What can I say possibly say this morning that hasn’t already been said in two thousand years? Probably nothing. But perhaps I don’t need to say anything new, because the truth we have been telling for all that time is so earth-shatteringly life-changingly wonderful that it needs little elaboration.
In the person of Jesus, God lived and died and lived again. It is such a bonkers thing to claim, but it is the essence of our faith. And it is bonkers in the best possible way. That Jesus lived tells us that God is with us and for us, that he died tells us that there is nothing that God would not do to reach us, and that he lived again tells us that there is no death or horror that God cannot overcome. What joy and peace and hope are wrapped up in those words!
The church I grew up in had a cross that was given as a gift by one of our mission partners in Peru. I have tried for years to find another like it but to no avail, so I am going to try and describe it to you. It had a figure of Jesus that could be removed, leaving a Jesus shaped hole in the centre of the cross. On Good Friday, the figure was placed in the cross, but for the rest of the year it was left out. It was a striking visual reminder that Jesus has blasted a hole through sin and death and pain and fear - everything that the cross represents - and allowed light and love and grace to flood in.
As we look through the Christ-shaped hole in the cross, we see a new future. And that’s what I want us to think about now. Because with resurrection, we may have reached the end of our series on the big story, but we have not reached the end of the story itself. We are not living in an epilogue but in a new chapter, a chapter made possible by the events of that first Easter. That’s why I chose the image below for Easter Sunday. We have the cross for the crucifixion, then the empty tomb for the resurrection, and then the fish for the church, a hint of what is about to unfold.
We see a new story starting right away in the reading we heard from John 20:1-18. Throughout the gospels, twelve men have been recognised as Jesus’ closest disciples, but now it is a woman to whom he first appears, and who first bears the news of his resurrection. If the gospel is the truth that Jesus lived and died and lived again, that means the first person to bear the gospel was a woman. That was a radically new thing. A few days ago I saw this painting and I love it. The fear of the disciples sits in such contrast with the joy of the women, who look like they are bursting into the room and into song.
The risen Christ sends Mary to the disciples, and starts writing a new story for women. That story has had plenty of ups and downs, plenty of crises and setbacks, but it is a story for which I am so grateful. It is because of that story that I have been blessed by the ministry of many wonderful women, and am blessed to be here and speaking this morning.
And it’s not long before another new story opens up. In the final chapter of John, Jesus meets the disciples on a beach, and he walks with Peter. Three times he asks “do you love me?” and three times Peter says “yes”, and we realise that with each declaration of love, he cancels out each time that he denied him on the night of Jesus’ trial. This is forgiveness and a fresh start for his relationship with Jesus.
This scene is more than an absolution though, as it becomes a commissioning. Jesus tells Peter to feed his sheep, in a sense passing on the mantle. And we know that Peter takes hold of it, because a matter of weeks later, with a little help from the Holy Spirit, he is proclaiming the gospel to the crowds of Jerusalem, and thousands are coming to believe in the gospel, turning a tiny group of believers into an emerging community.
The risen Christ gives Peter a mission, and starts writing a new story for what will become the church. That story has also had its fair share of triumphs and disasters, but it is the story that has brought us all here, and it is the story we hope will bring others here too.
But it’s not just Peter that Jesus has a task for. The gospel spread and the church grew through the work of countless others, and one of them was a man named Saul. He hated those who followed Christ, holding the coats of the men who stoned the first Christian martyr, and going on to conduct persecutions of his own, but then he was stopped in his tracks.
He is on the road when he sees a blinding light and hears the voice of Jesus, ascended into heaven but still alive and still speaking. Jesus chides him and sends him into the city to await further instructions, and the whole experience is so life changing that Saul becomes Paul, overcome with a deep conviction that he is to bear witness to this transformation, taking up Jesus’ call to make disciples of all the nations.
The risen Christ sends Paul to preach the good news to the Gentiles, and starts writing a new story for the whole world. Like all of these stories, it is still working itself out, but how amazing to think that in a wave across the world, people are meeting like us to celebrate this day, in more languages and styles than we can even imagine!
And new stories are being written all the time. A church member emailed me this week because he had been really struck by a picture similar to the one below from the aftermath of the fire at Notre Dame Cathedral, and by the way the cross had remained as so much around it had burned. I’ve seen lots of commentary online, but among the most poignant was the response from Coventry Cathedral, who empathised with the deep sense of loss but also counselled that hope can rise from the ashes, as they themselves bear witness, having rebuilt after the Second World War. We don’t yet know what the future will look like for Notre Dame, but the cross in the midst of the wreckage is an assurance that a new story is possible.
Many have been bemused by the reaction to the fire, suggesting that it is only a building and there are far greater things to worry about. In many ways they are right to draw our attention from stone and wood back to people and creation, but the sense of devastation that has been felt around the world seems to say that such buildings are important. They are monuments to faith and human endeavour, and they are sanctuaries of time and space. Whatever new stories we write, we still need those. Stoneygate Baptist Church building is such a monument and can be such a sanctuary, a place of peace and community. We are in a new season together, and that is perhaps something to reflect on as we write our next chapter.
Something else that has been on my mind as I have started to imagine our future is a piece of poetry or prophecy called ‘The New Glasgow’ by a URC minister called Doug Gay, in which he describes a vision of resurrection in Glasgow. I first heard it earlier this year, as a reflection on God’s call through the prophet Jeremiah for the Israelites in exile to pray for the shalom of Babylon. For it is also a picture of shalom - wholeness, peace, harmony, all the blessings of God - in Glasgow. I wonder what resurrection or shalom may look like in Leicester.
The risen Christ gives hope for Notre Dame and for Glasgow and for Leicester, and starts writing a new story for all of us. Because the resurrection of Christ tells us that resurrection is possible. That death can be defeated, sin can be forgiven, mistakes can be put right. That new stories can be written, fresh starts can be made, second chances can be found. This is Christ’s resurrection day. May it be our resurrection day too.