Event Name Sermon given at the Sung Eucharist on Easter Day 2016
Start Date 27th Mar 2016 10:30am

The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster

The reality of death and the fragility of life have been borne in on us this past week, not simply through our observance of Holy Week with its relentless focus on the coming Passion and Death of our Lord Jesus Christ, but through current events.

On the morning of Tuesday, 22 March 2016, three coordinated nail bombings occurred in Belgium: two at Brussels Airport in Zaventem, and one at Maelbeek metro station in Brussels. In these attacks, 31 victims and three suicide bombers were killed, and 330 people were injured. Another bomb was found during a search of the airport.

These attacks were linked to the assaults in Paris last year. On the evening of Friday 13 November 2015, a series of coordinated terrorist attacks occurred in Paris and Saint-Denis, the place of burial of French kings. Three suicide bombers struck near the Stade de France in Saint-Denis, followed by suicide bombings and mass shootings at cafés, restaurants and a music venue in central Paris. The attackers killed 130 people, including 89 at the Bataclan theatre. Another 368 people were injured. Seven of the attackers also died.

But terror is attacking in all kinds of ways. We are preparing here at the Abbey for a service of Solemn Commemoration next month for the victims last year in Tunisia of terrorist violence on the beach: families on holiday, hoping for peace and relaxation in the sun and sand, but 31 lives cut short, loved ones murdered, people injured and suffering trauma. Suddenly, in the middle of a happy moment, tragedy struck.

Speaking in the House of Commons after the beach assaults, the Prime Minister of this United Kingdom said, 'We will stand in solidarity with all those outraged by this event—not least the overwhelming majority of Muslims in this country and around the world. For this is not the war between Islam and the West that ISIL want people to believe. It is a generational struggle between a minority of extremists who want hatred to flourish, and the rest of us who want freedom to prosper.'

These numbers of dead and injured are small compared with the number of refugees and migrants who have died trying to reach Europe from Turkey. The International Organization for Migration estimated that 3,771 migrants overall died while trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea to Europe in 2015. 3,279 died in the same attempt in 2014.

Many of us may feel remote from these events. We may feel relatively secure, certainly if we live in a well-protected community or a peaceful democracy as we do in this country. But the meditation of the poet and priest John Donne written in 1624 reminds us that we cannot ignore anyone's death. 'No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were: any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.'

The reality of death, the proximity of death, provides the proper context for our celebration. Easter Day is a true moment for thanksgiving, for joy, for confidence, a proper celebration. But it is a celebration of new life, new life won through death, new life won through sacrifice, through the giving away of life. We keep today the greatest and most joyful feast of the Church's Year, of our year. 'The Day of Resurrection,' the hymn goes, 'earth tell it out abroad. The Passover of gladness, the Passover of God! From death to life eternal, from earth unto the sky, our Christ hath brought us over with hymns of victory.' But our festival day would be nothing without the reality of our Lord's arrest and false trial, without the scourging and mocking, without the carrying his cross through Jerusalem to the hill of Golgotha, without the nailing to the cross, without our Lord Jesus' suffering and agonising death.

St Peter, who witnessed from afar the trial of Jesus, though for fear of the consequences he denied ever having known him, later wrote to his fellow disciples in the Way, 'Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps. He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed.'

And St Paul wrote to the Christians in Corinth, 'But now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the first-fruits of them that slept. For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.'

The oldest memorial in the nave of the Abbey is on the north wall and commemorates Jane Stoteville, who died on 27 April 1631 and is buried nearby. She lived for 78 years, then a good long life, and bore six sons and three daughters and after the death of her husband re-married. She was born at the beginning of the reign of Mary, the Catholic daughter of Henry VIII, and died six years into the reign of Charles I. On her memorial are the words Mors mihi lucrum—death is gain to me—and Solus Christi mihi salus—Christ is my only salvation. The words Mors mihi lucrum, death is gain to me, are quotations from St Paul. She also has the words Spe resurgendi, in the hope of rising again. Similar words are on the joint grave of Queen Mary I and her half-sister Queen Elizabeth I: in English 'Consorts in reign and urn here we lie, sisters in hope of resurrection.'

Another memorial, high up on the south side of the nave, is to William Hargrave, who died in 1757 at the great age of 79. He had been a general in the army and governor of Gibraltar in the reign of George III. He is depicted rising from his grave at the resurrection on the last day. A trumpet is sounding and the dead are being raised. Death finally is defeated. The great building above Hargrave's grave is toppling over to allow him to clamber out of his grave.

Does this suggest that the Christian faith is that Jesus died and rose from the dead and that those who have faith in him and live the life of faith will at some point after death, perhaps at the end of time, also be raised to new life? Is new life, resurrection, simply a promise for the future, a mark of hope for us but making no difference to us today? There is surely more to say than that. St Paul wrote to the Romans, 'Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.'

Think of the implications. In our baptism, we have entered into the death of Jesus. We have been buried with him. So, the death of our mortal bodies becomes immaterial. That will happen one day or other. We shall die to this world. Our bodies will be reverently disposed, buried or cremated. But we ourselves have already died with Christ and are already alive with Christ. We have already entered into the resurrection life. We walk in newness of life. New life is a gift we have received in Christ through our baptism. The eternal life which will take us beyond the grave is already ours. Resurrection is not just a future promise.

Through our faithful trust in our Lord Jesus Christ and through the sacraments of holy Baptism and the holy Eucharist, we experience here on earth a foretaste of what we shall know in fullness in heaven: the joy and glory of life with our Lord, of life in the very presence of almighty God himself, a life in which we shall know God as God knows us now, a life of bliss and eternal peace. Death dies. We have much to celebrate this Easter, and every day a little Easter.

The Lord is risen; he is risen indeed. Alleluia! This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.

© 2018 The Dean and Chapter of Westminster

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