Bishop Olivia gave the following sermon during a Church at Home online service.
The Sunday after Easter is known as Low Sunday. In early Christian times it marked the end of the ceremonies surrounding the Easter baptisms, and also the end of the Octave – the eight days of feasting which are kicked off on Easter Sunday. I have to say that the Easter eggs in our house didn’t last nearly that long!
But Low Sunday doesn’t mean that Easter is over. Eastertide lasts for 40 days – right up until Ascension. And that is important because it takes time to absorb a new truth, a new reality, and to learn to live differently.
There’s a sense that those who saw Jesus alive after his crucifixion were not sure how to react: with joy or with fear. In Mark’s gospel, they simply fled from the tomb and said nothing to anyone.
We need to stay with that sense of joy and fear, of amazement, of caution, and of beginning to dare to feel that it is true. Belief is something which, for most of us, is not an instantaneous thing, it’s more of a process, a gradual coming round, a questioning acceptance. And for those early disciples, and for us, a slowly dawning realisation that everything has changed. It took time.
There is a great deal of disbelief in the Gospel accounts of the resurrection. Mary Magdalene, the first Apostle, the first disciple to be told by Jesus to ‘go and tell’ she was disbelieved; the two disciples in Mark’s gospel who saw Jesus on the road were disbelieved; and here is dear Thomas, famously refusing to give any credence to these ridiculous fanciful tales unless he sees the marks of crucifixion himself. Jesus totally got this when he said to Thomas Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet have come to believe.
Those who have come to believe. When I was much younger, I had quite a long period of discounting much of Christianity because I simply could not sign up to believing that someone could come back to life after death. I found it literally incredible, and I thought that no-one who had an ounce of intelligence could seriously base their life on this belief. But, over time, as Jesus said, I came to believe. My reluctance was overcome, not by well-reasoned argument, or cleverly written books, but by looking around me and seeing people I loved and respected, and knew to be very intelligent saying yes, this is what I believe.
What difference does it make? The belief that Jesus is indeed risen from the dead is life-changing. It leads to a different way of looking at life, and at death. We slowly come to realise that everything that we thought about the world has changed. Our values turn upside down and our timeframe shifts and tilts.
None of us is unaware of what our world and our country are going through at the moment. Familiarity, reassurance is not what is being given to us this Easter. Certainty is not being given to us. This Easter, it’s hard to feel that we have a celebration of joy, new life and freedom when our freedom is constricted, sickness, death and grief are all nearby. It almost feels as though we are still in Good Friday.
What’s being given to us is change, confusion and disruptive newness. Very much like the early followers of Jesus. And some of us don’t deal very well or adapt very quickly to these things. But in the midst of it all, we are discovering new things about ourselves and about what matters. Ask yourself;
What is it you miss at the moment, and is it the same as what you expected to miss?
What do you long for? What is the thing that would make you happiest?
And was there something which you used to think was really vital, which you now find you are doing fine without?
It is important to reflect on these things, amid the strangeness and confusion of our changed lives, lived inside and, for many of us, online, and for many more, alone.
So we are shut-in, and we’re re-evaluating. And we’re realising what is important. I would like to think that we’re being more contemplative, more compassionate and more courageous. And if this time has anything to teach us, it is that after it is over, we mustn’t be pulled by the undertow back into the complacency of life as it was before. There are things that need to change.
We have come to value being there for each other and have seen the need to work together for the good of all. We have come to realise that the people who are rewarded the least in our society are the very people we rely on for the delivery of the basics of life: the shelf stackers, the refuse collectors, the care staff, the nurses and other NHS workers, the shop staff and the bus drivers. Brought into sharp focus is that poorer families have less space and no gardens. People who are confined together in small spaces will have less good mental health and are at a greater risk of violence. And having no home is a greater risk still.
When we are able to get back to normal, if the old normal even still exists, there are things that need to change, because how it was isn’t good enough, and isn’t how it ought to be. How can we shape the new normal, after COVID in a way that reflects what we have come to believe in this journey through Eastertide; that acknowledges how very precious life is, and how very precious each individual person is? And how can we make sure that we succeed in this?
It takes repetition of the newness to keep us on the right track, because the undertow that pulls us back into the familiar is strong. We need to swim against it. It takes time to absorb a new truth, a new reality, and to learn to live differently. This is the beginning of our Easter journey, and it starts with each one of us, where we are, now as we embrace the belief that Jesus is indeed risen from the dead and that changes everything.
Low Sunday, 2020
I love the Easter stories in the gospels. The ending is the best part of the book. I love the gentleness of Jesus in John as Mary meets him in the garden, as he breathes his Spirit into his disciples to strengthen them, as he restores Peter by the lakeside. I love the story of the road to Emmaus in Luke and his gentle listening, the way their hearts burn as he unfolds the scriptures and the way Jesus is made known in the breaking of the bread. I love the sense of power and purpose in Matthew as the disciples are given the great commission to go into all the world and make disciples, which still goes on to this day.
But there is one gospel ending I have never understood or focussed on at Easter until this year: the ending of Mark. Three women come to the tomb where Jesus was laid, bringing spices. The stone is rolled back. They enter the tomb. They see a young man in a white robe sitting to one side. He tells them that Jesus is risen and they are to go to Galilee and meet him there. And then we read this: “So 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.”
And there the gospel ends. Scholars wonder if the original ending was lost. If you look carefully at Mark 16, you will see two other endings are added to the story. The oldest manuscript though end with a very short sentence: they were afraid because…
This year to end on a note of fear seems right. Our world and our country are in the midst of a natural disaster. We are reminded every day of our mortality. Many of our families and friends are already touched by illness or by death.
In such a time it is natural to be afraid and we want to run away. One of the deepest parts of being human is a strong desire for our lives to go on: a longing for eternity. But that longing collides with the dreadful truth that one day we will die.
In this time of fear, the Church is called to come back again to the very centre of our faith: the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and ponder what that resurrection means. Death has been overcome, put into reversed and conquered. Jesus has opened up the way to new and eternal life. We grieve for those we have lost, but we do not grieve as those who have no hope. As we shall say in a moment together, we believe in resurrection.
If you read the New Testament carefully, the first disciples found the resurrection of Jesus hard to understand and hold onto. It is a truth so big it turns our world upside down and inside out. Thomas famously did not believe until he could see and touch the Lord. Luke describes the disciples as startled and terrified: joyful but still disbelieving and wondering. In Mark, the women are at first afraid at such a great and deep truth.
Jesus is risen and that changes everything. Death becomes a gateway and not an ending. Life is lived in the light of eternity. Love endures beyond the grave. The meal we share today is a foretaste of a banquet in heaven. This invitation to life is open to everyone. There is no need to be afraid.
Because of Jesus, resurrection is the pattern of the world. There is no doubt that these days are terrible and difficult: perhaps the worst we will ever live through. But there is no doubt that there will be a resurrection and rebuilding and resetting of our lives, of our families, of our economy and of our world. We will meet again. There will be lessons we can learn in this season of what is really important and essential. In the meantime we pray and love and hope and encourage one another in the faith of the resurrection.
Because of Jesus we are able as the people of God to face our mortality and see beyond it. Christ is risen. We have new hope. Because of that hope we can sing to one another as the children sing to us now: Be bold, be strong for the Lord our God is with you.
Easter Day, 2020
The stilling of the storm
Seven days ago, Pope Francis began his address to the city of Rome and the world with these words:
“Like the disciples in the Gospel we were caught off guard by an unexpected, turbulent storm. We have realised that we are on the same boat, all of us fragile and disoriented, but at the same time important and needed, all of us called to row together, each of us in need of comforting the other. On this boat… are all of us. Just like those disciples, who spoke anxiously with one voice, saying “We are perishing” (v. 38), so we too have realized that we cannot go on thinking of ourselves, but only together can we do this”.*
We have absorbed the first shock of the pandemic. We are learning to work in new ways and to work together across Church and society. We gather ourselves for the next wave. We hold together and support each other in the grace of Jesus Christ.
Thank you again for all you are being and doing. It is deeply appreciated in both church and wider community. The creativity, love and compassion evident in the Diocese are like shafts of light piercing the darkness.
Holy Week and Easter
Holy Week and Easter this year will be like no other we have experienced. Many local churches are offering prayers and meditations. Thank you. Many others can’t do this or prefer to focus their energies elsewhere and to join in the streamed worship offered by the Diocese. Don’t subject yourself to unnecessary guilt.
We are now making plans to offer live streamed worship for the Diocese on Sundays and Holy Days in the coming months to complement what is offered locally. We want this Diocesan prayer and worship to be sustainable over the long haul, collaborative, creative, accessible to all traditions, reliable and prioritising not competing with the local.
Our principal Diocesan services will be at 10 am each Sunday as last week. Wherever possible this will be live with some pre-recorded elements. The full list of services and times for Holy Week and Easter is as follows:
Palm Sunday 10 am A Diocesan Eucharist with Bishop Olivia presiding
This will introduce Holy Week and point forward to a nationally provided and recorded dramatised Passion reading.
Maundy Thursday 11 am
The Renewal of Vows for Licensed and Ordained Ministry
Please would all licensed and ordained ministers gather for this Service of the Word with the traditional renewal of vows. Please retain your oils from last year as it will not be possible to bless or distribute new ones. I hope that Deanery Chapters or smaller groups might gather virtually before or after the service to give something of a sense of the fellowship we enjoy together.
Maundy Thursday 8.15 pm
A Diocesan Eucharist with Bishop Colin presiding
For Good Friday we will offer a series of six short addresses from myself, each with hymns and prayers as podcasts. These will be available from noon on Maundy Thursday to listen to on the website or download as a podcast. You may want to listen to them and keep the traditional three hours; or space them out across a whole day set aside for prayer; or use from Maundy Thursday to Holy Saturday; or just use the final two as you keep watch at the cross.
Easter Day at 10 am
A Diocesan Eucharist and I will preside and reflect.
Again and again I have brought to mind in recent weeks the verse from the temptation stories: we do not live by bread alone. At this time more than at any time we need to offer spiritual resources for the challenges we face.
I am very grateful to the team of liturgists and communications staff who are working hard to make all this possible. There may well be hitches and glitches. Bear with us.
The Church of England app (currently #LiveLent) will carry my own reflections on the Lord’s Prayer with new introductions in this time of pandemic for the forty days of Easter beginning on Easter Day.
I am very concerned to hear that some of you are being placed in an unacceptable situation at a crematorium or graveside funeral, with scores of mourners arriving and fully expecting to attend the service. At this time of crisis we, more than ever, wish to offer the ministry of the church to those that we have been called to serve but this must be done safely.
The present Government guidance says that numbers at funerals should be restricted and a safe distance preserved.
The Church of England guidance is aligned to that of the Government and unpacks the meaning of ‘close family’,
Because of the present public health regulations, the only available options for Church of England funerals are the following:
• a short service at the crematorium, with or without a very small congregation, which may only include spouse/partner, parents, and children of the deceased;
• a short service at the graveside, under the same conditions.
This guidance is clearly not being enforced by many of the crematoria or cemeteries in this Diocese and we have heard similar accounts from across the country. We have been in touch with the national church about this and they have petitioned the Government. We have also drawn it to the attention of the statutory authorities across the Thames Valley.
There is no easy solution to the problem of too many people turning up at a funeral. I hope that a stronger lead will come from Government soon. In the meantime, I offer this best practice guidance:
- explain clearly to family in advance the rules about numbers and state that they must be strictly kept to; ask them to name for you the people who will be attending; ask them to explain to wider family and friends that they cannot unfortunately attend; explain option of a memorial service later in the year when this is over
- speak in advance with the funeral director and the crem/council staff to check that they are committed with you to following the Government guidance; have a shared plan for how to respond if larger than expected numbers arrive.
- If at the service larger numbers arrive, explain to everyone that only immediate family (spouse/partner, parents, and children of the deceased) can remain and look to the undertakers and crematorium staff to support you in this. Please do not place yourself unduly at risk.
I will also be writing a letter to all funeral directors, crematoria and council cemeteries seeking their support in this.
It is likely that, tragically, the number of deaths will continue to rise over the next few weeks and so, therefore, will the number of funerals in the remainder of April and May.
Please pace yourself through this period as best you can. Funeral ministry is demanding, particularly in a time of national tragedy. Take regular days off. Take time to de-stress after a funeral. Talk to colleagues and to friends. Don’t feel you have to accept every request beyond what is sustainable.
We are working at the moment to provide some central administrative support for clergy and undertakers to support what may be a surge in this ministry and will write with more information when that is in place. In common with the majority of dioceses, we will not be charging funeral fees for services at crematoria during this period starting immediately.
The Church of England has recently published a useful checklist on mental health for clergy and lay ministers.
Visiting the sick
One of the hardest features of the pandemic will be that we cannot and must not visit those who are sick in person. Our visits will have to be remote, but all of us can express warmth and companionship and pray for healing through phone and text and by other digital means. Those who are passing through the valley of the shadow of death need to know that God is with them and that we are continually praying for them and walking with them, albeit from a necessary distance.
Finance will not, I hope, be uppermost in our minds in the coming days. However, there is considerable anxiety already among PCC and Deanery Treasurers about the effect of the epidemic on fees, cash giving, lettings income and fundraising, and you will be aware of this.
Our Diocesan finance teams are working hard on this and we will communicate more in the weeks after Easter.
“He made the storm be still”
In Psalm 107 we read:
“He made the storm be still and the waves of the sea were calmed”
There are storms around us and there will be storms within us, of grief and fear, of questions. Christ is with us in the boat as it rises and falls with the waves. Christ is able to speak peace to the storm within and without.
It may well be that the initial shock and working together and community we see at present will fracture as the pandemic advances. We will need all of our patience and hope and resilience if that is so as we have to deal with anger and hurt and fear of all kinds.
Please watch over yourself in this and draw on the deep wells of the faith. Neither the Archbishops nor your own Bishops will get everything right through this crisis. Nor will any of us. We offer what we can, consecrating ourselves to God each day, in humility and in love and seeking to serve and give glory to God and to others.
In all of these ways, we are called to walk the way of the cross and to discover that it will also become the way of resurrection and of Easter hope.
Dear friends keep well; watch and pray and love. I look forward to our being together, if only virtually, on Maundy Thursday.
With our love and prayers,
+Steven, 3 April 2020
on behalf of the Area Bishops and Dean
Father Jean Marc Fournier is chaplain to the Paris Fire Brigade. On Monday evening, Abbe Fournier led the successful attempt to rescue the precious objects from the burning Cathedral of Notre Dame.
Among them was the crown of thorns, the equivalent someone wrote this week of England’s crown jewels, but surely an even more important and powerful symbol. This simple crown was brought to Paris in 1238 when Notre Dame was newly built.
It looks like a wreath comprised of brittle but elegantly woven marine rushes. The first reference to this crown of thorns is from the early fifth century in Jerusalem. The crown was moved to Constantinople around 500 years later and then onto Paris where it has remained ever since.
Much has been written this week of the symbolism of the burning Cathedral and the plans to rebuild. Images of the cross which survived in the ruins of the nave have been passed across the world.
But the most powerful and life-giving image of all, I think, is this fragile ancient crown, a brand snatched from the burning, whether or not it is the actual crown worn by Jesus Christ.
This crown is central to John’s gospel. If you have a moment later today, look back over the story of the passion and see references to Christ as King. On Palm Sunday, Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey, coming as the anointed king of Israel.
Pilate’s dialogue with Jesus and with the crowds is all about what it means to be a king. “Are you the king of the Jews?” and “Here is your king”. The crowds reply “We have no king but the emperor”. Pilate’s charge above Jesus cross is written in three languages: “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews”.
“And the soldiers wove a crown of thorns and put it on his head”.
We cannot understand the real meaning of Easter day unless we understand who is crucified and risen. Jesus is the coming king. The crown of thorns is the symbol of his kingdom.
Here is your king. This is the king who does not assume his throne through violence and force of arms.
This is the king motivated by love who brings in a kingdom not of this world.
This is the servant king: the one who kneels to wash the feet of his disciples and who brings in a kingdom marked by justice and peace.
This is the king who gives to his followers a new commandment: above all we are to love one another.
This king is not for one nation alone in a single lifetime but for every nation in all the time to come. This king does not inaugurate a dynasty for his reign will last for ever. Instead, he forms a community through his death on the cross and his rising from the dead. He does not come to be served but to serve.
And this is why the crown of thorns is such a remarkable symbol: of power and glory combined with suffering which saves and redeems the entire world.
In the garden on Easter Day, joy and pain are woven fine. Mary is weeping. Four times we are told of her tears. The gentle gardener speaks her name and that is all it takes. In and through her grief Mary recognises that this is indeed Jesus, her teacher and her Lord: the king whose death has brought salvation to the world. In Peter’s words in Acts: “Everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name”.
All those who believe and follow him are taught to pray, each day for the coming of God’s kingdom: “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven”. The kingdom of the king who wears this crown of thorns. This is the kingdom of Isaiah’s vision, realised through suffering, where infants will not die and the elderly will live out their days in sand peace.
How will this kingdom come? The way is symbolised by this crown of thorns. It is the way of love and reconciliation. It would be a wonderful consequence of a terrible fire if the crown of thorns were to find its way back to the centre of our common life and our understanding of power.
The suffering and tears continue even in the midst of joy in Sri Lanka today and in South Sudan and in many places where Christians suffer for their faith. Joy and pain are woven fine. Easter is our reminder that it is the songs of joy which will prevail.
We live in an age of sharp and polarised debate. Extremes of left and right offer us their certainties. Words are used to wound and tear down and incite fear and violence. More and more people live in echo chambers of their own making and blame others for their misfortunes.
Our nation flounders in uncertainty: or rather we flounder in the conflicting fire of different certainties. The result is deeper and deeper fragmentation. There is a danger we will inflict damage on our common life which will endure for a generation.
The crown of thorns offers a better way. It does not point to a particular path but it does lead us back to a better politics. It is a symbol of servant leadership; of suffering and glory woven together; of not seeking power for its own sake; of exercising that power when gained with gentleness; of holding together glory and sacrifice; of being willing to draw and hold all things together.
Her Majesty the Queen celebrates her birthday today. Her reign has been built on the pattern of the servant king. The Queen offered words of wisdom to the nation in January speaking to the Women’s Institute in Sandringham. “I for one prefer the tried and tested recipes, like speaking well of each other and respecting different points of view; coming together to seek out the common ground; and never losing sight of the bigger picture”.
The recipe sounds so simple. But it is really very difficult and this kind of wisdom is slipping from the centre of our national life.
I am sure France needs its crown of thorns in this present moment as much as we do, but I would be enormously cheered if we could borrow this powerful symbol of a different way and set it for a time in Westminster Abbey or even here in this Cathedral. It would be a reminder that each of us is called to share in the ministry of the risen Christ and especially Christ’s ministry of reconciliation.
This day we remember and we celebrate that Jesus Christ is risen from the dead. In Christ there is forgiveness and new life for all. In Christ, death has been conquered. In Christ there is fresh vision for the whole world. From Christ there flows a different way of combining suffering and service and glory and power. All of us are called to follow in this way: the way of the crown of thorns.
Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
The Easter Day sermon given by the Rt Rev Dr Steven Croft, Bishop of Oxford
Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford
21 April 2019
Happy New Year!
There are eight Sundays this year between Epiphany and Lent. As we continue our journey of renewing catechesis across the Diocese, may I offer you some suggestions for your preaching and notices and pastoral conversations?
It was good to share five study days in November with over 450 clergy and LLM’s across the Diocese on renewing catechesis. My opening address from those five days will be published on this blog next week. One of my tasks for January is to edit the five excellent guest lectures (and one other) into a new book to be published in September with the title Rooted and Grounded: Faith formation and the Christian tradition. More details later.
As a Diocese, we are trying to recover a simple and life giving way of using the Christian year to help form new Christians in the faith.
The overall scheme looks like this:
Autumn: sow the good seed of the gospel
Epiphany: invite people to baptism
Lent: prepare people for baptism
Easter season: Baptism and confirmation services and ongoing formation
Through harvest and remembrance, Advent and Christmas, there has been a lot of sowing. As I wrote in December, more than 260,000 people attended services in Advent alone: around five times our normal worshipping community.
Many, many people will have begun to sense God at work in their lives in new ways, and some are ready to take the next step on the journey. Epiphany is a season to dare to invite some of those people who have heard the good news to consider baptism or confirmation or a public renewal of their baptismal promises. There are many different ways to do that through preaching or notices or pastoral conversations.
Offering an invitation to baptism in this season is a very ancient tradition in the church attested in both the Church of the East in the Cappadocian Fathers and the Church in the West through Ambrose and Augustine .
On some Sundays, special sermons were preached directed at those who were enquirers warmly inviting people to consider baptism. On other Sundays the preacher would turn aside and take time to address enquirers as part of the main sermon.
You may find that certain things need to be put in place as you begin to make these invitations over the next few weeks. You may want to identify a Sunday for adult baptisms in the Easter season and for renewal of baptismal promises. You may want to identify a suitable confirmation service in the deanery for the candidates who come forward. It’s not too late to arrange either of these things.
And, of course, as you plan Lent you will need to plan ways of helping enquirers explore and learn about the very beginnings of faith. There is lots of good material available for small groups (including Pilgrim and the Alpha course).
In Lent last year I gathered 120 people across the Oxford Area to explore renewing catechesis at the very beginning of the project. One of the things we realised through those conversations was that clergy and LLMs are doing more work with people one to one and rather less in groups. For various reasons, people are less willing to sign up for longer “courses” but still want to explore faith.
Partly in response to those insights, I’ve been involved in creating a new resource for Lent and Easter this year. I’ve written 40 days of very short reflections on the Beatitudes for Lent and 40 days of Reflections on the Lord’s Prayer for Easter. Both will be published as short booklets by the end of January. They will also be available through the Church of England’s App, currently carrying the “Follow the Star” material (iOS | Google Play), and delivered through smart speakers and in a range of other ways.
Both booklets are for anyone who wants to go deeper. Their main aim is to introduce Jesus and what it means to follow Jesus through these two profound texts to an interested enquirer through short, simple daily readings and prayers. My hope is that many churches will use them to support candidates for baptism and confirmation and as a foundation for one to one conversations and small group work.
I hope this new season of invitation will be part of what it means for us to be a more Christ-like Church. It arises directly from contemplation: trying to catch a fresh vision of Christ and of what it means to be human. It is motivated by compassion: love for people and a longing for them to know the riches of God’s love and purpose for their lives. It will also take courage to offer a new invitation in preaching and notices and pastoral conversations – especially if you’ve not done it for a while.
Pray with me that this year and every year God will be drawing people to Christian faith ones and twos and small groups all across the Diocese.
God of our pilgrimage
Renew your church in this place
In the ministries of befriending and listening;
teaching and learning faith.
Help us to welcome new believers to baptism and confirmation
And restore in your love those who are lost
May Christ be formed afresh in us
As we help to form new disciples in your mission to the world
Through Jesus Christ our Lord
In the power of the Holy Spirit
And to the glory of the Father
This sermon was delivered by Bishop Steven at the Choral Eucharist on Easter Day (1st April) at Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford.
Happy Easter. The Lord is risen.
Today is the 1st April and it seems a very good day to announce my plans for a new font and baptistery for the Cathedral and the Diocese of Oxford as a major project for the coming year.
There is a very large and convenient pond in the centre of Tom Quad which you passed on the way in. My hope is that this pond can be cleaned and excavated and deepened, perhaps expanded a little. The fish will have to go of course, and the statue in the centre will need to find another home.
It will be a reminder for all who come into this place that baptism into Christ, into his death and resurrection, is at the very centre of our faith and identity. I look forward to discussing it with you at the door.
The people of the Old Testament by and large do not believe in resurrection. Human beings have one life. After that we sort of fade away and disappear into a shadowy land called Sheol. Death is something to be deeply lamented, never welcomed: a great black shroud which casts its shadow on the earth.
But the urge to live beyond death is strong. A few exceptional individuals, Enoch and Elijah are taken up to heaven and into friendship with God instead of dying rather than through death. Sometimes life can be extended. But for the most part death is a deep mystery. In the powerful words of Ecclesiastes:
“You have put eternity into the minds of men and women yet they cannot find out what God has done from beginning to end”.
We feel as though we ought to live for ever, we reach for immortality, but we cannot believe that this is really possible.
In many ways, this Old Testament view of death is not so different from ideas about death in our contemporary world. We certainly fear death.
Our ancestors put their burial places in the centre of towns and villages, in our churchyards as a reminder that we will all die. We now build our new crematoria on the very edge of town and make them look like libraries. There is evidence year by year that people have fewer resources to think about death, one of the fundamental facts of life, and cope with grieving.
Science is reaching for ways to help us live longer, through medicine, or to help part of us endure. Human enhancement through technology or biology will be a feature of the next generation. Yet we still struggle deeply with our mortality. One of the best selling books worldwide last year was When Breath becomes Air by Paul Kalanathi, a beautifully written reflection on living life yet facing death.
Themes of heaven and hell and afterlife have been front page news this week, centred on Pope Francis. There is more and more speculation in film and television and popular culture about what happens when we die. The Netflix series The Good Place, set in heaven, is one to avoid. The Black Mirror episode San Junipero is a powerful exploration of this longing to live on after we die: we leave a digital footprint of ourselves locked in a virtual world for all eternity.
The prophets of the Old Testament will not leave death alone. The Book of Isaiah contains a powerful promise in our Old Testament reading that when God’s kingdom comes, death will be destroyed for ever:
“And the Lord of Hosts will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples; the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death for ever” (25.7).
The prophet Ezekiel lived in the bleakest and most difficult times. He saw his nation and his city and his temple destroyed for ever and, he thought, they deserved it. But Ezekiel’s hope transcends his despair at the profound sin of the nation. One of his most famous visions is a valley of dry bones as far as the eye can see, bleached white by the sun. It is a vision of death. He is told to prophecy to the bones. They come together. Flesh and muscle and skin grow back. Death is thrown into reverse.
He is told to prophecy then to the wind, the breath and Spirit of God. The Spirit comes and breathes in the valley of death: “and the breath came into them and they lived and stood on their feet, a vast multitude”.
The first Easter is the beginning. The beginning of the resolution of the deepest tension between the longing and the experience of humankind. We long to live for ever. We experience the bitter ending of death.
The first Easter is the fulfilling. The fulfilling of the deep yearning and prophecies of the Old Testament that one day the shroud of death will be destroyed and the process of death and dying will be reversed: there will be resurrection.
The first Easter is the great turning of human history. Death itself is conquered in the victory of the Son of God. In Peter’s words from Acts:
“They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, not to all people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead”.
All of this is present in John’s story of the resurrection. The great and universal longing for life is the backdrop to our story together with the present reality of death. It is a single resurrection in one time and one place, witnessed first by Mary Magdalene and then by Peter and the other apostles, witnessed to in signs and wonders, evidenced in lives transformed generation after generation down the ages, in the Spirit’s work in human living, in the signs of the kingdom of God, in the life and worship of an imperfect church. At its heart is the most human of encounters, in a garden, a new dawn, a case of mistaken identity, a name softly spoken, an embrace, a promise, a love renewed, a call to life eternal.
A single resurrection. A first fruit of the harvest of the dead. A sign of new life for all people everywhere. Death has been overcome and is no more. This is the faith we take hold of afresh today. This is good news we share.
This is the faith we proclaim as we invite the world again to come to Jesus Christ, the resurrection and the life, to be baptised into his death and to rise again to life in all its fullness.
This is what we mean as we declare together: On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures.
Alleluia Christ is Risen. Amen.
Easter Day 2018.
Matins on Easter day is a song of joy. Heart deep, world wide, heaven high, life long.
For forty days the Church has fasted. We have denied ourselves the Alleluia and the Gloria.
We have walked the way of the cross. We have journeyed through Holy Week. We shared the foot washing and the agony in the garden. We witnessed the trial, waited by the cross and watched the body of Jesus laid in the tomb.
And now it is Easter Day. The stone has been rolled away. The grave clothes are folded and no longer needed. Christ is risen. He has appeared to Mary. A new gardener in Eden. He is walking the Emmaus Road as a shepherd, bringing home the lost. He will break bread and cook fish on charcoal in the early morning, spreading a table for his friends. He will enter rooms full of fear and breathe new life and power. He will gently test those who doubt him. He will restore those who denied him. He will interpret Scripture for his friends. He will commission them to go and make disciples. After nights of desolation, he will give them such abundance that their nets can scarcely hold the catch. He will forge frightened Galileeans into true fishers of people who will turn the world upside down. He will ascend into the heights of heaven. He will send the Comforter as he has promised. He will never leave us. He is here.
The Lord is risen. The heart of the Church is breaking open with joy. The pent up Alleluia’s overflow. The glorias abound. Jubilate everybody. The whole earth is alive with song today: cathedral choirs, organ fanfares, string quartets, drums and castanets, calypso guitars, brass and woodwind. Let everything that has breath praise the Lord.
All of our hymns and songs and anthems are pure joy. On this day we need the Easter Anthems, the Te Deum and Benedictus and then we’ve only just begun. Even our bible readings today are songs of joy.
Miriam sings at the crossing of the Red Sea:
“I will sing to the LORD for he has triumphed gloriously”
The saints in heaven praise God for the story of salvation:
“Great and amazing are your works, Lord God the Almighty”.
We sing the Easter Anthems this day and for the fifty days of Easter:
“Christ our Passover has been sacrificed for us, therefore let us keep the feast”.
We are called this day above all days to Easter joy. Let that joy rise within you. Let nothing in all creation quench it or overcome it. For the Lord is risen. He is risen indeed. Alleluia.
Christians are not always famous for their joy. Pope Francis goes so far as to say this: “There are Christians whose lives seem like Lent without Easter”[i]. It’s a striking phrase. We project to the world and to one another a sense that we are burdened and worn down, serious and dull, too earthly minded to be any heavenly use. Our church needs to rediscover joy.
We are too easily overwhelmed by the sorrows and troubles of the world. There are sorrows and troubles enough this day, to be sure, as there will be tomorrow and every day of the coming year and of every year after that. But Christian joy does not depend on everything being right with the world.
We are too easily overwhelmed by the sorrows in our own life. There will be sorrows enough for most of us. Sometimes they will be almost overwhelming but not quite. Joy is not expressed in the same way at all times in life, especially in times of great difficulty. But Christian joy does not depend on everything being perfect in our lives.
We are too easily overwhelmed by the imperfections in the Church and they are many. But if you wait for the life of the Church of England to be completely sorted and set right you will never know a single day of joy. For we will always be a flawed and imperfect Church like every other this side of eternity.
There is a simple lesson about joy which we are called to learn and relearn. Christians are not called to rejoice for all circumstances. We are called to rejoice in all circumstances. There is a world of difference.
To rejoice for all circumstances is deeply misguided. It leads to a forced, false joy which tries to pretend that sickness or injustice or even death are really blessings in disguise. There are terrible things in the world and terrible things in our own lives. We need to name them and grieve them and be angry about them.
But to rejoice in all circumstances is a very different calling. To rejoice in all circumstances is to understand that underneath all that is difficult, all that is written in a minor key, all the sorrow and pain and grief, a stronger, major key of joy emerges and prevails. Even in the midst of the darkest valleys we draw our strength from God in hope and joy that one day all will be well and all manner of things shall be well. And even today, and especially today, there is a well of hope which feeds the roots of our soul and rises up to joy.
For Jesus whom we love is risen.
He offered his life for our sins
He has conquered death, never to die again
He is the new Adam. He offers now abundant and eternal life.
He is Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end.
He was killed with nails and wood and spear.
But death could not hold him.
Death has been conquered and Satan thrown down.
There is a river of life flowing from the cross which will fill the world and fills it still.
So sing you heavens and rejoice now all the earth. Let the Church echo alleluias for all of this beautiful day and the fifty days which follow.
Alleluia Christ is risen. Everything has changed. Alleluia. Gloria. Jubilate. Amen.
A Sermon in Christ Church
Matins on Easter Day, 2017
[i] The Joy of the Gospel, 6
Easter Day sermon from the Bishop of Sheffield.
Acts 10.34-43 and John 20.1-18
One of the great figures of the Quaker movement, Isaac Pennington, wrote these words in a letter to his friends in 1667. He is trying to describe what it means to be a Christian.
“Our life is love and peace and tenderness and bearing with one another and forgiving one another and not laying accusations one against one another and helping one another up with a tender hand”
To be a Christian is to live a life of gentleness and peace and tenderness and mercy and love together.
Paul writes to the Church in Philippi, “Let your gentleness be known to everyone” (Philippians 4.5). As a community we are to be known for our tenderness. He writes to Timothy, “Pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness” (1 Timothy 6.11).
As I have read the story of the passion of Jesus in John’s gospel this year, I have been struck very powerfully by this theme of the gentleness of Jesus Christ: it is a robust gentleness, a gentleness combined with steel but gentleness none the less.
There is gentleness in the way Jesus receives the gift of Mary, the sister of Lazarus. She anoints his feet with perfume and wipes them with her hair. There is gentleness in the washing of the disciples feet. Jesus moves around the group of his closest friends to wash to cleanse, to serve.
There is gentleness in his teaching at the Passover meal. Jesus speaks of their grief and fear, about the comforter who will come, about sorrow turning to joy. He tells his disciples not to be afraid. He prays tenderly for them and for us.
There is gentleness combined with strength even in the terrible narrative of crucifixion: in the silence of Jesus before Pilate, in Jesus’ care for ‘his mother Mary and for the disciple whom he loved, in his final cry: “It is finished.
And the same theme of gentleness and kindness flows through the story of Jesus’ resurrection. Mary Magdalene, stands weeping, alone outside the tomb. Jesus appears tenderly to her. There is no bright light, no clap of thunder, nothing to distress a woman’s grief. Jesus listens and enters her sorrows through soft questions. He tells her he is alive as he speakers her name with love and joy: “Mary”. He gives her a new calling to share his risen life: “Do not hold on to me….go to my brothers”.
Jesus appears gently to the disciples, in the upper room. His first word to them is peace and his second word to them is peace, calming their fear and healing their grief. He gives them the promised Holy Spirit but in John there is no mighty wind, no earthquake or fire. In John, the Spirit is given through a soft breath on the forehead, almost a kiss.
Thomas is not there, of course, but there is gentleness too in the way the Lord deals with his unbelief, a tender irony, a smile, an inner joy. And there is gentleness in the final stories by the Sea.
Jesus stands as a stranger on the shore. “Children you have no fish have you”. He gives them instructions, he blesses their labours, and then reveals that he has been there ahead of them. The risen Son of God makes breakfast for his friends. He came and took the bread and gave it to them and did the same with the fish. He is taking them back to the feeding of five thousand.
And then after breakfast Jesus deals gently with Simon Peter who at the last denied him and who is broken by grief and by failure. Jesus restores him with his questions: “Do you love me more than these”. To Peter also he gives a new task: “Feed my lambs, tend my sheep, feed my sheep”.
The risen Lord we celebrate today is gentle, merciful, tender and kind. His character is consistent. It is not spoiled and made bitter by the terrible suffering he endures, by denial or betrayal. It is not changed by his resurrection, by his new and risen life.
Before the cross, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, washes the feet of his disciples. After the resurrection, Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, cooks breakfast for his friends.
Here is something to ponder deeply this Easter morning. Jesus Christ calls his Church, his friends to be like him in his gentleness and love.
“Our life is love and peace and tenderness and bearing with one another and forgiving one another and not laying accusations one against one another and helping one another up with a tender hand”.
It’s very simple. At the foot washing, Jesus hands on the manifesto for the life of the Church: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this shall everyone know that you are my disciple, if you have love one for another” (13.34-5).
Jesus gives the Holy Spirit to the disciples with these words” “As the Father has sent me, so I send you”.
Jesus commissions Peter to the same gentle ministry he models: “Feed my lambs, tend my sheep, feed my sheep”.
The vocation of the Church is to be a community of gentleness and mercy in a world which is often harsh and often violent.
We have been reminded again this week of the terrible violence inflicted on the innocent when religion is twisted by forces of evil and destruction. This week the world witnessed terrible violence in Brussels. This week the world remembered the genocide in Bosnia committed against Muslims over 20 years ago. These acts of violence are renounced and condemned by all Christians, all Muslims, all Jews in the name of God as well as by all people of good will. As Christians we must commit ourselves to working for greater understanding between our faiths and communities in the name of our Saviour who washes his disciples feet.
The vocation of the Church is to be a community of mercy in a world which neglects those who have nothing. There is a challenge in our own day to care for the displaced of the world, to welcome the refugee and to care for the stranger. There is challenge to serve the most vulnerable in this city, through the Cathedral Archer Project and in many other ways. There is challenge to campaign and be involved in political life so that the tears in the net of Welfare in this country might be mended again.
The vocation of the Church is to be a community of gentleness in a world in which so many are hurting and broken. Here in South Yorkshire we know a great deal now about such brokenness following the child sexual exploitation scandals. There are many lives and many communities which need gentleness and care.
The vocation of the Church is to be a community of mercy even as we face together issues on which we might disagree one with another. Our Church is currently wrestling with the immensely sensitive issue of human sexuality. My prayer for that conversation is we will be gentle one with another and bear with one another and help one another up with a tender hand.
The vocation of the Church is to be a community of gentleness in our stewardship of the earth: to live gently and respectfully in creation, to be faithful disciples in our care for God’s world.
And the vocation of the Church is to be a community of gentleness and mercy in the ordinary and extraordinary details of our lives: in the way we greet one another; in the ways we offer hospitality; in the questions we ask one another; in the time we give to listening; in the friendship we extend to others; in the way we restore people to fellowship; in the way we tell others of Jesus Christ;; in our welcome of little children. “By this shall everyone know that you are my disciples if you have love for one another”.
We are the Church. We are called into being by Jesus Christ, who was crucified and rose again. The gentle, risen Lord. We are called to reflect his love in a world of violence, hurt, hunger and confusion.
If you own the name of Christian, you are called to reflect this gentle strength in all you do: in your work and in your leisure, in your actions and in your character, in your words and in your deeds.
We are called together to be like him in his gentleness: at the anointing, at the footwashing, at the cross, in the garden, in the upper room, by the lakeside.
“Our life is love and peace and tenderness and bearing with one another and forgiving one another and not laying accusations one against another and helping one another up with a tender hand”
The Cathedral held a dawn service on Easter Day this year. I set the alarm for 4.30 in the morning for a 5.30 start.
The service began in darkness: readings and prayers from the Old Testament looking back to creation, to the Exodus, to the prophets longing for God’s kingdom. As dawn broke, we moved outside to the great entrance. New fire was kindled in a brazier. We lit the new Easter candle.
Together the congregation moved into the Church proclaiming with wonder once again this profound and life changing news that Jesus Christ rose from death on Easter Day.
The Christian faith is not based on a dream or a projection or a myth but an event in history. This event was witnessed by those who were not expecting it, unexplained by those who opposed it, written down by those who gave their lives in testimony, and attested by countless generations of Christians who have themselves encountered the risen Christ in scripture and sacrament, in prayer and fellowship.
This is the life changing, death disarming, fear destroying, mind transforming, joy bringing, grief shattering, kingdom proclaiming, history making, culture shaping truth that Jesus Christ rose from the dead on the third day. God offers to everyone forgiveness and new life.
But how can anyone believe in the resurrection of the dead? Death seems so final.
St Paul uses this very simple picture in 1 Corinthians 15. He asks us to imagine seed: the kind you plant in the ground. Think of the pip in the apple, or a sunflower seed, or the stone in the heart of a peach.
No matter how long you look at a dried peach stone, no-one could possibly imagine that this hard, dry object could possibly change and not only change but grow and not only grow but become a whole tree, bearing leaves and flowers and fruit for years and years.
So it is with the resurrection of the dead, says Paul. Death seems so final. But we only see part of the picture. A person’s life and soul and personality rests with God after death, like the DNA hidden deep in the stone of a peach. God in his love and grace and power is able to raise them to a new and deeper and richer kind of life, life without end.
How can we know this to be true? Because of what Christians celebrate in the fifty days of Easter.
Christ is risen. He is risen indeed. Alleluia.