Sermon for Easter 2015
‘They fled from the Tomb . . .’
Glory to Jesus Christ
Glory for Ever
I have a very vivid recollection of Holy Week in 2001. Unknown to me at that time it was the last Easter I celebrated as a curate, as Sarah and I moved to Gisburn in the December of that year, moving into a community which like many others that year was suffering from a trauma the like of which few if any of us here may have known, the effects of which continue to this day.
Gisburn and Hellifield were of course rural parishes, in the midst of many farms. Gisburn a village of 400 people, was home to one of the largest stock auction markets in the North of England. And it was 2001 – the year of the Foot and Mouth epidemic. Of course my curacy was in a Northern town far from any farm apart from rather unusually, an Ostrich farm 🙂 But for all that no one could be unaware of Foot and Mouth. At the start of the year TV news bulletins carried film of burning mountains of cattle carcasses, a view so distressing that the government ordered in the army to excavate an entire disused airfield so that the tens of thousands of culled beasts could be buried rather than burnt. Access to all open countryside was closed to try and prevent the spread of the disease, so I couldn’t walk my beloved hills
But I was closer to the epidemic than that. We watched with horror as the disease seemingly unstoppable overwhelmed the village in which I‘d grown up in and the surrounding areas, a cousin was involved with the ‘veterinary’ squads who were charged with shooting all the cattle, and somehow dealing with the trauma of that. And of course my own family were farmers.
Tucked away in a very remote valley in the South West Lake District we hoped and prayed that the plague would stay away, but inexorably it inched closer. It was on the Monday of Holy Week that we had the news we’d dreaded. Foot and Mouth had been diagnosed on a farm adjacent to my uncle’s farm. Which meant that all his stock would be culled as well.
Most farming operations involving stock were not huge, industrial scale farming is still pretty much unknown in the English stock sector. And my Uncles farm was no exception. He had about 150 rough fell cattle. Semi Wild – they were hardy and gave birth unassisted.
When he had first moved to the farm in 1970 the first calf was born – they found the mother, obviously having given birth yet they couldn’t find the calf – until late into night, walking the rough moraine landscape, my uncle saw the shape of a calf in the moonlight reflected of a small tarn. They named the cow Moonlight and they named the tarn ‘moonlight tarn’, a name which you now find on OS maps of the area.
We learned that the dreaded cull of the stock would take place on Maundy Thursday, and so it was I went to our Diocesan Chrism Eucharist with the heaviest of hearts and barely able to speak with anyone, rushing out at the end without even acknowledging the bishop. I returned home, to hear things were worse than I thought if that were possible. The stock wagons carrying the armed vets had been unable to get up my uncle’s farm track quickly enough and would be unable to carry out the cull in the space of a day as required. they were to return the next day.
Usually the vets and soldiers with them would round up the stock, but these were wild fell cattle, On Good Friday, early in the morning, my Uncle walked his land alone, to call his stock to their deaths. The oldest cow among them, 31 years old, Moonlight herself.
Good Friday – and on Easter Sunday I had been rostered to preach . . . to a church full of people most of whom had come with Easter joy and cheer . . . I think that this was the first Easter when I had come anywhere close to understanding the terrifying nature of Easter Day.
For the response of the disciples that first Easter morning was not an easy joy – rather they were troubled, they were afraid, they were amazed and terrified . . . For they had seen all their hopes, their lives destroyed. They had given up everything to follow Jesus. They had thrown in their livelihoods, they had walked away from home and family because they believed he was the one who was going to rescue God’s people. They had pinned their lives on him, and he had apparently recklessly taken that all to the Cross, where he had been brutally murdered not only before their eyes, but the eyes of everyone.
My Good Friday Story in a very real sense is nothing out of the ordinary – we live in a world where we live in fear of such things because they can and do happen, and represented amongst us and all those we know are 1001 such Good Fridays. Good Friday is nothing out of the ordinary. It was just the brutal confirmation of the way the world is – all heading inexorably one way or another towards death. Indeed the death of Jesus upon the cross is not in itself at all exceptional. The death of the innocent is a universal human theme, highlighted in brutal fashion this past few weeks in the deaths on Vanuatu and of course the crash of the German Wings plane in Southern France.
Traumatic as these events are, they do nothing to challenge our view of the world. Good Fridays are endless. But not Easter Day. Good Friday we assume to be troubling and Easter Comforting, but in a sense it is entirely the other way round. For all the horror of what my family suffered that Good Friday in 2001, life went on. They still farm there. A small fountain in the farmyard the only visible testimonial to that terrible day, although the pain of it carries on, but in many ways, in most ways, life carries on as normal. It didn’t change anything, it didn’t change the world. Similarly the disciples had seen in the death of Jesus the death of all their hopes. There was no way forward. He was their life. Without Him they were nothing and he was dead. So in a sense were they. It is perhaps not surprising that they too are found in the resurrection stories going back to life as it was, fishing by the shore of Galilee. Back to normality . . . So it is perhaps little or no wonder that they are terrified when early that Easter morning they find the tomb empty and rumours of angels telling them he is Alive.
Good Friday seemingly confirms for us ‘the way of the world’ – Easter Day demolishes it, trashes it, and says not ‘there is another way’, but That way is no way at all. We are confronted in the Risen Jesus with the terrifying realisation that Life is not what we have been told. The Resurrection of Jesus unmasks what we call ‘our everyday existence’ as a tragic illusion, and Satan as the Father of Lies.
And I have to ask has the Resurrection of Jesus had that impact amongst us? Has it so disturbed us, because if it be true as the Church asserts that God the Father Raised Jesus from the dead, not as some ghostly spirit, but as a living breathing man who prepares breakfasts and eats bread and fish . . . then the stories the world tells us about our existence, and most if not all the stories we have built the frail fabric of our tenuous existence upon are untrue.
A couple of weeks ago, Mother Keleni visited us and warned us about our ‘familiarity’ with God . . .I think the danger of comfortable familiarity with the Easter story is just as perilous. We learn it young and for most if not all of us if that familiarity doesn’t breed contempt, as it does without doubt in some, it breeds a sort of spiritual narcolepsy – its like a dream – we have not discovered its truth in our everyday existence, we have not woken up to its Reality – because if it is indeed true then nothing can ever be the same again. No wonder they fled from the tomb . . . because they were afraid. Like a child being born into the world, that which we had taken to be life, the darkness of our existence up to that point, turned out not to be life at all . . .
And we must ask ourselves and especially as the Body of Christ the Church, Have we allowed this new Reality to shake and disturb us as it so terrified the disciples??
Often if not always this is not the case – as with the Living God and Father of our Lord Jesus, we ask questions of the Resurrection without stopping to allow it to ask questions of us . . . Like Peter at the Last Supper, we don’t want Jesus getting to close, we don’t want him overturning our world, the world which in our anxiety and imprisonment we have done our best with and tried to call ‘life’
If Christ be not raised from the dead then we are playing religious games here week by week, games which the wider world has tired of – but if he be raised from the dead, then we have no business playing any religious games. His Resurrection so changes our perception of reality that we are faced with a terrifying choice, go on as we are, or start to live in the light of this New Creation that has come into being.
Indeed it is no choice at all – if Christ be raised from the dead, there is only one existence and that is Life in obedient following of Him, the Risen one who is Alive for ever more. The Resurrection of Jesus is the judgement of the whole world – how then shall we live?
Christ is risen from the dead,
Trampling down death by death,
And upon those in the tombs
Glory to Jesus Christ
Glory for Ever