Greetings and a Happy Easter to you all,
This sermon is a little sombre as I reflect not only on the good news of Easter but of the sad death of a colleague. I hope its not too dark, for the message of Easter is one of hope and we should never lose sight of that.
Blessings to you all wherever you may be reading or listening to this message.
Sermon No 58
An Easter Rising: A Westminster Tale
A sermon preached by Roger Laing (Parish Evangelist) on Sunday 16th April 2017 at the 10am Easter Day Eucharist Service at St. Paulinus Church, Crayford, Kent. (Based on John 20:1-18)
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing to you O LORD (Psalm 19:14)
‘Alleluia, alleluia the Lord is risen!’….. (He is risen indeed, alleluia).
An interesting response, for a recent survey conducted by a leading market research consultancy (Com-Res, Communicate Research Ltd), concluded that one in four people who identified themselves as ‘Christians’ in England stated that the physical resurrection of Jesus Christ did not happen. (Christian Post, April 10th, 2017)
Now the survey is a little misleading in terms of its headline news, as they measured its responders in different categories, namely ‘General Public’, ‘All Christians’ and ‘Active Christians’ referring to that latter group as Christians who attend religious services at least once a month.
Now not wishing to get too bogged down with the exact figures, the fact remains, that exactly half of all those surveyed did not believe in the resurrection of Jesus whatsoever, and a quarter of people claiming to be Christians, did not believe it either.
However, the survey wasn’t all bad news thankfully, as the survey also found that twenty one percent of non-Christians believed in a life of some sort after death, and in addition there was surprisingly high levels of religious belief among those that followed no religion, who we might often refer to as secularists or atheists.
So, I guess if that survey is an accurate reflection of today’s congregation then there will be some of you here who also do not believe in the resurrection of Christ Jesus? Or if nothing else, may have a different theology of the event? But I’m not going to ask for a show of hands on that!
Now one could argue, that these figures are indeed worrying for society in general and the church in particular. However, I would not be too concerned, as it shouldn’t really come as any great surprise to find this level of dis-belief in such a miraculous and supernatural event.
For I’m sure that if the characters that were present during the period of Jesus’ life were polled, they would probably haven given similar responses!
In-fact most of the biblical evidence points towards his closest companions, not understanding the significance of the death of Jesus at all, at least not in the first instance anyway. They were living through the experience and trying to make sense of what they were seeing played out.
And even when faced with the resurrected Jesus in person, complete with the all the scars of crucifixion, one of his closest companions Thomas, still doubted, until of course he placed his hands in those holes! (John 20:24-29)
For asking to belief in the Easter story of resurrection, is really no different to being asked to believe in a virgin birth, or someone walking on water. For without faith, believing in any miraculous event is verging on the absurd and preposterous, yet with faith all things in-fact become possible.
The resurrection story of Jesus at that first Eastertide is just another one of those stories, A story on the face of it, that defies all human senses, yet because of what the story contains, is arguably the most significant story in a long line of supernatural events. And as such, it really is something that we should invest some time in trying to make sense of it?
But can we really believe in the resurrection of Jesus? Can we believe in what first seems to be an impossible act? As a police officer, (which is my full-time job by the way) when I attend an incident and carry out my primary investigation, I am always required to examine the evidence, the evidence that presents itself to me in those first few moments of arriving on scene, whether it is physical evidence in the form of an injury, or maybe something documentary like a letter, and then after examining that evidence, I then have to make a judgement on whether the likelihood of what I am presented, is either the truth or whether it is something quite different? And then decide on an appropriate course of action.
But for most investigations in establishing the whole truth, this cannot be done in a matter of minutes, and will probably require a more detailed and protracted investigation, leading down many different avenues, some of which will lead nowhere, yet others may be more fruitful.
Likewise, from a pulpit in ten minutes, it is highly unlikely that I would be able to convince you of the historical existence of the resurrection of Jesus, simply because there is not enough time to uncover all the evidence contained both in the biblical texts and by other historical writers, such as Josephus for example, a Roman historian, who witnessed many biblical events as they happened. So, in establishing the full truth, a more thorough investigation is generally required.
And I think when we read the bible it is imperative that we do this, and not take things at face value, for as well as needing an underlying faith, we also need to examine that evidence and seek out the Word of God for ourselves, it is not good enough to take the event solely on its own merit. We have to look deeper, and search around the event to get not just the written evidence as presented by the bible, but also the hearsay, the historical and the circumstantial.
And this is especially the case when we are asked to consider the resurrection account, because although the Christian story doesn’t end with the death of Jesus, the actual prophetic foretelling of this specific period has been so widely scattered throughout the bible, that without looking deeper, we would never understand why it ever happened at all?
Without the prophesies for example, how would we know that Jesus would enter Jerusalem on a donkey and understand the significance of that (Zechariah (9:9), or the prophecy surrounding Jesus being scorned and despised before He was crucified as foreseen in the Psalms (Psalm 22;7). And without reading about the continued failures of the people of Israel, chronicled through the whole of the Old Testament (Psalm 78:10-11) we would never know why God had to intervene directly anyway.
Now as a police officer over these last few weeks it has been a testing time in trying to make sense of what happened on the 22nd March when Police Constable Keith Palmer was murdered outside the Palace of Westminster.
And it isn’t the fact that Keith’s death was deemed any more important than the deaths of those others that were murdered by Khalid Masood. Of course, it wasn’t, but it is in the manner in which he was killed, that made his death so poignant to the resurrection story, drawing parallels with the sacrificial death of Jesus.
And if any of you saw the funeral on TV you would have seen too that it was truly an event to behold, as a full force funeral came into play with police helicopters bowing in respect, boats sounding whistles in tribute, and police officers standing shoulder to shoulder with colleagues from around the country, and indeed from around the world, all coming together as one police family in a collective grief.
And I am sure that it was made even more personal for each one of us standing there, knowing that it could have so easily have been any of us that day making that sacrifice. But it wasn’t, and it was for the family of Keith Palmer, that had to bear the most sadness and worst grief of all.
And I suppose if we were to draw comparisms between the two deaths, we might consider that Jesus already knew that He was going to die that day on Calvary. It wasn’t an act of reactionary bravery and courage, like it was for PC Palmer, who instinctively ran towards his attacker and to his death. Jesus in contrast knew that right from the moment of His birth that his destiny was set, and He was to be sentenced to death by crucifixion.
But how do we prepare for death? How did Jesus prepare for His death? Well, I guess He would have entered his inevitable destiny with the same trepidation and fear as any one of us would do. For Jesus was after-all, fully human, as well as being fully God, with all the human emotions and feelings that we all endure.
And therefore, we can read with thankfulness of how Jesus understands the grief of His followers like Mary when He meets with her outside the tomb and offers her some comfort. He doesn’t simply say, ‘I know you’ve lost your friend, but you will just have to get on with it.’ No, Jesus comes alongside and comforts her asking, ‘Why are you weeping?’ (v15)
During the funeral of PC Palmer, the newly appointed Commissioner of the Metropolis, Cressida Dick read a poem by WH Auden entitled ‘Funeral Blues’ or sometimes referred to as ‘Stop all the clocks’ (first published in 1938) which captures the total and complete grief we feel when a loved one is gone.
For as anyone who has experienced the death of a close relative or friend will know, it is as if the clocks do simply stop when death occurs, and we cannot seem to move on in life. The whole poem of ‘Funeral Blues’ is moving, but the final verse says this: –
The stars are not wanted now; put out everyone,
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun,
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood; For nothing now can ever come to any good.
Right now, this day the family of Keith Palmer must be feeling that same sense that the clock of time has just stopped, and everything seems hopeless.
And it is that same perception of time, just standing still in sorrow that we can imagine the family and followers of Jesus must have experienced too that Good Friday morning, when Jesus was brought down from that cross and carried away to the tomb where he lay for three days.
It is that same grief that we all experience when death comes close. But we can be glad brothers and sisters, because of what happened that Easter morning through the actions of Jesus and His rising to new life, He gives us all new hope for a life that carries on beyond the grave of this mortal coil.
The eloquently preached sermon that followed the poem ‘Funeral Blues’ by the Dean of the Cathedral, Andrew Nunn, spoke of that same hope that lies beyond death because of the actions of Jesus, as He willingly gave His life, not just for another, but for the whole world, just in a similar way the actions of PC Palmer had protected Parliament and freedom as he attempted to take down his assailant.
But how can we be certain of life after death, where there is no pain nor sorrow?
Well as I said earlier, just as a police officer might do in any investigation, we need to examine the evidence. So, what is the evidence of the resurrection and why might the first witnesses to the resurrection not even have believed what had happened?
Our reading from the gospel of John today as we heard, gives that account of the first Easter and the discovery of the risen Lord, firstly by Mary who at first is not able to recognise her Master and it is only when He directly calls her by name ‘Mary’ (v16) that she then sees who she had not previously recognised and acknowledges His presence replying ‘Rabboni’ (meaning Master.)
It seems that Mary was prevented in seeing clearly, someone who she had known well, and this lack of clarity of sight was probably not surprisingly due to an initial lack of faith in the resurrection, but if we turn to the gospel of Matthew we read that Mary was not alone in seeing the resurrected Jesus as implied from just a reading of the gospel of John alone. For Jesus spoke to another woman also. (Matthew 28:9).
And again, if we turn to the gospels of Luke and Mark, we find Jesus appearing to two of His own disciples that very same day also, as they travelled on the road to Emmaus (Mark 16:12-13).
But not just in the gospels is there evidence of the resurrected Jesus being seen; later in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians we can read that Paul tells us that Jesus also appeared to over 500 people at once (1 Corinthians 15:3-9).
So, if we are to believe the biblical account, and on the balance of probability there is no credible reason not to do so. Then over a period of some forty days after the crucifixion, Jesus in His resurrected form appeared to a very large number, probably in excess of over five hundred different people.
And if this fact alone is not enough to convince the most ardent of doubters, then look to the tomb from which Jesus rose. And ask yourselves the questions, why were His grave clothes left neatly behind in the tomb, when He might have worn them as He left? (John 20: 7), How did a man tortured and crucified, just a few hours earlier manage to find the superhuman strength to escape from a stone cave, moving a heavy stone in the process? And why at the same time were battle-hardened Centurion guards who were tasked to ensure the security of Jesus found shaking in fear in the presence of whoever they had just faced?
One of the character traits of a police officer is to be inquisitive when required to do so, so if you are in any doubt then become an investigator, and get nosey and get interested, seek out the truth for yourself. Examine the evidence, wherever it may take you, but remember this, if in the end, you do conclude that the resurrection story is correct, you will have unlocked the single greatest message that any preacher can ever bring, for you would have discovered the message of hope for an eternal life with God Himself. And although we may still be fearful of death, take comfort, for as we pass from death to life, then Jesus will be with us every step of the way.
‘I am the resurrection and the life’ says the Lord, ‘Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die’ (John 11: 25,26)
Alleluia, the Lord is risen. He is risen indeed.