Three years ago, my wife Anna and I celebrated Easter somewhere very different.
On Easter Day, we attended a sunrise service on the banks of the Chobe River in Botswana, just over the border from Namibia. It was a mix of traditional hymns and African singing, local people mingling with elderly British ex-pats, with the sermon preached by a visiting, evangelical American pastor. Despite the location, the sun was concealed behind grey cloud, which made us feel strangely at home, as did the hot cross buns and miniature Easter eggs that were handed out after the service!
I thought then about how different it was from the villages where we worship week after week: different – and yet, essentially the same, with people gathering to witness their faith and celebrate the most extraordinary event in recorded history. This is the story that has spread to the farthest reaches of every continent; the story of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and the implications that these events have for how we live, how we treat each other and for our relationship with God.
Three years on, this Easter is very different again: but this time, it’s unlike any other – no gatherings in churches anywhere this weekend, but services held only online, along with TV recordings made in previous years. Yet despite the challenges of the uncertain times we are living in, the key messages of Easter remain undiminished – the two central propositions of the Christian faith.
· Firstly, that Jesus was not just another radical who challenged the authorities and became difficult, but that it was God himself who had entered His creation in the person of Jesus Christ. This is not a God who is remote and unknowable, but a God who, in that human incarnation, lived what we would recognise as a normal life for 30-plus years and then suffered the very worst that any of us could experience – torture and violent death. If the story ended with that violent death, then it would indeed all make little sense. But of course, that is not where the story ends.
· The second central claim of the Easter story and the Christian faith is that Jesus then rose physically from the tomb: that on that first Easter morning and on some ten subsequent occasions was witnessed walking, talking and even eating with the disciples and others. Death had truly been overcome – it was a very real and tangible demonstration that death was not the end.
Without the resurrection, nothing about Christianity makes sense. If it’s not true, then nothing matters. But if you accept the Resurrection, then you see everything from a quite different viewpoint: it changes everything. I have been re-reading Rowan Williams’ thoughts on the Easter story recently. Sometimes, he cuts through the difficulties with an extraordinary clarity – no less than when he observed that “all Christian theology is essentially reflection on Easter”. For at Easter we realise that although Jesus’ crucifixion seemed to mean that the whole purpose of His life and mission had been defeated, the resurrection then demonstrated victory, over both the worst that humans can do to each other and over the apparent finality of death. The impact of this is immense – as are the implications for the life that it challenges us to lead.
We have seen in these last three weeks how people of all faiths or none are responding to the challenge that Christians recognise in the commandment to “love your neighbour as yourself”: the immense generosity of spirit demonstrated by so many acts of kindness and selflessness all over the country. That is truly something to celebrate this Easter. For, in Rowan Williams’ words, this is a time when we can “simply ask for whatever healing it is that you need, whatever grace and hope you need … then step towards your neighbour. Easter reveals a God who is ready to give you that grace and to walk with you.”
May we all receive and celebrate that grace this Easter; and may it sustain us as we await the better times that will surely lie ahead. Amen.