Resurrection beyond our dying but also in our earthly lives

Peter Seal, 21 April 2019

Acts 10: 34–43; John 20: 1–18

Two thirds of planet earth is covered in water. If we were in outer space looking down, we know that the colour we would see is blue. The extraordinary television series Blue Planet, with its commentary by the modern day prophet David Attenborough, is helping us learn so much about the life of our oceans. These programmes are giving us a new way of seeing, and that is what this Easter Sunday is all about.

If you’re good at painting or drawing, then now is your moment to use your imagination. If like me you have no skill with pencil or brush, imagine that suddenly you find you have hidden abilities … And now, as we sit, each with our piece of paper, and using every shade of colour under the sun, we are invited to draw or paint the most fantastic sea creature we can possibly imagine. No holds barred. We can be totally wild in what we create.

What emerges is truly fantastic – we say to ourselves, ‘There’s no way such a creature could ever exist, let alone be alive today’. And then, as we watch an edition of Blue Planet and see what is being discovered, and those indescribably wonderful, beautiful, strange and odd sea creatures, we realise that our personal creation, or something equally amazing, actually, really does exist.

The natural world as revealed to us by the Blue Planet series has the potential to blow our minds. What seemed beyond imagination turns out to exist.

The waters of our world – be they sea, lake, river, waterfall, pond or garden feature – have a way of drawing us to them. We know that water features in the gospel stories of Jesus: baptised in the River Jordan; turning water into wine at Cana; teaching from a boat to gain a little distance from the crowd; walking on water; stilling a lake storm; encouraging his disciples to cast their nets again for a catch of fish; and then in this Easter season a barbeque breakfast by the lakeside.

So, water and all that it enables, both on its surface and in the deepest deeps, gives us a powerful visual theme this Easter morning. Our imaginations are stretched, and then our perception of reality enlarged; we begin to see in a new way.

The great theme of resurrection – that is, of new and renewed life – is as relevant for each of our earthly lives as it is to the radically new life beyond our dying.

Blue Planet gives us another story and another picture. It reveals that many of the exquisitely beautiful coral reefs are diminishing in size, with the consequent loss of sea life.

But then, there’s a different picture, deep in the sea: many years ago, a huge wooden ship had sunk and was in an advanced state of decay. It is now filled with many beautiful fish and other sea creatures. It is fast becoming, in its own way, a sort of new coral reef.

Here’s the great paradigm that we celebrate today. Loss, and then new life. Death and then resurrection.

The loss of a ship and probably human life too: death. And now, new life that no-one could ever have imagined, let alone predicted, a modern-day coral reef: resurrection.

Let’s move from water to fire – the fire at Notre Dame earlier this week. In a recent sermon Bishop Nick of Salisbury asks why this fire ‘had so much impact, not just on a largely secular and anti-clerical France but on the whole of western Europe and the wider world? Notre Dame was’, he says, ‘so much more than a great visitor attraction or an iconic building in the middle of one of the world’s great cities. There is something about great religious buildings representing our beliefs and values to us.’

Stone and wood and glass signal the presence of God. A lofty, calm, beautiful church interior makes a difference: it reminds us about life beyond our own concerns; it humbles us, and draws our vision away from ourselves.

Notre Dame, cathedral churches like Winchester, this church, any church, are places where we find ourselves in relation to God and one another and all creation.

Notre Dame, cathedral churches like Winchester, this church, any church, are places where we find ourselves in relation to God and one another and all creation.

Bishop Nick again: ‘To see such an important symbol burn shakes us at a time of les gilets jaunes; or anxiety about Brexit and the political processes falling apart; or the climate emergency in which we are not sure whether we have so mucked things up that our selfishness and greed has already damaged the earth for our children’s children. A burning Notre Dame suggests it’s all going up in smoke.’

He continues: ‘Actually, most people know that the Church holds something important for the world in these difficult times. That’s why the fabric of Notre Dame needs repairing quickly. The building is about our beliefs and values based on our relationships with God and one another.’

Fire is a recurrent theme in our Bible: the burning bush; the fiery furnace; the flames of Pentecost. There was a fire here at St Paul’s last night …

Don’t worry, it wasn’t in the building, but just outside the main doors. It was lit deliberately and for a purpose. I’m referring, of course, to what’s known as the Easter fire.

A small group of us gathered here last evening as it got dark. We made the liturgical transition from the darkness of Good Friday and Jesus’ death on Calvary to the discovery of the empty tomb and the beginning of our Easter celebrations. The Easter fire is key to this. It represents the failure to extinguish Jesus, the Light of the World. It also recalls something homelier: the fire that the risen Christ kindled on the shoreline to cook fish before his bewildered disciples.

From the Easter fire we lit the great Easter candle, which today stands beside the Easter garden with its empty tomb. For us it’s a sign and a symbol. The Easter candle is lit each Sunday during the 50 days of Eastertide, and then the fire spreads on the day of Pentecost, symbolising the Holy Spirit. The Easter candle is also lit throughout the year at joyous baptisms and the sadness of funerals – always a sign and symbol of new life and resurrection.

In conclusion, this Easter Sunday: first the blue planet, which stretches our imaginations, challenging us to see in a new way; and secondly, the power of fire, which symbolises new Easter life.