Bearing Witness to the Resurrection

Sermon Preached at Saint Paul’s Lorrimore Square, Walworth, London. Easter Day, 27th March 2016

1 Corinthians 15:9-26
John 20: 1-18

2016-03-27 11.24.202016-03-27 11.24.53

The Risen Christ in Glory. Freda Skinner, 1960. Lime wood. St Paul’s, Lorrimore Square, London.

On a good day you could say that women are more equal now than ever before. In the past few decades we’ve had an Equal Pay Act, statutory maternity leave, a female prime minister. And maybe later this year there’ll be a woman as president of the United States – maybe. Also, of course, in our own Church of England we’ve seen first women priests, and more recently women Bishops. And you’re now blessed here at St Paul’s to have a woman as Priest-in-Charge. That wouldn’t have been possible 25 years ago…

But then, just when you think the whole equality thing is going pretty well, along comes a guy like Raymond Moore to remind you that there’s still a fair bit of old-fashioned sexism out there. Raymond Moore is the former director of the Indian Wells tennis tournament, who last week suggested that female tennis players should be paid less than men. Never mind that women in major tournaments have been paid equally for a number of years: Mr. Moore wanted to set the clock back, and shift women once again to the side-lines.

Well, Raymond Moore did actually resign for making those comments, but 2000 years ago – or even 60 years ago – his attitude would have passed for normal. Back in first century Palestine especially – when Jesus walked the earth – the place of women was very different from what it is in the West today. There was no prospect of their leading a country, or working on a par with men; no chance that they would be a priest in the temple or a Rabbi in the synagogue. In fact, the religious culture of the time meant that their testimony in a court of law was worth far less than a man’s – and a famous Rabbi’s daily prayer gave thanks to God that he was not born a woman. Women got less inheritance, less education, less opportunity all round back then.

So it’s pretty amazing – pretty staggering -that the first witness to the greatest event in human history -the resurrection of Jesus from the dead – should be a woman. As our Gospel reading from John 20 makes clear, it was Mary Magdalene who came earliest to the tomb of Jesus that first Easter morning; Mary Magdalene who first saw the stone rolled away; Mary Magdalene who ran and told Peter and John about it; Mary Magdalene who first laid eyes on the risen Jesus, and Mary Magdalene who then announced to the other disciples, “I have seen the Lord!” It really is quite astonishing.

This is the Mary Magdalene who’d had seven devils cast out of her (Luke 8:2). Not only was she a woman; she’d been a demoniac, too.Talk about a recipe for marginalisation in the ancient world. And yet Mary was chosen by God to be the prime witness to the start of a whole new future – a whole new world.

The resurrection is the greatest of all miracles, but it’s something of a miracle in itself that Mary should be chosen for this crucial role. At a time when society devalued her witness, God called her to bear witness first that Christ is risen – that he is risen indeed. Alleluia!

But now let’s fast forward a bit – to 1960…

By 1960, gender discrimination might not have been as great as it was in Jesus’ day, but it was still pretty rife. For instance, it was very unusual then for a woman to make a career in the field of sculpture; and even rarer still for a woman to become director of sculpture in an art school. Yet Freda Skinner was no ordinary woman. At the age of seven she began modelling in clay, and by the time she was 11 she knew that sculpture would be her life’s vocation. By 17 she’d gained a place at the Royal College of Art, where she studied under the famous male sculptors Henry Moore and Alan Durst. After the Second World War she stood out in a male-dominated art scene to be appointed Head of Sculpture at the Wimbledon School of Art. As well as being a great teacher, Freda flourished in her own sculpting – winning a number of prestigious commissions, including a war memorial in Battersea parish church and a Virgin and Child at St Elphege, Wallington. But as many of you know, perhaps her greatest commission was the magnificent lime wood carving towering above us here now: her ‘Risen Christ in Glory’, which she completed and installed in this chancel in 1960.

In their different ways, then, both Mary Magdalene and Freda Skinner bore witness to the resurrection. Both understood its massive, cosmic significance; its eternal power; its importance for anyone who’s ever wondered what God is like, what life means, and whether hope might lie beyond the grave.

In verse 2 of John 20 Mary dashes off to Peter and John, unable to contain her shock and mounting agitation that something awful – or maybe something awesome – has happened around that rolled-away stone. In verse 13 she weeps because she doesn’t know what it might all mean. Yet in verse 18, having met and eventually recognized her resurrected Lord, she proclaims the best of all the good news that Jesus brings. Death is defeated! Evil is conquered! Sin really is forgiven! And eternal life truly is available to those who trust and believe in Christ.

It would take a while for Mary to process all of this, but 30 years or so later St Paul would sum it up eloquently, in our Epistle for this morning from 1 Corinthians 15. Jesus’s resurrection that first Easter dawn was the foretaste of a new creation, the guarantee of salvation, the ground of our future hope of communion with God for ever. And then, 19 centuries after Mary and Paul, Freda Skinner brilliantly captured all of that excitement and wonder and promise and grace in this extraordinary carving – this extraordinary witness to the risen Jesus.

In verse 17 of our gospel reading, Jesus tells Mary, ‘“Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God’.”’ At this point, just after his resurrection, Jesus is between earth and heaven. Rising from the dead is staggering enough, but for Jesus it’s a step on the way back to his beloved Father, to a place of glory, to a rule and a reign or over the whole universe that means fear and hatred, discrimination and terror, evil and injustice, will never have the last word. A glorious Lordship which means that however dreadful, outrages like the one we saw in Brussels this week will not win the day, will not extinguish the light of life, and hope, and truth. Alleluia!

Freda Skinner’s great work here above us understands all this very well. It’s called ‘The Risen Christ in Glory’ because it recognizes that even in the dawn of his rising, Jesus was on his way back to the Father, and to the realm of the Father; that he was preparing for his ascension 40 days later; that he was, indeed, between earth and heaven – straddling the two, linking the two, and pointing to an eternity which John would go on to define as ‘a new heaven and new earth’.

So in the sculpture you’ll notice that Jesus is looking upwards, towards the place he will occupy at God’s right hand, from where he will direct the nations – readying himself to judge and to bless them at the end of the age. He’s wearing a crown to denote his authority as King of kings and Lord of lords. Yet even as he looks above and looks ahead to his glorious reign, there are reminders that he lived and died as a man on earth – as Jesus of Nazareth, fully human and fully embodied. Tempted in every way as we are, except for sin. Moved by suffering. Acquainted with grief. Wracked with pain in Gethsemane and on Calvary. Echoing the Psalmist’s cry on the point of death: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” And notice that the crown is sharply pointed – a subtle reference back, perhaps, to the crown of thorns forced onto his head as he was mocked and humiliated prior to his execution. Notice, too, that the shadows of his nailed wrists and feet are still there on the cross behind him: reminders that he really did suffer, really did die. And see how while he’s focused on ‘things above’, he still has a clearly human body – a recognisable physical form. How he’s still ‘one of us’, still representing our humanity to God and God to our humanity. He’s not a ghost here; not a phantom. He remains Jesus, son of his mother Mary, while also glorified as Son of God.

Sure, the body Jesus has after his resurrection is transformed. Sure, this other Mary – Mary Magdalene – doesn’t recognise him at first because the divine Spirit that conceived him and that animates him has become so much more apparent, so much more overwhelming, since he’s conquered the tomb. But she does come to recognise him, and when she does it’s with the decidedly human name of Rabbouni – teacher.

So the risen Jesus still identifies with us here and now – still embodies God’s love for us as we are, today. Yet as he said to Mary, and as Freda Skinner’s sculpture testifies so powerfully, he’s also pointing us towards a greater future – a renewed and restored world in which death and mourning and crying will be no more – inviting us to a great banquet in which the last will be first and the first last. A banquet in which all – male and female, slave and free, Jew and Gentile – will truly be one in him if they put their faith and hope in him.

In a few moments we will look forward to that great banquet of love as we share in our Easter Day Holy Communion. But as we eat broken bread and drink wine outpoured, we will also remember his sacrifice for us in death, just as Freda Skinner’s ‘Risen Christ in Glory’ reminds us of his pierced hands and feet, even as he ascends to his Father and our Father, to rule in majesty forever.

And as we share in Communion, like Mary Magdalene, like Peter and John and Paul, and like Freda Skinner in her wonderful wood carving, we are also called to witness. To tell the good news that Jesus is risen for us, for others, and for the world.

So as you receive from this table, can I encourage you to pray. Pray for faith, both individually as a church, to make Jesus’ risen life real for this parish, and this community, in your words and in your deeds. To make the great message of our Gospel and Epistle, the message of this sculpture, your message: that Christ has died and Christ is risen; that Christ is reigning in glory and will come again in glory. And that because he is risen and reigning in glory there is hope for our hurting world. Alleluia!

David Hilborn

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