Bishop Paul’s Easter Sermon in Southwell Minster

Easter Sunday in Southwell Minster 31st March 2022

Acts 10:34-43 and John 20:1-18

In his classic tale, The Hobbit, Tolkein writes, “There is nothing like looking, if you want to find something. You certainly usually find something, if you look, but it is not always quite the something you were after.” That was certainly true for Mary Magdalene that Easter morning. 

“Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?’ Supposing him to be the gardener, she said, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Mary!’ 

With that single word the search was over, the despair was gone, the mystery of the ages unfolding before her eyes. In no time at all Mary was with the other disciples announcing, ‘I have seen the Lord!’

There has never been an announcement with more far reaching implications for humanity than those few simple words, spoken from a heart that had been flooded with irrepressible hope. 

We are here this morning because of that announcement. This Minster and its long history are the consequence of what happened that first Easter. It is why the church exists. Jesus Christ is risen and therefore Jesus Christ is Lord! He has defeated the power of sin and death once and for all. That’s why this is such a joyful morning.

Yet we celebrate in the shadow of so many terrible atrocities across our world, inflicting such unspeakable suffering and grief: in Israel and Gaza, in Sudan, in Ukraine, and in countless other places that never make the headlines. Nearer to home, the cost of living crisis and the strain on public services, continues to affect many, especially those who are most vulnerable and in need. 

So how do we celebrate the joy and hope of this day in a way that is properly grounded in the realities our world is facing? And how does it address the pain and struggle that we encounter in our lives on an intensely personal level? Sometimes that may come out of nowhere, as the King and the Princess of Wales have spoken about so courageously in recent weeks. 

Princess Catherine concluded her video message by very movingly telling all those affected by cancer: “…please do not lose faith or hope. You are not alone.”

And this goes right to the heart of the human predicament, not that we can avoid facing suffering or come to terms with our mortality, but in order to keep going we need to know we are not alone and there is hope. This need and longing are not a sign of weakness but a reminder that we are made for relationship and designed to live with hope. 

This is why our Easter faith shouldn’t be confined to a national religious festival on one day of the year or belong only to those who are spiritually inclined. This is public knowledge – containing Good News for everyone. And the Church is at its best when it is making this real at the point of need, whatever form that need takes: announcing it with same clarity as Mary did to the disciples: ‘Jesus Christ is risen.’

There are two essential features to this resurrection hope.

First there is the Personal Wonder

Everything about Mary’s experience of the risen Christ is deeply personal. Her announcement is not formulaic, she says simply, ‘I have seen the Lord!’

The writer Eugene Peterson puts it like this, “It is not easy to convey a sense of wonder, let alone resurrection wonder. It’s the very nature of wonder to catch us off guard, to circumvent expectations and assumptions. Wonder can’t be packaged, and it can’t be worked up. It requires some sense of being there and some sense of engagement.” The Gospel writers take us there. And the Holy Spirit can open our hearts to the wonder of it all.

For Mary the moment of wonder is when she meets the risen Jesus, first thinking he is the gardener, until he addresses her by name. Something in his voice instantly catches her attention. This is the moment her ears and eyes are opened. Her search is over. John records Jesus saying earlier in his Gospel that ‘the good shepherd calls his own sheep by name, they know his voice and he leads them out’. Jesus now leads Mary Magdalene out of her grief and despair into the bright dawn of a new age, where death has been defeated and hope will truly spring eternal. 

This is our Easter faith: Jesus knows us personally. He knows all about your fears, your moments of despair, and the losses you bear. And he calls us by name, often in ways that surprise us or when we least expect. The cross and resurrection of Jesus are about the restoration of relationship and the wonder of knowing God, in this life and for all eternity.

Then a second feature of the resurrection hope is Gracious Confidence

When Mary reached the other disciples there is no doubt in her voice. She didn’t say ‘I am fairly certain that I’ve just met Jesus in the garden near the tomb.’ She said ‘I have seen the Lord’.

This is not simply a subjective truth which they are at liberty to accept or reject, this is truth rooted in a transforming experience – Mary has a story to tell. As the apostles were later to say, ‘we can but speak of what we have seen and heard’. This is our story too – the apostolic gospel – and it is a gift we can share with gracious confidence.

On Good Friday, I was with Sarah at St Stephen’s in Sneinton, the church near to the windmill on the east side of the city centre. The doors were open to the community with Easter-themed activities for people of all ages. There was a short time of worship, prayer and reflection on the meaning of the cross. 

Most of those who took part were not regular church goers, but people of different backgrounds and cultures and circumstances who were pleased to be in a place that offered friendship, hospitality and a reason for hope. We felt very blessed to be there in a church that might have been closed a few years ago. 

In all sorts of ways, it has been a costly and yet beautiful story for that church re-growing its ministry these past few years with a core of dedicated people who live locally. This morning they started at 6.30am with a dawn service and right now they are celebrating their Easter Eucharist as we do here. 

That story is repeated in many places around the diocese, some churches reopening altogether, others being strengthened and renewed to help people find faith and hope in Christ, and know they not alone.

There is so much to give thanks for and this Minister has been entrusted with a unique role in celebrating and curating the stories of God at work today. 

140 years ago, this Minster Parish Church became a Cathedral for a new diocese. From that moment on it has had a dual role serving the local community of Southwell while also supporting and praying for the ministry of the Bishop and over 300 parishes that make up the diocese – for the first 50years it included the whole of Derbyshire too. 

I am very grateful for the dedication that generations of worshippers here have given to this calling, and to the Deans and Chapters who’ve served so faithfully. Thank you to Dean Nicola and all you who serve in different ways the ministry of the Cathedral today. I am especially thankful for the leadership of those who have gone before us, particularly for dear George Cassidy, for ten years bishop of this diocese.  

There are many challenges facing our world right now, and our city and county too. You may be facing particular challenges and concerns in your own life at the moment as well. And if you are searching for new meaning, purpose and hope, be assured there is nothing like looking if you want to find something.   

In our hearts, let us turn towards Jesus this morning, as Mary turned towards him in the garden. He knows you and calls you by name, and offers you his living hope. This is not merely wishful thinking but a sure confidence in the goodness, power and wisdom of God who raised Jesus from the dead. He is still ready to be found by those who seek him. And by his Spirit inspire us to announce this same Good News for generations to come: 

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

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