commonwealth.

Again, in 1992 in the wake of her children’s marital breakdowns and various scandals, she spoke openly of her ‘Annus Horribilis’, commenting that it was “not a year on which I shall look back with undiluted pleasure.” But, she thanked those who had prayed for her and her family, referring to those “whose prayers – fervent, I hope, but not too frequent – have sustained me through all these years.”

At Christmas 2014 she boldly stated that “For me, the life of Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace, whose birth we celebrate today, is an inspiration and an anchor in my life. A role model of reconciliation and forgiveness, he stretched out his hands in love, acceptance and healing. Christ’s example has taught me to seek to respect and value all people of whatever faith or none.”

In her Christmas address of 2016 she was even more explicit about her personal faith: “Billions of people now follow Christ’s teaching and find in him the guiding light for their lives. I am one of them because Christ’s example helps me to see the value of doing small things with great love, whoever does them and whatever they themselves believe.”

At the covid-restricted inauguration of the General Synod in November 2021, the Queen was represented by Prince Edward who read her address. Commenting on the more than fifty years since she and her husband had attended the very first General Synod, she said this: “None of us can slow the passage of time; and while we often focus on all that has changed in the intervening years, much remains unchanged, including the Gospel of Christ and his teachings. The list of tasks facing that first General Synod may sound familiar to many of you — Christian education, Christian unity, the better distribution of the ordained ministry. … But one stands out supreme: ‘To bring the people of this country to the knowledge and the love of God.’“

Which brings us back to the point. From before her accession to the throne she knew her need of God, God’s grace and wisdom; of the support of those in her domain, especially by their prayers; of the need for humility in leadership; for love in the exercise of power. As the world has changed around her – for the better in the end of colonialism and Empire, for the worse in increasing conflict following the war that was supposed to end all wars – she has not moved from the central convictions and rooted humility that has sustained her for more than seventy years.

So, as we celebrate this remarkable and unprecedented – and probably never to be repeated milestone, we can rightly give thanks for her faith and witness, for her commitment to democracy and the rule of law, for her discipline and selfless service, for her resilience and humour, for her courage and constancy, for her character, virtue and dignity, for her love of God and world.

Joshua set out into the unknown territory of Canaan, confident only in the promise that he would never be forsaken. His people grew a culture of wisdom, hewn out of the rocks of change and adversity, of suffering and hope – learning through centuries that wisdom matters and that service must always be rooted in humility and faith.

Here in Yorkshire, whatever life throws at us or in our way – personally, socially, politically, economically, and so on – we, too, can be grasped in our imagination by an example of character and service that shines a light on how a good life can be lived.

May God bless and save the Queen.

Amen.

* In several of the five occasions I added observations about (a) Paddington Bear being about how an outsider/immigrant teaches Brits how to be better examples of civility and generosity, but is upstaged this time by the Queen; and (b) how in the House of Lords, when the Queen does her Speech, she sits before the three legs of parliamentary democracy (the Executive, the Legislation and the Judiciary) who do their work in the name of Her Majesty … and she does her work ”in the name of God”. While doing this, she looks up to see the statues of the barons of Magna Carta … and there you have the UK constitutional arrangement in a single chamber. However, the conventions that hold that arrangement are fragile and depend on trust, integrity, consistency and wisdom.

This is the text of my sermon in Ripon Cathedral this morning as the light streamed in.

Don’t tell me of a faith that fears
To face the world around
Don’t dull my mind with easy thoughts
of grace without a ground.

[Chorus]
I need to know that God is real!
I need to know that Christ can feel
the need to touch and love and heal
the world, including me!

Don’t speak of piety and prayers
Absolved from human need;
Don’t talk of spirit without flesh
Like harvest without seed.

Don’t sate my soul with common sense
Distilled from ages past
Inept for those who fear the world’s
about to breathe its last.

Don’t set the cross before my eyes
unless you tell the truth
of how the Lord, who finds the lost,
was often found uncouth.

So let the Gospel come alive
in actions plain to see
in imitation of the one
whose love extends to me. (John Bell, The Sorrow)

“Whose love extends to me.”

One of the really intriguing things about the story told through the sixty six books of the Bible is that people keep having their name changed. Note: they don’t change their own name; their name is changed for them – and apparently without the courtesy of asking them first. Abram and Sarai become Abraham and Sarah; Simon becomes Peter (the Rock) – although the granite he assumes is meant turns out to be a leaking limestone; Saul becomes Paul.

Names matter. They are not simply a moniker or a label. They say something about the nature of the person. Or, in these cases, the nature God sees in them … despite the evidence to the watching world around them.

Take Simon who becomes Peter, for instance. He’s the one who constantly misunderstands Jesus, but, still pledges undying allegiance to his friend … just hours before denying even knowing him when asked by a young girl in a garden. It is this Peter who deserts Jesus at the point when his need is greatest and his loneliness most powerful: on the cross. This Peter returns to the old life, fishing on the familiar lake in Galilee, the hill country of the north which was home until the carpenter’s son drew him into a whole new world just a couple of years before. And it is this Peter who has the most beautiful and excruciating conversation with the risen Jesus at his old workplace, the beach, in which his failure is laid bare … before he is restored by love that suffers no illusions.

This same Peter, the one who ran away and who doesn’t seem to “get it”, we read later is out on the streets risking life and limb while telling anyone who would listen that his friend had been executed, was truly dead, but now was alive. Not resuscitated. Not recovered from a bad swoon or fainting fit. Not popping back to life like some magic trick. But, raised to new life by the God about whom many were sceptical.

In our reading from Acts 10:34-43 we find this same Peter having undergone in the preceding verses a radical conversion. Put simply, his assumptions about who God is for were turned upside down. To misuse a different image, a stone had been rolled away and now he could see that God could not be trapped by human limitation or prejudice. I think he might have appreciate the lines from the Welsh poet RS Thomas (I quoted in a Thought for the Day on Radio 4 on Good Friday):

History showed us he was too big to be nailed to the wall of a stone chapel, yet still we crammed him between the boards of a black book.”

The implications of the resurrection gradually shook Peter’s view of God and re-shaped his love for people. And here he is, speaking boldly in public about the resurrection of a dead man. Even mockery or ridicule won’t stop him now.

As Tomáš Halík, the Czech Roman Catholic priest and professor of sociology in Prague, says in a newly-published sermon for Easter Day in lockdown (The Time of Empty Churches, available only in Czech and German at the moment): “We believers have no monopoly over Christ”. In other words, not even we can trap him within the limitations of our own pieties, prejudices or prayers. The resurrection whispers that God is free, that death does not have the last word after all, that Jesus will not be trapped in a place of decay behind a stone that won’t be rolled away.

But, it’s not just name changes that matter in the Scriptures. Names themselves are significant. As Mary Magdalene found out in the garden on Easter morning.

Let’s have a look at John 20.

In John’s Gospel light and darkness are very significant. John asks us to pay attention to light and darkness as we encounter the people who met Jesus along the way. Here, Mary Magdalene comes to the tomb “while it was still dark”. She expects to find a corpse and is shocked to find the stone rolled away and the tomb empty. In John’s account she is alone, so runs to tell the men – including Peter – that someone has done something with the body. The implication of verse 2 – “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him” – is that the authorities have, for their own ends and purposes, removed the body.

Confusion, bewilderment, fear. Not joy, excitement, understanding.

Then, after the men have seen for themselves (because women’s witness statements didn’t count until verified by a man) and returned to their homes, Mary weeps and cannot leave this place of poignant mystery. When asked “Why are you weeping?”, she reprises verse 2: “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.”

And it is here – right here in the place of bereavement and inexplicable loss – that the risen Jesus comes to her. He doesn’t wait for her to get her act together and approach him; he comes to her. Mary, thinking he might be one of them, asks him to tell her where the body is to be found. And here we have the beauty, the simplicity, the directness of the mention of a name: “Mary.”

It was this that dispelled the darkness and opened her eyes. Jesus, the same but different, knows her by name. And in this gentle naming of her, in her place of despair, she knows that she is loved.

That is the Easter story. And it is this that the Christian Church is called to live out in whatever context or society we find ourselves living.

But, the story doesn’t end there. Her instinct is to grab Jesus, to hold onto him, to not let him go again. And Jesus won’t let her. There can be no bolder statement that we cannot possess Jesus. We cannot trap him within our own needs or wants. We cannot mould him to suit our political or ideological preferences or passions. If he won’t be contained by the grave, then he is unlikely to be constrained by my desires, comforts or conveniences.

I don’t know where all of us stand today in relation to the world’s suffering or the imminence of death and loss. But, I do know that the encounter between Mary and the risen Christ fills the world with hope and light. We might feel that we only ever come to him in the darkness, where we are confused or afraid or suspicious; and that’s OK. We might approach this Easter Day with tears and weeping, feeling lost or bereft – for whatever reason. We might feel the absence of God or the fragility of faith. And if we do so, sharing what a Czech philosopher, Jan Patočka called ‘the solidarity of the broken’, then we will not be ashamed to hear the questions put to Mary: “Why are you weeping?” and “For whom are you looking?”

Why? Because when we have let down the defences and faced the powerful reality of loss and fear, then we are able to hear the whispering of our name by the one who knows us inside out and loves us to death and beyond. He is not the disinterested judge who looks for our faults or inadequacies, but, rather, the Wounded Healer who holds out hands with holes in them and speaks our name into the silence of the place of darkness.

That, I think, is why we can rejoice. No bland escapism or romantic attachment to a comfort blanket of faith. Rather, the courage to be exposed to the searching love of the crucified and risen Lord who cannot be surprised by us or by anything the world can throw at him. This is the liberating power of Easter and resurrection: we look for God, for hope, for deep meaning in life and society … and we end up discovering that God has already found us … and spoken our name.

This is no faith that “fears to face the world around”, or “dulls my mind with easy thoughts of grace without a ground.”

I want to conclude with a verse from another song by John Bell – one I quoted to the clergy of the diocese on Maundy Thursday and in Wakefield Cathedral last night at the Easter Vigil. It takes seriously the reality of the world and our experience; but it looks to the future,  changed by life’s experiences – a pandemic and all that has happened in the last year, for example – and beckons God’s people, the followers of this same Jesus, to be surprised by joy:

Sing, my soul, when light seems darkest,

Sing when night refuses rest,

Sing though death should mock the future:

What’s to come by God is blessed.

Amen.

This is the basic text of a sermon in Wakefield Cathedral at the Easter Vigil:

“Who will roll away the stone…?” (Mark 16:3)

It’s an entirely reasonable question in the circumstances. But, it is also quite revealing.

The three named women – Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome – will have spent the sabbath in empty agony. Jesus is dead and buried. The sabbath is not the day for visiting tombs or touching dead bodies; so, they must wait until the sabbath is over, the sun is shining on a new day, and they can resume their shocked grieving. They come early to the tomb of Jesus, expecting to find a corpse whose dignity will be honoured by being anointed in the usual way.

That’s the point. They expected to find a buried body. Everyone knows that when you are dead, you are dead. (And Professor Alice Roberts, President of Humanists UK, was surprisingly theologically orthodox when she tweeted yesterday that dead people do not come back to life. Christians strongly agree. We believe that “God raised Christ from the dead,” which is different.)

If we are to live this story and not just intellectually recall its drift, then we must inhabit the imagination of Mary and Mary and Salome. They came to the tomb expecting to find the body of Jesus. They didn’t pitch up with a sneaky suspicion that he might not be there. They didn’t predict the surprise that awaited them. They weren’t playing some game of emotional forgetfulness that then dissipated in the joy of resurrection.

In fact, what they encountered at the tomb didn’t fill them with unbridled joy; the message of resurrection, accompanied by the experience of a vacated grave, terrified them. Verse 8 tells us that “they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

Let’s just stick with this for a moment.

After I did Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4 yesterday morning (Good Friday), I quickly got an email from a woman who wrote: “A disappointing, wasted opportunity to share the story of the cruel, unjust crucifixion of Jesus on Good Friday. I learnt more about Winston Churchill and R S Thomas than I did about why Jesus died and what it means to know him as my redeemer through his glorious rising on Easter Day.”

Apart from confusing the Today studio with a pulpit (and not understanding the medium), she also made the mistake of wanting to rush to Easter Day before having lived through Good Friday or the emptiness of Saturday. And we cannot begin to understand what the gospel is telling us unless we work hard imaginatively at living with the story as it unfolds – not knowing the ending.

I don’t wish to be too controversial, but it seems that we would be much more ‘biblical’ if we were to recognise that the resurrection was met not with joy and bubbles, but with terror and fear and amazement. The joy can come later when, to quote Luke’s account of the couple on the road to Emmaus, their journey and conversation with the risen Jesus – incognito at first – “their hearts burned within them” as Jesus re-framed the narrative that made his death a necessity rather than an error.

I venture to suggest that we might benefit as Christian disciples from staying with the text and what it describes before moving on too quickly. Which means watching these women as their world begins to shake beneath their feet.

On one group visit to the Land of the Holy One, we were taken to a convent in Nazareth where we descended some recently excavated steps down into the earth. At the bottom was a tomb with the door-stone rolled back. When it was excavated they found a mummified body of a bishop – suitably attired – keeping watch over what was, to him and his community, holy ground. It is thought this might have been the burial site of Joseph, the husband of Mary. Apparently, when they first opened the cavity, the smell of ointments and perfumes, kept sealed for centuries, wafted up and out. I still have the photographs I took of a real tomb with its stone removed.

Looking at it, I remember making sense of these women who made their way to the garden where Jesus had been buried, asking “Who will roll away the stone for us?” As I said, it is a perfectly reasonable question.

But, as they found themselves confronted by emptiness and alarm, they also discovered that Jesus cannot be imprisoned, manipulated or contained – by prejudices (about how the world is or why it is the way it is), by past experiences (death is the end of everything), by our sin and failures (of which we need little reminding), or even by death itself.

In fact, what these women find is that God has already found them. He has gone before them, brought order out of chaos, seeded new life out of death, a new beginning out of the ultimate of endings, a new future from the ashes of the past.

This, I think, is powerful for us in our world at this particular time. We need no reminding that the coronavirus pandemic has brought death and misery across the planet – caused in part by our careless exploitation of the planet as if it is ours and not that we are stewards of it. Every community will know the cost – in every sense – of the last year. And when we ask the entirely reasonable question “Who will roll the stone away for us?”, we will find ourselves challenged to think afresh – what the Old Testament theologian Walter Brueggemann calls being “freshly faithful”.

You see, resurrection has become a useful metaphor for new life and hope – like bunnies and seeds and so on. But, to leave the resurrection there is to leave the stone unrolled. It is to lack either curiosity or seriousness. The resurrection is certainly not less than a metaphor for what, again, Brueggemann calls “newness after loss”; but, it is certainly much more than a metaphor. Something happened to Jesus, the disappointingly dead man.

Clearly, the Romans could have stopped the new and completely challenging Christian movement on day one – by producing the body. They didn’t. Is it really credible that the first friends of Jesus went through unimaginable struggle and suffering for what they knew to be a lie – if they had hidden the body? No, the women found an empty tomb; the men didn’t believe their story, so eventually saw for themselves; and the women became the first evangelists – quite fitting as they were the ones to stay with Jesus to the bitter end.

And what do they find? Jesus is the same, but different. Jesus knows them by name. Jesus bears the wound marks in his risen body. And, as the story develops, they find that it wasn’t just a grave stone that had been rolled away, but also their understanding – their assumptions – about God and the world and themselves.

This is why at the heart of the Christian faith is not some vague optimism about the future – no lazy or seductive ‘pie in the sky when you die’ crutch with which to navigate life. Nor is it some spiritualised faith that disconnects God from the material world and splits human being into compartmentalised bits. No. At the heart of the Christian faith is a real cross planted in a real rubbish tip outside the city walls … and an empty tomb that, if we can’t find an explanation, still cries out for a response.

At Easter we don’t just celebrate a ritual that makes us feel better when life is tough. Rather, we unashamedly and unapologetically plant ourselves with the friends of Jesus who, bewildered and maybe even afraid of the implications of all this stuff, offer the world a different way of seeing and believing and being. That is why we eventually sing alleluia. This is what makes sense of those people in the gospels – often disregarded women – who find in Jesus that they need not be imprisoned in their past, nailed to a reputation or fear that pins them down and traps them behind a stone. Here is life. Here is hope. And a community of Christians who have been grasped by grace and love and mercy has no option but, with a confident humility, to live it out in generosity, forgiveness, love and mercy towards our neighbours.

The Easter fire will not be put out. The Easter candle might sometimes flicker and fade, blown by the draughts and pressure changes around, but it will stand proud, bearing witness to the stubborn conviction that death does not have the last word after all.

What these women went on to experience was that this same Jesus, by his Spirit, empowered them for all that lay ahead. When in the Eucharist we proclaim: “The Lord is here, his spirit is with us!”, we are not just mimicking the old banner I saw in a photograph in Pravda many years ago – a banner hanging in a Soviet factory exhorting the proletariat to work harder at the five year plan: “Lenin is here; his spirit is with us” would have been the English translation. (Was it a promise or a threat, I wonder?) No, the Lord who is with us is the one we read about in the gospels, pouring himself out in love and mercy for broken people.

And this is why tonight, as we celebrate the rise of the Easter Son, we can bear the name of Christ with confidence and faith; for, as I have framed it many times before, we are not driven by fear, but drawn by hope.

The Czech Roman Catholic priest and professor of theology in Prague, Tomáš Halík, made the point recently in an address to clergy in the Wakefield Episcopal Area that the resurrection did not herald a return to how things were before crucifixion. The world has changed and so must we be changed and change … if we are to be faithful to the transformative power of the risen Christ.

As we emerge into a changed world, our hearts, minds and imaginations grasped by the haunting mystery of the resurrection, let us be faithful to the call of the risen Christ to walk with him and together into an uncertain future – just like the first Easter people.

I conclude with a verse from a song by John Bell – one I quoted to the clergy of the diocese on Maundy Thursday:

Sing, my soul, when light seems darkest,

Sing when night refuses rest,

Sing though death should mock the future:

What’s to come by God is blessed.

Amen.