Bishop Stephen's Easter Sermon 2018.

Posted on Sunday 1 April 2018
The Bishop presided and preached at the Easter Day service in Ely Cathedral this morning. Christ is risen and we - with Mary Magdalene on that first Easter Day - are free, called into his new creation. What does it mean, he asks, for us to witness to Easter hope to those in our own day who have not yet been set free?

[Isa 25:6-9; Acts 10:34-43; John 20:1-18]

Mary Magdalene has stood with the Mother of Jesus, and the other Mary, and the beloved disciple at the foot of the cross. She has watched Jesus die. She has endured all those awful hours, of his pain and thirst and humiliation, and then suffocation. She knows, beyond any shadow of doubt, that he is dead.

Whatever drove her to be there, early on the first day of the week, she is alone in a graveyard in the dark. In first century Palestine, lepers and outcasts, those who were mentally ill and thought to be demon-possessed, lived among the tombs; and bodies were unclean things. In later Western art, the tomb is set in a beautiful, well-kept garden, a sanctuary, a place of order. But Mary goes alone in the dark to sit and weep at a grave, in a place of fear and disintegration, among the people who don’t belong, or who are kept out of sight and mind.

As she goes to the tomb alone, Mary might think of herself as going back to a place she thought she had left behind. When Mark and Luke introduce Mary of Magdala into their narratives, she is identified as the one out of whom Jesus had driven seven demons. And early in the history of the church Mary Magdalene became identified with the prostitute who bathes Jesus feet with her tears and dries them with her hair. And in the same artwork that puts the tomb in a beautiful garden, Mary Magdalene is dressed in red, her hair falling down her back. She is always identified as a repentant prostitute.

The newly released biopic of Mary Magdalene, which has Rooney Mara in the title role, understands her differently. In this interpretation she is rejected for bringing shame on her family for her refusal to conform, and for seeking a new way of living. Her family think of this as her grappling with a demon, of which she says that if it is there, it must always have been there. In reply, Jesus tells her ‘There are no demons here.’ He sets her free from all that binds her, to be the person she was created to be. He frees her to follow him, and to be his witness.

This brings us with Mary to the tomb, back with her to the place of whatever history she had left behind – of mental disintegration, or shame, or rejection. We go back with her to the things that had trapped her, and held her captive, to weep at the graveyard of all the different possibilities that she thought had been opened up to her in the Jesus she has watched die. But what she finds is the tomb open and the body gone, and she cannot make sense of any of it.

She fetches Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, to show them what has happened. They go into the empty tomb, but they are as confused as Mary is. ‘For as yet’, John tells us, ‘they did not understand the Scripture that he must rise from the dead’. Even more afraid of what might happen, they don’t hang around by the tomb in the grey dawn light, but return to the relative safety of their homes.

Mary stands weeping outside the tomb, and rather than meeting demons, it is angels she encounters there. They ask her why she weeps, before she turns around and sees Jesus, whom she supposes to be the gardener. She sees him, but does not see him at all. He asks her the angels’ question ‘Woman why are you weeping?’ and then the same question he had asked of the crowd that came out to Gethsemane for him with swords and clubs “For whom are you looking?” “Whom do you seek?” She is looking for a missing corpse; seeking a past she thinks is dead. Desperate, she begs the supposed gardener ‘Look, if you know what’s going on, please just tell me.’ And then he speaks her name.

Mary. ‘Look. See. I’m here. You can trust yourself.’ Here, on the first day of the new creation, she is spoken back into being. She is invited back from the darkness of the past that had bound her. The new creation has dawned, and she is being invited to witness to it. She turns again in recognition – dawning realisation that the gardener stood in front of her is the resurrection and life that she was seeking. Rabbouni. Teacher. The risen Lord.

And then, extraordinarily, the very next thing Jesus says to her ‘Do not hold onto me’ ‘Touch me not’. In art, this moment is usually shown as Jesus standing apart, unmoved, as Mary tries to grasp him. But what he says to her is, ‘Don’t hold onto me’. Don’t hold onto me because the world is made new. You are free. I have gathered everything back into the life of the first creation. Everything is made new.

Shortly before she died, Denise Inge (who was the wife of a former Bishop of Huntingdon here) wrote a book called ‘A Tour of Bones’ reflecting on various of Europe’s charnel houses, as a way of making sense of the fact that there is a charnel house under the bishop’s house in Worcester, that they were living over the bones of Worcester’s medieval monks. It is a beautiful and extraordinary book, and I commend it to you. At Sedlec in the Czech Republic she reflected on resurrection:

‘The kind of resurrection that starts happening now in the ordinary present is the kind that most captures my imagination. Resurrection life in which somehow future joy breaks in on the present, as if time wraps around itself and what will be actually happens. I have sometimes seen bold changes in which people’s lives are made new already, here, in this world, and the wonderful thing is that new life of that kind spills over. It spreads like watercolour soaking up across a glistening paper. This kind of resurrection hope makes me want to cheer.’ (D. Inge, A Tour of Bones. Facing fear and looking for life, 2014 p.91).

 

Resurrection happens now in our ordinary present. Everything has for ever changed. We are called to be witnesses of these things. Witnesses whose lives proclaim that what will be is actually happening – called into being as the risen Christ speaks our names. New life spilling over and transforming our families and communities, so that – like whatever history Mary Magdalene had left behind – we are no longer trapped in prisons of grief or shame or failure. All things are made new in the risen Christ, and reconciliation is possible – with God, with ourselves, and with one another. To be Easter people calls us to bear that hope to those who live trapped existences, who have not yet been set free from slavery - to those enslaved by addiction, or abuse, or forced labour. The Clewer Initiative, which works across Church of England dioceses to combat modern slavery, reported this week that 5145 people are known to have been victims of modern slavery in this country last year. This figure is very much lower than the possibly tens of thousands that the National Crime Agency estimates. These are men and women and children, from a variety of countries but mostly the UK, enslaved in domestic servitude, in agricultural labour, in nail bars and car washes, in the sex trade. What does it mean for us to witness to Easter hope here, for resurrection to be possible for those out-of-sight-out-of-mind members of our society in their ordinary present? Amidst all the suffering of modern slavery, there are the stories of release and new life from entrapment because people like us took time really to see what was happening and to be determined agents of freedom. This was highlighted by a letter published in yesterday’s Times, which I co-signed with several other diocesan bishops: ‘this Easter’, we said, ‘we are asking everyone to open their eyes to the signs of possible exploitation around them’. We are looking for ‘New life for those entombed in darkness’.

As Mary goes to the tomb on that first Easter Day, she goes trapped in her confusion and grief; and trapped, too, by whatever past she thought she had left behind. Resurrection happens now in Mary of Magdala’s ordinary present, but she is there as a witness to what is forever extraordinary. In that first Easter dawn everything has forever changed. The whole world is bathed in resurrection light, shining like spreading watercolour. The risen Christ calls her by name, and invites her to be part of the new creation. He calls each of us by name, speaks us into being, invites us into hope, into transformation into his new creation. And, with Mary, he tells us to go and tell Peter and all those others ‘I have seen the Lord’. To live a resurrection hope that spills over, lives the new creation now, that shouts and cheers that ‘He is risen indeed. He’s alive and I’m forgiven and heavens’ gates are open wide.’

Alleluia. Christ is risen. He is risen, indeed. Alleluia!