Sermon for Easter 2012
Jesus said to her, ‘Mary!’ (John 20:16)
Just over three weeks ago, on the football pitch at White Hart Lane, the home of Tottenham Hotspur FC,
the player Fabrice Muamba suffered a cardiac arrest and collapsed during the first half of the FA Cup
Quarter-Final between his team, Bolton Wanderers, and Spurs. He was fortunate enough to have
prompt medical attention by large and skilled team, including a consultant cardiologist who happened
to be watching, and was taken to a specialist unit of a London hospital. Within a week his heart was
beating without medical assistance, and a week later he was pictured sitting up in bed smiling. He
continues, I think, to make good progress, though the doctors warn of a long recovery period.
Those are bald facts of the case, yet they fail to do justice to the phenomenon. At the time the ground
went quiet, but after a while both sets of supporters started chanting, ‘Come on!’. Within hours his
fiancée Shauna Magunda and his family were urging everyone to pray for him, and within days
footballers all over the country and as far afield as Barcelona and Milan, were sporting ‘Pray 4 Muamba’
shirts. The Sun newspaper, not noted for its religiosity, had a headline, ‘God is in control’, and the
following week’s local derby between Bolton and Blackburn was punctuated throughout with chanting
from both sides of Muamba’s name. Outside the ground were strewn football shirts from every club in
the country and beyond, along with flowers and prayers. This, in a country that is generally agreed now
to be thoroughly secular and at best lukewarm about faith.
What is happening here? Some have called it mass hysteria like that which followed the death of Diana,
but it doesn’t feel hysterical. Just quiet prayer, and people, for once, being unashamed to admit to
praying and believing in God. Not only that, but people are being brought together across the tribes –
and nothing is more tribal than football- for a common good. There is, to me, another very interesting
and heartening side to this story. Muamba is a refugee from the Congo, a refugee who could easily be
attacked in another headline in another context; he is also playing in a game which still struggles with
racism, though great strides have been made. Yet here we are, as English people, being taught once
again the Christian faith which we helped to bring to Africa, by a refugee family from Africa.
‘Let us pray,’ we say. Yet we don’t! When facing a decision, or a crisis, or simply a new day, we will do
anything but pray. Yet by this we miss so much. ‘O what peace we often forfeit, o what needless pain we
bear, all because we do not carry everything to God in prayer’, says the old song. Maybe one of the
reasons for our reluctance lies in our confusion about the nature of prayer. Are we being superstitious
when we pray? Are we trying to change God’s mind, force his hand? Or are we fearful of what might
happen to our faith if our prayers are unanswered and so give up at the first hurdle? Or do we simply
not know what to do?
If we want a good model for prayer we need look no further than the central character in today’s Easter
Gospel reading. Mary Magdalene is known for many dubious things, most of which have no basis in the
Gospels, yet few people speak about her as a woman of prayer. Maybe that’s because there’s no explicit
reference to her prayer life. Yet what it does say is that she was there at Jesus’ death on Good Friday
afternoon. When the disciples fled, she and other women remained. She couldn’t do anything, but she
was there. The Gospels say two things about her: 1) John says she was ‘standing by’ the cross. The
phrase ‘stand by’ means much more than being upright and adjacent to someone, but to share their
pain and support them. She was with Jesus in his sufferings – she didn’t flinch or run away. That’s an
important part of prayer, remaining in solidarity with a person and their loved ones through the long
haul. There are people who have been on our prayer list at St John’s for literally years. 2) It describes her
as ‘looking from afar’. That could be understood as keeping their distance, but equally as being like a
watchman on a tower, scanning the distant horizon for changes and developments. Prayer for someone
lifts them out of their little context into the wider horizon of God’s love and purpose, both for this life
and the life to come.
Yet Mary didn’t just stand by Jesus at his crucifixion. She looked in hope for something greater and
better and on Easter morning her looking was rewarded. Prayer is not just a grim exercise in endurance,
but a hopeful scanning of the horizon for God’s purposes. What those purposes are, we cannot tell. Our
job is to look and watch and wait in God’s good time.
On Friday, as part of the service, we hammered nails into this cross to remind ourselves of the ones that
fixed Jesus’ body there. Yesterday and today we have woven flowers around those nails. Note – we
haven’t replaced the nails with flowers but woven them in, and as I stand at the altar I will be looking at
you all through that cross, unable to see the flowers you can see. That’s what prayer is often like: we can
often only see the pain in this life, but, if we look, there is the wider perspective of Easter and eternity.
This is what is what we’re looking at when we pray, even if through a cross-shaped window.
So this Easter I pray that we would take away from this church a new resolve to pray. If you are a regular
worshipper here, or live round about, I draw your attention to this prayer tree. Lots of people have put
prayer requests on this tree. They do so because they want others to pray for the concerns they
mention. Would you like to add your own requests today- or, just as importantly, could you jot down
some of the requests mentioned here and pray for them at home? Remember this church is usually
open throughout the week for anyone to sit in and pray, and as someone who does this regularly, I can
assure you it has even more beauty and stillness than when full of people. You will find that, when you
lay your concerns and the concerns of others before God in this place, you too will be rewarded with a
peace and clarity of mind. Prayer is good for the pray-er too, as well as affecting the person prayed for in
24 years ago I went to hear the Russian Christian dissident and poet Irina Ratushinskaya who had just
been released from labour camp after a campaign led by a priest from Birmingham. She told us what it
was like to be prayed for and offered this poem for her supporters:
Believe me, it was often thus:
In solitary cells, on winter nights/ A sudden sense of joy and warmth
And a resounding note of love.
And then, unsleeping, I would know /A-huddle by an icy wall:
Someone is thinking of me now,
Petitioning the Lord for me.
My dear ones, thank you all
Who did not falter, who believed in us!
In the most fearful prison hour /We probably would not have passed
Through everything- from end to end, /Our heads held high, unbowed- Without your valiant hearts to light our
Let us pray!