The empty shell

This is the sermon I preached this morning at Southwark Cathedral.  As a consequence of the way things work out (some of this is to do with the Cathedral Statutes) I get to preach at the 9.00am Eucharist, which is lovely.  Our ‘nine o’clockers’ are not like some of the ‘early service’ congregations that you get in the Church of England but they don’t normally get to sing.  So Christmas and Easter are their opportunities to add to the chorus of the church on those feasts.  Anyway, enough of that – this is what I said to them.  The lections were Isaiah 65.17-25, Acts 10.34-43 and John 20.1-18.

Easter would not be Easter without an Easter egg or two or three.  But which to choose from?  There are so many out there, all looking equally delicious, all looking equally fattening.  The most popular has to be, of course, the wonderful, delicious Cadbury’s Creme Egg.  Is it the thick chocolate coating?  Is it that white and golden fondant filling?  Is it the thrill of getting the wrapping off it?  Whatever it is the Cadbury Creme Egg is the most popular of all Easter eggs and over 500 million of them are manufactured every year with about two thirds of that number being enjoyed in the UK alone!  So, that is a staggering three and a half Cadbury Creme Eggs for every person in the country to enjoy – and someone is eating mine because I don’t eat them.


Happy Easter!

But, brothers and sisters, I need to denounce them as heretical eggs.  This innocent looking shiny egg, available singly or in packs of three or even ten I believe, is peddling a lie.  The really good Christian egg has nothing inside it, not a bag of buttons, or Smarties or Thornton’s Continentals and certainly not stuffed full of delicious sticky white and golden fondant.  It’s a scandal that such an egg is so enjoyed!  The really true Christian egg is nothing other than an empty shell, break it open and there’s nothing inside.

When the disciples had left the tomb on Friday, as the sun was setting and the Sabbath was beginning, they rolled the stone across the entrance, sealing the dead body of Jesus inside.  In the first light of a new day Mary Magdalene makes her way back to the garden, creeps from the Upper Room where they’re all staying, eager not to disturb her exhausted and devastated friends.  In the half light she gets into the garden and sees the tomb and that the stone has been rolled away and her response is to run.  Something devastating, unbelievable has happened and she has to tell the others.

So she gets back to the room and wakes them up and Peter and John join her in running back again to where Jesus had been buried.  The sun was now rising and things could be more clearly seen.  And we get this race, young John outrunning the others and arriving first.  But in his youthful enthusiasm he’s unsure what to do.  He looks inside but doesn’t go inside, but breathless Peter arriving, has no hesitation and enters the empty space.

All of the gospel writers are clear that the tomb was empty, just a hollow shell, and not a scene of disorder, not a scene of chaos but of something almost planned, deliberate.

‘He saw the linen wrappings lying there’ it said in the gospel ‘and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself.’

Things are mentioned in the gospels for a reason and John tells us deliberately about the order that exists in the empty tomb.  Those linen wrappings so carefully wound by the women around the body of Jesus, that cloth that’d covered his sacred head, are now folded, rolled, set aside, not discarded.

We run into a field as children.  There’s a bird’s nest in the tree above us.  It’s spring and the blossom and the fresh leaves are dressing what’d been cold bare winter branches.  In the grass we find an egg, but it’s just a shell, an empty, speckled shell.  A baby bird has hatched and flown.

Easter Day is a day of new creation.  That is what our First Reading was reminding us of.

I am about to create new heavens
   and a new earth.

says God through the prophet.  New heavens and new earth, in the dew covered freshness of a new day, in a new garden in which God will once more walk and ‘Ave’, hail a new woman whose name is spoken as creation begins again.

Peter is speaking to Cornelius and his household in our Second Reading and he speaks of his calling to be a witness.  He went into that emptiness, into the empty shell that’d once held Jesus.  But like a broken egg it contained nothing.  The chaos of Good Friday had been replaced by the order of the day of creation.  But what Peter is witnessing to is not a great absence but a great presence.  It could seem that the empty tomb is a symbol of the absence of God but it speaks to us in another way entirely.

The Welsh priest-poet, R S Thomas, in his poem ‘The Empty Church’ talks of the ‘stone trap’ that we made for God, but God escaped and is free.  They couldn’t nail him to the cross nor seal him in a tomb.  God chose, in the incarnation to become as we are but in the resurrection God is as we will become, liberated, part of this new heaven and new earth, enjoying the freedom of the new creation.

The images that we saw last Monday of the Cathedral of Notre Dame being engulfed in flames were terrifying.  Many of us will have walked into that vast church, stood beneath those monumental towers.  It was a building that seemed as solid as the island it stood on.  But it was so easily taken over by flames and what’d seemed so strong became something so fragile, something that seemed so permanent became something so vulnerable.  The moment the spire collapsed was one of those moments that will stay with me – a powerful image.

But even more powerful were the images that then emerged when the flames were extinguished and the emergency services gained access to the building.  It could’ve been an empty shell that confronted them, but it wasn’t.  The most wonderful sight was to see the golden cross, shining, somehow, in the darkness, standing, ordered, above the disorder of the rubble around it.

Notre Dame

Order in disorder

Peter went in and found the tomb empty, not abandoned in haste but left in order.  The two men left believing but not understanding, not understanding what this filled emptiness meant.

Emptiness can easily open up in our lives, suddenly, without warning.  Emptiness can take over in our society, a lack of leadership, a lack of vision, a lack of direction.  We rightly fear the vacuum that’s created that anything and anyone can fill.  But what we celebrate today is not the absence of God but the presence of God, the freedom of God, the life of God, who cannot be trapped and held and controlled and contained but is with us, meeting us in the garden of the new creation.

That was Mary’s witness to the others, that was Peter’s witness, that was the apostles’ witness, that is the witness of the church of the resurrection and that was the witness of that image from Paris emblazoned across the front pages, the ordered cross, majestic, in the midst of chaos, filling that empty, tomb like space.

Thomas ends his poem ‘The Empty Church’ like this

Why, then, do I kneel still
striking my prayers on a stone
heart? Is it in hope one
of them will ignite yet and throw
on its illuminated walls the shadow
of someone greater than I can understand?

The someone greater is Jesus, who walks from the tomb whilst the others run, who meets Mary in her grief with words of comfort, who calls us by name even when we don’t recognise him, who confronts our fragility and survives our fires with a life that cannot be defeated.

Life was born from the shell of the empty tomb and it is the life that we are living, the life fed by Christ’s sacramental presence at this altar on this glorious Easter morning.  Into our disorder God brings order; to what is old and broken God brings what is new and complete. This is Easter. The Lord is risen.  He is risen indeed.  Alleluia!

Lord Jesus,
re-order, re-new, re-birth my life
with the power of your

Comments are closed.
Holy Land

A pilgrimage for returning pilgrims

My Lent Diary

A journey from ashes to a garden

In the Steps of Martin Luther

A Southwark Cathedral Pilgrimage 2017

Canda, Jerusalem, Mucknall

Southwark Diocesan Pilgrimage 2016

Hearts on Fire - Pilgrims in the Holy Land

A good city for all

A good city for all

In the Steps of St Paul

Southwark Cathedral Pilgrimage June 2015


Reflections from the Dean of Southwark

Andrew Nunn's reflections from General Synod

the personal views of the Dean of Southwark

%d bloggers like this: