Scripture Readings: John 20:1-18
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
You couldn’t miss the story of the fire at Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris, during this Holy Week. Thankfully, no-one was hurt in Paris, but much worse has happend this morning in Sri Lanka, where many people seem to have been killed and injured in terrorist attacks on hotels, and on churches where people were gathering for Easter Sunday. The people of Sri Lanka really need our prayers today.
In Paris, the damage to Notre Dame wasn’t quite as extensive as the images of the roof ablaze on Monday night first suggested. Those pictures of that great roof on fire were heart rending, but I’m sure many of you, like me, were struck by the images we saw of the inside of the building after the fire; above all, those pictures which showed the great gold cross above the altar, apparently unharmed, amid the rubble, soot and ashes of destruction.
For many of us, that’s an image which will resonate, because in many ways that’s how we think about the cross of Jesus Christ. In a world of darkness, despair and destruction, a world in which all human achievement often collapses into dirt and ashes, the cross of Christ stands as a potent symbol. A symbol of love, in a loveless world. A symbol of hope, when hope has gone. A symbol of light in dark times. A symbol of the presence of God even in worst places of the world. The gold cross in the darkness was an amazing image to appear on newspaper front pages across the world in this Holy Week- an incredible visual metaphor for the Gospel of the cross.
Already, thoughts have turned to rebuilding Notre Dame. And many commentators have recalled that the rebuilding of the church would be a reminder of the Christian faith in resurrection. As the church was destroyed during Holy Week, so it will, we hope rise of the ashes- another metaphor for Christian belief. For it is certainly true that we who believe in the resurrection of Christ certainly believe that other resurrections are possible: that something good can rise from the ashes of disaster.
On this Easter Sunday, then, I could talk to you about how about how the rebuilding of Notre Dame might be like resurrection of Christ. But instead, I’d like to remind you of how the rebuilding of a cathedral is not like the resurrection of Christ. What happened at the first Easter was a unique event, unlike any other event before or since. And that’s the secret of its power.
The fire at Notre Dame was a worldwide media phenomenon, which happened in the centre of one of the world’s great cities. But the Easter event took place in a city which, two thousand years ago was for most people merely the administrative capital of a province of an empire centred on Rome- a bit of a backwater, really. And the events of Easter didn’t happen in the centre of that city, with crowds gathering to watch. It happened in an obscure part of the city, a burial place, outside the city walls, in the early gloaming of dawn. The President of France cancelled an important broadcast to his people to go to see Notre Dame. The first Easter involved only a few close friends of Jesus.
The discovery that something had happened was made by one of the women who followed Jesus. As John the Gospel writer tells the story, Mary Magdalene has gone to the tomb to find the stone covering the entrance has been moved. So she goes to fetch Peter and another disciple, the ‘beloved’ disciple, traditionally thought to be John. The two disciples examine the burial shroud, trying to make sense of what has happened. Peter doesn’t quite get it yet; John sees and believes (because faith works in different ways with different people!). Meanwhile, Mary, outside the tomb, has an encounter with the risen Christ: she recognises him when he says her name. Soon she will go on to recount the story to the other friends of Jesus.
Women, fishermen, ordinary folks who had known Jesus: these are the ones who first know that Christ is risen. There are many wealthy companies and individuals lining up to pay for the rebuilding of Notre Dame; but the resurrection of Christ was something which ordinary folk discovered. Easter took place out of the public eye, in an obscure part of a not very important city. It would be up to those ordinary folk to take the message to the world- a message which would change the course of history.
Churches and cathedrals are constantly being destroyed and rebuilt. We sometimes think that they have always been the way they are, but that’s because we are often used to buildings like St Stephen’s, which hasn’t been there very long, and hasn’t been changed very much. At Old High, we have better sense of how a house of God might have been adapted over the years. The current building is largely a rebuilding done in the 18th century, after the building had fallen into disrepair, having been used as a prison after the Battle of Culloden. The oldest part is the lower part of the tower, which I am told must be mediaeval. But we think there has been a place of worship on the site since Columba’s day- but there is no trace of anything that far back to be seen today.
Our buildings are a bit of a metaphor for the history of the Church, with all its ups and downs. Notre Dame was turned into a temple for the religion of the Supreme Being which was invented to supplant Christianity after the French revolution- later it was used, I believe, as a grain store, and had to be restored in the 19th century to bring it back into use as a Christian church. As we see buildings going out of use as places of worship, and also see new buildings coming into use as houses of God, perhaps we should remember that it was ever thus. The history of the Church is full of old ways dying to make room for new ways to rise.
I have just spent a week among the abbeys of the Borders. It needs a lot of imagination to realise just how important the great churches of Melrose, Kelso or Dryburgh once were. In their heyday, they not only dominated the landscape, but also the social and economic life of their surroundings. And, of course, they were great powerhouses of prayer and piety. Yet, with the Reformation came new ways of thinking about the Gospel, which changed how people thought about Christ, God and worship. The great abbeys became redundant, as worship moved from being a preserve of a few to the concern of the whole people of God. Those abbey ruins are what remains of a way of life, a kind of spirituality, which had to die to allow the rising of a new kind of worship, in buildings better suited to the Reformed understanding that a Gospel in which the Gospel of the resurrection would be preached to folk in a new way.
And where historic churches have been rebuilt, it is often on the site and using parts of something which was there already. Coventry has a modern cathedral, which is well worth visiting; it was built after the ancient cathedral was destroyed in World War 2. But it incorporate some of the ruins of the old building. That’s what will happen with Notre Dame. There is hope for Notre Dame, because these is still much that is intact. That’s what has happened to the Old High, that’s what’s happened to many churches down through the centuries: they have been rebuilt, remodelled, changed with the times, on the basis of something which remained.
But when Mary walked to the graveyard that first Easter morning, there was nothing to build on. For Jesus was dead. His life had been extinguished. You can restore a ruin, but you cannot bring a person back to life. Notre Dame will have new life when they replace the roof and clean things up. But Jesus had been nailed to a cross for hours, until he mumbled, ‘It is finished’- and it was finished- his life was extinguished, all hope was gone.
All that remained was to give him a decent burial. And with the end of his life came also the end of all the hopes he had engendered. On Palm Sunday, they people had welcomed him as a king. When he died, it seems most of his friends fled. John’s Gospel tells us that those who remained gathered behind locked doors, afraid of the religious authorities. Of course, some of us survive in the memories of those who loved us; but eventually they die, too. Few people after a generation or two. We know absolutely nothing of the vast majority of those who have lived and died during human history. We know about Julius Caesar, but even the names of 99% of the ordinary foot soldiers he sent into battle are entirely lost to us.
Jesus’ execution by the Romans was meant to end his life, and his movement. And it ought to have succeeded. Following his crucifixion, Jesus would have been lucky to be a footnote in the history books – another rebel crushed by the Romans superpower, who’d be fortunate if his name was remembered.
He was judicially murdered in a backwater of a great Empire. He was buried in an out of town graveyard. There was nothing really left to build a legacy on. And yet some very ordinary folk became convinced he was alive. But even the no doubt passionate faith of his followers shouldn’t really have been enough for Jesus to leave a legacy. There have been plenty of other religious teachers down through the ages, men and women who once fired up evangelical fervour among their followers, but who are now more or less forgotten. It’s almost as much a miracle as his coming back to life that the message of Jesus’ resurrection, preach first by women and fishermen, should have gone round the world, and has brought us and millions of other to churches today, two thousand years later. The resurrection of Jesus is an impossible, once in history, event. It can only have been a miracle of extraordinary power. It is a true resurrection from nothing, much greater than anything else which we might think of as a resurrection (like, say the rebuilding of a fire ravaged church building).
I was taken aback earlier this week when I read that a priest had gone into the burning Notre Dame building to rescue some of its most important artefacts, including a relic venerated as the crown of thorns from Jesus’ crucifixion. As a good Protestant, I don’t really understand that sort of thing: but I once stumbled into a Holy Week service at Notre Dame, when the supposed crown of thorns was displayed, and I could see how an object like that could bring some people to reflect on the love of God which we see in the suffering of Jesus Christ. Yet when I heard that someone had risked their life to rescue the artefact, I did wonder what kind of a person would do that.
And then, later in the week, I read that Father Jean-Marc Fournier, who had rescued the crown of thorns, was a fire brigade chaplain. Four years ago, he had risked his life entering another building in the course of his duties. Ninety people had just been killed by terrorist bombs and bullets at the Bataclan concert hall in Paris, but he went in to tend to the wounded and the dying, even although he must have known that it might still have been dangerous to do so. And Father Fournier had been in dangerous situations, serving as a chaplain alongside soldiers in Afghanistan. There are some people in my line of work, people who minister in situations which I cannot imagine, people who do ministry in ways that leaves me in awe. And now, Father Fournier is one of those people.
For this is power of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Easter has created people who are not afraid to look death in the face, people who stand alongside their fellow men and women in the depths of despair and in the darkest, most dangerous situations, because that is what Jesus Christ did. Easter has created people who bring compassion and hope and love and care, people who are like gold shining in our dark world, a world in which eveil still happens, and innocents die, as has happend in Sri Lanka this morning. Easter has created people who live out the faith that Christ died for the world, and has risen again in glory. That is the promise and hope which the very first Easter set loose in the world!
Ascription of Praise
The Lord has risen: he is risen indeed!
Amen, and thanks be to God.
Biblical references from the Good News Bible, unless otherwise stated
© 2019 Peter W Nimmo
 John 20.19