This sermon that I preached at Bolton St James Church, Bradford, at Holy Communion on Easter Sunday, 4 April 1999, was one of the thirty sermons shortlisted for “The Times” Preacher of the Year Award 2000.
I wonder if you will believe me when I tell you that there is an angel in church this morning? Back there … sitting on the ledge under the east window. Look carefully and you might just detect a shimmering in the air, a shifting of the light — though angels are difficult to see, unless they want you to see them.
This one is none other than the angel who featured in our gospel reading a moment or two ago. Then (you will recall) he was sitting not on a window ledge but on a stone; the great circular stone that, in New Testament times, was rolled down a sloping track to come to rest across the entrance of a tomb. A stone that was designed to keep the body within the tomb safe from both man and beast, and that, once in place, could be moved only with the greatest difficulty. A stone that he, the angel, being an angel, had moved without any difficulty at all.
We are told that there are all kinds of angels — angels of mercy, guardian angels, recording angels, angels of light — but this one, the one watching us from the east window, is what I suppose we might call a “waiting angel.” Two thousand years ago, in that garden near Jerusalem, his task was to await the arrival of four women (possibly more) and to give them a message — a message from God. That is what angels do, of course. It is what their name means. An “angel” is a messenger.
Two of the four women were mentioned in that part of the Gospel according to Matthew that I read to you this morning. They were Mary of Magdala — a woman whose life had been dramatically changed by Jesus — and someone described as “the other Mary”. In the Gospels of Mark and Luke, this “other Mary” is identified as Mary, the wife of Clopas and the mother of two (possibly three) of Jesus’ disciples — James the Younger and Judas (not Iscariot), and possibly also Simon Zealotes. Mark also tells us that Salome was there. Salome was a sister of Jesus’ own mother, Mary, and the mother of James and John, two of Jesus’ closest disciples. And Luke also tells us that Joanna was in the company. Joanna had been healed by Jesus and was the wife of Chuza, a steward in the royal household of Herod Antipas.
Of the four, the first three were certainly at Calvary and witnessed the crucifixion of Jesus, and Joanna may well have been there also. And Mark records that, of the four, the two Marys went with Joseph of Arimathea when he took the body of Jesus to the garden tomb, and saw where the body was laid. It is clear that they saw, too, the massive stone being released from its moorings so that it rolled into its place over the entrance to the tomb. According to Mark, as the four women made their way through the darkness before the dawn of that first Easter morning, that stone was the one thing on their minds. “Who will roll away the stone for us?” they kept asking each other.
“Knowing the stone was there, why go at all?” we might ask. After all, Jesus was dead. He had been dead since mid-afternoon on Friday and it was now Sunday morning — almost 40 hours later. The third day. If they had wanted to anoint his body with spices, why had they not done so before the tomb was sealed? If they had wanted to pay a last visit, why had they not gone the morning after Jesus’ death, on the Saturday?
The two questions have a single answer: the Law. The Law had prevented them from doing so. Jewish days began at six in the evening and ended at six the following evening. The Sabbath began at six in the evening on Good Friday, just a few hours after Jesus breathed his last; and during the Sabbath nothing whatsoever could be done.
Hence the rush to get his body into a decent place of burial before the Sabbath began. Hence the unseemly manner of that burial — the apparent failure to anoint the body with sweet-smelling spices that lessened the stench of decay in that hot climate. Hence, too, the lack of opportunity for these four heartbroken women to say their last, long farewell to the one they loved, in the quietness of the garden tomb away from all the noise and horror of Calvary. And hence the visit now — despite the problem of the stone. The Sabbath had ended nearly twelve hours ago, at six on the Saturday evening, but by then night had already begun to fall. So now they were making their way to the tomb through the last of that darkness, timing their arrival for the breaking of the dawn.
The angel no doubt heard them coming as the first flush of pink lit the eastern sky. He heard Mary Magdalene, the youngest of the four women by many years, calling behind her in a loud whisper: “Come on, this way. It’s down here past that big olive tree.” And the other Mary saying, “Just hang on a minute. Some of us aren’t as young as we used to be.” And then the angel did what I imagine all angels are able to do; as they arrived, he read their hearts and their minds.
That same angel — the one back there on the ledge beneath the east window — watched us too as we arrived here this morning. He watched me come in. He watched you come in. And just as he read the heart and mind of Mary Magdalene, of the other Mary, of Salome and of Joanna, so too he read my heart and mind and he read yours. He knew why each of those four women had come to the garden tomb. And he knows why you and I have come here this morning.
Shh! Listen. Do you hear him? He is speaking. “Do not be afraid,” he is saying. “For I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified.”
That is what he said to the women. That is what he has just said to us. Has he got it right? Has he read my heart correctly? Has he read your heart correctly? “I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified.” Is that why we are here this morning? Oh, I know that Easter Sunday is a time when even some folk who do not normally come to church come because they feel it is right to do so, but I doubt that anyone comes only out of duty. And I know that some will have come today as they have come other Sundays … full of need. Some will be here feeling lost and confused … dismayed by the way the world is going. Some will be here, fearful for tomorrow, anxious for what the future holds. Some will be here, stooping under burdens that seem too great for them to bear. Some will be here grieving silently, full of pain. If asked, you might say “I am here to try and gain direction. I am here to try and find comfort … courage … peace … strength … hope.” Yes — but if we only knew it (as the angel does), we are all, in our heart of hearts, seeking Jesus who was crucified. Look at the Table. Here, in this place, the cross is always at the centre of our seeking, whatever it is we might think that we are looking for.
And for all of us, as for the women at the tomb, the angel has a message. He has some news — some good news which sounds (but only sounds) like bad news. He says, “He is not here … I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified, but he is not here.”
What can the angel mean? In what sense can what he says be true? I mean, it is Easter morning and we know it. His words were for the women in their ignorance but they are surely not for us. Or are they? Pause for a moment, and consider. Is it not possible, even today, for us to come seeking Jesus but, like those four unhappy women, to come looking for him in the wrong place and in the wrong way? I think so.
Is it not possible, for instance, for us, today, to seek him in the traditions of our Anglican church … in this building … in its stained glass and mosaics, its frontals, its flowers, its vestments, its silver and carpentry and stone, and its music and singing? These things are all lovely and good. They enrich our experience of worship. They give us something of permanence to hold onto in a throw-away world. But if we are seeking Jesus in these things, we need to know, even as we stand within them — he is not here.
Is it not possible for us, today, to seek Jesus in the liturgy … in the familiar patterns of words … in collects, responses, canticles, creeds? Mellifluous sounds? “Not as mellifluous now as in the days of the Book of Common Prayer,” some would say … but mellifluous anyway. A proper frame for proper worship? Yes, indeed. No one in here will disagree. But from within that liturgy, if that is where we are seeking Jesus, we have to say — he is not here.
Is it not possible for us, today, to seek Jesus in the sacrament of bread and wine … in Christ’s own most holy institution … in that awesome enactment of the last supper which we repeat Sunday by Sunday until his coming again? Yet — dare I say it? — in whatever sense it might be true to say that Jesus is “in” the bread and the wine of Holy Communion, it is also true to say that he is not in it. He is not in the wafer. He is not in the wine. They are what they are and that is what they remain. To say otherwise is to be in error. We eat and drink “in remembrance that Christ died for us … that his blood was shed for us.” So even from within this service of Holy Communion, if that is where we are seeking Jesus, we have to say — he is not here.
I could go on. He is not here in the Bible, though it is the very Word of God. And he is not here in all or any of these things because he is risen! Because he, Jesus, is alive. And a living Jesus cannot be mounted in the glass case of tradition like a butterfly on a pin. He cannot be captured in liturgy like a fly in amber. He cannot be swallowed in a wafer and a drop of wine like some magic ingredient. He cannot be trapped between the pages of the Bible. He is alive. That is the good news in the seeming bad news that he is not here.
How the women’s hearts must have leaped at such news! They had come to remember a Jesus who had died. Now they were being told that their much-loved Lord and Master was alive. “Where is he? Where is he?”
“He is going before you,” said the angel. “To Galilee.”
Now we are told that, at this, the women departed with “great joy” … but I wonder. I wonder if their joy at the news that he was risen was not somewhat dampened by those words, “to Galilee.”As they hurried out of the garden and down the road were they not saying to themselves: “Galilee! But that’s seventy … eighty miles away in the North. Where in Galilee? Bethsaida, Capernaum, Bethany, Cana? When in Galilee? What day? What time? How will he meet with us? The angel was right — we did come here seeking Jesus and we thought our searching was over; but now, it seems, it has hardly begun.”
“It has both begun … and ended,” says a familiar voice. The women turn, startled, and see in the first light of that glorious new day, the one they have most longed to see — the one who has conquered death and is alive again. “And, behold, Jesus met them and said, ‘Hail!’ And they came up and took hold of his feet and worshipped him.” What can I say? If you have come here this morning seeking Jesus, let those wonderful words travel straight to your heart: “Jesus met them.”
Perhaps Jesus had fully intended to meet neither the women nor his disciples until they had all safely returned to Galilee. Perhaps it was not that the angel had got it wrong but that Jesus had undergone a sudden change of heart. Constrained by the longing of those four women, moved with compassion for them, he could not conceal himself from them a moment longer. “And, behold, Jesus met them and said, ‘Hail!'”
I am not even going to attempt to prove the resurrection to you this morning. If you want the evidence and you have a couple of hours to spare, I will give it to you. It is formidable. So formidable that, as Bishop Westcott once said: “There is no single historic incident better or more variously supported than the resurrection of Christ.” But the evidence alone will only convince your head. It cannot convince your heart. Indeed, there is only one thing that convinces hearts that the resurrection is true: it is meeting the one who has risen. It is meeting Jesus. “And, behold, Jesus met them and said, ‘Hail!'” Try talking to those women about proofs of the resurrection. “Proofs of the resurrection,” they would say. “Why would we need proofs of the resurrection? We’ve just met Jesus. We’ve just been talking to him.”
And that, of course, is as true today as it was then — for those of us who have had our own personal encounter with the risen Lord. The angel in the East window may be a figment of my imagination … may be … but the risen Jesus most certainly is not. There are any number of people here this morning, myself included, who live out their lives in the reality of his presence. He was with us before we set off for church. He is with us now. He will be with us as we sit down for Easter lunch.
This is the truth of the resurrection; that once you have met him … once Jesus has become your risen Lord … he is everywhere and he is in everything. He is even in all the things where he was not. “He is not here” but, yes, suddenly, he is here. He is in the tradition, the hymns, the frontals, the flowers, the glass. He is in the liturgy, the responses, the canticles, the creeds. He is in the bread and in the wine. He is in the Scriptures. And more than that, he is in you and with you, morning, noon, and night, waking and sleeping, living and dying … being to you your comfort, your power, your guidance, your strength, your peace … now and for ever more.
How do you get to meet him and to know him in that kind of way? You open your heart and mind to his risen-ness. You pray in faith the silent prayer: “Jesus — crucified and risen — meet now with me.” And you open yourself up to experience his real presence … an experience that will surely follow even the most faltering step of faith.
Let us pray …
Lord Jesus … risen Lord Jesus. Be suddenly among us now as you were among those women in the garden. Meet with us as you met with them. Surprise us with your real presence. Speak to us a word of greeting. And grant that there may be those here this morning for whom life will never be the same again … those whose eyes are even now being opened to see you and whose ears are being opened to hear you and whose hearts are being opened to receive you. Amen.