Readings: Acts 10.34-43; Luke 24.1-12
Sir George Leman Tuthill was a gentleman of the late Georgian era. He was born in Suffolk and educated in Cambridge. He became a medical doctor and was part of a team which reformed the Royal College of Physicians. An obituary described him with damning praise as one who ‘carried a very warm heart’ underneath ‘a cold exterior’.
Sir George Leman Tuthill died at home in 1835 in London’s fashionable Cavendish Square. And then, for some unknown reason, he was buried in a big box tomb just to the north of the chancel at St Michael’s St Albans.
Nobody here knew much about Sir George Leman Tuthill until 23rd of January. At dawn that day, the first of the week, parishioners arrived for the 8 o’clock service. They saw that the stone side of Sir George’s tomb had fallen away. Peering inside, they were relieved not to find his body.
There is a certain resonance between events of 23rdd January and what we heard in today’s gospel about an empty tomb in Jerusalem. But bear with me as the stories diverge once more.
Given the size of the slabs which make up the tomb of Sir George Leman Tuthill, your churchwardens concluded that the damage had been caused by considerable physical force. No CCTV footage was available but we speculated that bravado had led a group of drunken yooves to push the lid aside in a pique of curiosity about what they might find inside. This action on the lid inadvertently dislodged the side of the tomb, knocking it over and smashing it into several pieces. Having discovered that the coffin of Sir George was not resting within the stones (but is presumably buried well beneath), the youths I suspect sheepishly scurried home to nurse their hangovers before anyone caught them in the churchyard. The tale ends with the outstanding efficiency of St Albans District Council cemeteries department which arranged and paid for the damage to be repaired – and I hope no more is heard of Sir George Leman Tuthill for at least another two hundred years.
My point is this: there was no moment during the above events when anyone suggested that Sir George Leman Tuthill had risen from the dead. No Netflix team came to make a zombie movie about it. No contemporary Stanley Spencer came to paint the rude forefathers of the hamlet rising from the ground and heading down the Six Bells. There was no suggestion that Sir George Leman Tuthill had risen from the dead – because that is not what the dead do.
So what was different two thousand years ago?! Back then people were no more stupid nor gullible than we are today. That is why when the women saw the empty tomb they didn’t say ‘alleluia Jesus is alive’. Rather they were confused. The presence of the empty tomb would have suggested to them graverobbers, animals, an earthquake, or tomfoolery (like in the case of Sir George Leman Tuthill). But from the evidence at hand the women would not have deduced a resurrection. Additional, very different, evidence would have been required for them to draw such a bizarre conclusion.
In the story as Luke tells it, the next intervention came in the form of two men standing near the tomb. We are not told that they were angels but their ‘dazzling cloths’ do hint at an other-worldly origin. The women went on to claim that these men told them Jesus had risen.
Had I been among the eleven disciples listening to the women relaying their encounter with the dazzling men, my instinctive reaction would have been scepticism. This was an age when the testimony of women had no legal status and – more significantly – bear in mind the truth universally acknowledged that the dead do not rise again. It is not what they do.
So the male disciples probably shared some sexist thoughts among themselves and, as we heard, concluded that the women’s report ‘seemed to them an idle tale’. Yet more evidence – very different evidence – would be required for them to draw a more radical conclusion.
That evidence began to emerge later the same day. Read on into Luke 24 for the story of Jesus walking and talking with two disciples on the road to Emmaus and, in an unnarrated incident, appearing to Simon Peter. The two journeying disciples hurried back to Jerusalem but before they could share their news, the eleven disciples announced to them ‘The Lord has risen indeed, and has appeared to Simon!’
Those encounters must have been utterly convincing in order to shift the earlier scepticism of the disciples. The disciples must have been utterly convinced because they were transformed from rustic fishermen into impassioned evangelists – among them St Peter as we heard in the first lesson from the book of Acts. Here is not a scintilla of doubt but effervescent confidence as Peter stood before a figure of authority, a Roman Centurion and his household to announce that Jesus is back for good. “They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear to us who were chosen by God as witnesses.”
Having deduced that ‘the Lord is risen indeed’, what did the disciples decide about the significance of this astounding miracle? In the very last line of that reading from Acts, Peter delivered his punchline to Cornelius: “All the prophets testify about Jesus that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name”.
If Jesus has defeated death then a renewed relationship with God and other people becomes possible because the bad things that are a lot less serious than death can be overcome. If death can be ultimately defeated, how much more our faults and flaws? If we can believe with confidence in Jesus’ resurrection, then surely we can know in our hearts that God works lesser miracles on our past mistakes and the guilt which clings in our hearts. This can happen at an individual level, within communities and even, I pray, between whole countries.
If through faith God works miracles on our past mistakes then we are made into new people. That’s what happened to Cornelius and his household. They accepted Peter’s message and the Holy Spirit came upon them. The water with which that day they were baptised mirrored on the outside their spiritual transformation on the inside. It is not hard to see why Christians view Easter as the traditional season for celebrating the new life of Baptism.
And of course, if baptism is the symbol of that radical inward transformation which comes through faith, it is not an end but a beginning. Jesus’ first disciples, the women and then eventually the men (when they caught up), found a new role in life. ‘We are witnesses’ said Peter to Cornelius.
He was. And so are we. We are witnesses too. This take-home is of particular relevance as the world emerges from coronavirus. Communities are coming back to life. The irony is that this great Easter motif will only be true for church communities if the members of those churches are committed to their collective resurrection. If Easter really is true, as the evidence we have examined suggests, then our commitment to worship of the risen Jesus and our commitment to his service in the world needs to be front and centre, our first priority.
So if you have yet to establish or, after coronavirus, reestablish a pattern of regular weekly worship then make this Easter Day the occasion when you commit to doing that, either at St Michael’s and St Mary’s or in a church nearer your home.
St Luke makes an interesting aside in the first line of his Easter narrative. With a characteristic eye for detail he time-stamps the event as taking place on the first day of the week. The women who came to his tomb, were followers of the Jewish seven-day cycle and so knew that the first day, Sunday, was the day when God symbolically began his act of creation. Unbeknown to them, they were about to encounter God’s new creation in the resurrection of Jesus. Friends, this means that every Sunday is a new creation, every Sunday is a mini-Easter. If the evidence about Easter is true then there is nothing better we can do with the first day of our weeks than to celebrate God’s overflowing gift of new life with one another and in the presence of the saints and angels who rejoice above, among them, I hope, Sir George Leman Tuthill.