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.

Two days in and three books down.

 
I haven’t the first idea what an algorithm looks like or what it does or how it does it. It’s something mathematical and that finishes it for me. But Robert Harris‘s The Fear Index takes an interesting look at the sort of thing that went wrong in the financial and banking sectors: hubristic gamblers ceding too much to computers on the grounds that they can do the sums quicker. The moral questions come thick and fast.
 

Julian Barnes has written a beautiful novella in The Sense of an Ending. Apart from the narrative itself, which kept me intrigued until the final page, the writing is wonderful. The idea of someone having to re-write their history in the light of information that arises later in life about events that happened when younger is a familiar one to anyone with a pulse. But Barnes ruminates on mortality, relationships, loss and regret. And there is a poignancy running through the narrative that captures the common experience of thinking that life should be better than it usually is:

Just as all political and historical change sooner or later disappoints, so does adulthood. So does life. Sometimes I think the purpose of life is to reconcile us to its eventual loss by wearing us down, by proving, however long it takes, that life isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. (p.105)

 
Discuss.
 
John Bell needs no introduction. For many people his name is synonymous with the Iona Community. HIn addition to his prolific output of music and hymnody, he broadcasts on Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. He is never boring – he uses words as if each one matters and finds the language to engage as well as inform. Rooted deeply in the language and content of the Bible, he brings to his speaking and writing a prophetic, reasoned passion that demands an equally biblical response. His second volume of ‘thoughts’ and essays is entitled All That Matters and cannot be read without some response.

 
One taste reflects back onto the questions raised by Harris and touches on Barnes’ sense of mortality:

The prophet is someone who reads into the present state of society and discerns two things: the consequence of present actions in advance of a crisis, and an alternative reality which is worth striving for. (p.55)

 
A fourth book, which I am reading a bit at a time, is David Crystal‘s wonderfully informative and entertaining The Story of English in 100 Words. Number 7 is ‘Mead’ and in Old English you could call someone who had drunk too much of it ‘medu-werig’ (mead-weary). From Barnes I learned the word ‘lucubrations’ (look it up – I had to!), but I can see I’m going to get far more use out of ‘medu-werig’.

The white stuff came again in Langenargen today, but it couldn’t make up its mind whether to thicken into real snow or wimp its way into sleet. I think the sleet won.

I have been reflecting again on how my perception of people, events, places and ‘issues’ can be challenged by a new perspective. Yesterday I mentioned (again) Helmut Schmidt’s observation that politicians need ot be able to speak at least two foreign languages in order to be able to examine their own culture and assumptions from the perspective of an ‘outsider’. When you sit ‘inside’ another culture and look through its lenses (cultural, linguistic, philosophical, historical, political, etc.), you begin to relativise your own – or, at least, get them into some sort of proportion.

What is relatively crucial to one culture might be unimportant in another. Seeing it through the latter’s lens might leave me still thinking it is important, but at least I will have checked it out against the bigger picture of the world’s realities. For example, the state of the local scout hut might be a huge issue locally; but, in the light of the devastation in Haiti, it becomes a minor issue in the grand scheme of things.

This constant readjustment is vital in stopping us becoming obsessive about trivia. And it applies to more than just politics and scout huts.

I have just read Kenneth Bailey‘s excellent book, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes. I was first introduced to his writings 25 years ago when I read Poet and Peasant and Through Peasant Eyes. Bailey spent 40 years living among Middle Eastern people and tried to learn to read the Bible as it would be read through their eyes. After all, it is their book. He discovered that much of our western reading of (for example) the parables of Jesus is off the mark when put up against people who instinctively understand and ‘feel’ the cultural stuff underlying them.

The book is excellent and easy to read – with only a few bits that made me question his assumptions. It deserves a wide readership – especially among those who dare to preach this stuff. Its subtitle is Cultural Studies in the Gospels.

Reading this reminded me of an exercise John Bell (of the Iona Community) did with over 100 of my clergy about six years ago. I had become Bishop of Croydon and wanted to bring my clergy together for encouragement and fellowship. I wasn’t sure I was the person to do this, but asked John to do a ‘study day’ with us – at least I could make the thing happen. John agreed and led a stimulating, challenging and hugely encouraging day that sent many of us back to re-read our Bible afresh.

In the afternoon he handed out a white envelope to everyone. Each envelope had on it a letter: A, B, C or D. Before we were allowed to open the envelope John told four stories of characters in the Gospels: Mary at the wedding at Cana, the woman with the heamorrhage, the child Jesus ‘put among his disciples’, and one other (which age has removed from my memory).

Having told the stories, he then asked us to open our envelope and ask ourselves whether the person on the black & white postcard-photograph was what the character in the story might have looked like. There was a silence, followed by laughter. One person near me had a picture of a crabby-looking Middle Eastern woman in her fifties, with few teeth, but a determined look on her face. Another had a beautifully back-lit photo of a youngish woman in lingerie looking wistfully towards the camera.

The point was obvious. We bring to our reading of the Bible so many assumptions before we even get to the text. We grow up with images that colour our reading and (sometimes) prevent us properly understanding what the text is trying to say. For example:

  • Why do we see Mary as the perpetual 16 year-old, waif-like and dressed in lovely blue, when at the wedding in Cana she was clearly in her late forties or early fifties and had been widowed for a couple of decades or so?
  • Was the child a boy or a girl? Was he/she a clean-looking and well-clothed ten year-old or a scruffy three year-old urchin?
  • Why did I always assume that the woman who had been bleeding for almost a couple of decades was elderly and unattractive? Why couldn’t she have been young-ish and beautiful – sexy even?

My/our reading of these characters – and, therefore, the meanings we brought to the texts – had all been conditioned by unconsciously imbibed images and assumptions about them and what they were about. These ‘filtered’ images shape the way we read the text, think about their meaning, form our theology or reinforce our prejudices about what Jesus is all about.

This is why one of the Bible verses that really stands out and haunts me (as someone who takes the Bible with the utmost importance) is John 5.39:

You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me…

In other words, those who think they stand closest to the Scriptures are in most danger of missing the point. It was true for the Pharisees and I think it remains true for me.

I think I’m becoming an old man. I used to think neologisms were an adventure in linguistic and cultural evolution, but now I am beginning to get fed up.

I was in a cafe in the Lake District the other day and the middle-aged people at the next table ordered their meal with the phrase: ‘Can I get…?’ Now, I’m used to teenagers and yoof using this horrible Americanism, but I thought my own generation knew better.

waiterPurists will (probably rightly) complain that the alternatives are also a bit silly, but ‘Please may I have…?’ or ‘Please can I have…? are at least accurate. Even though I am buying a product and not begging for it, the transaction still involves the customer requesting that the product be served to them; in principle, the waiter could decline (on the grounds that it no longer exists or he can’t be bothered getting it – after all, it’s his premises and he can do what he wants to).

‘Can I get…?’ is silly on two fronts: (a) ‘can’ has to do with ability or competence and begs the response, ‘I don’t know – you tell me if you are competent to get it!’, and (b) the customer is not going to go into the kitchen and procure the dish for himself/herself anyway. So, even though we all know what is meant, it grates because it sounds ugly and is inaccurate in the context.

Jerusalem (William Blake)This reminds me of John Bell’s famous explanation for the omission of William Blake’s Jerusalem from the latest edition of a Scottish Hymnal. Asked by a rather peeved English BBC interviewer whether this was just an example of Scottish independent-minded pettiness, John asked why the Scots would want an essentially pagan English poem in its own hymn book. He then commented: ‘Anyway, the answer to verse one (‘And did those feet in ancient times walk upon England’s mountains green?’) is ‘No!’ and the answer to verse two (‘Bring me my bow of burnished gold, bring me my chariot of fire…’) is ‘Fetch it yerself!’

Enough said.