This is the text of the sermon broadcast from Leeds Minster this morning on BBC1 television.

John 20:1-18

It was early and it was dark. And a woman stands weeping in a cemetery.

Her name is Mary of Magdala, but it could easily be Natasha of Kharkiv or Lyudmilla of Bucha or Magda of Mariupol. Standing in the ruins of a life and community, ruptured by violence and fear, is – tragically – not a rare experience in the world in which we live. ‘Normality’ has been torn apart and an anticipated future looks shredded in the dirt of destruction. Just watch the television and this fearful horror is everywhere in Ukraine and Syria and Yemen.

And women – it usually is women – stand weeping in the ruins of the world.

If we have the imagination to put ourselves – even slightly – into the skin of those women, we might glimpse just briefly and inadequately what it means to lose everything and fear what might lie around the corner. Violence terrorises and always seems to win in a world in which might is propagated as right and virtues such as humility, integrity and love are seen as feeble.

But, this Easter Day offers to shine a different light into this darkness. And this woman, Mary Magdalene, stands alone for now, bereft, but about to embark on a hitherto unimagined and unimaginable journey. Resurrection is the start, not the end.

One of the funniest books I have read recently is Jonas Jonasson’s Anders the Hitman and the Meaning of It All. One character printed a shedload of Bibles, but, having fallen out with the Christians, added a line after the final verse of the final book of the New Testament: Revelation. He added: “And they all lived happily ever after”, thus, of course, rendering the Bibles useless.

Because the characters involved with Jesus of Nazareth knew there was nothing romantic or fanciful about their story. Here there was no comforting ‘happily ever after’ fantasy. They had put their hopes into the wandering Galilean who had helped them to see God, the world and themselves through different eyes. They had followed him, staked everything on him, and now they have watched it all bleed into the dirt of Calvary – a world ended in violence and injustice. And they might be next.

No wonder, then, that the discovery of an empty tomb didn’t provoke joy or excitement. It simply added to the fear and bewilderment, the horror and the loss.

So, what changes everything? After all, the men had simply gone home to what was familiar and relatively safe. But, the woman – this woman – stays and weeps. Helpless. No agency. No hope.

What changes is a question and the sound of her name. The risen Jesus doesn’t present her with an explanation; rather, he asks why she is weeping and for whom she is looking. Blinded by grief, she then hears her name spoken amid the dereliction within and around her. “Mary.”

Answers to the uncertainties and horrors of life cannot be reached before the questions have been asked of us: “For whom – for what – am I looking?” If our common life is all about the accumulation of security and stuff, then who am I when it is all stripped away … or buried in the street as the tanks withdraw and the reporters point their cameras? And who are we – collectively – when death and mortality place a large question mark over our society, our common life, our priorities, our way of living and being together? Pandemic – conflict – loss.

Easter Day should be fearful before it is joyful. Resurrection has to be met with facing the questions and hearing our name spoken quietly in the darkness.

Names matter. Mary discovers she is known. Jesus’s recognition of her matters more than her grasp of him. She might struggle to use his name; but, light shines when she knows that she is loved and known, right here in the darkness.

And the women of Bucha and Mariupol? It is so important that the names of the lost and abused people of Ukraine are remembered and spoken and not forgotten – even among the ruins of their homes. While states fuel the violence and missiles destroy cities, the quiet defiance of hope – of resurrection, even – dare to suggest that death, violence and destruction will not have the final word. Death might be everywhere; but, the quiet whisper of our name means that the journey has not finished – the destination has not yet been reached. This is the love that will not let us go – that compels us to challenge any social order that kills and demeans and diminishes any people. Racism, antisemitism, imposed poverty, industries that enslave and drugs that steal people’s souls, politics that prioritise ideology over people and sacrifice truth on the altar of power.

We can generously offer that same resurrection hope that surprised and bewildered Mary in the garden on the first Easter Day … when we enable bereft people to hear the whisper of their name, knowing they are known and loved and held – by God and by us.

Indeed, Christian faith is no fantasy. But, it proclaims quietly that we need not be driven by fear, but can be drawn by hope. In our search for light and love, for a future through and beyond the now. And in our commitment to those who fear their name has been forgotten.

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

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.

Easter Day. The day when Christians rise early, watch the sun come up and join together in numbers to celebrate the resurrection. We belt out those great Easter  hymns, listen to those breathtakingly dramatic Gospel readings, and, in my case, hold back the tears as the cathedral choir sings the Gloria from Mozart’s Coronation Mass.

Not this year. Today our churches will be empty and silent. There will be no cry of “Alleluia! Christ is risen!” to which the congregation should always be tempted to respond “What?! You must be joking!” Instead, we will be in our homes, joining together remotely or in distant prayer.

In other words, the church of Jesus Christ will be living the Easter faith for real. What we really believe will be seen in how we, bearing the wound marks of sacrifice, offer hope to a weary world. For we are not afraid and we look at how to love our neighbours by keeping our distance from them. And we will learn whether we really do think prayer is worth the effort.

Wherever we are and however we worship today, we will be confronted afresh by the shocking and outrageous “proleptic invasion of the end times in the present” (in the words of Wolfhart Pannenberg, if I remember them rightly). It will only come as a shock, however, if we first have lived through the bewildering agony of Good Friday and the empty fear and disillusionment of Empty Saturday. Only then can we experience – imaginatively – the disorientating irruption of the extraordinary into the normality of life.

We appreciate the light when we have stayed with the darkness. We can be surprised by joy once we have loved with the loss and the pain.

The thing about the resurrection narratives is that they don’t do propaganda. Surely the risen Christ would have put everything right, wiped out the pain, turned disfigurement into glory. But, no, the gospel writers clearly lacked that sort of imagination. For, the risen Jesus still bears the wounds, the scars of torture and violation. A reminder of the past, or a glorious statement of the present reality – that this risen Christ is still earthed, no stranger to the horrors of human existence for too many people.

(I recall the late Dennis Potter, in his final interview, saying that “religion has always been the wound and not the bandage”.)

And, as Mary discovers in the garden, this risen Jesus cannot be held onto. He can’t be possessed or commodified. He can’t be corralled into my own securities or illusions. He can’t be appropriated to make my life happier or better or safer.

Yet, he knows Mary’s name. He knows our name.

Easter whispers to a world that isn’t expecting or waiting for him that violence, death and destruction do not have the final word in this world – or in our broken and seemingly fragile lives. God does, and the word is ‘resurrection’. Which is why, some years ago when wondering how to condense the mystery of Easter into a tweet, I wrote that “Easter means … being drawn by hope, not driven by fear.” Why? Because Christians, if they have truly been grasped by the resurrection, put their hope in the person of the God who raised Christ from real death, and not in some formula for guaranteeing personal security.

And that is why I can wish everyone a Happy Easter. To do so is simply to invite anyone to be open to the surprising possibility that the world is more than meets the eye.

This is the text of this morning’s sermon for Easter Day at Ripon Cathedral:

Acts 10:34-43 & John 20:1-18

Language matters. Describing the latest military attack on Afghanistan as the ‘mother of all bombs’ is shocking in its ‘boys’ toys’ trivialisation – or glorification of extreme violence. And it does not bode well at a time when nuclear war seems more likely than at any time since the end of the Cold War – especially given the unpredictability of the President of the United States and his predilection for changing his mind quickly and inconsistently. To say nothing about the Great Leader of North Korea.

An unusual way to begin a sermon for Easter Day? Maybe. But, this is the world we now live in at Easter 2017, and Christian worship cannot be an escape from it. But, rather than dropping high explosives onto other human beings, Easter explodes something different and more challenging into the world we know: Easter drops into the dark violence of the modern, sophisticated, scientific age the subversive light of resurrection.

And that is what we are here for this morning. We do not simply memorialise an event that happened two thousand years ago somewhere far, far away. We do not merely cross our fingers and wish for a deus ex machina to intrude into the insurmountable problems of human living and sort it all out. Nor do we rush with relief to resurrection before we have properly looked the cruelty of Friday and the horrifying emptiness of Saturday in the eye and lived with our mortality.

No, we are here this morning to have our lives transformed by an encounter with the risen Christ; anything less and we have missed the point.

It reminds me of the story of the bat that flew one night into the bat cave, hung itself upside down (as, apparently, bats are wont to do) and closed its eyes, blood dripping from its mouth. The other bats smelled this and said to him: “You’ve found something – you’ve got to show us where it is.” “Leave me alone,” said the bat, “I just want to go to sleep.” “Noooo,” cried the other bats, “you’ve found something – you’ve got to show us where it is.” In the end the bat gave up and said, “OK, follow me.” He flew out of the cave, followed by thousand of eager bats. They flew down the valley, around the hill, up over the crag and down into the next valley before rounding a wooded outcrop and turning into the next valley. As they approached a forest the bat stopped and hovered in the air, thousand of bats hovering behind him, full of anticipation. “You see that forest?” said the bat? “Yeah, yeah, yeah…,” hissed the bats. “You see that rock to the left of the forest?” “Yeah, yeah, yeah…”. “You see the tree next to the rock?” “Yeah, yeah, yeah…” “Well, I didn’t!”

You see, there is a difference between looking and seeing. And sometimes we see, but don’t understand. And sometimes we don’t understand, so we turn away and look somewhere else for we know not what.

So, consider the first evangelists: Mary Magdalene, Peter and the other disciple. Mary, a woman – significant in itself – sees the disturbed grave, but doesn’t venture in. Instead, she goes and fetches the blokes. They come running – probably suspecting a criminal religious or political plot – and Peter goes first into the empty tomb, followed eventually by the other friend of Jesus. Mary waits outside, distraught. And none of them suspect resurrection. According to verse 8, the friend “believes”, but this can only refer to believing Mary’s story that the body is missing. Mary, herself, just looks in and is distressed.

In other words, they look and they see, but what they see makes no sense. So, the men leave and go back to their homes. Back to their homes? Not even to their other friends to tell them the bad news? Not to the authorities to ask what they have done with the corpse? Not to the newspapers to report the scandal? No, they go back home – to the places where they know their place, where life is ‘normal’, where they have some control, where there are no surprises.

It is only Mary, the woman, who, having had her weird encounter with the characters in white and the supposed gardener, is given an even weirder message to convey to the friends of Jesus, and goes to find them: “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” But, when she finds her friends she actually says to them, “I have seen the Lord.”

Now, this is not a merely incidental detail of a far-fetched story. Had I been Jesus I might have said to Mary, “It’s me … I’m back again!” But, Jesus gives her some theology to be getting on with. And he will not let her hang on to him like some sort of shrine god.

When we think we have grabbed hold of Jesus, we soon discover that he will not be contained or controlled – even by our most powerful need for comfort or resolution or healing from grief. He moves on … as we, too, must move on, taking responsibility for what we do with the – often unbidden and unwelcome – experiences we have had visited upon us.

But, back to the point: what we are doing here this morning.

Mary did not go back to church. She did not write a book about her self-fulfilment. She did not simply reflect on what some theologians call ‘the Christ event’; rather, she became an articulate witness. “I have seen the Lord.” And only having put her own credibility on the line did she then go on to tell the friends what the risen Jesus had said to her.

And for us? We cannot simply come this morning to celebrate a notional event, to worship a good idea, or to maintain the edifice of a credible faith. We come together to encounter the risen Christ, and then to go out into the world in the light of this and tell the good news: that contrary to Hollywood, the news and the rumours of what is normal, death, violence and destruction do not have the final word. Christian faith is rooted in the fact that Jesus who was fully alive before being fully dead is dead no longer. Not that he sprung back to life like some sort of zombie, but that, as the Apostle Paul put it, God raised Christ from the dead. That is where Christian hope lies: that God raised a very dead Jesus of Nazareth and brought new life – life that still bears the wound marks of human suffering and doesn’t simply wipe out reality – to a very confused world.

I just wonder how we respond to this story? Or, perhaps putting it a little more sharply: not to the story, but to the content that the story conveys? The reality of a surprising and world-shattering encounter with the risen Christ who shows us the face of a God who will not be defeated by the misery of pain and loss, but shines light where even eyes are closed and darkness is at least familiar. Where we look, but don’t immediately see; where we see, but don’t understand; where we are surprised and confounded, but still go away and become articulate witnesses of how the risen Christ transforms our living and our dying.

Of course, this is only the beginning. Meeting the risen Jesus in the garden of death and decay becomes the impetus for challenging death and decay wherever we see or experience them. On Good Friday we were compelled to look death and destruction in the eye and not look away. No romanticism; no religious escapism; no convenient spiritual comfort; no relief from all that the world can throw at God and us. No. We were offered the gift of staring in the face our mortality and the immense power of death – living with the loss and the emptiness and the abandoned desolation of seeing our hopes and faith bleeding into the dirt of a rubbish tip outside the city walls – and finding our grief interrupted by the gentle, whispered sound of our name being voiced by the one whose all-too-real death was not the end.

Today – Easter Day – we are being invited to meet this risen Christ and to take the good news of resurrection into a world dominated by too much bad news. To offer the refugee and asylum seeker the hope that there is a future to be lived and a new life to be enjoyed; to question the political priorities of leaders whose vision dehumanises or breaks people down; to challenge injustice and public practices that exalt the mighty and denigrate the meek. After all, the risen Jesus is the same Jesus who challenged the religious securities of Pharisees who were content to use excluded and abused people to make theological points in their petty little power games. The risen Jesus is the same Jesus who healed the wrong people on the wrong day and in the wrong way. (Read the gospels and you will see what I mean.) The risen Jesus is the same Jesus who taught his friends to pray that God’s kingdom will come on earth as it is in heaven, but then embarrasses the pray-er with the obligation to be the answer to his or her own prayer: “Forgive us our sins … as we forgive those who sin against us.” The risen Jesus is the same Jesus who exposes our insecurities and fears, offering freedom in the company of others and the healing that comes from mercy and love.

Do you see the point? We can sing our hymns and pray our prayers this morning and leave as we arrived – perhaps warmed by the experience, but indifferent to the need for commitment and a clear willingness to belong to this risen Jesus who sends us out – like Mary Magdalene – not with a solution to a problem or a heart-warming spiritual experience, but with a compulsion to tell the story of redemption and hope, and to work out in the company of friends what all this stuff means for us and the world in a world that now looks very different.

It is this experience that led Paul the Apostle to write to beleaguered Christians facing imperial threat that “for me to live is Christ, to die is gain”.

What we are doing here this morning is nothing less than the stuff of life and death, of living and dying. The worst we can do is to be indifferent to it.

Later in this service we will be invited to come forward to receive bread and wine – or to receive a blessing which is freely offered. Bread and wine are tangible and taste-able tokens of all I have spoken about just now – the body and blood of Christ who poured himself out that we might be free to live differently, confounding the depressing narratives of the world we inhabit and promising life out of death. Like Mary Magdalene, Peter and their friend, we come to a place of death and loss and bewilderment – and maybe even hopelessness – and we come with empty hands and opened eyes. We cannot grab or demand or hold onto what we receive. We simply receive what is given – what is gift – and we consume them. They become part of our body – the fullness of God’s promise in the flimsiness of a wafer and a sip of wine. We thank God for them, and for what they represent. But, we are then sent out into the world (in the power of the Spirit) to live and work to the praise and glory of the God who raised Christ from the dead. That’s the deal.

So, I invite you to come with honest hearts and eyes wide open, not hiding behind a fear of being found out, or the pride of thinking that I can’t dot all the Is or cross all the Ts. Come with your fears about your living and your dying, about loss and love and pain and joy. Come with empty hands and a will to live life from today as a resurrection person amongst a community of resurrection people who have the same experience as you, but cannot escape the haunting claim of a God who loves you to death and beyond.

Maybe – for some of you – today might be an Easter Day on which your own transformation might begin. Surely, this is good news. Surely, this can draw from us a Hallelujah of relief and praise – one that means that from this day forward we know ourselves to be a people no longer driven in a threatening and uncertain world by anxiety and fear, but drawn by hope in the God of resurrection who comes to us, where we are, speaks our name, and sends us from the place of death to live life.

This is the mother of all hope – the mother of all mercies.

Happy Easter!

Today we celebrate God's inability to stay down. Death, violence and destruction do not have the final word in this world, after all; God does. It is 'resurrection'.

Christians are to be people who are drawn by hope, not driven by fear. They are a people who have been grasped by the outrageous good news that endings provide the soil for new beginnings. Christian hope is not rooted in any formula guaranteeing a safe or comfortable life; it is rooted in the person of the God who doesn't avoid a cross, but who empties a tomb and promises us new life.

Today is especially striking. There is a rumour abroad that the church in general and the Church of England in particular is incapable or unwilling to change. Well, here in West Yorkshire & the Dales we have opted for change in a serious way. The new diocese is born at midnight, ushering in the light of Easter. We face many challenges as a consequence of our willingness to take the risk of dying in order to live – but, we will face them as people of hope whose hearts and imaginations have been caught by Jesus himself.

We are an Easter people and hallelujah is the song that will not be silenced.

 

Easter Day. Resurrection.

A cellar was discovered in Cologne, Germany, in which Jews had been hidden in 1942. Among the various graffiti on the walls was this:

I believe in the sun though it is late in rising.

I believe in love though it is absent.

I believe in God though he is silent.

outside Jerusalem 086Resurrection Day tells us that Christian hope is rooted not in acceptance of a formula that guarantees escape from the horrors or routines of the world, but in trusting the person of God who raised Christ from death. In other words, whatever else the world throws at us, I will trust – in living and dying – in the God who raised Christ. The rest is detail.

After all, we have now lived the story from Christmas – God opting into the world and all it represents – to Easter – God appearing to fail, only to confound our expectations and understandings of the world. Resurrection isn’t the end – the nice, neat resolution of all the horrors of suffering, injustice and pain; rather, it reinforces the vocation/compulsion of God’s people to plunge themselves into the realities of the world, willing to suffer, not escaping from it all, but unafraid: because both our living and our dying have been transformed by God who raised Christ.

Happy Easter!

… but you have to go though Friday first.

(In the absence of time to write anything fresh, here is the text of my March letter to the Diocese of Bradford.)

I read an article recently about how electronic communication is speeding up the world and making us more impatient. As the technology improves, so do connections run quicker and our tolerance of delay diminishes. I don’t know about you, but it sounds about right to me. It is hard to stop and wait and enjoy the gaps between words and activities.

wpid-Photo-10-Apr-2012-1307.jpgI say this because Lent is leading us slowly towards an ending that will, in turn, become a new beginning. Lent beckons us to stop, to slow down, to force ourselves to step off the treadmill and make space for reflection and self-examination. Attentive consideration of God, the world and ‘us’ opens up the slow possibilities of repentance (literally, a change of mind), renewal and hopeful living. It is an invitation that is easy to decline – after all, it will involve us in walking with Jesus and his friends (and enemies) to the rubbish dump where a cross haunts the horizon, awaiting its terrorised victim.

I grew up in a church community where it seemed we tried to get from Good Friday to Easter Sunday as quickly as possible. We celebrated the cross as God’s victory… instead of learning to live the story of God’s apparent failure or absence. We just couldn’t stay there as the world falls apart; nor could we live through the sheer emptiness of loss, bereavement and world-ending fear that is Saturday: the dead Jesus in the tomb and the world collapsed. No, we want to get to resurrection and make it all happy again. We escape the painful darkness and embrace the brightness of resurrection day.

But, this is problematic. If we don’t stay with Good Friday and live with the appalling emptiness of Saturday, then Easter itself will be meaningless. We are not supposed to just entertain ourselves theologically with Easter; no, we are supposed to live it, experience it, cry through it, search through it, long through it for hopeful resolution. And when Sunday comes we are to be surprised, bewildered, shocked even.

As a church we are called not only to live the story in our worship and contemplation, but also to use it as a lens for looking attentively at our society and world. The massive increase in food banks, the enormous injustices that are enshrined in our economic systems, the poverty that destroys the lives of ordinary people: all these things (and others) represent for those afflicted by them a long ‘day’ of crucifixion – a slow death of potential, health, esteem, hope. There are people in every parish who might find themselves here.

Berlin August 2010 027Yet, the Christian community is not simply to shout at the darkness or rage against the sinfulness of such a situation. No, we are called to speak the truth about the things that corrupt, that nail godliness to a cross, that destroy hope and potential; and then we are called to offer a glimpse of what Walter Brueggemann calls ‘newness after loss’. This means enabling people to be surprised by Sunday when Friday and Saturday seem so endless.

May your Easter be blessed as we celebrate the resurrection light that confounds the darkness and opens up new hope for God’s world. Let us together light a candle of resurrection in protest at the mock powerfulness of the dark… and then go where the light shines in order to make an Easter difference in the places where God calls us to stay awhile.

I cannot read the haunting lament of the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas without hearing his voice from an old recording:

Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

A gorgeous, warm, bright spring day brought out the tourists in droves yesterday – baring substantial amounts of unsunned flesh. Driving through the Dales, it looked and felt like summer was on its way (so, it’ll probably snow next week). The beauty and the nascent new life bursting from trees, flowers and hedgerows seemed incongruous, however, with what I was going on to do later in the afternoon.

The excellent and wonderful Marie Curie Cancer Care trust has moved its annual bereavement service in Bradford from October to March. At least this aligns the appearance of real daffodils with the symbol of the Marie Curie charity. Everyone in the congregation of a couple of hundred had two things in common: (a) they were bereaved in the last eighteen months and (b) they are mortal. The service creates space and a vocabulary for loss and grieving and thinking about our mortality – in a place that gently reminds us of it anyway. For over 700 years people have worshipped, lived and died in this place. On the way in to begin the service I noticed a memorial plaque on the cathedral wall which poignantly recorded the deaths of the three infant children of a bereft couple in the early nineteenth century. This cathedral has witnessed the living, suffering, celebrating and dying of generations of people like us.

Cutting through the potential verbiage to the heart of the matter, I tried to account for Christian hope in a way anyone could understand it. Based on Revelation 21 three things seemed pertinent:

1. Christian hope is rooted in the God who comes to us. We talk about us ‘going to heaven’, but it is the other way round. In the Genesis 3 narrative it is God who goes walking in the garden in the cool of the day asking ‘Adam, where are you?’ – the same searching question that confronts every human being. Adam and Eve do not seek him out; he seeks them out. God makes the first move. In the Incarnation it is the same – God comes among us. And the imagery of Revelation 21 tells the same story: the heavenly city comes down from heaven to earth, not vice versa.

2. The resurrection is key to Christian hope. Jesus did not spontaneously come back to life in some great act of resuscitation: as Paul notes, ‘God raised Christ from the dead’. And this points to…

3. … Christian hope is not located in a scenario or a formula or schedule of what happens when the body closes down. Christian hope is rooted in the person of God. That’s all. I turst and hope in God, not heaven or some expectation of what happens after death. I trust in the God who raised Christ from the dead – and the rest is detail that doesn’t need to bother us very much.

The old Bishop of Durham, David Jenkins, put it like this:

God is. God is as he is in Jesus. So there is hope.

The great German theologian, Jürgen Moltmann, put it like this:

God is our happiness. God is our torment. God is the wide space of our hope.

Which, of course, is the beginning of a conversation and not the final word.

Berliner DomI have just launched myself into a series of five conferences (one ended today) which will keep me away until 2 October – though I hope to keep blogging. I leave early tomorrow morning for Rome and then Blackburn (!) followed by Kassel (Germany) – and end up preaching in Berlin Cathedral before returning for the final blast at Swanwick. Roll on October…

At the residential conference which ended today the recently-retired Bishop of Thetford, David Atkinson, shared his great wisdom with his usual quietly-spoken humility. While answering a question about the most pressing agenda for the Church of England at the moment, one of the things he identified was climate change. I have to confess that I am a bit worried about ‘climate fatigue’ setting in – there is so much being said and written about it that I think many people are beginning to glaze over instead of waking up. I hope I am wrong.

What woke me up was David asking: ‘Will we let future generations speak to us?’ In other words, will we have the imaginative courage to hear the blessings or cursings of our children’s and their children’s generations as they suffer the consequences of our refusal to change our costly lifestyle? Will we simply bequeathe to them a broken world with a broken climate because we are too greedy and selfish to hear their cry?

This struck me because it reminded me of a verse from the Old Testament book of Proverbs that says:

Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute.

An older version of this formed the title of a remarkable book I read years ago when studying German political history – particularly about the failure of the Church in relation to the Jews during the rise of Hitler and the Nazis in the early 1930s: ‘Open thy mouth for the dumb.’ It is a potent demand.

Auschwitz gateThe prophetic challenge has always been that people who bear God’s name should see through God’s eyes and speak on behalf of those who have no voice. I have always simply assumed this could refer to those who have no voice in contemporary affairs – the poor and the marginalised. It had never occurred to me that it could be a challenge to listen to the voices of those as yet unborn who will one day – long after we have moved on – pay the price for our greed and complacency.

This also resonates with Wolfhart Pannenberg‘s understanding of the resurrection as the ‘proleptic invasion of the end in the present’. Big words, but a simple concept: the resurrection of Jesus by God is the ‘end’ being brought forward into ‘now’ and enabling us to live now in the light of the end. So, Christians live in the here-and-now in the light of having seen the promised end – resurrection. And this actually goes to the heart of Christian hope. For Christian hope is not wishful thinking and does not lie in an anticipated series of events taking place (all that ‘End Times’ nonsense from the USA). Rather, it lies in the person of God who raised Christ from the dead and thus invaded the now with his final word. We trust in God, not in heaven.

Now, I cite this bit of theology because there are those who think the climate change stuff needn’t bother us on the grounds that God will soon intervene and bring it all to a glorious end anyway. And it is precisely this sort of stupid theology that needs to be firmly knocked on the head.

earth_mainThe prophetic challenge mentioned earlier has always been dismissed by those who spiritualise themselves out of responsibility. But the simple equation cannot be avoided: our faith in God (as well as our theology) can only be seen in how we live now in the light of the future. And that means that our ethics now must be shaped by our imaginative and informed understanding of what future generations might be saying to us if only they could speak for themselves and if only we could hear them.