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URC Daily Devotions Service for Easter Sunday 2021
The Rev’d Dr Susan Durber
Call to Worship
One: Alleluia! Christ is Risen!
Many: He is Risen indeed! Alleluia!
One: Rejoice, heavenly powers! Sing, choirs of angels! Exult, all creation around God’s throne! Jesus, our King, is risen! Sound the trumpet of salvation!
Many: Rejoice, heavenly powers! Sing, choirs of angels!
One: Rejoice, O Earth, in shining splendour, radiant in the brightness of our King! Jesus has conquered! Glory fills you! Darkness vanishes for ever!
Many: Rejoice, heavenly powers! Sing, choirs of angels!
One: Rejoice, O holy Church! Exult in glory! The risen Saviour shines upon you! Let this place resound with joy, as we sing, echoing the mighty song of all God’s people!
HymnChrist the Lord is risen today Charles Wesley (1707-88)
Sing “Alleluia” after each line of music
Christ the Lord is risen today: Sons of men and angels say: raise your joys and triumphs high: sing, ye heavens, thou earth reply:
2: Love’s redeeming work is done: fought the fight, the battle won: vain the stone, the watch, the seal: Christ hath burst the gates of hell:
3: Lives again our glorious King: where, O death, is now thy sting? Once he died our souls to save: where’s thy victory, boasting grave?
4: Soar we now where Christ hath led: following our exalted Head: made like him, like him we rise: ours the cross, the grave, the skies.
5: King of glory, soul of bliss, everlasting life is this, Thee to know, thy power to prove, thus to sing, and thus to love.
Christ is risen! Alleluia! Alleluia! Greetings on this joyful Easter day! I am Susan Durber and I have two main roles; one as the minister of Taunton United Reformed Church and the other as Moderator of the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches. Right now I am recording this in my home – and services, in our local church here, are taking place on Zoom. We hope to return to a hybrid of Zoom and some people being present in church. But however you are doing this, and whatever your situation, let’s all be determined to celebrate Christ’s victory over death. This is the heart of our faith and on this we stand.
As someone active within the work of the World Council of Churches I am much aware that not all churches in the world are celebrating Easter on this day; that this year Orthodox Easter is not until May 2nd. One of the challenges before the ecumenical movement is to find a way for us to celebrate Easter together. Perhaps one thing the pandemic has shown us is how much we need each other, how terrible our present divisions and inequalities are, and how God is calling us to be renewed together. This Easter, more than usual, it seems so tragic that we cannot all mark even this day in unity. May that day come, and may it come soon. For we have so much to celebrate, even while we mourn. In the light of the resurrection of Christ, we can say with confidence that the sting of death, a sting we have felt so deeply this year, is overcome, for all God’s people.
Prayers of Approach and Confession; words of forgiveness
God of resurrection, lit by your love and warmed by your life, we come to praise you. Today we touch once more the mystery that life is strong, that love is eternal, that death is defeated, the darkness scattered by the dawn and sorrow transfigured by joy.
Risen Lord, we praise you at this moment of new beginning, and we welcome with open hearts this great and irresistible hope. Whatever our sorrow however profound our struggle and even if grief and death are with us we welcome the gift of life with which you bless us.
May we know your risen presence with us today as we open the scriptures and break the bread. May we walk out of our own tombs and receive new life. May we trust your loving hand that reaches into any Hell to draw us up to Heaven.
Forgive us our sins. Restore our strength. Tread down any evil in us and confirm in us everything that is good.
Let the heavens echo earth’s praise as we rejoice that you forgive us that death is defeated that the night has given way to the dawn that Christ is risen and all shall be well for evermore, Amen.
The Lord’s Prayer
Prayer for illumination
O God, however many times we have heard the words of the Easter Gospel, let them sound with clarity and joy in our ears today. May we be blessed with new insight and deeper faith. May familiar words truly become holy scripture and may our ears be blown open by the Holy Spirit, that at last we may say ‘Amen’ with body, mind and soul.
Reading: StJohn 20: 1-18
Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, ‘They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.’ Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went towards the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned to their homes. But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping?’ She said to them, ‘They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.’ When she had said this, she turned round and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?’ Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Mary!’ She turned and said to him in Hebrew, ‘Rabbouni!’ (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, ‘Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” ’ Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’; and she told them that he had said these things to her.
Last year, when we were living through the first lockdown, a friend of mine said, ‘I don’t want last year’s Easter’. She was then living with someone shielding, and it was a time when the churches were all closed. On the television she found some recordings of Easter services from what seemed like a former world, with people crowded into decorated churches, wearing bright colours, smiling happily and singing lustily. Such a recorded Easter, an Easter from another lifetime, seemed to her so jarring and inappropriate. If Easter means anything, if resurrection is true, then it has to make sense in the times we are living in right now. Now, another year on, I think this seems even more true. Our celebrations of Easter this year have somehow to be different. The great numbers of the dead, the many who are grieving, those who are fearful for the future, and those who despite everything are full of hope, need and deserve to hear something for today. There can be no taking out last year’s sermon and changing the odd illustration. We need to hear and proclaim together an Easter message for this time. We need this year’s Easter.
But then every year when I read this marvellous text from John’s Gospel, I notice something new. And this year, straightaway, I noticed, perhaps as you did, Jesus telling Mary ‘Do not touch me’. ‘Noli me tangere’ in Latin – evoking memories of the Tango – in which the dancers touch one another with almost every part of their bodies getting involved. Jesus tells Mary not to touch him, not to hold on to him. These two do not tango. In one very famous and beloved painting of this Gospel reading (by Titian) Jesus is shown pulling away from Mary. Sadly, it’s a gesture that seems all too familiar to us now. All those walks where people cross the road to avoid getting too close. All those moments when we are doing our best always to stay two metres apart. The queues in the supermarket, spaced out in lines. Even those most painful moments when we can only wave at those we love or speak to them from the doorstep – those times when we have to hold back from touch and embrace. This kind of social distancing has been the reality of our lives for many months. We have understood in a way that we never expected or imagined, what it means not to be able to touch one another. In this story from John’s Gospel we see how the Word has become flesh, but not at this point, flesh that can be touched or held. ‘Do not touch me’, he says.
It may be that some of us here are longing to be able to touch someone else; someone who we haven’t seen for months, or perhaps someone who has now died and whose body is no longer there for us to hold, though we so long to. Not to be able to touch and hold is part of the almost physical and profound pain of bereavement. So, we find ourselves identifying today with the longing and the loss and desire for touch and comfort – for something we cannot have. And it is good to see echoed in the holy pages of the Gospels this intense longing, this loss that we now know so deeply, as we long for those who have died or as we try to keep distance from each other in order to keep one another safe.
But this is hardly, itself, good news – not an answer to a pandemic or to death or grief. Where can we hear the Gospel that will transform our pain and loss today? Well, the most profound hope is there in this passage. It’s in Mary’s journey from grief and bereavement to confident proclamation. Have you noticed that several times in the text Mary talks about Jesus being ‘taken away’. At the beginning she runs to Simon Peter and to the other disciples and tells them, ‘They have taken the Lord out of the tomb’. Later, the angels ask why she is weeping and she says, ‘They have taken away my Lord…’. And then when she sees the gardener she says, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away..’ and she even says that once she knows where the body is, ‘I will take him away’.. But once Jesus speaks she hears that Jesus is not to be taken anywhere at all, but is going home to God. And she tells the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’. Mary cannot touch, as she longs to, but she can hear and see. And she learns that Jesus has not been taken away, and indeed that he cannot be taken away. He is going to the Father, the very one with whom Jesus has already told the disciples he is at one and the disciples too ( all there in chapter 17). Jesus is reminding the disciples, Mary and us too – dear readers – that he is one with God, and we are one with him. We are closer than physical touching could bring anyone. We are ‘one’. The unity we long for is his and ours. The separation that death creates and that a pandemic compels us to observe is – at a deep level – absolutely overcome. Mary does not need to hold on to Jesus now, because a much closer relationship than that has come into being. She is held by God. We are held and can hold onto God. We are made one with the creator of all life. Death cannot hold us now. Life has us in its embrace. It is death itself that is banished to a distance as life is made new.
In a time of pandemic we have not even been able to reach out – in the way we used to do – and hold the bread that becomes for us the body of Christ. Even that most sacramental of touching is compromised. But, just as no-one did take away the body of Jesus then, so no-one can take away the presence of Jesus with us right now. Even if we can only watch and take part ‘in spirit’, or even if we take our own bread at home rather than in church, we are being made one with God and life in us is being renewed. We may well long for how things were, we may grieve for what is taken away, but nothing, nothing, no power on earth or in heaven, can ever take Jesus away from us. He is with God, and he is with us – more powerfully even than human touch can imagine. No-one has taken him away and no-one will. As Mary said, ‘We have seen the Lord’.
This Easter may be different from other ones – in ways that we all understand. But at the same time it is like all other Easters. In just the same way we can know that no-one has taken Jesus away – the truth is that he is drawing us close in order to lift us into the very presence of God with him. The God revealed in the risen Christ keeps no distance from us, but is at one with us, sharing our grief and sorrow and lifting us with him into the joy of God’s presence and the hope of new life. May it be so, for you and for all for whom you long. Amen.
Affirmation of Faith
God’s reconciling act in Jesus Christ is a mystery which the Scriptures describe in various ways.
It is called the sacrifice of a lamb, a shepherd’s life given for his sheep, atonement by a priest; again it is ransom of a slave, payment of debt, vicarious satisfaction of a legal penalty, and victory over the powers of evil. These are expressions of a truth which remains beyond the reach of all theory in the depths of God’s love for humankind.
They reveal the gravity, cost, and sure achievement of God’s reconciling work in which we trust.
Hymn This joyful Eastertide! George Ratcliffe Woodward (1894)
This joyful Eastertide away with sin and sorrow! My love, the crucified, hath sprung to life this morrow.
Had Christ, who once was slain, ne’er burst his three-day prison, our faith had been in vain. But now hath Christ arisen, arisen, arisen, arisen.
2 My flesh in hope shall rest and for a season slumber till trump from east to west shall wake the dead in number.
3 Death’s flood hath lost its chill since Jesus crossed the river. Lover of souls, from ill my passing soul deliver.
This is the table of Christ, the feast of life to which all are invited, and all are made welcome.
Come on this day of new beginning, come limping or dancing, come at home or in church, come in your bed or on your feet, come with your wounds and your griefs, come rejoicing, come with hope. Come and eat bread, come and drink wine, For this is the table of Christ.
Introduction to and prayer over offering
We offer to you O God, this bread – the food we eat each day this wine – made for joyfulness and celebration. Our money – the symbol of our work and possessions, and ourselves – all that we love and all that we are. May all give glory to you and bring joy to the world, Amen.
Hymn Easter people raise your Voices John of Damascus 676 – 749
Easter people raise your voices Sounds of heaven in earth should ring Christ has brought us Heaven’s choices Heavenly music let it ring Alleluia alleluia Easter people let us sing
2: Fear of death can no more stop us From our pressing here below For our Lord empowered us To triumph over every foe Alleluia alleluia On to victory now we go
3: Every day to us is Easter, with its resurrection song Even when life overwhelms us, Easter people sing this song: Alleluia alleluia, everlasting Sunday song.
On the night he was handed over, Jesus took bread gave thanks, broke it and said, ‘This is my body, which is for you. Do this to remember me. In the same way he also took the cup, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this whenever you drink it, to remember me.’
Now, at this table, remembering the last supper and also the supper at Emmaus when the risen Christ was known in the breaking of bread, we come to meet with Christ and to celebrate the joy of life.
The Prayer of Thanksgiving
Eternal God, we praise you and give you thanks for you created us and gave us life and in Christ, you renew us again. You broke out of the tomb – and from the tragedy of death you brought forth joy. On the first day of the week, while it was still dark, you were raised in power and our world was lit with hope. In the early dawn, before even the birds sang, you rose to sing the song of life.
And so with those who found the tomb empty and believed, with those who met you risen from death, and with all those who have loved you throughout the ages, we praise you his Easter day.
Remembering your passion and resurrection, knowing that you died for us and live for us, we set forth this bread and wine.
Come now, Holy Spirit of our God, to breathe on these things, and bring new life and joy to us, that the risen Christ may be present here and that we may go forth in power to live a new life in the world. Amen.
The bread of heaven in Jesus Christ The cup of salvation in Jesus Christ.
Music: Victimae Paschali Laudes
We thank you God, for this great joy beyond words.
A silence of thankfulness…
As we remember the stories of Easter we pray for our world:
We remember the women who came while it was still dark to honour your body, and we pray for all those who now tend to the dying and dead, that they may know the worth of what they do…
We think of the women whose stories and testimony of resurrection were not believed and we pray for those who have very little power in this world. May their voices be heard at last and their truth made plain…
We remember the disciples on the Emmaus road who discovered that you were with them as they broke the bread, and we pray for all who do not yet see or know your loving presence with them…
We think of Thomas who doubted and who needed the evidence of his eyes, and we pray for all who are seeking or questioning faith. May they find those who will truly listen to them and hear their cry…
We remember Peter, consumed by guilt and shame after betraying you, and we pray for new beginnings for all who struggle to know that they are forgiven and free…
May we all find those who will lead us back to life…
We think of the disciples who caught a miraculous catch, so huge that the nets burst – and we pray for the mission of the Church. May our faith be so renewed that it is visible, credible and attractive to those who meet us…
We remember Saul of Tarsus, who met the risen Christ on the road to Damascus and who was transformed. We pray for a world that needs your light to transform every place where suffering is deep and oppression strong.
We think of the hundreds of people who were added to their number in the earliest days of the Church, and we pray for the crowds of people in our world who are crying in pain or suffering and who long for peace.
We remember the great story of Easter, the good news of life, and the hope of redemption. May we treasure it, live it and proclaim it; with our words and our lives, today and every day, Amen.
HymnThine be the Glory Edmond Louis Budry. (1854-1932) tr. Richard Birch Hoyle (1875-1939)
Thine be the glory, risen, conquering Son; endless is the victory thou o’er death hast won; angels in bright raiment rolled the stone away, kept the folded grave-clothes where thy body lay.
2: Lo, Jesus meets us, risen from the tomb; lovingly he greets us, scatters fear and gloom; let the Church with gladness hymns of triumph sing, for her Lord now liveth, death hath lost its sting:
Thine be the glory, risen, conquering Son; endless is the victory thou o’er death hast won!
3: No more we doubt thee, glorious Prince of life; life is naught without thee: aid us in our strife; make us more than conquerors, through thy deathless love; bring us safe through Jordan to thy home above.
May the God who has conquered death bless you with life and joy this Easter and always, And the blessing of God; Creator, Christ and Comforter, be with you. Amen
Sources and thanks
Christ the Lord is risen today – Charles Wesley (1707-88) sung by Maddy Prior accompanied by the Carnival Band from the album Sing Lustily and with Good Cheer. This joyful Eastertide! – George Ratcliffe Woodward (1894) sung on BBC’s Songs of Praise Easter people raise your Voices – John of Damascus 676 – 749 sung by the choir and people of Polk St United Methodist Church, Amarillo, Texas Victimae Paschali Laudes – (“To the Paschal victim let Christians offer up their songs of praise”) by Wipo of Burgundy, 11th Century) – Unknown performers. Thine be the Glory – Edmond Louis Budry. (1854-1932) tr. Richard Birch Hoyle (1875-1939) – sung on BBC’s Songs of Praise
Closing Organ Piece: Komm Gott Schӧpfer Heiliger Geist (“Come God, creator Holy Ghost”) by Johann Sebastian Bach (organ of Basilica Santa Maria Dei Assunta, Montecatini Terme, Italy – 2016). Played by, and received, with thanks, from Brian Cotterill. http://briancotterill.webs.com
Thanks to Anne Hewling, John Young, Lorraine Webb and Melanie Hall for reading various spoken parts of the service.
Where words are copyright reproduced under the terms of Barrhead URC’s CCLI licence number 1064776, Some material reprinted, and streamed, with permission under ONE LICENSE A-734713 All rights reserved. PRS Limited Online Music Licence LE-0019762