Readings: Isaiah 26, 1-9,19; Luke 24, 1-12.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.
There was once a wealthy millionaire who held a big party for his friends. In the grounds of his mansion was a swimming pool. During the course of the evening he made an announcement, setting a challenge for his guests. To whoever can swim one length of the pool he would grant anything in his power to give. A simple enough task for such a great reward, his friends thought, until the host added, with a warning, that the swimming pool was also home to his pet shark. Well, nobody ventured in, as you can imagine, for obvious reasons and, as the evening wore on, the millionaire began to give up hope of his challenge being met when, SPLASH! Looking over to the pool, they all saw a figure swimming as fast as he could across the length of the pool with the shark in hot pursuit. The onlookers watched in gripped excitement to see if the anonymous daredevil would make it. The crowd roared with delight when the swimmer finished his length and emerged, unharmed and dripping wet, from the pool.
“Wonderful”, cried the rich man. “I said I would give anything in my power to the man who took up my challenge and succeeded. What do you want?”
“I’ll tell you what I want”, said the wet swimmer, breathing heavily, “I want to know who pushed me in!”
I hope that none of us has had to go through such an ordeal. But even if we have not, we may have found ourselves in new, unusual, unsettling or perhaps scary places. This service marks the beginning of a new term. The observant among you will have noticed that I am not Emma Pennington, Chaplain of Worcester College, but Jonathan Arnold, Emma’s husband and, for this term, Acting Chaplain, whilst Emma is on maternity leave, expecting our second baby in around two weeks – I’ll keep you posted. It is perhaps worth saying at this point that I will be occupying Emma’s room in Nuffield 11, on the same phone line and on Emma’s email, and am happy to talk to anyone at any time about anything.
So, in this Easter season, we are expecting new life; the countryside and gardens are budding with new life as we enter the Trinity Term. It is an exciting time. But along with this newness, excitement and anticipation, comes a certain amount of apprehension, of what will happen over the next few weeks, how is life going to pan out, and how are we going to deal with it, be it tutorials, essays, theses or exams, or whatever makes up our day-to-day lives. How are we, in this family of Worcester College, going to relate to each other? We feel, perhaps, mixed about the future.
There are conflicting emotions reflected in this evening’s readings. A contradiction exists between the truth of God’s action and the human response to it: the fact of Christ’s resurrection, for instance, and the reaction of the women and disciples. Whichever gospel writer relates this story, it is always dramatic because of this inherent juxtaposition of fact and faith.
The shortest and simplest of the gospel resurrection accounts comes from Mark, who has Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Salome encounter the empty tomb. They flee, saying nothing to anyone because they are terrified. In Luke’s account, Salome is replaced with Joanna and there are other women there too. Luke has two men in shining garments explaining the significance of the death and resurrection of the Son of Man, so that the women ca begin to comprehend the incomprehensible. The disciples are incredulous, but Peter, characteristically rushes to the tomb, only to be left with feelings of fear and wonder. In all the gospel accounts, those who encountered the resurrection first hand found it hard to understand.
Indeed it is hard for us to preconceive the afterlife now. A hell and brimstone sermon was once given by a zealous preacher. “In the afterlife there will be wailing and gnashing of teeth” he declared. “Ain’t got no teeth” a confident old woman declared from the front pew, smiling top reveal her toothless gums”. “Teeth will be provided” the preacher retorted! I hope this is not our idea of eternity. It is, naturally, inconceivable.
Perhaps for us, therefore, it is hardly surprising that we find it hard to fully comprehend that, by our baptism, we are united with Christ in his death and resurrection. For, as St. Paul tells us in Romans chapter six, if we are baptized, that is, if we believe, then we are baptized with Christ death. Our old self has been crucified, so that we are free from sin and now live with Christ for all eternity. Isaiah’s words pre-echo the Pauline theology “The dead shall live together with my body”. This is an awesome thought to carry with us through the term. Whether we fully understand it or not, it is a reality now nevertheless, so that we can declare with joy, for ourselves and our loved ones, that Christ is Risen.
As we enter this new term with many different feelings, concerns and hopes for the future, let’s take reassurance from the fact of Christ’s resurrection, from our bond with that resurrection through our faith and keep with us the words of Isaiah for our comfort:
“Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on thee, because he trusteth in thee.”
Rev’d Dr. Jonathan Arnold
23rd April 2006