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Making the Good News good news

03 December 2018

Raewynne Whiteley on making the most of narrative preaching in your Easter Sunday sermon

<strong>Making the Good News good news</strong>

Easter morning has come, and we find ourselves looking out on a congregation that is often different from our usual Sunday morning. There are still the stalwarts, the pillars of the congregation, and extended families, grown children called home for the celebration. Some families are missing, taking advantage of the school holidays. But their places are more than filled: familiar faces who show up every Christmas and Easter and at various fundraising events throughout the year; visitors, regulars in some other congregation who have searched out a local congregation close to where they are staying for the weekend; and strangers, drawn in for the first time by some unknown compulsion to see what this Easter celebration is all about. So how do we preach on this great feast day that marks the heart of our faith?

When I was a teenager, I was convinced that the most important thing I could do for my schoolfriend was to convince them of the historical reliability of the resurrection. I learned the evidence, the proofs, by memory, and rolled them out whenever I had opportunity, but they seemed to have little impact. My friends were far more interested in what had happened on TV the previous evening, and whether someone had a new boyfriend, and who had won the football on the weekend. My proofs were of as little relevance to their day-to-day living as our history lessons: in fact, they probably served more to undermine my friends’ nominal faith than to strengthen it, proving to them once again that Christianity was largely irrelevant to everyday life.

A hundred years ago, Christianity was the default setting of our society. It had a powerful social role, both as a source of cohesion and as the arbiter of morality. But the impact of two wars, growth in technology, the increased responsibility of government for welfare, exposure to other cultures, and rising affluence, led to questioning. What place - if any - should Christianity have in society and in our lives?

An immediate response, driven in part by archeological discoveries and the rise of historical criticism, was to question the historical reliability of Scripture, and hence of the basic tenets of our faith. On the one hand, disproving the gospel accounts released people from the ‘tyranny’ of traditional faith; on the other, proving them provided a ready justification for faith.

But there was an unintended consequence. Faith posed primarily as a question of intellectual belief lost its connection with life. You could choose to believe or not. You could choose to go to church or not. It was a matter of individual choice.

And yet some things persisted. At times of great joy and great sorrow, birth, marriage, death, people kept seeking out the church. There was something that Christianity provided that no one else could.

And so, the question became, not is it true, but is it real? Does our faith in Jesus Christ, his birth, his life, his death, his resurrection, does it make a difference?

That is the question that I believe is at the heart of our Easter preaching. We have a church of people who are wondering, is Christianity real? Does Christ’s resurrection make a difference? And our task it to find a way to answer that question with a resounding ‘Yes!’

These are some of the principles I have followed in finding ways to preach the difference that our Easter faith makes in our lives:


Begin from a place of faith

The people in our congregations have already made a deliberate decision to come to church on Easter Day - rather than sleeping in, spending time with their family, or going on holiday. That suggests that at the very least, they have either a remnant of faith or a desire to explore it. When we begin our preaching from a place of faith, we both validate those tentative moves, and reaffirm the more mature faith of others in our congregation. When we make a connection in our preaching between the events of that first Easter and the ordinary lives of our hearers, we help them discover the difference that Christ makes in our lives.

Furthermore, preaching that identifies faith as something that we share engenders a sense of belonging, and helps build community - and we know from the testimony of the New Testament that one of the things that drew people to the early church was the visible commitment of the Christians one to another.


Engage with the text

Sometimes it is easy to forget that many in our pews do not know the great stories of our faith. Some, raised outside the church, have never heard them; others - even our stalwarts - may still be working from a Sunday School level of biblical literacy. And none of us can ever hear the great stories of our faith too often.

One of the great reclamations of the New Homiletic is the power of narrative. Telling stories is one way that we form identity, weaving the stories of our own lives with other stories to find meaning. That makes narrative a particularly powerful tool in addressing both the general question, ‘what difference does faith make?’ and the specific question, ‘what difference does Easter make?’

While narrative preaching as a form does not require preaching on a narrative text, the gospel narratives of Easter Day are a gift for narrative preaching. They are full of detail that excites our imaginations; the distinctive perspective that each gospel offers provides new ways into the story and new connections with our lives.

The writer Flannery O’Connor (1969) said that ‘Some people have the notion that you read the story and then climb out of it into the meaning, but for the fiction writer himself the whole story is the meaning, because it is an experience, not an abstraction.’ When we engage with Scripture with the fullness of our imaginations, when we climb into the text of Scripture and make ourselves a dwelling place there, the text — and God — becomes alive. We can encounter God, and find our lives transformed.


Make the good news good news

I hope this requires no explanation!


An excerpt from a sermon for Easter Day (John 20:1-18)


The earth was silent

when the woman came.



slipping through the sleepy streets,

a few small coins passed

to the guard on the gate of the city walls,

and she was outside,

the air chill

and the damp seeping up underfoot,

trees threateningly twisted

in the moon’s cold grey light.

And she reached the tomb, a new one, she thought for a moment

that she had the wrong place.

Because she had seen it,

she had seen it

when they put his body there,

and they had pushed the stone

across the hole,

and the limestone glowed in the moonlight,

pale where the rock had so recently been chipped away,

just as she remembered it.

But the stone

was gone

and a gaping hole

in its place.


And she turned, and ran,

ran back across the cold grey garden,

back through the city gate,

back to where

the disciples were staying.

‘He’s gone, he’s gone, and I don’t know

where they’ve put him!’


And Peter and John

grabbed their cloaks

and headed after her,

the streets now stirring

in the early daylight,

and John caught up,

and then ran ahead

and there, just as she had said,

the creamy limestone

and black hole,

and inside the hole

no body,

just rags of linen


where he had been laid.

And Peter, pushing past,

found the same,

and the cloth from his head

rolled up in a corner,

and John

followed him in,

and saw where the body had been, and believed,

but what did he believe?

And the two of them turned

and without a word

walked back home,

the city

rising to life

around them.


Leaving Mary Magdalene



The birds had begun to sing

but she was deaf.

The sun was beginning to rise

but she was blind.

The earth was beginning to warm

and with it

the scent of creation

but she could not smell.

All she knew

was death.


And she looked in

to that black black hole

in the limestone

now gold bright, touched by the sun,

and saw

two men in white.

And didn’t see them.

The words she spoke

were the same words

that she cried in panic to the disciples.

‘He’s gone, he’s gone, and I don’t know

where they’ve put him!’

And they

in turn

were silent.

All she knew

was death.


And she turned away

tear-dried tracks

down her face,

blind and deaf and senseless.

To see

through swollen eyes

a man,

and hear him speaking,

‘What’s wrong?’


And the same words,

or something like them.

‘He’s gone, he’s gone, and I don’t know

where they’ve put him!’






And it was not

a corpse

that she was looking at.

All she knew

was death,

but here

in front of her

was life.


that sounded

and looked,

and yes, even smelled

like her dear friend,


Her friend,

her teacher,

her Saviour.

Standing there

in front of her

as if

the nightmare

of the past three days

had never happened.



Life in all its fullness.


And then,

as if she had reached

to hug him,

Jesus said,

don’t grab hold of me.

Because there is more to life than me, there is more to life than this.

Run, run as you ran to the disciples

to tell them I was missing,


and tell them

that I am alive!


And Mary, Mary Magdalene,

the one who only knew death, now

knew life

and she turned

and ran, ran again

through that garden

that once had been

cold and grey

but now was bursting with growth,

full of avian alleluias,

ran through the gate

startling the guard,

through the streets

once dark and silent,

pushing past the donkey cart

making early morning deliveries,

throwing a coin to the child begging in a doorway,

waving as she passed

arriving outside

the house where the disciples were staying

and banging on the door,

‘He’s risen, don’t you know? He’s risen!’



All Mary Magdalen knew when she went to the tomb

that very first

Easter morning,

all she knew

was death.


But what she discovered

was life.

When all she had smelled

was decay,

she smelled creation.

Where all she had seen

was a blackened hole,

she saw

the face of her friend.

Where all she had heard

was silence,

she heard birds singing

and the voice of her teacher, her Saviour.


She was as good as dead.

And that first Easter morning

life chose her,

and she embraced it.


It’s so easy

to be fixated on death,

isn’t it?

Bombs exploding in an airport,

a train station,


of bewildered passengers

clothes torn away, wounds bleeding.

An ocean away but far too near,

bringing back memories

of a day of destruction

fifteen years ago.


Political campaigns

threatening chaos and carnage

if you vote the wrong way.


And in our own lives

the sadness

of relationships torn

and promises broken

and dreams disappointed.

And especially

as we gather around the table

for a holiday celebration


of those who are not with us,

death made visible.


Like Mary,

we know


But death

is not all there is.

As Mary discovered

when she turned

and saw her Lord.

And life

chose her.

Life, in all its fulness,

and she went

rushing to tell the disciples,

He is risen!


And with her,

in the resurrection of our Saviour

we can

know life.

Life in all its colour,

life in all its clamour,

life in all its sweetness.

In Christ, life has chosen you.

Embrace it!

And run,

tell the world

Death is defeated.

Life is triumphant.

Christ is risen!



Flannery O’Connor, (1969) ’The Nature and Aim of Fiction,’ p. 73 in Mystery and Manners by

Flannery O’Connor, eds. S. and R. Fitzgerald (1969). New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.


Raewynne Whiteley is Diocesan Discipleship and Vocations Missioner in the Diocese of Southwark and author of Get Up Off Your Knees: Preaching the U2 Catalog (with Beth Maynard), and Steeped in the Holy: Preaching as Spiritual Practice.

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