Where is everybody?
This year, due to the restrictions that have been put in place to slow the spread of the COVID-19 virus, our journey through Holy week and our Easter celebrations have been very different to anything that most of us have experienced before.
Normally, we would expect to see our churches fuller than usual, and we expect a level of familiarity with the way it all comes together. This year, that’s not the case. Instead, here at St. Mary’s, a small team of church workers has been working with me to find new ways for us join together in worship and to maintain contact with each other, whilst, at the same time, being physically apart. I am very grateful for all their efforts.
Some of you will be feeling the effects of isolation more than others. Some of you will feel frightened, or at least concerned, that when you do go out, you run the risk of catching the virus, with all that that entails. Others are having to adjust to new ways of working or having no work at all. In a very short space of time, our lives have been massively disrupted, and it’s not easy to make sense of.
This year we hear the resurrection accounts from the gospels of John and Matthew at our Easter Vigil and Easter Day services respectively. I’m struck by the similarities of our situation today compared with what they describe. This year our churches will be empty, except for a very small number of people who are authorised to live-stream a service. In the same way, the gospels tell us that no crowds had gathered to celebrate Jesus’ resurrection on that first Easter morning. In fact, the crowds that turned out to greet Jesus with shouts of Hosanna when he entered Jerusalem at the beginning of the week, had turned on him just a few days later and condemned him as a criminal. Then they mocked him as he hung dying on the cross. The people who gathered on that first Easter day were probably less in number than we’re currently allowed in church for live-streaming purposes. John tells us there was a woman and two men; Matthew tells us there were two women. Whatever the reality, it is clear that it was only a very small group of people who were the first witnesses to the resurrection.
So, where were the rest of the disciples? They had locked themselves away; they had isolated themselves out of fear for their safety. They were confused, hurt, and mourning the loss they had experienced two days earlier. They were unsure of what the future held, and unable to imagine their lives ever returning to normal. Today, all over the world, people are isolated, keeping their distance from others. Many are afraid. Many are confused. Many are in mourning. Many have realised that the world has changed and when this is all over, a new normal will emerge.
Towards the end of Lent, I spoke in one of my sermons about disruption being transformational. For the time being, at least, we may not be able to do what we have always done in the past, but we are finding new ways to be the church, and these new ways are helping us to reach new people. This Easter, it is worth reflecting on the fact that God has never promised that our worship services would always be the same, or that our churches would be overflowing with people, neither are we promised secure finances, guaranteed good health, or that our lives and future will unfold as we would like them to. God – in and through the incarnate, crucified, and risen Christ – has never promised us any of that. Rather, at the heart of the Gospel is the promise that God is both with us and for us at all times and through all conditions. In sorrow or joy, triumph or tragedy, gain or loss, peace or fear, scarcity or plenty, God is present.
In another recent sermon, I asked where God is in the current crisis. God meets us where we need God most: in hardship, struggle, loss, and death. Because of the cross, no experience, no matter how difficult or awful, and no person, no matter how sinful or lost, is God forsaken, because God is always where we most need God to be. In the resurrection, God promises that all the harsh realities of this life – hardship, struggle, loss, fear, disease, hunger, death – do not have the last word. Rather the resurrection promises that God’s light is more powerful than darkness, that God’s love is stronger than hate, and that the life God offers through Christ prevails over all things, even death itself.
In John’s account of the resurrection I am struck by what Jesus says to Mary. He simply calls her by name. “Mary,” he says, and suddenly she sees and believes and trusts, and is brought to new life. In that moment, it became clear to Mary that Jesus was there for her and that he had not abandoned her. In fact, by calling her by her name, it was clear that Mary’s relationship with Jesus was to continue now that he had risen from the grave. So it is for us too, God is there for us in the midst of all that’s going on around us, God wants to be in an ongoing relationship with us, and God continues to call us by name.
In Matthew’s account, we hear those reassuring words – “Do not be afraid!” – and then we hear the statement: “He is not here.” The tomb could not contain Jesus, and neither do our church buildings. Jesus goes ahead of us, inviting us to encounter him in meeting the needs of our neighbours and in our care for one another and the world. Jesus is inviting us to move both forward and outward in faith and wants us to know that he will be with us always, even to the end of the age.
This Easter, Jesus is calling us to life...but maybe not life as we have historically known it. Those isolated and frightened disciples went on to be commissioned by Jesus to continue his work in the world, and I think it’s fair to say that they had a dramatic impact that has lasted for generations. The Christians of this generation are called to continue that work today.
As we once again contemplate the gospel accounts of the resurrection and the way in which the lives of that small group of frightened and isolated disciples were transformed… to the extent that they subsequently went on to change the world… we need to realise that this time of isolation for us not just about surviving, it’s also an opportunity for us to flourish, if we are prepared to reimagine what it means to be a follower of Jesus today. Who knows? We might just change the world again.
Wherever you are today, whoever you are with today, I wish you every blessing for Easter.
Christ is risen! Alleluia!