Sunday 22 April - Easter 4 - Eucharist - Stephen Holmes

Easter 4 – John 10:11-18

+ ‘I am the good shepherd, I lay down my life for the sheep’ [sheep noises from phone]

I recently went to the isle of Cumbrae with our ecumenical clergy team and saw lots of sheep and lambs from the train but, on this Good Shepherd Sunday I am not going to speak about sheep [the sound of sheep protesting]. Instead I want you to follow me to a cathedral on the south coast of England and look at an ancient tomb. Two fourteenth-century effigies lie upon the tomb, an Earl and his Lady. His right hand is out of its armoured glove and lightly holding her right hand, in what seems to be a gesture of love.

Philip Larkin, the notoriously grumpy English poet, looked at this same tomb and produced his famous poem ‘An Arundel Tomb’. It is a meditation on time and death which ends with the consoling words, ‘what will survive of us is love’. But that’s not his real point. On one of the drafts of this poem he scribbled, ‘love isn’t stronger than death just because statues hold hands for 600 years’. In the poem he says they ‘lie so long’ together and ‘lie in stone’, playing on the double meaning of the word ‘lie’. He writes ‘Time has transfigured them into untruth’. We are touched by the love in their holding hands but knowledge destroys our sentimentality. The monuments of death are constructed for the living as a display of family power. Love was not an ingredient in the marriages of the medieval nobility.

The poem ends:

Time has transfigured them into  

Untruth. The stone fidelity

They hardly meant has come to be  

Their final blazon, and to prove  

Our almost-instinct almost true:  

What will survive of us is love.

Larkin described himself as ‘an agnostic, but an Anglican agnostic, of course’. For him as for many, we hope for ultimate meaning to transcend the cold finality of death, but in our heart we suspect this hope is just empty stories on the way to the void.

Another Anglican agnostic, Richard Holloway, in his excellent new book ‘Waiting for the Last Bus’, recalls speaking of this void from this very pulpit at the funeral of his friend Malcolm Goldsmith: ‘Even if the experiment of being was empty of meaning from the beginning, and even if the universe if destined to be sucked back into the nothingness from which it came and be succeeded by a naked silence; then we will have proved ourselves better than the void that spawned us, because of what we ourselves have created: great music.., great words trying to express the mystery of our own existence, paintings that captured its loneliness and grandeur; and acts of loving kindness that defied the sneer of the abyss that swallowed them. And isn’t it strange that such beauty and purpose came from such emptiness?’

Isn’t it strange? This is the human condition. Faced with the ultimate questions of love and death, we don’t know - but we are left with a question: is there more? More than statues holding hands, our own creativity and love hint at the truth of  our instinctual desire that there is more to life than death can swallow. But is there any confirmation that the void doesn’t have the last sneer?

I think the Good Shepherd helps here. The gospel reading isn’t really about sheep. The most important thing, repeated three times to make sure we don’t miss it, is ‘I lay down my life for the sheep’. Christ our God dies out of love for his sheep and, as God, he has the power to take it up again, to rise up out of the cold finality of death. This is what Christianity gives to the world. Not just kindness and Choral Evensong, but the killing of death. This needs to be at the heart of our mission as we enter our third century. If we rely on our own hints and intuitions, a gloomy agnosticism is quite right; but if we look away from ourselves to Jesus Christ we find a firmer ground for our hope: Christ crucified and risen. This is something to shout in the face of the void. Alleluia, Christ is risen! He is risen indeed, alleluia!

There are some interesting things going on. This Easter Day there were more people at church here than St John’s has seen for over twenty years, and I have heard similar stories from other Episcopal Churches in the City. In the darkness of the night before some thirty of us gathered in the Dormitory garden around a blazing fire. We blessed this paschal candle to symbolise the risen Christ and processed behind it down Princes Street amongst the Saturday night revellers. It was drizzling but the fragile flame stayed lit. We listened to the ancient stories of longing from the Old Testament and sung the ancient poetic hymn to the candle: ‘Be glad, let earth be glad, as glory floods her, ablaze with light from her eternal King, let all corners of the earth be glad, knowing an end to gloom and darkness… This is the night, when Christ broke the prison-bars of death and rose victorious from the underworld.’ Then the bells rang, we sung alleluia and Christ rose from the tomb.

This wasn’t the biggest service, but it did enact the central mystery that gives meaning to all the others. I suggest that, as a community, we define from the centre. We hold firmly to the centre of our faith, Christ crucified and risen, but don’t police the boundaries. As we will sing at the bicentenary celebration, all are welcome in this place - and we must mean this. Atheist, agnostic, believer, doubter, the homeless person who wants shelter, ‘other sheep who are not of this fold’. and the reason all are welcome is that all is centred on Jesus Christ, crucified and risen.

So, Philip Larkin is quite right, ‘love isn’t stronger than death just because statues hold hands for 600 years’. Richard Holloway is right, all we can do is hold up our love and creativity as a protest in the sneering face of the void. But the good news is that it doesn’t depend on us. We can’t prove that Christ rose from the dead, it happened in the darkness; but we can sing it, we can proclaim the poetry of the resurrection in the face of death. ‘Isn’t it strange that such beauty and purpose came from such emptiness?’ Not if Christ is truly risen.