Bishop Paul’s Sermon – Easter Day Dawn Vigil Service, Durham Cathedral
‘They were alarmed’ – astonished, amazed, thrown.
‘Do not be alarmed’
I wonder when you were last astonished and amazed by something that also set off inside you some alarm and fear?
For me it is only back a few days when just before a worship service was to start someone showed me pictures of Notre Dame ablaze. Astonished because this is the kind of event we do not expect. With a touch of fear because at that point it was not clear if anyone had died, or if it would be brought under control.
Then also astonishment at the way the Extinction Rebellion protests have played out on the streets of London. The pink boat at the centre of Oxford Circus. The strong commitment to both peaceful protests but a determination that arrests would happen. The fear element though not coming from the protests but from watching David Attenborough’s powerful documentary, Climate Change – The Facts.
Astonishment, alarm at life events is part of who we are and how we function as human beings.
JESUS THE ALARMIST
Jesus had been causing astonishment from the outset of his public ministry. Mark charts it in his gospel with the use of a word, ekthambeomai, not used by the other gospel writers. Right at the start of this gospel when Jesus heals a man with an unclean spirit those present were astonished (Mk 1.27). When Jesus comes down from the mountain on which he had been transfigured his very presence causes great astonishment (Mk 9.15). When the rich young ruler walks away and Jesus says, ‘How difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of heaven.’ The disciples are alarmed at his words (Mk 10.24). Then simply when Jesus is walking towards Jerusalem the very way he walked leads the disciples to be amazed and afraid (Mk 10.32). In Gethsemane Jesus himself became astonished, alarmed and greatly distressed (Mark 14.33).
Jesus in his works, his words, and his character creates wonder and alarm in people. The risen Jesus also creates alarm.
So a question early on this Easter morning; are we alarmed by Jesus, and by his resurrection? For surely we should be. Jesus, in his words, in his works, and in his risen life is never going to leave us very comfortable. He does and will alarm us.
ALARMED ABOUT DEATH
There is in the resurrection an alarm about death. Jesus’ resurrection shouts loudly and clearly that death is not our final end.
We see and hear the fear of death around us all the time. We strive against death with all our might. We are continually seeking further cures for all the ways in which death comes about. We do so rightly and it is wonderful how heart, and other organ, diseases, andcancers of all kinds are being confronted with suffering diminished and life extended. The skills of the scientific researchers and the medical professions are astounding. Yet the simple reality is that death does come to us all. No one can avoid it. Death is the one certainty of life. We should talk about this more openly than we do, including with children. We tend to try and hide it away. We should not since it is life’s one certainty.
And Jesus’ resurrection tells us that death is not the final winner. In the end God wins. Resurrection happens. Jesus’ resurrection offers us all the hope of resurrection. This reality should alarm us into wondering how we might share in this resurrection.
ALARMED ABOUT CREATION
Jesus’ resurrection also alarms us about creation.
The stark reality of climate change and of its potential impact on all of life on earth should alarm us. We must all act to seek to limit the rise in temperature and protect life for future generations. Whether we think of Greta Thunberg and striking school students, or of Extinction Rebellion on city streets, there is a rightness from younger generations to shout loudly at those of us who are older that greater action needs to happen swiftly.
God raising Jesus from death in his physical body; changed yes but still in a body makes clear God’s affirmation of creation. The promise of resurrection is as created beings, not ethereal spirits or disembodied souls. The resurrection affirms not only humanity but creation as a whole. It affirms that Jesus death was for the redemption of all of creation. This does not lead us to inaction suggesting that God will just deal with it fo us. Since the beginning of humanity our calling has to be co-workers with God for the good and wellbeing of all creation. We are meant to be those who help all things flourish. Resurrection says God is committed to creation so we are called to continue to be his co-workers for the flourishing of it all.
Jesus’ resurrection should alarm us into wanting the very best for all of creation. We will thus approach the care of the planet notprimarily from fear and calamity but in the firm conviction that God loves all of creation and will ultimately bring about the fullness of new creation.
ALARMED ABOUT DISCIPLESHIP
Which leads me finally to Jesus’ resurrection alarming us about being disciples. The message of the angel to the women was clear, ‘But go, tell his disciples, and Peter, that he is going ahead of you to Galilee, there you will see him.’
In the upper room, hidden away for fear all of Jesus’ disciples must have wondered what the future held for them all. Every hope and dream built up in the Galilean ministry had been smashed to pieces by Jesus arrest and crucifixion. All had ended. For Peter all his memory was of final denials.
The angels words tell them that following Jesus has not ended at all. They tell Peter that the end of his story is not denial but forgiveness, restoration and a new start. They are being assured that the journey goes on. The adventure continues. The story that is to change the world has only just begun. Resurrection says that discipleship is always about forgiveness and fresh starts. It is always about continuing to follow Jesus. It is always about Jesus continuing to heal, restore, and teach about the kingdom. It is always about being witnesses to the risen Jesus. It is always about walking in faith, trusting his word even when we cannot see him.
On this Easter Day, perhaps with images of the cross shining out amongst the rubble of Notre Dame, let us join the women travelling to the tomb and find we are met with the news ‘He is not here. He has been raised.’ May we be alarmed afresh by this astonishing and wonderful news.
For those being baptised and confirmed, like the disciples hear the call to travel with Jesusknowing that although you do not see him Jesus calls you to keep following as his disciples.
For all of us let us be open about death – and open in talking about Jesus and the resurrection.
For all of us let us recognise God’s affirmation of creation in raising Jesus in his body. Let us then work for the good of all creation seeking its well-being and flourishing not out of fearbut out of love, recognising this is part of being a disciple.
On this Easter Day may we all once again rejoice in wonder and astonishment that Jesus is risen from the dead.