Canon Simon Butler's Easter Message
A Sermon Preached by Canon Simon Butler
Easter Sunday 2023
Easter is a great victory. God has raised the Crucified Jesus from the tomb. That is a great message.
And yet the message of Easter is yet, in a sense, even more dramatic than that. It’s even more than Christ is raised and we’ll get to see our loved ones one day again. Even more than that.
The victory of Easter is perhaps best characterised in that story of Mary Magdalene going to the tomb on Easter morning and she encounters a man there whom she takes to be the gardener, but then the man calls her by name, “Mary!”. And she sees it is the Lord raised before her.
Why didn’t Mary recognise Jesus? She’d been with Jesus throughout his ministry. I wonder if it was perhaps because not only did Mary not expect dead Jesus to be raised, but also that Mary did not expect Jesus, the risen Jesus to return to her. Easter stories on not eye-witness accounts of people watching a once dead body stride forth from the tomb. Nobody saw that. Easter stories are all about appearances. The risen Christ appearing, appearing to the very people who betrayed and forsook him in his crucifixion. Another gospel has women who enter the tomb in the darkness, and there they encounter a young man in white. And he says to them, “He isn’t here! He is risen!” He’s already up in Galilee by now. You’ve just missed him. Why Galilee. Galilee is kind of forlorn, outback kind of place. You might think the risen Christ on the first day of his resurrected life, he would go somewhere sort of really important, like maybe to the palace in Jerusalem and show up before an astounded, terrified Pontius Pilate, and say, “Oh Pontius Pilate, you made a big mistake. Payback time.” Or maybe he would go up to the great Imperial Palace in Rome and show himself before Caesar and say, “Caesar, you lost.” But no. The Gospels all say that the risen Christ returns first to his disciples, not to anyone important or powerful. His disciples. That is, he showed up to those who dared to follow him.
The great Easter truth is not simply, “He is risen!”, which would have been a great truth enough. But rather the great truth is, the Risen Christ came back for us. To sinners like us. John Wesley said, “It’s one thing to say God is love, but the true Christian faith occurs when someone is able to say God is love pro me, for me” That’s what we learn at Easter. God is not just Lord of life, but he is Lord of love, that is love moving towards us. It would have been a wonder enough to exclaim Jesus came back from the dead, but this it he day we celebrate Jesus came back for us.
An American Methodist Bishopn tells the story of going one Wednesday evening to the most miserable little church he ever went to in Alabama to tell the assembled group of Alabama farmers that after the way they had treated their previous pastor the Methodist Conference were not going to send them another one. He told them they were the worst church in their Conference, he threw the book at them. Let me tell you, he said, there’s not a single Methodist preacher in Alabama that wants to serve this church. He really gave them what for. And after he had finished, one of the farmers said, “Well bishop, if what you say is true, I guess that makes it all the more amazing why Jesus Christ manages to show up here just about every Sunday.”
That farmer was right. It is amazing. Easter doesn’t just happen then, but Easter keeps on happening. He isn’t just raised for us then. He’s raised for us now. Jesus keeps doing in his resurrection what he kept doing in his earthly ministry. He keeps showing up, uninvited, revealing himself to people who don’t deserve him, sending them on some outrageous errands, and that’s you. Really that’s the basis of your faith. In fact I’m so bold to say that’s why you’re here right now, that in some way or another, Jesus showed up to you. In one of Paul’s letters, when he’s having a go at some squabbling, early congregation, they say, “Hey Paul, what gives you the right to tell how we should be church?” And you know the story. Paul says, the risen Christ appeared first to the Twelve, and then he appeared to a larger group, and then (he says) as one untimely born, he showed up also to me. That’s the basis of Paul’s authority. That’s the basis of your authority as a Christian. The risen Christ has shown up to you.
Why are you here, singing these songs, praying these prayers, affirming this faith? Well in some way or another, God almighty decided not to be God ruling in heaven without you. I’m sure if we had the time, and our Easter lunch wasn’t beckoning, you could tell stories about faithful parents, or about some weird thing that happened to you on the road one night, or the line of a hymn that reached out and grabbed you. In some way or another, you see, the risen Christ came back for you.
I have to admit, a lot of times we get this wrong. Listen to how we sometimes describe our Christian lives. Since I gave my life to Christ, since I took Jesus into my heart, since I decided to be a Christian, since I accepted Jesus to be my personal Lord and Saviour…I, I, I. That’s not the way the Scripture tell it. You don’t take the risen Christ anywhere. He takes you places. And the astounding thing is that not so much that you’ve made a decision for Christ, but the astounding thing that we learn at Easter is that God Almighty had made a decision for us. He came back to us.
Christ keeps coming to those of us who’ve got absolutely no way to come to him. Easter keeps happening. The God who raised the crucified Jesus from the dead refuses to be God without you. He keeps showing up. As one of the early Fathers of the Church said, “I think that even if we had not sinned, God would have still come for us.”
It’s very easy to think that the future of St Mary’s Church, or your own regular church or the Church of England, is in our hands. We’ve got gifted people, we’ve got the blessing of resources, the Church of England has great people still and great ideas and programmes. Some of us work very hard to renew our churches, to bring life and good news to our communities. And yet, in my better moments, and perhaps in yours, I know church is not what we produce. Church is what miraculously happens when the risen Christ shows up. Shows up often to those who have failed in our ability to show up to him.
A friend of mine, a university chaplain, told me the story of a law student coming to see her one day. She was doing postgraduate research and she said to my friend, “I want to tell you a story.” She said, “I, like a lot of people, when to church when I was a kid but I grew up out of that, and didn’t go to church, and then I went to Oxford, then I got a full scholarship to train as a lawyer.” And my friend is sitting there thinking, “why do I need to hear this? I don’t even like people like this.” Anyway, she said, “I was sort of surprised when my husband suggested we start attending chapel here one Sunday, just for the music you know, my husband’s an afficionado of classical music,” she said, “and we found it quite acceptable. In fact we came back another Sunday.” And my friend is thinking, “why am I hearing this crap?” And she said, “Last Sunday, at the end of the service, the choir were singing the final piece, I just suddenly lost consciousness. And I fell down the seat, I was transported, I don’t have the words to describe it, I just felt embraced by this soft, blue light. And it might not have happened, but just for a few moments it seemed like this wonderful eternity of warm embrace. Everybody left the chapel and I just sat there transfixed, murmuring to myself, “I’m back. I’m back. And, she said, “I just wanted to tell you about it. I thought it was kind of amazing.” And my friend said, “that’s really amazing.”
And if Jesus can do that sort of thing for a lawyer, what hope might there be for the rest of us?”
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