Eucharist Sermon - 4 April 2021 3pm

Easter Day
Acts 10:34–43, John 20:1–18

The Revd Canon Graham Ward, Regius Professor of Divinity

“He is risen. He is risen in deed. Hallelujah.”

I want us to think of Easter differently, because for centuries we have related it with the coming of Spring. We see this in paintings and frescos down through the Renaissance. When we hear of the tomb in the garden the gardens we imagine are Western and European. My garden at the moment is aflame with forsythia, the daffodils almost finished but there’s a carpet of wild hyacinth, an occasional bluebell and a patch of violets. Easter comes in the Western hemisphere with the trees budding with new leaves, blossoming in pinks and whites, birds busy building their nests, and wonderful birdsongs as the males make their pitch for a mate. A new creative flow of life issues after the dull cold of winter when the trees were black and leafless. It chimes so well with the liturgical year and the celebrations of Christ’s resurrection – especially after a winter in lockdown. New possibilities, new surges of hope, new, deep and instinctive anticipations of long daylight hours and sunlight.

This association with resurrection and spring is natural to us, and reinforced with Easter cards displaying flowers. We fill the churches and our houses with flowers. But I want us to reflect upon Easter on the Southern hemisphere, and there’s a reason for doing so: we can get at the Easter message from another and possibly more profound perspective. Easter in Southern Africa, Southern Latin America, Australia and New Zealand comes in autumn. In fact, autumn began in March. In South Africa the westerlies, stirred by the turns of the ocean currents in the equinox, blow hard. The fynbos stops blooming, the butterflies gone, tropical birds have migrated and the proteas drying out. The wind will blow their dried heads across the mountains. The rains can be ferocious and the cold from the snow on the peaks drives cold winds towards houses without central heating or double glazing. Yet Easter is celebrated here too – only differently, because nature is going into its dearth time and all the leaves have fallen. They don’t celebrate the new flows of life, the nights have drawn in.

What is celebrated about the resurrection doesn’t have then a natural orchestration. It’s strange when you first experience it, as a Westerner from the northern hemisphere. Something seems wrong, and the liturgical calendar seems to have gone awry, as it does at Christmas time sitting on a beach on Australia’s Gold Coast, eating ice-cream because the temperature is close to 40C. Fearful, as the sun beats down, of bush fires. The cards are the same, Easter cards and Christmas cards with flowers blooming or winter frosts. But the natural world doesn’t sing the same chorale.

What then is celebrated at Easter in the Southern hemisphere? It is resurrection life that is different from natural life. Different doesn’t mean contrary to. They have their memories of spring, just as, at Christmas, they have their memories of winter. But it’s not the memories that are focussed upon, despite the cards. What is focussed upon is the redemptive life that seeps into the world on that morning of a new sabbath. What is exciting and inspires the worship is the new gathering that the Scriptures gives us an account of, the gathering that will become the church. What is celebrated is why they are collected together at all. For the resurrection begins a new spiritual process and new stewardships in the mysteries of Christ (to use a phrase from St. Paul). Easter, whether in the northern or the southern hemisphere, is about a transition. The body of Christ died on the cross. It is resurrected only to appear and absent itself continually until, with the Ascension, Christ’s physical body is removed from the earth. This is a time of transition between the earthly materiality of Christ’s body and the emergence of the church as the body of Christ in the world, governed by Christ as head and invigorated with the Holy Spirit. What is celebrated in Easter in autumn, as in Easter in spring, is our becoming the body of Christ, being incorporated into Him.

In John’s Gospel, that new incorporation begins on the cross itself. Following the Last Supper, the community of the disciples scatters in the descent of the authorities that arrest Jesus and the betrayals of both Judas and Peter. But, at the foot of the cross, the new in-gathering begins to emerge in the words of Christ, before his death, to his mother and the beloved disciple, John. “Woman, behold your son…behold your mother.” New relationships are formed here in which John, the adopted son, is grafted into the divine genealogy that began with the conception of Christ by Mary. But that new in-gathering is galvanised in the resurrection. What begins, in the Gospel account for today, with one woman (Mary Magdalene) is relayed to Peter, to John and the other disciples. The news brings them together, not in grief now but joy. It’s a qualified joy – hesitant – because they don’t know what is happening. They don’t know what to believe and what each of them thought they understood is thrown to the winds (despite Jesus’s words to them, preparing them). They grapple in the great shift from human understanding to faith in Christ. This is the heart of the transformation that occurs following the resurrection: human ways of knowing and understanding have to give way to new modes of relating to the world, and interpreting experiences within the world, through faith. Faith is the entrance into our incorporation in Christ; becoming part of His new body, the church. This is where discipleship really begins – for all of us: the new learning, the new formation and reorientation of our lives. Paul called this putting off the old man and taking on the new. Human nature is refashioned entirely in and through the resurrection, and it begins on Easter morning.

This is what Easter in autumn reveals to us, and more starkly than Easter in springtime where we can conflate resurrection life with the natural seasonal cycle. We enter with Easter into a time of great conversion, great transformation. We, individually and as the church, are being incorporated in Christ through becoming His body. And liturgically it begins today. In the early church, those who had been catechised through Lenten classes and baptised before the sun rose on Easter morning to celebrate their first eucharist on Easter Day, now entered into a second term of teaching. This was instruction on the meaning of the eucharist and incorporation into Christ’s body. This second term of teaching, after catechesis that taught them the lineaments of the Christian creed, was called mystagogy rather than pedagogy. It was a time of learning how to be, and I refer again the St. Paul, “stewards of the mystery of Christ.” Now we begin to learn what it is to live as Christ. In the words of John’s Gospel: “I in the Father and you in me and I in you.” We learn to live “with Christ in God.” It’s our resurrection life that begins today.

“This is the day that the Lord has made. I will rejoice and be glad in it.” Happy Easter!