Homily preached by Abbot Cuthbert Madden at Conventual mass on Easter Sunday of the Resurrection of the Lord.
Dear Brothers and Sisters, we have just heard John’s account of the finding of the empty tomb. You might think that this is rather a surprising gospel passage to hear on Easter morning. You might have hoped for an account of one of the appearances of the Risen Christ but instead we have to “make do” with John’s account of the empty tomb and Luke reporting the preaching of Peter who speaks about the life of Jesus, about His death in Jerusalem, and how He rose again on the third day and entrusted His message to witnesses of whom Peter is one. Peter does say that he and others ate and drank with Jesus after the resurrection but there is no description of the risen Christ. No, whether we like it or not, today we have to make sense of Easter by exploring from the empty tomb.
Some years ago there was a theological controversy surrounding the question of whether the empty tomb proved the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. If you listened carefully to the Gospel this morning you will be well aware that this was a futile argument. John was quite clear that the empty tomb did not prove the resurrection. He tells us that Mary of Magdala said, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb and we don’t know where they have put Him” (John 20.2). It is clear, then, that Mary was not thinking of resurrection when she came to the tomb. When she found it empty she came to the obvious solution: someone had moved the body of the Lord. You will find a very similar account in the Gospel of Matthew who tells us that the chief priests bribed the soldiers guarding the tomb to spread that very rumour. And doubtless you will hear similar stories today among those who cannot believe or who refuse to believe in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. But let us just pause for a moment: there is a historical fact here that we must record and not lose sight of: the tomb was empty. All the evangelists tell us so. It is an important historical fact.
Furthermore we should note that John tells us that, in response to the news brought by Mary of Magdala, Peter and the beloved disciple ran to the tomb. John describes what Peter saw when he arrived at the tomb. The linen cloths which had wrapped the body were still in the tomb and the cloth which had covered His head was also there. And the beloved disciple went in and saw the same sight. You remember what the gospel says, “he saw and he believed” (John 20.8); and then John continues, “Till this moment they had failed to understand the teaching of the scripture, that He must rise from the dead” (John 20.9). Two things combine for the beloved disciple: he sees the empty tomb and he remembers what Jesus had taught concerning himself; then he saw and he believed. For John’s beloved disciple then the empty tomb is a proof because it calls to mind and confirms the teaching of the scriptures.
You and I can also rely on a whole host of witnesses who testify to the resurrection of Jesus. The evangelists tell us how Jesus appeared to women and to men, how He ate and drank with them, how He taught them, and how He entrusted a mission to them, a mission to go out and spread the Good News of His rising to new life. And truly this was Good News: here was a man like all of us, the Son of God, who had overcome the power of death and who now bids mankind, bids you and me, to walk in His footsteps. The testimony is sure. We can depend on it: on the empty tomb, on the witnesses who saw the Lord, on the teaching of Scripture.
Dear Brothers and Sisters, if we are prepared to make this act of faith it has consequences. We cannot simply believe in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead and do nothing about it. If we believe, then the resurrection of Jesus is the promise for you and for me of our resurrection to come. And if we believe in the possibility of our resurrection then we will wish to walk in the footsteps of the Lord in order that we might share in His life whilst we walk on this earth and so deserve to live in His presence when we rise from the dead. This is what St Paul means when he tells the Colossians that they “must look for the things that are in heaven, where Christ is, sitting at God’s right hand” (Colossians 3.1). The world around us is a beautiful, a beguiling, place! We are apt to think of it and the pleasures that it offers as the sum total of our life – but this is a mistake. We are born into this world not to reject it, but rather to help it reach its proper end – and we do that by believing in Jesus Christ and following Him. If we walk in His footsteps we will, indeed, enjoy the good things that this world offers; but we will not be held in thrall because we will remember the world to come. We will care for this world as stewards of the Creator, remembering that we have here no abiding city for our true life will be lived in heaven.
Dear Brothers and Sisters, the world needs to hear this message of hope. You and I have been commissioned like the apostles and disciples of old. Let us fulfil our mission. As you leave the Abbey today and tomorrow to return to your homes, let us all go out into the highways and the byways of our own local world as missionary disciples for Christ our Lord.