An Easter sermon
A year ago, the world was still coming to terms with the pictures we were seeing from Paris of the historic Notre Dame in flames. A year on, and we find ourselves in the middle of a global pandemic that few countenanced. Yet, despite being told to stay apart from one another, the world has rarely been more united. That goes for Christians too. For those of us who celebrate Easter today, we are not doing so in our normal places of worship but through facebook and Skype and zoom and youtube and smart phone. Some of us hadn’t even heard of these things a month ago and have had to become tech-literate very quickly in order to remain in contact with family and friends.
So we give thanks for the technology that has enabled us to remain connected, even in this time of global crisis. This is certainly an Easter that will not be easily forgotten!
And even if our celebrations are a bit muted because of the restrictions on movement with which we currently live, this still remains the festival that makes sense of the rest of the Christian story. St Paul wrote to the Corinthians, telling them that without the resurrection, there wasn’t a Christian faith at all. And yet, a BBC poll released last Easter found 23% of all those calling themselves Christians in the UK “do not believe in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead” at all. Even among Christians who regularly go to church, only just over half were completely sure of it. Yet, whilst it might be a difficult tenet to hold - out of step with modern realities - it does make some sort of sense. Or to put it the other way round: would Christianity make any sense without it? Beyond the story of a thoroughly decent man going to his death unjustly at the hands of the forces of empire, what difference would that have made? The resurrection enables possibility, a different ending becomes feasible, captured in three words: life, justice and all.
Jesus summed up his own mission in these words: I have come that they may have life, life in all its fullness (John 10:10). Most people get that the story of Easter is about new life - chicks, bunnies, eggs, spring. But, for too many within and without the Church, belief in the resurrection is about believing that a very strange event actually occurred sometime in the first century. If that’s the case, what then stops it being a ‘trick with bones, to quote a past Bishop of Durham? What if it’s much more profound than that?
What if, in this single act of resurrection, the order of the universe is revealed? Instead of death following life, and inevitable decay, what if the universe is directed towards renewal, with new life following death? What if, in this single act, a new way of being human and a new pattern of discipleship is established? That death is the seedbed in which the new takes root? That endings are not something to be afraid of anymore, because they lead to new life?
What if belief in Jesus is not about keeping on doing the things that have always been done? What if,
‘we are not on earth to guard a museum, but to
cultivate a flourishing garden of life?’ (St John XXIII)
Resurrection is a proclamation of freedom – the freedom of God to do a new thing and our freedom to apprehend it and embrace it. Such a radical reorientation of faith that means we focus, not on preservation, but on expectation.
Many have spoken about the current crisis provoked by Covid-19 as a world-changing event. Our lives have been radically re-ordered and previously hidden folk on minimum wages and precarious contracts have become visible and even proclaimed heroes. People have talked about the rediscovery of kindness, community and self-sacrifice. But, when this is all over, will those discoveries last or slip away again in the rush to return to ‘normal’ life?
Easter creates a new ‘normal’ because it is about justice. It sounds strange to say since it involves a good man is put to death for political and religious expediency. Meanwhile, the God of justice is unwilling to intervene, even on behalf of his own Son. A criminal’s death for one who is blameless - no wonder the Church for two millennia has struggled to explain or codify its meaning.
It is because the justice at the heart of the Easter story is so radically at odds with the notions of justice we have come to know. This is a justice that takes no joy in revenge or punishment, but shows up the rush to blame and scapegoat for the hypocrisy it is. The heart of divine justice beats with the rhythm of forgiveness. Despite what many Christians think, this forgiveness is not about erasing the past, or forgetting the mistakes or deliberate actions we, or others, have done. Rather, in acknowledging those things, we nevertheless do not count them against others. It is about being judged, not by our pasts, but by our futures; not by what we have been, but what we are becoming. If this crisis means that we return to a society that is more forgiving in that sense - helping others to a better future whatever their past - then it will have embraced the meaning of the resurrection.
Peter preaches in Acts 10: I truly understand that God shows no partiality.
It could be argued that Methodist doctrine and belief can be summed up in one word: ALL. Resurrection faith is not sectarian, nor does it seek to limit. It is not looking to establish a special group or clique. It resists segregation and discrimination based on characteristics, social background, or national identity. Some have said that this virus has made us one because it is indiscriminate in who it affects. But that’s not really true, is it? To date, nine London bus drivers have died due to the virus, a result of doing their jobs. Unlike many, many better paid people, they couldn’t work from home and still get paid. The people most affected will be those who cannot afford not to work, whatever the risks, and who live in cramped and substandard housing without access to a garden or a car. In many parts of the world, it will be the poorest who are denied access to vital treatment, because they cannot afford to pay for it, who will succumb.
What a contrast to God’s economy, where the last are always first, and all have equal access to the riches of his grace. All are blessed and all shall be satisfied, ‘for, as in Adam, all die, so in Christ, shall all be made alive.’
What does resurrection faith look like today? It clearly says to us that death is not failure. In the light of Easter, death becomes, not an end, but the ground of a new beginning. Death becomes the starting point and the ground of new hope. It does not take away the pain of death, but gives us sure ground to hope, a hope that says, whatever we do today will build a better tomorrow. Even as we are forced to remain at home, part from loved us, let us ask what we can do now to ensure that the new normal to which we return will be better, kinder and fairer.
This is resurrection faith. Hallelujah!