Easter Day Sermon
George Carey, Archbishop of Canterbury
The theme of being overwhelmed is at the heart of the Easter message. The moment we get away from Easter bunnies, Easter bonnets and Easter eggs we are into serious overwhelming. Think of the disciples fleeing from the crucifixion of their friend and fearing for their own lives. Think of their incredulity as the women return from the grave to report that the tomb is open and that two men in white said mysteriously: 'Why are you looking for the living among the dead?' Then the disciples are overwhelmed still more when they realise that the women are not making it up - their dear friend is alive!
I have to say that this theme of being overwhelmed is very relevant at this time. I witnessed a sad scene on television a few weeks ago when a farmer who had lost his entire herd of valuable livestock, reared lovingly over many years, crumpled into tears when a reporter asked that most common of crass-sounding questions: 'How do you feel about it?' He had no words to offer - only a torn expression which signified that he was too overwhelmed to respond. And that sight has been repeated in recent months in many places and many circumstances. Another TV picture springs to mind - this time of a tough-looking retired Yorkshireman who when asked how he felt about having his home flooded yet again was almost too overcome for words.
The drama of Easter speaks into this all too familiar feeling of crises out of control and the feeling that one is all alone and very few people care. We have all been there; we know about it personally - sometimes through the death or suffering of a loved one, sometimes through our own trials, when circumstances seem to deal us one last very bad hand that leaves us numb and
We do not diminish the unique significance of Christ's suffering and death by saying that Good Friday is a day that resonates in the dark passages of most people's journey through life.
And that is reality. Crises which reach the point of overwhelming and breaking point. Some have talked of our recent trials and tribulations as the 'judgement of God'. I resist that notion. For me, they challenge us to understand more deeply not God's judgement, but his love and what that
offers us. And there is no better time to ponder that than at Easter.
In both our readings there is refreshing candour. St Paul sums up the difference which the resurrection-hope makes to us. Without that hope, he tells us, our existence would be sad indeed. 'If it is for this life only that Christ has given us hope, we of all people are most to be pitied.' It
would in that case be much better, as Paul says later, to 'eat and drink'- and, we might add, 'be merry' - because 'tomorrow we die'.
And the Gospel-reading also confronts the problem of faith. The women's testimony is not believed by their male friends. 'The story appeared to them to be nonsense and they would not believe them'. The Greek is very strong. It really means something like: 'they thought it was utter rubbish'.
It is instructive to recall that the first disciples were not expecting the resurrection. They were overwhelmed by death and although Jesus had hinted at the future they were not prepared for the disaster of the crucifixion.
Thus there is a double overwhelming in this story. Listen to Michael Ramsey in his book The Resurrection of Christ - no doubt some of the older members of this congregation may have heard these words from his very own lips: 'We are tempted to believe that, although the resurrection may be the climax of the gospel, there may yet be a gospel that stands upon its own feet and may be understood and appreciated before we pass to the resurrection. The first disciples did not find it so. For them the gospel without the resurrection was not merely a gospel without its final chapter; it was not a gospel at all. Jesus Christ, it is true, had taught and done great things; but he did not allow the disciples to rest in these things. He led them on to paradox, perplexity and darkness and there he left them. There too they would have remained had he not been raised from the dead. But his resurrection threw its own light backwards upon the death and the ministry that went before...It is therefore both historically and theologically necessary to "begin with the resurrection". For from it, in direct order of historical fact, there came Christian preaching, Christian worship and Christian belief.'
And that should be the context for those overwhelmings that come our way: darkness is defeated by the light of the resurrection. Professor David Ford of Cambridge puts it in this way: 'For the first Christians the resurrection of the crucified Jesus was an overwhelming event that filled their lives and their horizons. If Christ was truly risen then everything was different.'
And so it is for Christians who live in his transforming presence - and potentially so for all those who are prepared to look. And many are looking today beyond the noise and confusion of the world and the myriad voices which proclaim answers. They are looking for peace, for meaning, for fulfillment in their lives, for a love they have not tasted, for answers to questions they perhaps have not even framed, for a spiritual home where they may be secure. St Augustine summed up that spiritual quest in those haunting words: 'Our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee.'
I don't think it is too irreverent to contemplate that, perhaps, God too was overwhelmed by that first Easter and sometimes he is overwhelmed by all the sorrow that the human race brings upon itself. William Vanstone offers a wonderful illustration of the pain of God in his book Love's Endeavour, Love's Expense:
'A doctor tells of an operation which as a young student he observed in a London hospital. "It was the first time that this particular brain operation had been carried out in this country. It was performed by one of our leading surgeons on a young man of great promise for whom, after an accident, there seemed no other remedy. It was an operation of the greatest delicacy, in which a small error would have fatal consequences. In the outcome the operation was a triumph; but it involved seven hours of intense and uninterrupted concentration on the part of the surgeon. When it was over, a nurse had to take him by the hand, and lead him from the operating theatre
like a blind man or like a little child."'
'This, one might say, is what self-giving is like; such is the likeness to God wholly given, spent and drained in that sublime self-giving which is the ground and the origin of the universe.'
That is what being overwhelmed means. It is at the heart of what it is to be God and what it is to be truly human.
Easter thus invites us to enter into that overwhelming of God when we realise, perhaps for the very first time, that Easter is not the celebration of a cosy myth or an annual 'rite of passage' which we have to endure to enjoy a holiday - but a real event which is the only reason why the Church is here in the first place.
That is why John Updike's marvellous poem Seven Stanzas at Easter shouts at us: 'If you are going to believe it, then really believe it!' Be overwhelmed by its reality and every other overwhelming - foot and mouth and flooding; personal loss and the suffering of those near to us - can point us on to new life and new hope.
I conclude with the first and the last of Updike's memorable stanzas:
Make no mistake: if He rose at all
it was as His body;
if the cells' dissolution did not reverse, the molecules
reknit, the amino acids rekindle,
the Church will fall.
Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
for our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are
embarrassed by the miracle,
and crushed by remonstrance.
- The Most Reverend George Carey, Archbishop of Canterbury