Easter Vigil Sermon preached by Canon Simon Butler
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Every single one of us likes the idea of a fresh start. It’s why we get pensive at New Year; it’s why politicians love talk about changes of government as fresh starts; and it’s why bunnies and spring flowers have become the secular explanation of Easter.
This Easter Vigil however celebrates more than just another fresh start. This vigil celebrates resurrection, something that happened only once in all of human history. It is most decidedly not about the cycle of nature and the turn of the seasons.
On Good Friday the President of Humanists UK, Professor Alice Roberts took to Twitter to be provocative. She tweeted “Just a little reminder today. Dead people don’t come back to life.” It prompted a typically heated and almost entirely fruitless response.
But one response it seemed captured my attention, from the wise and compassionate heart of Revd. Richard Coles, whose book on grief came out this week, reflecting on the death of his partner David a year ago. Richard tweeted this, “Hey, angry Twitter, Alice Roberts is right. Dead people don’t come back to life. Believe me, I know. When Christians like me proclaim the resurrection it is not to refute biological truth. It is an expression of faith in the power of God, which is measureless.”
Across the last 48 hours I’ve been reflecting on the Passion of Jesus in the light of the resurrection. Unlike the first disciples, we have always known the outcome of the story. Even when faced with the strange fizzling out ending of Mark’s Gospel, where we never meet the risen Christ, and the women don’t do what they are told, even this curious failure of discipleship by the women and literary omission of the author of the Gospel isn’t the end. Some of you may know that there are two – later – endings to Mark, which are marked as such in our bibles. It’s as though the early Church, with resurrection faith, wanted to ensure that whoever read Mark’s Gospel got to know that it didn’t end in silence. The early, strange ending of Mark that we heard tonight, may be the authentic end of the Gospel, but it isn’t the last we hear of Jesus.
But perhaps what this odd ending of the Gospel can do, and perhaps what Richard Coles is getting at in his response to Alice Roberts, is that the story doesn’t have a neat end. It continues to be lived out in the lives of disciples to this day. The power of God is that the resurrection of Jesus doesn’t belong to his resurrected body alone. While we can trust that the tomb was empty, we can never know exactly what happened. But we can know – and if you remember what I was saying yesterday about needing the whole of the story of Jesus and not just his death – what we can know is that through his Ascension and the Day of Pentecost, the resurrection of Jesus transcends his physical body and is now alive in his people, in you and me. The existence of Church of God is the strongest evidence of the resurrection that we possess in the world today.
So maybe I was wrong when I said that resurrection has only happened once in human history. Maybe it happens all the time, because, friends, while we all like a fresh start, Easter faith, resurrection faith, proclaims that we, the people of God, are the fresh start God has given to the world. We are the resurrection of Jesus made visible in the world. In all our compromises and divisions and failings, none of which should be excused and every single one of them betrays the resurrection to a greater or lesser extent, in all our sin, despite our sin, we remain the way in which God is bringing new life to the world. One of the reasons why the ending of Mark is so attractive is that it reminds us that the story of Jesus is an open-ended never-ending story. It continues in lives lived by disciples from the first Easter until now. We are the long ending of Mark’s Gospel. As his people, we are invited to live his risen life for the sake of the world, whether that takes us to the warmth of the Upper Room, the loneliness of Gethsemane, the betrayal of friends, the abandonment of the Cross, the depth of Hell itself.
In a few moments, we shall if we wish renew our baptismal vows. Resurrection faith will be declared, faith not in a closed universe, or an institutional church, or even in what we call Christianity, but faith in the measureless power of God. As we make our vows, we align ourselves to being the risen body of Jesus made present in the world.
By all means, let’s make a fresh start. But let us never forget that with God, the new start began in a garden three days after Golgotha, when God gave Jesus new life. You and I exist, by resurrection faith, in that same life. We are the risen body of Christ.
Alleluia. Christ is risen.
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