The Right Revd Christopher Chessun, Bishop of Southwark
Acts 10. 34-43; Colossians 3. 1-4; John 20. 1-18
‘You have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God’ Alleluia! Christ is Risen!
It is a great joy to be together this Easter morning filled with the light of the Resurrection because Christ our Lord has burst from the tomb to bring us to new and everlasting life. In rising from the dead, Jesus tramples down death by death and the joy of resurrection fills the universe. We are set free to live without fear because death has become the gate of that eternal life. ‘This,’ says Jesus, ‘is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent’ (John 17.3). The wonder of the Resurrection is that its benefits may be ours now if we walk in its light and allow our minds to be filled with the knowledge and love of God. Resurrection Life compels us to reach out to others in faith, hope and love. The Heads of the Churches in Jerusalem in their Easter greetings proclaim our living hope and say ‘just as Christ has been raised, so too have we been raised with him to a new life in the hope of that same resurrection (Romans 6.4-5). But they also attest to the terrible living reality of increasing unrest and violence in the Land our Lord made holy, including attacks on people and churches. And so we pray for the peace of Jerusalem, a just peace for all its peoples: Jewish, Christian and Muslim in equal measure. And the Archbishop of Canterbury today asks us in our prayers for the freedom and safety of journalists around the world in their vital work and in particular prayers for Evan Gershkovich of the Wall Street Journal who has been detained in Russia, and for his family, friends and colleagues.
What happened that Easter night when Christ was raised has, in God's providence, been veiled from us. It is not for us to know how his heart was quickened, how the winding clothes were removed, how the stone was rolled away. We believe and we say what is in the Creed that before his Resurrection he descended into Hell which is sometimes called its harrowing or in other words giving full expression to his victory over sin, death and the devil. But the mystery remains and the Scriptures do not attempt to spell out the deep work of the Spirit in raising Christ from the dead. It is nothing less than the work of creation remade. We can barely grasp our own origin in science; how much less might we grasp our recreation through the Resurrection. It is enough for us simply to hold on to our faith and to trust at the edge of reason, believing the witness of the Church in the first apostles, beginning with the apostle to the apostles, Mary Magdalene herself, that Jesus rose again.
Our Gospel reading takes us through the overwhelming impact of Jesus’s death on his disciples. Mary Magdalene on finding the stone removed from the tomb runs to tell Simon Peter and John who outruns Peter but lets Peter enter first. Peter observes what he sees – merely the garments that had covered Jesus’s dead body – but tellingly it is John, the beloved disciple, whom we are told on entering the tomb ‘saw and believed’ (Jn 20.8). Then we have the haunting scene of Mary Magdalene in the garden near the tomb so tormented by her grief that she cannot recognise her risen Saviour, mistaking him for a gardener, until he calls her by her familiar name, ‘Mary’ to which she responds ‘Rabbouni!’ Wonderful as this moment of recognition is Jesus says severely, ‘do not cling to me’ but go and tell the others as a matter of urgency what is to be. And so our Gospel Reading concludes with Mary announcing to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord” (Jn 20.18) which of course meant everything to them personally but meant far more as words of universal significance, hence the urgency.
In rejoicing in our renewed walk with the Risen Christ this morning, we do well to reflect on the quiet, hidden work of the Holy Spirit. St Paul tells us in his letter to the Romans that ‘the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you’ (Romans 8.11). The same power of God, the same life of God, works as quietly in us as it did in the tomb that first Easter night. We followed Jesus to the Cross this Holy Week so that we might know again the reality of our baptism. For we die with Christ and, in St Paul's words, are ‘buried with him by baptism into death ... so we too might walk in newness of life’ (Romans 6.4).
In this way, our life is ‘hidden with Christ in God’ (Colossians 3.3) as the Spirit works quietly in the hidden parts of our lives. We know the Resurrection stories of the Risen Christ - the encounter with Mary Magdalene in the garden, the road to Emmaus, the miraculous catch of fish at the Sea of Galilee and the reinstatement of St Peter after his denial - but they all have their source in the Spirit's work in the quiet hours of the tomb. They are, if you like, unfolding or uncovering what has been accomplished. Without the hidden work of the Spirit beforehand, they would not be.
In a similar way, we will only know the outworking of the Resurrection in our lives if we allow the Spirit to work quietly in the hidden depths of our hearts. If we are to live authentically outwardly, our souls need to be unfolded so that we might uncover God’s life within. The inner and the outer life is connected: we live because the other lives, and we are hidden with Christ in God.
It is striking how ordinary Jesus’s Resurrection appearances are – a supreme example of the ordinary in the extraordinary! Yes, there is the mysterious and sudden appearing among the disciples when the doors were locked (John 20.19) and the equally mysterious disappearance when Cleopas and the unnamed disciple recognise Jesus in the breaking of bread at Emmaus (Luke 24.28); but they feel like narrative attempts to describe a new reality beyond our grasp. The encounters, however, are filled with normality and there is continuity with the wounds of his crucified body in the visibility of those same wounds in his risen body. Our risen Lord cooks, eats, and bestows peace. ‘Why are you frightened?’, he asks. ‘Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have’ (Luke 24.38-39). It is ordinary life - but ‘heaven in ordinary’ as George Herbert says - life lived with the Risen One.
We, too, are set free as our ordinary lives are transformed by the Resurrection and we walk with the Risen One. Few of us will need to do spectacular things, thankfully, but every one of us has a heart where the Spirit works hiddenly to raise us to new life each day. The quality of our faith may sometimes be tested by crises or events; but the greater part of life continues quietly in often unnoticed interactions, in undramatic gentleness and the small acts of kindness and faithfulness that unfold a Christian’s life. There is no Resurrection without the tomb - and there is only life beyond the tomb because of what the Spirit did there quietly and hiddenly.
My brothers and sisters, may God bless you and those you love this Eastertide. May you know the Spirit's presence within your heart forming and nurturing you. May you know the joy of the Resurrection and its light. Be strengthened in the knowledge that ‘the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you’ (Romans 8.11). And be joyful as together we say, ‘Alleluia, Christ is Risen! He is Risen indeed, alleluia!’