St Mary’s 21/4/19 Easter Day 8am, 9.30am, 10.45am
Preacher: Mark Hart
‘These words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them’. To be clear, these are the women’s words, and it is the men who don’t believe them. The women arrive with the news that Jesus of Nazareth is risen. The men conclude that they are talking nonsense. The women are not thinking rationally because their emotions are all over the place.
You can still find such prejudice, but we’ve come a long way from the time when women were not regarded as reliable witnesses in certain courts of law. And the seeds of change were planted this first Easter morning.
Today we’re in a building dedicated to a woman. Mary, the mother of Jesus. Like the Cathedral of Notre Dame. Over the last week we have seen journalists struggling to capture its significance. They can easily speak of culture, art and heritage. Fine, as far as it goes. They less readily speak of faith, the well spring from which all that civilisation flowed.
On Palm Sunday, when the Pharisees were complaining about the joyful noise, we heard Jesus reply, ‘I tell you, if they were silent, the stones would cry out’.
The stones cried out in a different way last Monday evening, in a land where the message of faith has long been falling silent, even more so than here. We may ask if the stones will be heard. As people reflect on what such buildings stand for – and on what they may signify in the future – will they acknowledge the faithful service and daily worship which have been witnessed and absorbed by those stones down the centuries?
The first Christians didn’t build churches. They met in houses, and church building didn’t really start until after the early centuries of persecution. Even then, it wasn’t so much for practical reasons, as if they had nowhere else to meet. They built churches as symbols of death and resurrection. They built over the tombs of martyrs. And what they built were primarily baptisteries, or graves for the living. After preparation through Lent, the believers would go down into the dark waters of death on Easter morning and be raised to new life in Christ.
That’s why from these early times many churches were cruciform. That’s something else Notre Dame and St Mary’s have in common. Viewed from above they stand out as crosses. They are symbols of death, and by association with Christ, that makes them also signs of glorious resurrection.
I love Nantwich, but sometimes I miss my previous parishes, not least because there I could bury people around the churches. Do take that the right way. It meant that every week as I did a survey of the churchyards, I’d be walking between the bones of my friends; my brothers and sisters in Christ, people I’d known and loved. We lived and worshipped in the middle of them, and many people would visit a grave on their way into a service.
As Christians we’re called to hold two opposite things together. First, we face up to mortality. Unlike the Romans, the dead are not kept at a distance. We don’t live in denial of our frailty and dependence, and the inevitability of accident and decay. We don’t always look for someone to blame or to compensate us when things go wrong. We don’t have to be anxiously protecting ourselves as if a cushion of wealth can keep thoughts of death at bay. We remember Ash Wednesday, ‘Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return’.
Second – which can seem contradictory – as Christians we see our frail, mortal bodies as utterly glorious. Don’t believe any of the advertising about what makes you look good or gives your body value. Don’t allow the conventions of fashion to make judgements on you. You have been buried with Christ and raised to new life. Every part of you shares in the life of God. And therefore no-one and no-thing, especially not death, can condemn you or put an end to you. You have a future, the whole of you, body, soul and spirit.
We human beings have a deep tendency to avoid the truth. And we can do it in contradictory ways. Just as we can deny the frailty of our bodies, so it has been common to hope that we ultimately escape our bodies. It was widely held in the early centuries that matter is a lower form of existence. Mind is a level up and the highest form of life is pure spirit. Which brings us back to the idea that the rational male is above the emotional female. And of course women’s bodies were thought by many to be incomplete male bodies.
I remind you again that we are in a church dedicated to a woman. A woman whom the Church hails as the Mother of God. A woman whose womb was the home of the conception and nurturing of the Son of God. And the first witnesses to the resurrection were women.
Whatever may be true of you today, that you’re young or old, female or male, healthy or sick, with or without disability, remember this: you are dust, and you are magnificent dust. You can ultimately do nothing about your mortality. But you can live with hope having been baptised into Christ and made an heir of God. And you can see others and the whole world as sharing that potential glory.
Take away that faith and there’s nothing to underpin the sacredness of every human being. Take away that faith and Jesus was a deluded, naïve failure, who got on the wrong side of power. And power rules. Hold onto faith and love rules. Love is the deepest and most enduring truth. Jesus is raised because of the sheer persistence of God’s love for this world. You are raised with Christ because God’s love for you is tenacious.
Therefore, today in this place of death and life, alongside the bones of those we haven’t known but with whom we share in the communion of saints, let us rejoice that we have been baptised into Christ’s death and raised to share his life.
Or if you haven’t been baptised, I appeal to you today. Do you say ‘No’ to evil and the way of power? Do you say ‘Yes’ to love and the way of Christ. Then be baptised. Don’t worry that the font is covered with flowers. They are easily removed. And at the base of the font is the baptismal jug full of water. Water is all you need. Later as you leave the church you can dip your finger in and mark your forehead with the cross as a reminder of your baptism.
Seriously, I’m prepared to baptise today anyone who chooses this way. Come to me at the end, or at the Peace. It’s Easter Day. What better time. All that is required for baptism is that water is poured on you accompanied by the words, ‘John/Mary… I baptise you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.’
That’s something you should all learn because anyone can baptise. In emergency, if someone is near death and wants to be baptised, and you can’t find any clergy, do it yourself. Just tell one of us afterwards. Everyone should know that. It has long been the Church’s practice.
And don’t be afraid to take the opportunity to tell people you are Christian, and to invite your friends and family to be baptised. You are witnesses, like the women in the Gospel. You may get a similar response. But maybe some, like Peter, will go and try the walk themselves.
Alleluia. Christ is risen.
He is risen indeed. Alleluia.