Sermon – Easter 09:45am service
Over the past few days, some of us have had fun creating the Easter garden [see below]. The reading we’ve just heard is from St. Matthew’s gospel and just before what we heard, the verses are about Pilate telling the Jewish authorities to set a watch over the tomb to make sure no one steals the body of Jesus.
This morning I have a visual aid [see below]. Sometime in the 1450s Pierro della Francesca painted on the wall of the old town hall in San Sepulcro in Italy, a remarkable fresco (we might be tempted to call him the Banksie of his day). There is an Easter egg for anyone who can tell me the connection between the fresco and an Englishman called Tony Clark*.
At the bottom of the picture, sprawling on the ground are 4 soldiers in so deep a stupor of sleep, you can almost hear them snoring. Right in the centre of the picture, stepping out of the tomb is a strong, most upright and slightly scary figure, the right hand side of his body is naked. With his bare right arm he holds a tall vertical staff from which flies a white banner emblazoned with a scarlet cross. The weight of his body is on the right leg which is still down in the tomb, but the left leg is drawn up, the foot planted firmly on the lip of the tomb. In a moment the weight of the body will be transferred to it and the other foot brought up beside it and Christ will come down and stride away through the heaving bodies of the snoring soldiers, who will see nothing, as drowned in sleep they miss the dawn of the world’s new age.
But the artist shows Christ as almost posing for his picture in this moment before he steps out, the left hand resting on the left knee and catching up the grave clothes, the white winding sheet which is now bright pink in the light of the rising sun. And Christ is looking directly out at the world, the great eyes, piercing eyes seem to be looking straight at us, eyes which seem to say ‘I am the living one’ eyes which seem to say even more, which challenge those prepared to meet their gaze, with the question, ‘Who says I’m dead?’ It is a most amazing picture and exceptional in that it is one of the very few works of art painted in western Europe since the C13 in which Christ is shown as the risen Christ, a Christ pulsating with life and radiating power instead of a dead or dying Christ, a tortured body on a cross or an exhausted or an emaciated corpse over the knees of his mother, a picture of heartbreak, death and defeat. It’s very strange that if you consider all the art of western Europe since the C14 we seem to have been preoccupied with sin and death and with what sin and death did to Christ, instead of being preoccupied with Christ and with what Christ did to death.
Does it reflect that even now in the west there is more fear than faith in our Christianity and more gloom than joy? You have to look at the stained glass window over the altar to see my point. By contrast the Lady Chapel is our resurrection chapel – full of light and colour – well, when the sun is shining. Of course the NT has much to say about the cross and of course the cross is essential to our Christian faith. Paul was proud to preach Christ crucified and to drive home the point that the living lord he served hadn’t evaded suffering and hadn’t bypassed death, but if we read Paul’s letters as a whole and the NT as a whole you can’t miss the fact that those books are the work of men who believed in a living Lord. They don’t worry or argue about how Christ has come alive. What they know is that he is alive.
Yes Paul and the early Christians, those saints, those apostles, knew all about death and most of them suffered cruelly witnessing to the risen Lord, but the fact is the first Christians simply didn’t worry about death. The problem of how the resurrection works was not much easier for them that it is for us and certainly they recognized that they must go through the natural processes of dying themselves but they knew that despite the difficulties and contrary to all outward appearances they had been delivered from the power of death. They knew this because they knew themselves to be possessed, driven, vitalized by the living spirit of the risen Christ, the Christ whose voice was heard by St.John on an island in the Aegean, the island of Patmos, ‘A voice like a trumpet saying, ‘Fear not I am the living one. I was dead and behold I am alive for evermore’, the Christ who challenges us with the question, ‘Who says I’m dead? God grant to us to hear those words again, to have the courage and humility to accept them as the truth and to live at all times in the joy that comes from accepting them.
*In the Second World War, Tony Clark was commanding an artillery battery and was ordered to shell San Sepulchro. Fortunately he knew about the priceless mural in the town and disobeying orders, refused to shell the town, which had in any case been evacuated by the retreating Germans. There is a street in the town named after him.
On Good Friday the children met for some Easter Activities and decorated the hillside and tomb to celebrate the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
On Easter Sunday the Tomb was lit up to show that Jesus had risen from the dead.