Sermon for Easter
(Acts 10, 34-43; Luke 24, 1-12)
Today we are celebrating the Resurrection, the central belief of the Christian faith. Whenever we say a creed we proclaim our belief that Christ was raised from the dead, and that we look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.
But what are we really saying; and what difference does it make?
We may be saying that we believe in the mighty act of God in raising Jesus Christ from death to glory in Palestine two thousand years ago. But what we believe about what actually happened will differ from Christian to Christian. The Gospels recount the experience of different followers of Jesus, some named and some not. Acts gives different accounts and Paul, in his letters, his own very different experience of the risen Christ, which does not fit into the Gospel pattern of 40 days of appearances before Ascension to Heaven.
The Bible accounts show us that the resurrection appearances of Jesus were not straightforward affairs, events that could be recorded by a camera or a video. Often Christ was not immediately recognisable; it was through some words or actions that his presence was recognised. Was it a physical resurrection, or a spiritual one?
What Scripture shows us is that these early followers had a overwhelming personal experience of the presence of Christ, which convinced them that God had raised Jesus from death to share in the divine glory; and that these experiences transformed their lives, giving them peace and hope, and the strength to face the worst that life could bring them, even physical death. That belief changed the way those followers lived their lives; but does it make any difference to the way we live our lives today?
In the creeds, we also state our belief in ‘the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come’. Generally, that ‘resurrection’ is now taken as something that happens after physical death; and again our beliefs about it are not something we can prove in any scientific sense. When we talk about resurrection after death, all we can use is picture language; whether that is the mediaeval writings and paintings, showing the bliss of the righteous in Heaven and the torments of the unrighteous in Hell; or less serious talk about harps and wings and sitting on clouds for all eternity.
Again, there may be different beliefs among Christians about what the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come really means, and no-one can be certain about it. Are the pictures of Heaven and Hell biblical, or inventions of the Church to scare us into behaving properly in this life? Is that the only way that belief in the resurrection affects the way we live our lives now?
My own beliefs about resurrection and what it means were very influenced by the writing of an Anglican monk of the Community of the Resurrection at Mirfield called Harry Williams, and in particular by a book he wrote in the 1970s called ‘True Resurrection’. In it, he questioned the tendency of Christians to push ‘resurrection’ away from their everyday experience, into the past of 2000 years ago, or into the future after physical death. That, he says, is to turn our relationship with the living Christ into a cult-idol; and the thing about idols, as Second Isaiah points out, is that they are powerless. ‘They don’t disturb our institutional, religious and personal status quo, they don’t demand anything of us. Most important, they can’t ask that we should live a new life; they leave us perfectly free to carry on as before, insulated from the life-transforming glory of true resurrection’.
In the book, he describes how we are called to experience resurrection in the here and now: resurrection in our bodies, raised to live the sort of lives Christ taught us to live, of restraint and service to others, so that our bodies reveal God to the world; resurrection in our minds, so that we think and feel with the mind of Christ; resurrection in our institutions, and particularly in our religious institutions, so that they have new life breathed into them, and become vehicles for sharing the love of God with the world; and most importantly, resurrection in our spiritual lives, so that we move from the living death of sin and self-centredness to a new life which is completely open to the love of God and the message of the living Word.
And yet, this vision of experiencing the resurrection in our own lives, in the here and now, is not one that is very much talked about. Why not? Why is it that we prefer to think about resurrection only in the past or the future?
Perhaps because we are frightened of what we will have to go through before we can experience resurrection. As the story of Holy Week that we have heard this last week reminds us, before he was raised up, Christ had to suffer the worst that human life had to offer: betrayal by a friend, a mockery of a trial, torture and death. He was stripped of everything that gave his life meaning: his role as a teacher and healer, his identity as a free human being, his clothing, his dignity, even, so Mark tells us, his belief in the supportive presence of God. Only in that total nakedness was he able to reveal the Eternal Word. Only through that utter darkness was he able to come to resurrection.
Most of us would rather not do that. All our instincts incline us to do everything we can to preserve ourselves from physical hurt; and we protect our social lives, our emotional stability, our economic status, our intellectual superiority, our cherished beliefs and the traditions of our religious organisations with equal tenacity – because it is all these things which give us security.
However, if we cling on to all those things, if we cannot let go in faith and trust, as Jesus did, then we will not experience resurrection. We leave no opening for God’s grace in Christ to work in us.
Many, perhaps most people will at some time experience suffering, despair, emptiness, the loss of security, bereavement, failure. They appear to shrivel up, and seem destroyed by the experience. They are marked indelibly with the scars of it. Yet, some come through the experience with a better understanding of themselves, a deeper relationship with God, and a new way of living. That is resurrection.
We may experience resurrection and not know it, just as the disciples on the Emmaus road, Mary in the garden, and Peter and the others by the lakeside met the risen Christ, and did not recognise him. This may be because we demand that resurrection should be something dramatic, something in which the normal physical, social and psychological laws of God’s world are suspended. Christ warned us against demanding such ‘signs’ and told the disciple Thomas that those who believed without ‘seeing’ such things were more blessed.
Harry Williams said: “Resurrection occurs to us as we are, and its coming is generally quiet and unobtrusive, and we may hardly be aware of its creative power. It is only later that we realise that, in some way or another, we have been raised to newness of life, and so have heard the voice of the Eternal Word”.
What does resurrection in the here and now look like?
In his sermon at the Blessing of the Oils Service at St Albans on Maundy Thursday, Michael Bishop of Hertford spoke of his pride in the work that people in parishes across the diocese are doing to transform their communities, and especially to meet the needs of those who are suffering most from changes in our society and benefits provision. He spoke about it in terms of Living God’s Love – but that is living the resurrection. We have an example of it in our own community, in the activities housed in our local Methodist Church – a church whose regular congregation had shrunk to the extent that there were plans to close the building; but which now houses activities which give support, food and friendship to those who need them, activities like the Food Bank, Debt Advice, the Credit Union and access to the CAB.
Some of you may remember a young woman called Jade Goody, a ‘star’ after her appearances on various reality TV shows. Her life appeared to be totally pointless and self-centred – until she was diagnosed with cervical cancer in 2008. Instead of hiding away during her treatment she chose to appear in public and be photographed without her hair after chemotherapy, showing the ravages of the disease, in order to alert other young women like herself to its dangers, and to persuade them to be tested and seek treatment early. As a result of this, numbers seeking screening increased and NHS policy was changed to offer it to younger women. That is living the resurrection.
During the last month there were a number of terrorist attacks – those in Brussels and Instanbul and Ankara that made headlines in our papers, and others we heard little about – in Mali, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Ivory Coast. Some people’s reaction was to turn on Muslims in their community, blaming them and their religion for the attacks. Others, like the shopkeeper in Glasgow who was killed, apparently because he tweeted Easter greetings to his Christian customers, reacted by trying to build community across religious and racial lines.
From America, a pastor called John Pavlovitz, published an open letter to the terrorists on the internet, entitled ‘Dear Terrorist, You Lose!’You can read the whole blog here http://johnpavlovitz.com/2016/03/24/dear-terrorist-lose/
In it he said: “Yes, I can imagine at certain times you might begin to believe the lie that you have the upper hand. In the middle of the fresh carnage this is understandable. I confess that in the madness of the moment I sometimes feel that way too. For a second the shock and sadness and loss of life overwhelm me. I briefly allow fear to have the run of my heart and I yield to the chaos, but I always come to my senses and find a peace that once again slows my pulse and steadies my knees.
That’s because almost immediately upon that which you design, straight in the face of that abject horror, something else kicks in.
It’s that beautiful force that propels people into harms way to help strangers, that moves them to the fray to care for others without regard for themself, that finds affinity in another simply because they are hurting—and responds.
This humanity is courage you’ll never know.
It is character you can’t comprehend.
It’s compassion that is counterintuitive to you.
It’s love that is foreign to your heart.
This is why you will always ultimately fail.
Every time you seem to succeed, no matter how terrifying the immediate result of your efforts, there is always a coming response from good people which you can’t control or anticipate or destroy. It is not one that meets force with force, or hatred with hatred, or bloodshed with bloodshed. This would be playing your game.
What we come with is something that cannot be killed or destroyed or chased into the darkness. We come armed with Hope.
I’m sorry to break it to you, but these are simply the facts.
Terror is never the final answer.
It may speak first and loudly, but Love always gets the last, beautiful word.
You will never, ever win.
We who love—have already won.”
That is living the resurrection.
That is what we believe.
That is our Easter faith: that what destroys has been overcome by the creative power of God; what hurts has been healed by the loving hands of God; what has been divided is reunited in Christ; and that death and suffering and evil will never have the last word.
That is what we celebrate today.