After a wonderful Maundy Thursday - exploring the resonances between Passover & the Last Supper & Communion; and then a very simple but moving Good Friday, I'm finally ready to post Easter Sunday's sermon. the readings are:
Colossians 3: 1-4
Matthew 28: 1-10
& a good chunk of Henry Scott Holland!
Death is nothing at all…
So begins the very popular poem, often requested by grieving relatives, written by Henry Scott-Holland, canon of St Paul’s Cathedral from 1884.
I struggle with the words ‘death is nothing at all’ – even while I warm to the idea that our loved ones are not as utterly lost in death as we might fear they are.
Death is nothing at all – but if that was really true, we wouldn’t want to hear those soothing words at all, would we? We know that death is terrible, unknowable, frightening. So what is Scott-Holland doing telling us that death is nothing at all?
Well, for a start those words are taken out of context. The words come from a sermon preached at St Paul's Cathedral on Sunday 15th May 1910, shortly after the death of King Edward VII. Entitled King of Terrors, Scott Holland’s text was 1 John 3.2,3: “Beloved, we are God’s children now: what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we shall see him as he is.....”.
In the sermon, Scott Holland is contrasting our two opposing ways of viewing death – as a terrible event and yet, as a source of hope for new life and continuing love .
This is what he actually says in his sermon
“I suppose all of us hover between two ways of regarding death, which appear to be in hopeless contradiction with each other. First, there is the familiar and instinctive recoil from it as embodying the supreme and irrevocable disaster...... How often it smites, without discrimination, as if it had no law! It makes its horrible breach in our gladness with careless and inhuman disregard of us. ... Its shadow falls across our natural sunlight, and we are swept off into some black abyss.....So we cry in our angry protest, in our bitter anguish......
But, then, there is another aspect altogether which death can wear for us. It is that which first comes down to us, perhaps, as we look down upon the quiet face, so cold and white, of one who has been very near and dear to us.... And what the face says to us in its sweet silence to us as a last message from the one whom we loved is: “Death is nothing at all. I have only slipped away into the next room..”.
So this Easter morning I am not going to say ‘death is nothing at all’ – for that is only one side of all that we feel about death. Yet the rising of Christ from the dead tells us that our hope is not empty.
I cannot yet say death is nothing at all, but I can say Death is not the final word,
death is not the end,
death is not a calamity but a release,
death is defeated
death is dead.
The resurrection of Jesus tells us something vital about Jesus and his relationship with God the Father. It tells us that all the things he said about being the Son of God, the one sent by God, the one who lives in God: all these things are true.
Jesus is not just the man murdered unjustly on Good Friday – he is God himself, giving up his human life for us, but then risen and living and alive for all time and space.
Going back to Henry Scott-Holland’s text from the first letter of John:
“Beloved, we are God’s children now: what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we shall see him as he is.....”.
Or as we heard from Paul’s letter to the Colossians:
“you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.”
The resurrection of Jesus Christ doesn’t just tell us things about Jesus, the Son of God – it tells us things about ourselves, because Jesus promises that we are also children of God.
Jesus is alive. Death is not the ruler here – and so we are promised eternal life in Jesus – we can be part of his resurrection life just as his followers were part of his earthly life.
On Easter Sunday we declare that Christ is risen indeed.
We declare that death is defeated.
Maybe, by the grace of God’s love, we can even get to a point of declaring ‘death is nothing at all’.
Thanks be to God. Amen.