Easter Sunday, 16th April 2017, Fr James Heard United Benefice of Holland Park

Easter Sunday, 16th April 2017, Fr James Heard
 United Benefice of Holland Park

After years of planning and shrouded in secrecy, Damien Hirst’s new exhibition has opened in Venice. It has cost him over £50 million of his own money. He’s created a myth, a tale of a man called Cif Amotan II, a freed slave living in Antioch at the end of the 1st century AD. The story goes, that this man acquired vast wealth and has built a huge collection of 100 ancient artefacts, which he planned to house in a new temple. To transport them there, the 100 objects were loaded onto a ship called the Apistos, which, unfortunately, sank off the coast of Africa with everything on board. In 2008, the wreck of the Apistos was rediscovered and Hirst stepped in to finance the recovery of the treasures. The result is what you see. And, looking online at the some the pieces, they are quite extraordinary.

The story is, of course, completely made up. Its all, as it were, ‘fake news’. So why the pretence? Hirst gives a classic postmodern response when asked whether or not people will believe the story?
“Of course some people will believe it. It’s like the Beatles and that Paul-McCartney-being-dead thing. Some people still believe it…I’ve worked on this for 10 years and I absolutely think Cif Amotan is a real person, because I’ve devoted so much time to him. It becomes real. And it becomes real quite quickly.”

Fascinating stuff, but what’s this got to do with Easter. Well, here’s a question for you: how do you make sense of the Easter story? The account of Jesus bursting from the tomb, (beautifully painted by Piero della Francesca in our service sheetss) triumphing over evil and death: is this, like Damien Hirst’s made up story, just, well, made up? There are people, like the novelist Dan Brown, who suggest just this: the story of Christ, including his resurrection, was simply made up by the church several centuries later.

Hearing afresh the accounts from the Gospel narratives, they don’t sound like propaganda. If you were writing propaganda, you wouldn’t have a woman as the first witness to the resurrection: given the low status of women in the first century, their testimony wasn’t regarded as reliable. If you were writing propaganda, it would be unlikely to include disbelief in the resurrection as being very much part of the original story.
Thomas of course was the most famous Doubter. None of this of course proves the resurrection. That’s simply impossible.

The French philosopher and mathematician, Blaise Pascal (Pensees 322, 310), puts it this way. He suggestions that it's possible that the first believers were ‘deceived or deceivers’: either badly deluded and wrong, or blatant liars and immoral. Neither of those explanations has the ring of truth to me. The only thing the first disciples stood to gain for their beliefs was persecution and social marginalization. Indeed, many lost their lives in terribly violent ways because of their belief. Would they have done so for a lie, or something they knew wasn’t true?

So what exactly happen. I’m not sure is possible to really know in a definitive way. Perhaps the use of picture and metaphor can help make sense of the Paschal mystery. Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury, uses a scientific metaphor. At Easter, he says, “we are really standing in the middle of a second ‘Big Bang’, a tumultuous surge of divine energy as fiery and intense as the very beginning of the universe”.

What about art? In Damien Hirst’s other work, he has affixed dozens of brightly colored butterfly wings in symmetrical patterns on to enameled canvases. The butterfly is, of course, an ancient Christian symbol for resurrection. Indeed, Hirst references the death and resurrection of Christ in the pattern of the butterfly wings, which double as a cross.

The transformation from caterpillar to the beauty of a butterfly only comes from the pain and struggle of death. Death is described in the NT as the last great enemy – but it’s an enemy that ultimately has been defeated in Jesus Christ. Death is not annihilation. Death is not a full stop.
That’s what we celebrate today. On Easter morning the disciples saw Jesus' grave clothes lying on the cold slab still wrapped round and round the corpse.
The corpse was gone, much like an empty chrysalis deserted by a butterfly who has left to soar free. ‘He is risen as He said’, an angel told the incredulous disciples. There is new life, divine energy, transformation, hope.

What seems clear to me is that something happened those 2,000 years ago that was so significant that a group of timid, cowardly, deserting, crushed disciples were transformed. They were so utterly transformed by what they experienced on that first Easter Sunday that they travelled the world. They were so energized by God’s Spirit that they were willing to die for the belief that Love conquers death, and that Jesus himself is the live-giver.

What started as a tiny sect within Judaism grew, and it grew and it grew. It grew despite that fact of severe persecution. Over the last 2,000 years, millions of people have come to walk the way of Jesus, the way of the cross. And today, we celebrate with over 2 billion other Christians around the world. We celebrate God the life-giver, that death and hell has been conquered by self-giving Love.

As we celebrate the Easter feast we are also invited to participate in resurrection living. It doesn’t take much to recognise that our world and our lives are still profoundly broken… and so, in our world and in our lives today, resurrection needs to be practiced; it needs to be lived out. The tumultuous surge of divine energy needs to overflow into our lives, into our community and the world because one day, God’s liberating kingdom of love of justice of compassion, will truly and completely arrive.
Holland Park Benefice