This Holy Week began with the news of the disastrous fire at Notre Dame in Paris. Tragically, it has ended with reports of the terrible tragedy in Sri Lanka, as ordinary women and men going about their business were killed in co-ordinated terrorist attacks. Our Easter story speaks powerfully to both these incidents, I believe.
Many of us will have our own particular memories of Note Dame in Paris and I am sure that we were all distressed at the images we saw on our television screens and in our newspapers, like this one. It seemed a scene of total devastation, with not a chance that anything had survived.
Yet, as the week has gone on, images like this have been released. Pictures showing both the scale of what has been lost and the seeming ‘miracle’ of what has survived. We have also witnessed the wonderful outpouring of generosity and goodwill toward the cathedral’s renovation, and the determination from all sides that it will rise from the ashes again.
Yet, when Notre Dame is re-built and re-opened (as I am confident it will be in time), it will not be a carbon copy of the church that many of us will have visited. Much will be unchanged, and much will be identical to the human eye. But it will in subtle – and not so subtle – ways be different. There will be new roof timbers, new artworks, a new spire, and probably a new fire alarm system! Importantly, the attitude of those coming to the building will also be different. Those very moving scenes of people praying by the Seine as the cathedral burnt were a poignant reminder that so often we only truly value a thing once it has gone. I hope that when Notre Dame re-opens that same spirit will continue, and worshippers and visitors alike will treasure the building and all it stands for a little more than perhaps they have done in the past.
Our readings speak of that change as well. We are all now experts on the book of Isaiah at Barnes (!), after spending Lent studying some of the book’s key passages. Those who attended the Bible studies will immediately have recognised that today’s passage came from near the end of the book; the section sometimes referred to as ‘third Isaiah’. We believe that these chapters were written after the Israelites had returned from their exile in Babylon, and were trying to rebuild their city, temple and nation after the devastation of war and conquest.
The prophet, though, is calling them not simply to return and rebuild their city and society exactly as they were before. He is urging them to allow God to work his re-creation among them. The people of Israel were changed by the experience of exile, we know, and many of the foundations of their faith and identity, like the monarchy and the temple, had been destroyed, and other innovations, like the synagogue, had come into being. Like the architects of Notre Dame, they could not simply recreate an exact replica of what had been there before, even if they had wanted to. In our passage, the prophet Isaiah offers instead the vision and challenge of recreating their nation in a radically new way under God’s holy rule. A new Jerusalem:
no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it,
or the cry of distress.
No more shall there be in it
an infant that lives but a few days,
or an old person who does not live out a lifetime …
They shall not labour in vain,
or bear children for calamity;
for they shall be offspring blessed by the Lord—
and their descendants as well. (Isaiah 65:19, 23)
What an incredible vision of how the world could be, if we were accept the transformative power of God.
We believe that we glimpsed sight of that new Jerusalem on that first Easter Sunday, when the disciples (male and female) gaped in wonder at the empty tomb. This was no “idle tale” (Luke 24:11) but a life-changing, world-transforming event. Not least for those apostles and disciples who could hardly believe what had happened. Each one of them returned from the tomb, changed by the experience.
Unlike the other gospels, Luke’s accounts of the resurrection (and we shall hear more of them over the coming weeks), come in the middle of his writing, not the end. They mark the end of his first volume (‘Luke’) and the beginning of his second (Acts). These two volumes, allow us to see clearly the incredible transformative power of the resurrection. The disciples in Luke’s gospel are not quite as dim-witted and hapless, perhaps, as they are in Mark’s version. They are undoubtedly prone to error, doubt and fear, though; they are only too human and seemingly utterly dependent upon Jesus. Once they have seen the risen Christ, however, it is a different story, and we see them taking on the mission of Christ with a courage and dedication that seems impossible only a few chapters before. They returned from the tomb changed for good by the resurrection.
These stories of return and change resonate throughout our own lives. I spent two years teaching English in China after university, and one of my clearest memories was when I eventually came home. My parents collected me from the airport and they eagerly drove me home. We drove up the street where I had lived my whole life until the age of 18 in Maidenhead (a small town, west of London) and I was struck forcibly by the fact that seemingly nothing had changed whatsoever. The houses that I had walked past countless times on my way to school looked identical in nearly every way. Yet I was different. I had been changed forever by my experiences in China, and could never go back to being the person I had been before. I almost wanted to shout at the street about all the things I had seen and done. Return could not mean regression.
On an international level, we might reflect on the shooting at the mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand. Yet another shocking act of indiscriminate violence in the long history of such recent acts. One, though, that has not simply been allowed to be forgotten but has resulted in real change. New laws taking guns off the streets of New Zealand. Concerted efforts to rebuild community links. A united desire to change for the better. It is a pointed reminder to others that ‘warm words’ without action mean nothing.
Our world today is longing for such transformative experiences. Time and again we have been brought face to face with the reality of knife crime, climate change, the migrant crisis, and countless other challenges we face as a nation and world. We have experienced its horrors through our newspapers and television screens, yet seemingly we are mildly shocked for a time and then return to our lives unchanged; our world view unaltered.
The challenge of Easter is for us to allow ourselves to be changed by the good news of Easter. Not simply to return from the tomb, saying ‘How strange!’ and then going on with life as though nothing had changed. For that is to deny the power of the story completely, and to turn into nothing more than a fairy story for children. Rather it is to recognise the power of the resurrection to change our lives and the world forever, for good. As Paul affirmed after his encounter with the risen Christ: “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (2 Cor. 5:17). The challenge of the empty tomb is for us to take our part in God’s story of redeeming the world; to be re-created, and in turn to help re-create.
The events in Sri Lanka this day remind us only too painfully of the need for such re-creation. The need for our world to turn away from the politics and ideologies that survive solely on hatred and anger, division and fear. Ideologies that are fed and perpetuated by the sort of injustice that made Isaiah rail so fiercely against his contemporaries. The injustice of a world where some have everything, while others must seemingly be content with nothing.
Yet it is also too clearly a poignant reminder of the limits of our human response. With all our medical advances, all our charity, all our technology, we cannot bring those people back to life. The Easter story is the ultimate affirmation that God does not leave his people to suffer alone. In a world of sin and death, a world riven by terrorism and oppression – the same world that Isaiah, the apostles and we know – the resurrection is the light in the darkness. It is the only hope to which we can cling, in the face of fear, illness and even death. It is the promise that when we reach the limits of our human response, God’s power breaks through to heal and redeem us. It is the fulfilment of the promise made to Isaiah that he shall glimpse the new Jerusalem where, “no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress”. It is the absolute assurance that we too one day shall be changed “from glory into glory, ‘til in heaven we take our place”. May we, and all God’s world, know that truth in our hearts this Easter Sunday and evermore. Amen.