Preacher: The Bishop of Southwark
On Monday the body of PC Keith Palmer was brought to Southwark Cathedral for the very moving funeral service which was attended by his grieving family, friends and hundreds of colleagues. His body had passed though the streets of South London lined with large numbers of serving police officers and members of the public. That journey began at the Houses of Parliament where he had died from stab wounds having run towards his attacker though himself unarmed. By his courageous actions he saved many other potential victims and this struck a deep chord which continues to resound through the nation.
No ceremony, no outpouring of public sympathy, no matter how warm and generous, could hope to soften such sorrow. Yet there was still something deeply hopeful in the way so many people were moved to pay their respects.
At the precise time of that terrible attack in Westminster I was on my way to meet with Tobias Ellwood, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office Minister who went to the aid of PC Keith Palmer as he lay dying from multiple stab wounds. On discovering that Westminster had been sealed off, I came here to the Cathedral to join in the prayers for the victims, their families, our police, doctors, nurses and emergency services. It was already apparent that in stark contrast to one terrible act there had been so many small acts of goodness, gentleness and kindness. There were others who, like Keith Palmer, ran towards danger and suffering, not away from it. The prompt action of a Government Minister was typical of the courage and dedication of many including passers by who showed care and compassion and mercy to their injured neighbours and gave us all hope that light continued to shine in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it: nor will it.
This is in no way to deny the reality of suffering and loss. Through Lent, and with even greater attentiveness in Holy Week, we have recalled another journey, that of Jesus carrying his Cross on which he was to be nailed and suffer a cruel death. Only days before, as he rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, the crowds had stripped branches from the trees and hailed him with loud hosannas. Now they were shouting for him to be crucified. The words from the Book of Lamentations ‘Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by?’ reverberate chillingly on Good Friday as Jesus is abandoned to his fate. This was cruel reality, as death and sorrow are still the cruel reality of human experience two thousand years later.
Yet through this suffering, something yet more glorious - a greater life - is revealed. And here we are gathered together on Easter Sunday to declare it, to receive it, and to rejoice in it.
St Peter’s simple statement of faith: ‘They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day’ has been repeated by the saintsso many times down the ages, in different forms, in different languages, from the pulpit, in the street, from the scaffold. That simple retelling of what happened that first Easter weekend, has wrapped up in it a message that is profound and life-changing
We have heard the words so many times; we have said the words so many times. Let us pause and listen to them again: ‘They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day.’
In other words, He was dead; He is alive.
Death, despair and hatred are real, as most of us know all too well. Yet beyond death is life. More long lasting than despair is hope. Stronger than hatred is love. This is the reality that was made real by Christ dying on the Cross, and by Christ rising from the dead at the first Easter. It is the reality that churches across the world, and, particularly dear to me, churches across South London and East Surrey will all celebrate with great joy today at Easter, in different languages and many different traditions, but always the same great truth.
And as we celebrate we also rededicate ourselves to living out this reality in the year to come. For the story of Good Friday and Easter Sunday is lived out again and again: in homes, on hospital wards, in the streets and in the terrible crises that unfold on our television screens, or even beyond their gaze, far from these islands. For people are confronted with the Good Friday reality of sorrow and pain and loss. And again and again, in God’s good time, by God’s Grace (and the Lord is merciful enough that human beings are often the channels through which His Grace flows) – again and again, sooner or later, the sun rises on Easter Dawn.
In the nature of this story, it will not seem that way as we live through it. Remember, to the Disciples on that first Good Friday it seemed, as indeed it was, that Jesus was utterly dead and gone. The end of hope on Good Friday is real. But the renewal of hope, the renewal of all things through what happened on Easter Day is yet more real.
So our task is to take the message of Easter out into a world in which many are living through Good Friday. We need to notice what is going on around us, and where we are being called to get involved, to come alongside someone, to give with open hearts and open doors. And we need to listen. We need to listen to those who accost us, who call us up unexpectedly, to those who find it hard to say what they need, to those who find it hard to utter words at all, but speak in other ways, by how they sit or stand, by what they leave unsaid. We need to listen also to those with whom we co-operate, because ministering God’s Easter Grace is something we do together, and working together is not always easy. And as we listen so we need to act. Let all this be our great joy, our life-giving and life-changing experience, as we start on this Easter Springtide of new beginnings, fresh hope and second chances.
Our Easter faith must go beyond seeing and hearing. We have to let what we see and hear change us. Even in our Gospel reading from John, at the tomb and in the garden, there is a long process, not a sudden transformation. Peter and John run to the tomb. They look in and see the grave clothes. They see. But seeing is not enough. The Gospel says of the beloved disciple ‘he saw and believed’, and faith is the perfection of seeing. Yet even then they went disconsolately home, not understanding, not trusting yet. Faith for Peter had to wait for the meeting on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. It had to wait for the Holy Spirit to give St Peter the words to declare ‘God raised him’; it had to wait for the testing of love renewed and the proving of persecution and trials.
And also Mary in the garden. She sees. She sees the gardener as she thinks. All she knows is her sorrow and she asks, in her seeing blindness, where her lord has been taken and been laid. It is only when the risen Jesus calls her by her familiar name, ‘Mary!’ that she knows him. For faith is an intimate business, and if we are to go beyond seeing and hearing, to faith, we must seek to see and hear Jesus, who has called us his friends, [Jn 15.15] as he calls us each by name.
So I wish you, your families and those you love a blessed, happy and joyful Easter. May we all go forth from this place knowing the joy of Easter which is deeper than the deepest depths of sorrow on Good Friday. May we walk in the light that shines more brightly in the darkest darkness. May we go forth determined to be with those of God’s people he sends our way in their Good Fridays, waiting with them by the tomb until their own Easter Dawn breaks. And may we do this all in the faith that goes beyond hearing, beyond seeing, to a lively loving and intimate faith in our risen Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ, to whom alone be glory, majesty, power, and authority, before all time and now and for ever.