A sermon preached at St Martin-in-the-Fields on Easter Day 4 April by Revd Dr Sam Wells.
Readings of address: Song of Songs 8. 6-7, John 20. 1, 11-18
Thirty-five years ago I was playing in a rugby game when I got the heel of a boot in my neck. A few hours later I could hardly breathe, and a hospital doctor did a tracheotomy, which meant for the next two weeks air came in and out through my throat. The blood went over my vocal cords, and it seemed I wouldn’t be able to speak properly again. In the event the two main casualties were my singing voice and my ability to shout. You won’t ever have heard me shout because I can’t. So I had to learn a different way to impose my authority. (What authority? I hear you say.) Eventually I worked it out. The way to be heard isn’t to shout. It’s to whisper.
There are several kinds of occasions when we whisper. One is when we’re frightened. I remember years ago coming back to the flat where I lived and finding the door open. I should have been strong and manly but I wasn’t. I was whispering to see if my companion and I could work out whether there were burglars in the flat and which room they were in. Even when we found no burglar it was hard to speak again in a normal voice. Another time we whisper is when we’re keeping a secret. We’re at the back of class and we believe like all school pupils that teachers can’t hear what’s being whispered at more than twelve feet away. We’re digging our way out of the prisoner of war camp, and we whisper to the person removing the earth from the tunnel. Best of all is when we’re intimate with someone special, we’re sharing touch and darkness, and we’re saying something we’ve never told anyone before. It’s a moment of discovery, revelation, disclosure, and the whisper makes it precious, trustful, and true.
I want to talk about three whispers: three whispers that tell the whole story of everything. You can’t tell much that matters by shouting, but you can explore the whole mystery of everything in three whispers. Huddle close, to make sure you can hear. It’s time to whisper the whole mystery of everything. Here we go.
We didn’t choose to be born, any of us. Yet at some moment in our childhood, each of us realised that we were alive. It struck us one moment, or dawned on us gradually, that we were in the midst of an astonishing, beautiful, exhilarating drama, which careered on, largely without our will or assistance. That drama wasn’t just a spectacle: we got to play a role in it: in fact, we had as much chance as anyone to play a part. That drama hadn’t always been: once it had not been, and even more pressing, once we had not been; but now we are. That was the moment, that instant in our childhood, when we became aware of life.
But one night we looked into the sky, and saw a gazillion stars, most of which probably burnt out trillions of years ago, but whose light we’re only now seeing: and we realised this life – our life, all life – is just a whisper in the cacophony of the universe. We’re a tiny speck in the story of everything. From across the universe we’re even tinier than the most minuscule star is to us. But that whisper is the whisper on which everything we know depends. We’re a whisper; a tiny one. It doesn’t matter how quiet a whisper is: what matters is the words it says. And the whisper that says the word ‘Life’ is precious beyond any blast of sound. It’s a whisper that communicates indescribable energy, creativity, vigour, joy. The elixir of life.
But a little bit later in our childhood we realise that life isn’t the only thing in play. There’s something that comes to everyone, to everything, that takes the joy out of life. As you become a teenager, you realise that everyone only deals with it by pretending it isn’t there. But it infiltrates every life, and every aspect of life, with its menace and destruction. On the rugby field that day 35 years ago, I rejoiced in the first whisper – the whisper of life, running, kicking, tackling, passing, enjoying, exulting. But in the hospital that night I glimpsed in the registrar’s worried face, and the nurses’ anxious attentions, the spectre of a second whisper: death. I came suddenly, unexpectedly, very close to death. Death is what we could call the second whisper. It’s a mystery, just as deep and impenetrable as life. Why is there life? We don’t usually ask the question, but we’re glad there is. We laugh at the question, because everything we can imagine depends on there being life. But if there’s life, why is there death? It’s unthinkable, intolerable, unjust. Does the second whisper cancel out the first whisper – shout it down, dismantle and discredit it? What’s the point of the first whisper if we have to face the second whisper? How do we find our way out of the everlasting wrestle between life and death? Do we fear, deep down, that death eventually wins, every time? Is that why we whisper – because we don’t want to admit it, try to keep the secret, don’t want anyone else to know?
Tucked away near the middle of the Old Testament, half-way through the last chapter of one of its most neglected books, just where no one’s going to look for them, are the most important words in the Bible. They’re the most important, because they break open this perpetual arm-wrestle between life and death. Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm; for love is strong as death. Those five words are the epicentre of the Bible: love is strong as death. There’s only one way to say them: and that’s to whisper them. Death thinks it’s got the better of life – it’ll always win in the end. It’ll destroy, dismantle and discredit everything, and turn it to dust. But there’s something death hasn’t bargained for. And that’s love. And when we discover love, we find the answers to our two greatest questions. Why is there life? Because of love. Love is what life was created for. Will life outlast death? No – but love will. Death can’t drown love. Many floods can’t quench its fire.
However happy the happiest day of your life, there’s a sadness lurking in the shadows. It’s the sadness of that second whisper. You can love someone, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t die. Someone can love you, but that doesn’t always mean her love for you won’t die. You can work for 30 years to build up a business, but that doesn’t mean a pandemic can’t bring it crashing down. You can love a grandparent your whole life, but you can watch a virus tear her away from you in just a few days.
When Mary Magdalen goes to the tomb on the morning of the first Easter Day, she knows more than anyone about the first whisper – because she’s seen life like no one’s known it before, she’s met Jesus, she’s watched him heal the leper and raise the dead, she’s heard him speak the words of eternal life. But she also knows more than anyone about the second whisper, because she’s seen this man who embodied everything life could mean nailed to a cross, tortured, betrayed, denied, rejected. She’s seen everything life can be turned into merciless death. Perhaps more than anyone in history, on that first Easter morning she’s bewildered by the contrast between life and death, the first whisper and the second – and she goes to the tomb weighing one with the other in her mind and heart and soul.
What she finds there is the most important discovery ever made. It’s the discovery that makes sense of all the glorious mysteries of life and the desultory mysteries of death. She discovers there’s a third mystery. She discovers the central claim of the Christian faith: love is stronger than death. What she discovers is resurrection. This is the mystery that unravels the mystery of life and death. Resurrection is the way, the only way, human beings reach out from the constraints of life and touch forever. And resurrection even more wonderfully is the way forever reaches out from beyond death and touches us with its truth.
The day I left that hospital 35 years ago I discovered there was something more powerful than shouting or even singing. I learned how to whisper. And since then I’ve discovered that you can shout about resurrection and it can be impressive and you can sing about resurrection and it can be beautiful. But for the things that matter most in our lives, the things we dare to believe and fear to say out loud, the most precious way to put those things into words is to whisper.
We know life is short and fragile; we know death is bleak and cruel. But there’s a third whisper, which is the reason life was created and the only thing stronger than death. That whisper is resurrection, and to be a Christian is to whisper it together, in dawn of the day, in the glow of the evening, in the darkness of the night, every day, so when life is over and death has done its worst, that whisper will still be rustling, and will speak louder than any scream or shout. It’s a whisper that may mean danger, may require secrecy, but will in the end be the most intimate and joyful truth we share with the one who made life and transcended death. That whisper, which hitherto has always said the one word, ‘resurrection,’ will finally turn into the only word that can match it, the word that makes it irresistible, the word that dismantles death and transcends mortality. That word can’t be shouted or screamed, but can only be whispered softly, because it’s the secret at the heart of the universe, the secret beyond life and death, the secret of God and us. That word is, ‘forever.’