Tuesday, 16 March 2021

The absence of Jesus

 A sermon for Provoking Faith in a Time of Isolation

The online gathering of Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church

4th April 2021 - Easter Sunday

Luke 24.1-12

This last year has been a time when the tension between presence and absence has been highlighted for all of us.

The coronavirus pandemic, and the lockdown restrictions and distancing measures that accompanied it, have meant that in so many ways we have been absent from one another.

The streets of Bloomsbury have been eerily quiet.

No tourists. Hardly any students.

Shuttered shops, closed restaurants, the only sound it seems sometimes is the wailing of the ambulance sirens.

Our economy has been profoundly affected.

Our working lives have been affected by severe stress.

Our usual work patterns have broken down.

Some of us have been dealing with emergencies, others have been furloughed, or working from home.

For me, it has felt at times as though I have been absent from my own life, a year in frenetic stasis: busy yet confined, on call and on hold at the same time.

And all of us have felt the pain of being absent from our friends, from our families, from our church community.

And yet, through all this we have been able to connect with other people in our community and around the world in unexpected ways.

The miracle of Zoom has meant that I have been able to join with more group meetings and webinars than I ever thought possible, sharing a view of my living space with people on the other side of the world.

I have also enjoyed many more one-to-one conversations with people than in a long time, learning to be vulnerable together in the strangely intimate setting of the video call.

So in that sense, I have found this last year to be a time when I have been profoundly present to other people.

We have reached out across the internet in search of connection, and discovered new depths in relationship, new honesty in communication.

One of things that has been a great source of encouragement to me is to observe how many aspects of our church community have thrived as a result of this deeper communication.

We’re meeting less, but I think we’re also listening more.

The discussion panel that now forms a regular part of our Sunday services has allowed us to hear a huge variety of perspectives on issues of life and faith.

More people have stepped up to take leadership roles, and we have come to appreciate many hidden strengths of individuals in our congregation.

These are gifts from God, which have been especially precious at a time like this.

We have been absent from one other, but we have also been present to each other. We have been scattered, but we have also been gathered, as our regular lockdown communion liturgy has reminded us.

So we may not have been to church, at least in the sense of visiting 235 Shaftesbury Avenue, and our Sanctuary has spent a year as empty as a cave.

But we have still gathered in the presence of God, for worship, prayer, and community.

God has been present to us, even as we have been absent from the places we normally go to encounter the divine.

Which brings me to our story for this morning, of Mary, Mary, Joana, and the other women discovering the empty tomb in the garden on that first Easter morning.

This, too, is a story of absence and presence.

I’m sure, as the women set off to visit the tomb, the events of Friday were still uppermost in everyone’s minds.

The cross, the moment of divine dereliction, of ultimate abandonment, is the tale of absence, with Jesus taken from those who love him, and executed outside the city wall.

Jesus had gone, and with him all the hopes and dreams that life could be different, all the love and vitality, all the healing and wholeness that had characterised the last three years, all gone.

All that was left for the grieving women, the despairing disciples, was a body in a tomb. And the women did what the men didn’t, and went to the tomb to face their fears, to anoint the body, to say one final farewell.

And what they discovered was yet further absence. The body itself had gone, leaving an empty cave.

Easter morning is the moment of supreme absence.

And yet, at that moment, when all had ended, the new beginning was already at hand.

The two men in dazzling clothes reminded them of what they already knew but had forgotten: that Jesus must go from them in order to be present with them.

In his absence, his presence becomes known in a new and more profound way.

And so the women told the men, but the men didn’t believe them, until one of the men confirmed it, because, well, patriarchy is nothing new, and women then as now often found their voices obscured by the voices of men.

But the wonder of that first Easter morning was that it was, in fact, the women who first proclaimed the mystery of the empty tomb.

And the women were right, the body was gone, the tomb was empty, and Jesus was no longer absent, but is rather eternally present.

The post-resurrection ‘new normal’ is not a return to the days before the horror of the cross.

There is no undoing the events of Good Friday, and the resurrected Christ bears the marks of the crucifixion eternally.

But the new possibility for divine presence, that the emptiness of the tomb heralds, is the new reality for those who seek God in Christ.

And so we come to today, to Easter 2021, at the end of a year of absence.

And my question is this: what does resurrection mean to you?

What does it mean for us to say that Jesus is raised from the dead?

As we plan to return to our lives, as our city starts to come back to life, and as our church takes a deep breath, in the hope and expectation that soon we'll be singing the gospel of life together again, we need to ask ourselves what the truth of resurrection means for us.

We, like the women at the mouth of the tomb, are not witnesses to Christ’s resurrected body. Jesus is not, physically at least, ‘with’ us.

Like the women, we simply know him through his absence.

Yet Christ is present with us, in ways that the disciples waiting in Jerusalem that first Easter morning had yet to comprehend.

The risen Christ is with us by his Spirit; Christ has been with us as we have been scattered by the pandemic, and Christ will be with us as we cautiously emerge from our own times of confining to find the new life that awaits us.

Christ is with us as we gather, as we worship, as we pray;

Christ is with us as we confess our sins and find forgiveness, as we break bread and drink wine;

Christ is with us as we re-member the broken body of the cross in the communion of God’s people, which is the body of Christ.

So, what does it mean for us, today, to say that Jesus is raised from the dead?

This is no cheap cosmic publicity stunt for the events of Good Friday.

Rather it is a profound assertion of faith that the one who died on the cross is present, even though he is absent.

There is a mural in our side-chapel at Bloomsbury, which depicts the city in the 1960s, with the quote from the Book of Revelation, ‘Behold, the dwelling of God is with all people’.

And as we consider our city in 2021, transitioning cautiously from silence and stillness to movement and bustle;

and as we hope for a journey from a time of death and suffering to a time of life and living;

we know that the resurrected Christ is present in the midst of it all, still drawing the world to life.

The resurrection is an expression of the conviction that death does not get the final word on life.

It is the eternal hope that calls to each of us who must face the truth of our human mortality.

It is the promise of new life. It is the expression of ultimate love.

The absence of the empty tomb is the assurance of God’s eternal presence.

God is with us, Christ is Risen.

This is good news. Hallelujah.


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