Worship at the Abbey

Sermon given at Sung Eucharist on Easter Day 2011

24 April 2011 at 10:00 am

The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster

‘Rise heart; thy Lord is risen. Sing his praise
                        Without delayes,
Who takes thee by the hand, that thou likewise
                        With him mayst rise.’

Words of the 17th-century priest and poet George Herbert welcome us today to the Queen of Feasts. ‘Rise heart; thy Lord is risen.’ On behalf of us all here at Westminster Abbey, I wish you a very happy Easter. There is much to be happy about: ‘Alleluia! Christ is risen; he is risen indeed, alleluia!’

You perhaps know that this great celebration will not be the only moment of joy this week. You can see around the Abbey some of the preparations for the wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton. Television lights on high ledges and television cameras and screens are already in position. I’m sorry we can’t use them today to give everyone here a better view of the quire and the high altar. Last Thursday they were used, when The Queen on her 85th birthday in an ancient ceremony distributed specially minted silver coins to 170 elderly men and women. All the recipients had contributed significantly as Christians to their communities over many years through acts of self-giving love and service. In honouring them, The Queen highlighted the truth that what matters above all is self-giving love. It is a truth she holds dear.

It is not a truth easy for us to receive but it does lie at the heart of God’s purpose in Christ - and it is what Easter is all about: the triumph of self-giving love. Our human instinct is to get and to grasp, to hold on to what is ours, to exercise influence, authority and power. This is quite different from the way God shows us in Christ: the way of self-giving love. We see it already at the birth of his Son. Jesus is born into poverty. Mary and Joseph are refugees. Once he begins his ministry, Jesus has nowhere to lay his head and no obvious means of sustenance. His teaching fits his way of life. His most famous words in the Sermon on the Mount turn upside down the world’s way of greed and power. ‘Blessed are those who mourn; Blessed are the meek; Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness; Blessed are those who are persecuted; Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you.’ [Matthew 5] His teaching has the power to shock.

His death fits his teaching and his way of life too. The crowds who cheer Jesus on his entry to Jerusalem expect him to fulfil other prophecies about the Messiah: to re-take control of Israel from the hated Roman occupier and to establish self-rule for God’s Chosen People in the Promised Land. The way Jesus follows is quite different: the way of weakness, of humility, of self-denial, of self-giving love. The crowds turn against him. He turns out not to be what they wanted. ‘Here is your King!’ says Pilate. They cry out, ‘Away with him! Away with him! Crucify him!’ ‘Shall I crucify your King?’ ‘We have no king but Caesar.’ [v. John 19; 14, 15]

So they take him away and crucify him. Only the Beloved Disciple stays near him at the Cross, and Mary, his Mother. Almost all his disciples have either betrayed him, or denied him, or deserted him and fled. It is the obvious human reaction. Jesus has after all failed. He has been despised and rejected. His great mission has fizzled out into disaster. So it seems to the Temple authorities. So it seems to the Roman occupier. So it seems to his disciples. They do not hear the hint of triumph in the Lord’s voice in his last word from the Cross, ‘It is finished.’ Tetelestai I have accomplished what I came to do. The account is settled. I have paid in full.

So, the disciples are terrified. What shall we do now? Run away and hide, in case the authorities come after us. Then what? When the tumult has died down, sneak back to Galilee and hope no one notices us. They still don’t see. They don’t get it.

What changes their mind? What makes them get it? The body of Jesus is wrapped hastily in cloths and buried in a borrowed tomb hewn out of the rock. They seal a great stone over the entrance. The end. You know what happens next. We have just listened to St John’s account of the first Easter morning. The tomb is empty and the body gone. Peter and the Beloved Disciple come and see. The risen Lord Jesus appears to Mary of Magdala. Later he appears to the other disciples in different places and in different ways. This is not resuscitation. The body of Jesus has not been revived. This is different. Sometimes they fail at first to recognise him. Mary Magdalene thinks him the gardener. He comes and goes mysteriously. But he is no ghost. They do know it is the Lord. They eat and drink with him. Thomas is able to put his fingers into the holes in his hands and his hand into his side.

It is nothing less than the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ that changes the disciples: the empty tomb; the resurrection appearances. Nothing less could change them. The hopeless, fearful, craven disciples, who have run away in terror to protect their pathetic lives, lose their fear and gain some guts. During the life of Jesus, nothing has changed them, even though they have been close to him. On their last journey to Jerusalem, two of them ask Jesus to give them positions of power in his earthly kingdom, so little do they get it. Now they do change. Once they have had time to absorb the truth that Jesus really is alive again and once they learn that he will enable them to work with him, they go out to proclaim this amazing truth. Now they seem to be careless of their health and safety, reckless with their lives. They put themselves at terrible risks. Most of them die appalling deaths for the sake of Jesus. Death cannot defeat them. They have at last learnt that self-giving love is the way.

The resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ from the dead shows us too that the way of Jesus, the way of self-giving love, is the right way. It may seem to our human instinct to be a way of hopeless failure but it is the true way. Self-giving love is the key. It must be the key to our whole lives.

An Easter wedding is lovely. Marriage is an act of self-giving love. The Bride and Groom give themselves to each other in love. Neither is diminished by the gift; rather, giving themselves away, they receive not only the gift of the other but of themselves with it. They receive themselves afresh, re-made in the image of the one they love.

This Easter morning we can offer our lives to our risen Lord Jesus for love of him and receive ourselves afresh, re-made in his image, who gave his life that we might live. This exchange is given effect in the act of Holy Communion as we receive his Body and precious Blood that we may evermore dwell in him and he in us. ‘Rise heart; thy Lord is risen.’