Diocese of Chichester

Bishop Martin's Easter sermon

Bishop Martin's Easter sermon delivered at Chichester Cathedral on Easter Sunday.

On 31 mar 2024

In Diocese of Chichester

By comms

When was the last time you ran towards your destination because you couldn’t wait to get there?

For me, I think it was in Italy, in the early years of this century.I was running for a train that would take me to Rome.I caught the train.Unfortunately it went to Milan.

There is not a lot of running in the gospels: the pace is rather more exploratory, leading from Galilee to Jerusalem where the drama of redemption is to be played out. This journey could not be rushed because there is much to learn on the way.

But when people do run, it’s a sign that something profound and significant is happening.

In the gospel of Mark, when Jesus gets out of the boat on the far side of the sea of Galilee, in the land of the Gerasenes, a man possessed by mental illness sees him and runs directly towards a person he instinctively knows will engage with his torment.And when Luke recounts the story of the prodigal son, it is the elderly father who runs towards the boy he thought he’d lost, in order to welcome him back to life.

Matthew and Mark both note that as Jesus is about to die, someone runs to get him a drink of vinegar, so that one final detail of the Old Testament could be fulfilled: ‘And when I was thirsty they gave me vinegar to drink’ (Ps 69.21).

When Jesus was arrested and condemned to death, the disciples ran away, fulfilling the prophecy of Zachariah, ‘I shall strike the shepherd and the sheep will be scattered’. (Mark 14.27)Peter, protests but ultimately he also runs, like the others.

Now something else is happening which disturbs the protocols of death: Mary Magdalen reports that the body has been taken away.Peter sets out, John follows him, and together they run to the place that will forever constitute the emblem of Christian faith: the empty tomb.

It is an enigmatic destination.It doesn’t immediately reveal how death has been defeated by love, how God the creator has recreated humanity in the likeness and glory of God, or how the reality of life is restored in Jesus after he had been tortured and executed by crucifixion.

In this solemn Eucharist, our proclamation of the resurrection will include a solemn procession to the font. That procession moves with the momentum of the gospel story as it leads us to the font, where the themes of death and new life are intertwined.

Some of the earliest Christian churches give as much dignity to the font and place of baptism as they do to the altar.In Italy there are famous baptisteries in Parma, Pisa, Ravenna and, perhaps most glorious of all, in Florence, where glittering mosaics narrate the story of creation, its damage by human pride and disobedience, and restoration to new dignity by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

In these baptisteries, the font is 8 sided, representing eternity: the 7 days of creation and the 8th day, Easter Sunday, the first day of a new history in which the risen Lord Jesus Christ reveals the new creation, humanity perfected.

We have the details of the celebration of Easter in Rome from the 5th century onwards.The successor of Peter and Bishop of Rome, the Pope, celebrated the vigil in the Lateran Basilica, which is still the Pope’s cathedral.This included a procession, but unlike ours, it was between the cathedral and the font in the 5th century baptistery, a separate building, next to the cathedral.

The blessing of the water in the font ritually enacted God’s work of creation.The bishop parted the water with his hand, making the sign of the cross, imitating the hovering of the Spirit over the watery chaos as the Word of God speaks and says, ‘Let there be…’ Water was thrown to the four corners of the world, as a reminder of the rivers of the earth that flowed out of Eden, and foreshadowing the image of the waters that flow from the temple, in the book of the prophet Ezekiel, and in the Revelation of St John: these are the waters that bring healing to the nations.

In this ritual, water is the source of all life.This is like the water that is offered to the Samaritan woman at the well.As John’s gospel records it, her life seems to be a living death of social marginalisation and abuse.Jesus offers her ‘a spring of water, welling up to eternal life’.

The encounter is a baptismal one.This beloved daughter of God is born again into the society from which she had been shunned, and she becomes an evangelist whose testimony leads others to say of Jesus, ‘This is truly the Saviour of the world’.

When Pope Sixtus rebuilt the Lateran Baptistery in around 440, he had these words inscribed above the font: ‘Here is born a people of noble race, destined for Heaven, whom the Spirit brings forth in the waters he has made fruitful. Mother Church conceives her offspring by the breath of God, and bears them virginally in this water.’

The font is like the womb from which new life emerges on this day.We shall make our way to that arena of new birth in stately procession, perhaps very aware of age, infirmity and the incapacity to run anywhere, even if we wanted to.But here is the miracle of this day: all of us, irrespective of age, are transformed by power of the resurrection.We become the athletes of God, with the breath of God within us, giving to these mortal bodies immortal dignity and an incredible sense of freedom and joy.Nothing can impede our faith, no one can exhaust our hope or diminish our joy.In the renewal of our baptism by sprinkling with water from this font we emerge with Jesus Christ from the tomb of decay and into the fulfilment of the prophecy of Isaiah, ‘They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; they shall walk, and not faint.’ (Is 40.31)

Today is the day for setting aside our physical limitations; it is the day for running in mind and spirit, to greet the risen Lord, and it is the day for running with wild excitement to say to others that Jesus Christ has conquered death and sin, and, yes, ‘I have seen the Lord’.

Early in our history, in the fourth century, the historian Eusebius wrote about an elderly woman from Yorkshire whose determination to see where the Lord was born and died and was buried, took her to the desolation that Jerusalem had become.‘Though advanced in years,’ wrote Eusebius, ‘yet gifted with no common degree of wisdom, she hastened with youthful alacrity to survey this venerable land’.Indeed, she was instrumental in finding the site of the crucifixion and of the tomb, where they are still venerated in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.That elderly woman, Helena, was an evangelist whose faith transformed the Roman world, as her Christian example brough her son, the emperor Constantine, to recognition of Jesus Christ as Lord.Let us, in our own day, claim all the powers of the risen Lord, to celebrate his resurrection, and in the power of the Spirit he bequeaths to us, to introduce our family, our friends, this generation into the peace and the joy that he promises all people and especially those, in Gaza and Israel and Ukraine, in whose suffering and anguish we see the likeness of his wounded but risen body.

So let us proclaim, Alleluia, Christ is risen!He is risen indeed. Alleluia!

Image: Noli Me Tangere (Touch me not) is the title of a painting by Graham Sutherland (1903-1980) displayed on the altar of the Mary Magdalene Chapel at the south-eastern corner of the Cathedral.