174a Hoylake Road
Cross and Resurrection
Matthew 27 vv 57-66
History is written by the winning side. If you think about it, the very meaning of the word “gospel” tells us that the story we have been following this week has been written by those on the winning side of Easter. “Tell me the old, old story!”. For we will never tire of hearing the Easter story again and again. And of course, that is at the heart of our faith: re-telling, re-enacting through song and sermon, through Scriptures and sacraments, the great stories of our faith. But we are under the curse of familiarity. We know how this story will end. And that is not quite what the gospel is. The gospel as it is written is a series of unfolding events, related that you may believe. Events that should be heard with no prior knowledge of their outcome. A story, you see, has one essential ingredient: the drama of not knowing how or when it will end.
I remember one night telling a bedtime story to a friend’s young child. I sat next to her bed and read her a children’s picture book of Jonah. Suddenly I realised when I got to the point when Jonah is swallowed by the big fish that the little girl thought this was the end. She had never heard the story before! And so, as I continued, it was a real privilege to see the changing and excited expressions on her face as the story continued until it’s totally unexpected (for her) climax. And what a gift, for her, to hear that bible story afresh!
The historian Antonia Fraser made the same point for another famous figure. “Although we know Henry VIII will marry six times, we must always remember that he did not.” To be stewards of the gospel we must attempt, however difficult it may be, to become hearers of the story as it happens and for the first time. It is surely almost impossible for us to approach this Saturday of the year without one eye on the dawn of Easter tomorrow. But it is essential in our Christian pilgrimage to hear the story as it unfolds. Pause at that moment in the Creed: “He suffered and was buried.” The story at the centre of our faith did not begin as a three-day happening, destined to end as a story of victory and life. To quote the theology professor Alan Lewis:
“Far from being the first day, the day of the cross is, in the logic of the narrative itself, the last day, the end of the story of Jesus. And the day that follows is not an in between day which simply waits for the morrow, but is an empty void, a nothing, shapeless, meaningless and anticlimactic: simply the day after the end. There is no remarkable tomorrow on the horizon to give that Sabbath special identity and form as the day before the Day of Resurrection.”
Remember Easter last year, an Easter before this unimaginable virus forced the closure of our churches? This would normally be a day of preparation: choirs would rehearse, churches decorated, Easter flowers brought into the church before Easter dawns. That is not what the gospel is about! Tomorrow is only worth celebrating, Resurrection will only surprise us, if first we accept today for what it is: the full stop at the end of the gospel as it is being told. Today we mark the victory of death, the darkness of hell. Only by doing that will the light of tomorrow be seen for the glory that it is!
How can that translate into church life (when church life returns, as it will)? Well, in Moreton Church one of the highlights of any Holy Week (except this year of course) is “the stripping of the church”, an ancient tradition that has been given new meaning by The Iona Community amongst others. After communion on Maundy Thursday, the lights in the church are slowly dimmed [Health and Safety note: please leave enough light for people to exit the church!], the flowers removed, the organ closed and all decoration taken out of the church. During this time, a soloist sings unaccompanied “Abide with me, fast falls the eventide”. Finally, a black funeral cloth is draped over the pulpit and communion table. It is actually a very powerful and moving sight, and the first year we did this nobody in the congregation moved for five minutes after the service. But that’s the easy bit, as is leaving the church bare and undecorated for Good Friday. It took some persuading for our flower ladies not to put the Easter flowers into church on the Saturday! What happens in our church on Easter Day is a story best left for tomorrow. For the whole point of today is that we must not get ahead of ourselves.
To look ahead for a moment, it is resurrection we proclaim. Have you ever stopped to think what that means? We do not believe in immortality. We are born. We will die. As someone recently put it, from the moment the sperm penetrated the egg, you joined the queue to die! That is our humanity and that is what Christ’s Passion affirms. (As my friends in the pastorate here know, this has become something of a cornerstone of my ministry – the acknowledgement of our mortality and death. I make no apology for that, or for urging people at every opportunity to think ahead to their own funeral and plan what they want. Maybe not quite what people thought they were getting when they called me as their minister!)
Yesterday I said that God was with those who perished under the waves of the Asian tsunami, that God was in the school gym with those schoolchildren in Dunblane. Today I say this: because of today, not because of Good Friday, not because of Easter Day but because of today, because of the forgotten day in the church’s calendar, Holy Saturday, God is in the grave also.
There is no seamless transition, no smooth or skilful piece of editing that takes us painlessly from the story of yesterday to the story of tomorrow. Just as in our life, there is no seamless transition that takes us from this life to the next, from our intended humanity to the new body that awaits us. There is an in between, a death, a full stop. Not for a few seconds, not for a few hours, but for a length of time that the first witnesses of Easter did not know would end. Make no mistake: God is dead today. Today Jesus is clothed not in glory but shrouded in mouldering grave clothes, surrounded not by angels but by worms and the stench of death.
One of my great fears for literature is what I call the Disneyfication of the world: the Disney studios will take a great story and change it into a cartoon. Flesh and blood become caricatures, and of course Disney will gloss over death – or did, before The Lion King. But in one of his first and greatest animated films, Bambi, children are faced with the death of Bambi’s father. When studio bosses saw the film prior to its release, they pleaded with Walt Disney to cut out that scene. Walt refused. The film critic Barry Norman noted that because of that one scene that showed quite clearly that Bambi’s father had well and truly died (no heavenly chorus of angels, no ghostly comforting return), generations of children have learnt about death. That scene by the way still makes me cry!
So, the scene of the cross yesterday and the occupied tomb today sum up what is meant by Incarnation: the Creator’s total embrace of our utter “humanness”. Holy Saturday blesses our humanity in its frail and sometimes tragic ending, just as Bethlehem blessed our frail beginnings in this world. From womb to tomb, God accepts and calls us to accept our humanity.
So today there is good news: we are not immortal. Death will have its day. Death has its victory. And in today too a reminder that our faith is based not on false optimism but in hope that must itself wrestle with this ending of life. The world today is keen to celebrate life and youth: billions of pounds are spent on the search for perpetuating youth and beauty. Death is no longer a visible part of modern society but swept under the carpet, an unwelcome gate-crasher to the party. This is the function of Easter Saturday, Holy Saturday: to prevent the hiding of God’s death and its memories by the overwhelming joy of Sunday. And God will not let us forget: for his Son will carry with him for all eternity the marks of the nails, the stigmata of mortality, the sure sign for Thomas and then for us that this Jesus died, was buried and rose again. This is our reminder that victory over death is not the same as survival.
Over the last week, I have referred to the final chapter in the life of “Mrs Pearl”. It is a story that must remain for the most part untold, a story reserved for those closest to her. But like a flower whose beauty lies in its very fragility and impermanence, I think that Pearl finally came to accept that survival is not an option nor indeed is it welcome. In her final weeks she wanted to die. Let us never forget that there are many like her for whom death is a welcome release from pain and waiting. And for all of us, death remains the necessary full stop to our lives that will allow God to recreate our bodies into that unknowable but essential form that will equip us for eternity.
A few of you may recognise in this sermon the hand of that gifted theologian and teacher, Alan Lewis. It is a tribute to Alan that the lecture hall at New College, Edinburgh was always full for his 9 o’clock lectures (for students are not renowned for making an early start to the day!). His book Between Cross and Resurrection tells the story of Easter Saturday for today’s church and has been a profound influence on a whole generation of ministers. Tragically, Alan Lewis found he too had to live out the story for himself, when lung cancer brought him his own Easter Saturday experience of waiting. He died just after completing the book that was the culmination of a life’s work and teaching, but not before writing these words in his own final chapter:
“Perhaps it is chief among the grounds of our thankfulness for life that this is a gift which is in time withdrawn. Hallelujah that our lives do not, like God’s, endure for ever! Such a doxology is foolishness to many; yet to understand it is perhaps the sum of wisdom; and it is certainly the precondition of our pastoral care for the sick, the dying and the bereaved. Perhaps the greatest lesson I have learned in recent years is that my birth certificate came inscribed with no contract guaranteeing me a life of three score years and ten.”
sermon was originally delivered in CMC Vellore on Holy Saturday 2005. The next
day, Easter Day, in accordance with Pearl’s wishes a small group of us gathered
to scatter the ashes of “Mrs Pearl” in the beautiful college garden. And we
heard those words from Revelation: Now God is dwelling with humankind! He
will dwell among them and they shall be His people, and God Himself will be
with them. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There shall be an end to
death and to mourning and to crying and pain, for the old order has passed
And in this hope, all who live in God’s creation, set free from the horror of immortality, will not be made gods but at last become the creatures we were meant to be, at peace with the limits lovingly set us by our Creator and Redeemer.