The Right Reverend Christopher Chessun, Bishop of Southwark
It is a great joy to be with you all and let me wish you all a very happy Easter.
It is very good as always to be here with the regular Cathedral congregation, including the Dean and Chapter and Choir, that large, beloved band of pilgrims who walk together through the seasons of the year in this place. Yet I should like to pause and express a specially warm welcome to anybody who is visiting perhaps for the first time. You are abundantly welcome and it is a privilege to join in this great celebration with you.
Today is the day of days. Easter is the day that changes everything for everyone. Easter is the day that Christians are commissioned to proclaim to the world.
As St Peter says:
“we are witnesses.” (Acts 10.39)
Our reading from the Acts of the Apostles is as good a summary as any of what we witness to. This wonderful book of the Bible records what the followers of Jesus did after the first Easter. Apostle is ultimately a Greek word meaning one who is sent forth. The first Apostles were those who lived with Jesus and he sent them to live his life among others and to stand up be counted in telling his story even at some risk to themselves.
In Acts 10 we see St Peter doing just this. Last month I visited the Holy Land with the Curates of the Diocese and we spent a morning at Caesarea Maritima, a major Roman port on the coast of modern-day Israel, about sixty miles north of Tel Aviv. Sitting on or near the very spot where the event it describes had taken place, two thousand years before, we read this very passage. It was a bright sunny day and the waves of the Mediterranean Sea were lapping onto the beach.
Peter is visiting a Roman Centurion called Cornelius who has been inspired to invite Peter to his home so that he and his household can hear about Jesus. And Peter tells the story:
“God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit; he went about doing good and healing; They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day; everyone who [trusts] in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” (from Acts 10.38-43)
This is the story the Church has always told and will always tell, to anyone who asks – and, sometimes to those who do not ask! This is the story that makes us who we are and it is the story of how the Saviour of the World redeemed humanity.
God made all that there is including this world in which we live. He made us for good purposes and set us free to work out those purposes. And when the human race lost its way and went astray, God did not destroy what he had made and start again. Instead, God, who is beyond all things - unknowable and infinite - became one of us. Jesus, in whom there was no evil but only good and love, so shamed those among whom he walked that in their wickedness – our wickedness - they put him to death. In this death he took into himself all the evil of the world and overcame it. And then, on the third day, on the first Easter Day, he rose again.
The reality of this day was brought home to us who were on that pilgrimage last month as we stood in or near the place to which Peter and John ran on that first morning, touching the very rock from which was hewn the tomb which they found empty – in what was then a quiet garden outside the city walls - and which today is set amidst a bustling crowd under the great dome of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Here it was that the first Easter day dawned.
This story, with its earthed reality also speaks of something utterly beyond because it is a story is for everyone. As Christians we are to be witnesses to this Way, to this Truth and to this Life. We are to be witnesses to Jesus and we are sent out by Jesus: literally, we are Apostles. We are commissioned to tell everyone this good news: literally we are Evangelists. Certainly that is how the nearly sixty people I have baptised and confirmed at three different services in the last twenty four hours see it, wanting with excitement and confidence to share their faith with others.
Our Gospel Reading today from St John encourages us to ask who is the first Apostle? Who is the first to recognise the risen Lord Jesus? To whom does he first say, “go … and say …. [that] I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God”? (Jn 20.17) Who is it who, first, on that first day of all new things, witnesses and announces to the world, “I have seen the Lord”? (Jn 20.18) Who is this first Apostle and Evangelist? It is Mary Magdalene.
We in our turn follow her. We follow Peter and John who ran to the tomb, we follow all those brave ones who told what they had heard, who lived it out, who passed it on. And we in our turn are witnesses. We in turn say: “I have seen the Lord.”
This says something of the way in which God reveals himself to us. He comes himself. Jesus does not, first and foremost, teach about God; first and foremost he is God. He does not tell us how to live. He lives. And when the disciples recognise this, but only at that point, when they not only see the risen Lord, but believe who he is then – and only then - they have the confidence to go and share this with others.
As we go out from this place today, charged to be, like Mary Magdalene, like Peter, like John the beloved disciple, like all those who have gone before us, we share what we believe to be true about the resurrection not only in what we say but how we live our lives. For God came into the world to call us to live his eternal life and this is both what we witness to and how we witness. Eternal life right here and right now is not only ours for the taking but is a gift to everyone.
My brothers and sisters, we walk this way together. We help each other, lean on one another when we are tired or lost, pause on the journey to eat and drink together. This is central to what it is to be the Church. And for each of us it will look a little bit different, for God has made us in infinite variety with a unique vision for each life.
At the core of all these diverse good lives, though, sustaining and shaping them is this single deep truth of Easter: joy comes in the morning.
There is hate in the world, but love outlasts it. There is sorrow in the world but joy is deeper. There is evil in the world, but good is mightier. There is fear, but hope overcomes it.
By the power of God’s Holy Spirit working in and through us, this is how we live, shining as lights in the world. We do not pretend that things are easy all the time. They are not. We know that joy comes in the morning and we want to live in that truth. For we are witnesses to an amazing truth: that our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ not only in his dying destroyed our death but in his rising restored our life. Even so, Lord Jesus, come in glory.
Alleluia! Christ is risen. He is risen indeed. Alleluia! Amen.