Sermon Easter Day 27 March 2016
Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale is a play that looks like one of his tragedies until almost the end when there is a startling turn of events. King Leontes is struck by irrational jealousy when he sees his wife Hermione talking with his best friend Polixenes. His jealousy is like a corrosive poison, driving him, his family and his court headlong into disaster. He is suddenly convinced that the child Hermione is expecting is Polixenes’ rather than his; he tries to arrange for Polixenes’ murder. He banishes his wife and when she gives birth to a baby daughter he orders the child to be abandoned in the wild. He later hears that his wife has died. As the play unfolds we see jealousy gradually being replaced by acute guilt and remorse over what he has done. There seems to be no hope for him. He has lost everything dear to him – his best friend, his wife, his daughter. Meanwhile, though, far away, a very different narrative is emerging. His daughter hasn’t died but has been brought up by a peasant family. She meets Polixenes’ son, they fall in love and, without either set of parents knowing, become the means by which their fathers will be reunited. We see Leontes meeting his daughter for the first time, renewing his friendship with Polixenes and then, most remarkably, as the young couple prepare for their wedding, Leontes and Perdita, Hermione’s daughter, are asked if they would like to see a statue of Hermione that has just been sculpted. The statue is extraordinarily life like, so much so that it starts to move! It is Hermione herself, alive, never having died, but hiding away until her husband has a change of heart. Everything is restored and the play ends on a note of joyful fulfillment.
This is a play about restoration, what is lost being found (Perdita comes from a Latin word meaning lost), unearned grace, forgiveness and of course resurrection. I bumped into 2 other members of St John’s during the interval and commented enthusiastically on these resonances. They both groaned slightly and said they could hear a sermon coming on… they were right!
If you came into our church on Good Friday you would have faced chaos and dislocation – the altar was on its side and all around it were crumpled, broken or torn reminders of human activity – the upturned bowl and towels from Maundy Thursday footwashing, fast food litter, a black plastic sack of rubbish, torn paper, a creased shirt – everything jumbled up with 3 crosses lying on the floor in the background. This was an installation; a deliberate construction to convey something about the events of Good Friday. It bore some resemblance to the scenes at Brussels airport after the bomb there. We human beings have a great capacity to wreak havoc and destruction and set in motion a train of events that we hadn’t necessarily anticipated. In A Winter’s Tale Leontes’ jealousy almost has a life of its own. He is unable to control it. Its impact is like the cumulative force of evil that hit Christ on the cross. It breaks, tears, destroys everything in its path, as our Good Friday installation reminded us.
As I looked at the installation I imagined everything there being fixed – the altar being put back, the rubbish cleared away, what was broken being mended, the shirt being hung up or worn – rather the way things might happen in a film when someone does the equivalent of waving a magic wand. And just as happens at the end of A Winter’s Tale when broken relationships are mended and someone even comes back from the dead. Isn’t this what Easter is about?
I want to say that it is and it isn’t. It is because the story of Leontes involves forgiveness, unmerited grace and reconciliation. It isn’t because what we Christians mean by resurrection is not someone coming back to life in the way that Hermione apparently did, nor the way Lazarus did when Jesus raised him from death. Nor is it about what is broken, damaged, dislocated being put back to exactly the way it was before. When Jesus was raised from death he was not exactly the way he had been before. We know that Lazarus was; not long after Jesus had called him back from the dead he was sitting as usual at the dinner table with his sisters Mary and Martha entertaining Jesus and his disciples. Jesus, however, could appear suddenly in a room where the door was locked, he could disappear from supper as he did at Emmaus, he was not immediately recognizable in some encounters. After a period of time the disciples stopped seeing him altogether.
So when we talk about resurrection in the New Testament we are not talking about someone coming back from the dead and resuming their old life. The resurrection body is different from the bodies you and I are inhabiting today. St Paul is clear about that. The resurrection life has a different quality too. When we look at what happened to the disciples after Jesus’ resurrection we see that though they continue in their usual bodies, they are beginning a new kind of life. That’s really that I want to consider on this Easter morning.
There are thousands of pictures of Jesus on the cross, but far fewer that depict his resurrection. It’s not surprising – we don’t know exactly what happened and an empty tomb doesn’t make for an interesting picture. The pictures we do have often focus on 2 themes – victory and encounter. Early pictures of the resurrection show Jesus leaping out of the tomb, often waving a flag and resting a victorious foot on a sleeping soldier who was supposed to be guarding the entrance. Jesus has conquered sin and death. Later paintings focus on encounter – Jesus meeting Mary in the garden or at supper in Emmaus.
Now, the conquering of sin and death actually happened on the cross rather than at the point of resurrection, and there is a cross on the flag the resurrected Jesus waves to remind us of that. In the earliest frescoes, sculptures of Jesus on the cross he isn’t shown as a tortured victim. He looks serene, cheerful even. This is the Jesus of John’s gospel who at the end says ‘It is finished’, meaning, ‘I’ve done it’; I’ve completed the task I was sent to do, I’ve drunk to the dregs the cup I was offered. I’ve seen this through to the bitter end. The cross is the triumphant ending. Without it resurrection would not have happened.
We can easily think of the resurrection as a happy ending to the sad story of Good Friday. Instead it’s the start of a whole new chapter in human history. It’s a beginning, not a happy ending. When Leontes in A Winter’s Tale is struck by irrational jealousy he sets in motion a destructive and dislocating train of events. In completing his death on the cross Jesus releases a dynamic so powerful that it can divert, transform, undo such events, so powerful that it challenges death itself. The resurrection is witness to this. It heralds the new beginning.
In Luke’s account of the resurrection it’s clear that the disciples weren’t expecting this at all. They were adjusting to Jesus’ absence. The news the women brought didn’t make sense. They were grieving. They had lost someone. Their framework was one of endings. Some of them were preparing to return to their home villages and towns and resume their old way of life. What completely bowls them over as the narrative moves on (if you read the rest of Luke 24) is the major feature of resurrection life and what makes it distinctive and why it won’t necessarily enable us to pick up where we left off or to wave a magic wand that would enable all the fragments and dislocated pieces in the church on Good Friday (or in our lives for that matter) simply return to their rightful place.
So, what is this major feature? What is this new beginning? It’s Presence. Jesus is present, God is present to the disciples and to us in a way he wasn’t before. God with us (‘Emmanuel’) has become a reality. Whether we are travelling, like the disciples on the way to Emmaus, or eating together, especially at Communion, or fearful behind locked doors, or asking, like Mary in the garden, ‘Where is he?’ Christ is present. There is no place where he isn’t. The witness of the resurrection makes this a fact. When Peter and the other disciples were sharing the good News about Jesus this was what they were conveying. Jesus was with them. They were continuing what he had started. They could offer a new start, forgiveness, brokenness being mended, but above all, Christ’s presence with them. It’s that Presence of resurrection we take with us wherever we are and especially into those places and situations of dislocation, brokenness and pain.