Sermon Easter 2013

Easter 2013

EASTER 2013 [RECORDING OF SERMON]

So we come to Easter, and I wonder by what path we have come. How have we prepared ourselves to celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus? For this is the purpose of Lent and Holy Week – by prayer and fasting together, by study and sharing in worship together all the last  seven and a half weeks have been leading up to today. Our celebration today is the Culmination of all of that.

Week by week through Lent we have looked back to Ash Wednesday – to those words spoken over us all at the Imposition of Ashes – Dust you are and to Dust you shall return – Repent of your sin – Believe the Good News. We were confronted with our mortality, the reality of our lives and called to re-orient ourselves. As I said a few weeks ago, re-orient is a very pertinent way of putting it – we turn to face East, more specifically we turn to face Jerusalem and the Resurrection of Christ. In terms of Ash Wednesday, we prepare for today by Repenting and Believing the Good News. Thus we are ready for Easter. But . . . even the most diligent of us is only ever partly ready – how can we be ready for something which is so outside of our experience of anything we have ever known?

This winter, as many of you know, one of our daughters will be married back in England – there is a lot to do in order to get ready, but it’s not the same. We know what happens at weddings, and so we know what has to be arranged. No one is saying ‘What is a wedding?’. Thinking of Hannah’s wedding made me think of my own. Actually for one young man there, it was something unknown. It was only on the morning of the wedding that I realised that my best man had never been to a wedding! He was a little nervous, I had to eat his breakfast as well as my own 🙂 But at least my friend Mike had lots of folks around him to point him in the right direction and tell him what to do – we all know what weddings are about. But the Resurrection of Jesus? How do you get ready for something which everything around you tells you cannot happen??

Part of our preparation for today is to enter as fully as we can into the experience of Holy Week – in particular Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. We accompany Jesus to his death. In an hour at the cross we confront our own complicity in his death – we face the fact that We called out crucify, We abandoned him, We betrayed him, We killed him. And we have to face that to begin to in any meaningful way celebrate Easter. We have to Know that Jesus is Dead in order for Easter to do its work. For we are not speaking resuscitation – our annual cycle of lent and Holy Week, if we do not take the medicine it offers, if we only partly enter in, leaves us in effect waiting for Jesus to come round from a nasty accident. If we have not faced our mortality, and seen it plain as day in Christ crucified, if we have not entered into the utter blackness of Good Friday, then we cannot see the light. For we are not talking shades of Grey here, we are talking Light and Dark, Black and White, Life and Death. No, without the preparation of Lent, the Catastrophe of the Resurrection cannot do its work. Yes, the Catastrophe of Resurrection.

Why Catastrophe?? Surely it is the very opposite of a catastrophe? Believe the Good News? No? Yes! The Good News, but the Good News is catastrophic. The Resurrection of Jesus calls Everything else into question. If Christ was not raised from the dead then our lives can go on pretty much as before – indeed as St Paul reminds us, If Christ is not raised from the dead, then we are wasting our time. But if he is . . . then we are called to a life like no other, for there is nothing in all Creation as we know it that is Like the Resurrection of Jesus.

As I said in an article I had to write for the Star, the gift of Easter here in New Zealand is that it goes completely against the flow of life in the created world. Here there are no spring flowers – here we are headed towards winter – here everything around us proclaims death. So here we are confronted with the Fact that the Resurrection of Jesus goes completely against the grain. We cannot make it fit into our lives, it either completely changes the course of our lives, or we must needs let it go by – there is no middle way. The resurrection of Jesus is not something which we assimilate, a fact we either believe or do not – we do not ‘take is on board’ the ship of our lives, Rather the Resurrection is that Ship which sails in completely the opposite direction to the World’s story about itself, and we must choose, whether or not to jump ship. To live out our lives as best we can, or to give up on them and to live out of the Resurrection.

To make of the Resurrection of Jesus some mere metaphor for the cycle of life, even something on which we pin our faint hopes for life after the death of our mortal bodies, is actually to choose to deny it, for it requires nothing of us. The world hasn’t changed. the flowers will still come up next spring, life will go on as usual. There is no middle way.

Funnily enough, I call in my defence Bishop David Jenkins who some years ago caused quite a stir in the Church of England by declaring that ‘The Resurrection of Jesus is no mere conjouring trick with bones’. Now Bp David did not believe in the physical resurrection of Jesus, so he might seem an odd ally here, but his words were right on the money, so to speak. For the bodily Resurrection of Jesus, was not something which happened in a vacuum. It was a Unique happening, but it was not Isolated. In other words, when God raised Jesus from the dead he opened the door to a totally New way of living and a transformed Cosmos. What we call Real, Real Life, The Real World, everything about our lives and indeed all of Creation is challenged by the Resurrection of Jesus.

And we see that Catastrophic nature of the Resurrection Very clearly in the gospel accounts – especially in the synoptics, that is Matthew, Mark and Luke. These three gospels in particular reveal how the Resurrection of Jesus shatters everything.

For up to that point in the story, each of the evangelists has told pretty much the same story – up to this point the narrative follows the same path – parables, healings, challenging sayings – in many many places word for word the same . . . until the Resurrection – and then it is as if Everything has fallen apart – all four accounts are to all intents and purposes completely different, all four struggling to make sense of what has happened – the Old Story has come crashing to a halt and from nowhere, without Any prior warning a New Story has broken forth, A New Reality. And like those first disciples we are left groping around, afraid, dismayed, perplexed, doubting, yes even terrified . . . the World is Not as we thought

‘Why are you looking for the Living amongst the Dead?’ asks the angel in the tomb. You have followed the narrative of the story of Jesus to what everything in you tells you Must be its logical conclusion – you Know he died, you have come to the tomb. And you are completely wrong!! Wrong about Sin and righteousness and Judgement. Wrong about everything.

The Resurrection of Jesus proclaims we have got everything Wrong. We cannot make it neatly fit into our lives – and that is why it is so hard to prepare for it – that is why despite our best efforts we keep skimming over Lent, Holy Week, Good Friday, because the message of Easter is too shattering to our understanding of the world to face so square on. in a sense, to Celebrate Easter – and We must Celebrate Easter – is almost impossible, for it is to celebrate the end of our world.

At Easter we Celebrate that our world has come to an end. All to often we focus on the end of the disciples hopes and dreams on Good Friday, as if their world has come to an end. No it hasn’t, we know it hasn’t – where does the Risen Jesus find them but fishing – their world has carried on. No it is the Resurrection of Jesus that announces the end of the world as we know it – all nations will see him whom they have pierced, and mourn. He is Risen, the End of the world has come upon us – as one of the early Christians, Hippolytus of Rome expresses it –

Christ is Risen: The world below lies desolate
Christ is Risen: The spirits of evil are fallen. Christ is Risen: The angels of God are rejoicing
Christ is Risen: The tombs of the dead are empty. Christ is Risen indeed from the dead,the first of the sleepers,

 Glory and power are his forever and ever.

If we are ready for Easter, we are ready for the end of the world as we know it. We prepare for Easter as we would prepare for our death, to say with Paul, it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.

Perhaps that is the best metaphor for how we prepare for Easter. Indeed it is what Lent is given us for – You are Dead in Sin – New Life is available. Lent teaches us to say no to our life – that we might say Yes to the Life of the Risen One
The Resurrection of Jesus proclaims we have got everything Wrong. We cannot make it neatly fit into our lives – no – We have to conform our Lives to the New Reality – The Life of the Risen one who fills everything in Every way.

Behold, the End of the World has come – Believe the Good News
Christ is Risen – He is Risen indeed. Alleluia

Through the Bible in a Year – March 31

The Scheme for March – April can be found here

Num 29-30; Eph 1; Psalm 110-111

Psalm 110 is THE Royal Psalm – the one which Jesus himself quotes in effect to sign his own death warrant as he speaks with the Crowds in Mark 12.

This wonderful Psalm we read today in association with Ephesians 1. Where Paul is enraptured in his exaltation of Christ. All his grammar falls to pieces in vs 3-14 as he is caught up in praise of Christ in perhaps the single longest sentance of all of Scripture. I wonder, how long is it since we were so enraptured in our worship of Christ?

Those of us, including myself, who revel in the mind, who love nothing more than to ponder ‘truths’, need perhaps more than most to ‘Learn Christ’ – to Know deep within ourselves that the person who may have little or no grasp of any doctrine, may worship Christ in truth far more than we ever will.

Oh for that liberated heart

Holy Saturday

There are times in Priestly ministry when its representative character is thrown into starkest relief. When Black and White lose any overlap. Life and Death is the Clear choice.

Today the church observes Holy Saturday. For many of those who note this day it is a day lacking a story. Jesus is dead. Easter is not yet. But that isn’t the fullest story.

‘He descended to the dead’ we recite in the Creed. But this is no passive slumber. No, today Christ is Harrowing Hell. The One who is The Word, the Alpha and the Omega, taking our last words and trashing them. The Living One is The Last Word.

Last week I was called from the slumber of a day off and bidden to follow Christ into a hell, to proclaim Life in the midst of Death. A young man, 20 years old had died by his own hand, and the church called me to step down into the Hell that this was for his family.

On Maundy Thursday I conducted his funeral – a church packed with young people few if any conversant with Christian faith, facing something that had left them utterly numb, facing Death, nothing else. With no other story.

As I waited outside church for the family I was forcibly struck by the contrast of attire. For all these young folk, Black was the only colour on display, from black dresses for the girls, black ties, and a shed load of sunglasses to hide from the fierce late summer antipodean sun. Despite the ‘modern’ predilection for avoiding death, for ‘celebrating a life’, there was no doubt in these young people’s minds, no hope. This was about Death. It was a funeral.

‘Contrast of attire?’ I was privileged to have as many years The Reverend Christine Clarke as my spiritual director. One of the first 12 women to be ordained priest in the Church of England, I learnt far more about Christian faith and life from her than anyone else over the years, by a substantial margin. The Wisest person I have ever known.
When as a callow seminarian I trained with Christine, I asked about the suitability of her funeral robes, white cassock alb and white stole. She said, ‘what else do we have to offer as Christians but the message of the Resurrection’

I have to say it took me a while to learn this, deep down. Then as a Good Protestant, this was way off my radar. I had learned that it was my job ‘to comfort people but not to give false hope’. ‘How can you proclaim resurrection if they weren’t Christian?’ How can you? How can one proclaim Life in the midst of Death?

But I have come to see that that is precisely what we are to do, to be the church, as a priest to represent the church, to follow in the way of Christ and boldly say ‘No’ to the narratives of death.

And so amidst all the black there I was, in white, the contrast all the sharper in the blazing sun.

Several people have asked me for the sermon I preached and I attach the text.

But I ask you to read it on one condition, that if you do so, you will join with me and the people of the church I am privileged to serve, in praying for the soul of a young man named Ross, and also for his family.

I know that for some of my readers this will be way outside your comfort zone, but this is where Christ bids us go. This is Holy Saturday. Christ Harrows Hell. Let us follow him boldly in prayer, for according to The Last Word even the gates of hell shall not prevail against us.

Amen
Today as we gather in this place to remember Ross, to pay our respects, to Grieve and to mourn, to share together in our confusion and pain and loss – we do not do so alone. We are not alone.

We meet in the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We gather together as a community of people knowingly or otherwise bearing the image of the God who has created us and given us life, the One who is Community in and of himself, as the Christian faith asserts God is Love. And made as we are in the image of the God who is Love, then our lives are expressions of that Love in which we are made.

Put another way, as the poet John Donne said, ‘not one of us is a Island’, and your presence here today expresses that truth, not one of us is Alone, not one. However much the dark spirit of this present age might whisper to us ‘you have to stand on your own two feet’, ‘you have to be self sufficient’, ‘no one can live your life but you’ the presence of so many here today shows these are lies. If these things were the truth about us, then there would be no-one here today. If these things were true, then there would be no pain, no grief

It is close to impossible to find anything Good to say about the circumstances in which we meet, but perhaps if when we leave this place and go out into the world, we have learnt better to deny that life is about standing on our own two feet. To say ‘No!’ when someone tells us ‘you have to be self sufficient’. To know that leaning on one another bearing one another’s burdens is not an occasional necessity in difficult circumstances, but the very fibre of what it means to be human, that to be alive is to be deeply linked to everyone we meet – to know that we are never alone – to know that we are not self sufficient – to know that we are made to lean on one another – then perhaps Good may yet come out of this

All of our lives are inextricably linked. What is joy if not shared? What is Sorrow if not shared? What is Life if not shared? To be Alive is to be joined one to another, to live in mutual dependence, to need other people, and to be gift to other people – it is the meaning of our lives – that we are created By Love, In Love and For Love. It is the fundamental Truth of our existence – as your presence here today testifies.
And so I say to Ross’s family – you are not alone – you are held in Love. And here briefly I’d like to pay tribute to Ross’s close friends who have not stayed distant but I know have expressed such love and support to Ross’ family these past days – keep it up folks – we will contnue to need each other – it is what our lives are about.

And it is because that is the Truth about us, that our lives are inextricably bound up in each others, that there is so much pain today. Because Love is the foundation of who we are, when that Love is denied, it is as though the world falls apart.

We cannot make sense of what has happened. A young man has taken his own life. Yet Ross was so full of Life – happy, spontaneous, Kind,  the one who gave a running commentary on life and scrapped with his brother in the back of the car on long journeys. None of this makes any sense. He was so alive, he was and Is so joined to so many – his Life was not a life of isolation, no life is. This makes no sense – it is a deep contradiction of Life

None of us know why Ross did what he did – we cannot know and we are not here to judge. Speculation is hopeless and ultimately despairing and we need to turn from that. What has happened has happened, but the very fact that we are all gathered here today is testament that we are refusing to allow this to be the Last word about his life – that it is not the last word about his life. The last word is that Ross Is Loved. And that the pain and the grief and the searing loss we know here today, his family most of all, is a sign of that profound Love. Here on this terrible day, this day that no-one wanted ever to see, in the midst of the darkness and the suffering, the Truth about Ross is revealed in its fulness, He Is Loved. He is Held, He is not Alone, and neither are any of us.

And not even because of who he was, he was loved, he is loved purely because of his very existence. In all the stories that we have heard, in all the words that yet will no doubt be spoken about Ross – no words can in the end describe him, for Love is the meaning of our lives and we cannot express that, we can only know that it is the fundamental truth about each one of us.

We heard a moment or two ago the words of Jesus. To many perhaps these are words we have not heard before. ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled, trust in God, trust also in me’.
In the midst of our Grief and Loss, we hear an invitation. These words of Jesus he speaks to his closest friends the night before he is cruelly put to death. He is telling them, tremendous darkness lies ahead of you – but there is one who holds you in the darkness. Love is the meaning of your life, you are held in Love – Trust in God, trust also in me.

Tomorrow is Good Friday, it is the day in the Christian calendar when we remember Jesus’ death on the cross for the sake of Love – and Christians live through this each year and we walk on to Easter Sunday, when beyond all human hope, Christ is raised from death. Love has the final Word. He is the Way and the truth and the Life – He is the meaning of our Lives made flesh – He is Love. And Love never fails

We do not have any resources in ourselves to go through these days – No! By the Grace of God who is Love and in whose image we are created, we have resources  amongst ourselves – we have Love for one another –  let us live and lean on that Love.

Amen

Through the Bible in a Year – March 30

The Scheme for March – April can be found here

Num 27-28; Gal 6; Psalm 109

St Paul here condenses the Gospel in a single phrase – ‘bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the Law of Christ’

To some no doubt, this will sound the very antithesis of the gospel, that we have to fulfill a law, were it not the command of the Apostle. Yet is this not the fulness of Life, to enter into the very Life of the One who bears us all upon the Cross, the one who sets us free to love one another as He has loved us – it is the Law of the Spirit of Life.

Good Friday

And so we come to the last hour – we take an hour out of our ordinary lives to come and contemplate that which, as Jo reminded us last night, is the very heart of our faith . . . take an hour out of our ordinary lives . . .

If you really want to irritate a Priest, tell them about how life is ‘in the real world’ – some of course may well be irritated because they wish they still ‘lived in the real world’ – but others will be irritated because hundreds if not thousands of sermons have fallen on deaf ears. To paraphrase the writer Eugene Peterson, ‘the work of the minister is quietly to put a bomb under people’s preconceived ideas of The Real World’, steadily to remind those in there care that Sunday Worship – participation in the Eucharistic feast is The Real World.

For our assertion as Christians is not so much that the events of the Triduum – the three days that perhaps a little lazily we call Easter – our assertion is not so much that these are the heart of our faith, which they are, but that they are the Centre of all human existence. That these days define The Real World. That if we are going to make any sense of the world in which we live, we can only do so using these three days as our starting presuppositions about reality. The death and the resurrection of Jesus, defines Everything.

Of course our culture of tolerance and refusal to allow anything have the last word on anything, except that is, the twin gods of technology and economics, would deem such a claim arrogant in the extreme. To say that in contemplating the death of Jesus we are seeing into what Richard Neuhaus calls, the ‘axis mundi’ – The hub of reality around which Everything is ordered – is to the ears of many, too much to swallow.

But there is no room for arrogance in this assertion. There is here, to thwart the modern hermeneutic of suspicion, no attempt here to seize power, only in humility to declare what is True. One of the unremarked repetitive elements of the Scriptural narrative is how often God works whilst we are asleep. Adam must be put to sleep in order for humanity to come into the fulness of male and female, the disciples notoriously cannot stay awake in the midst of the transaction between the Son and the Father in Gethsemane – and that failure to stay awake takes us way back into this story – to that of Abraham.

We are trained, not entirely unreasonably to understand Good Friday in terms of Moses and the Exodus from Egypt – but there is another Old Testament Narrative which serves just as well, if not better, the story of Abraham.

In Genesis 15 – God makes his covenant with Abraham, but there is a crucial difference between the Sinai Covenant, which of course the New Testament writers say is inneffective and the covenant God makes with Abraham, and that is Abraham has no part in what happens. We think of a Covenant as an agreement between two parties, and that it is, but in the mysterious text of Genesis 15, Abraham having set the stage for the covenant  Then God said to Abraham ‘I am the Lord who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess.’ But he said, ‘O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess it?’ He said to him, ‘Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtle-dove, and a young pigeon.’ He brought him all these and cut them in two, laying each half over against the other; but he did not cut the birds in two. And when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away.
As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram, and a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him. Then the Lord said to Abram, ‘Know this for certain, that your offspring shall be aliens in a land that is not theirs, and shall be slaves there, and they shall be oppressed for four hundred years; but I will bring judgement on the nation that they serve, and afterwards they shall come out with great possessions. As for yourself, you shall go to your ancestors in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age. And they shall come back here in the fourth generation; for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.’
The covenant to bring God’s people into God’s Land is made with Abraham – but he is asleep – God makes the covenant with himself, God is the only party to the covenant. We are asleep – Like the disciples, as God the Son prays with God the Father in Gethsemane. The covenant is made – not my will but thine be done – and we are asleep. Unlike Sinai, the covenant of bondage which we could never keep – here God covenants with himself to redeem the world
Again we think of Abraham with respect of Genesis 22 – the story of God’s command to sacrifice Isaac, which is stopped only at the last moment – here we see how the covenant will be made. The faithful one of the Covenant will himself provide a lamb – provide a Son for the sacrifice. God will not require anything of Abraham – except faith – he will provide the Son
So that is all that is asked of us, faith that that which we witness once again today is in truth the axis mundi – the heart of Everything.
There is no place for arrogance on our part. We are not the centre of all things – we are asleep in sin and death – and, mystery of mysteries – there is no arrogance in God. The Cross is no act of Power. No, it is God’s willing submission into the hands of evil men, that is you and I – God does not overcome by force, but by willing submission. He proves to us, a lesson we are slow to learn, that Love overcomes all things.
Jesus last words from the Cross – ‘it is finished’ – the world can throw no more at him – the hatred of the world has done its worst – he has absorbed it all – he has made himself nothing, becoming submissive unto death, even the death of a cross.
The chief deadly sin is Pride – like all sin it is nothing less that the contradiction of The Imago Dei – the Image of God in us. Pride is the Contradiction of the image of God.
In this utterly broken, scourged naked Jew, nailed to two rough timbers the fullest nature of God is revealed – his utter Humilty. Much rightly is made of how the Cross expresses God’s Love for us – but more than that, it expresses his utter preparedness to go to any lengths  – to be utterly humiliated for us. Without humility, love is not possible. Love demands the divesting of all power. If as we are so bold to assert ‘God is Love’, then God is the one who refuses to call legions of angels, refuses to use any power, refuses to leap from the temple, to turn stones into bread, to worship demonic pride and power.
At the Last, The Cross returns us to the beginning of the journey of Lent – it is all of a whole – we lay down all our pretensions to life in our name, and so discover Life in His, the one who lays down everything, in Humility and Love.

This is the Axis Mundi – This is the Meaning of Everything – This is the Real World – The Word made flesh – crucified before our eyes

Through the Bible in a Year – March 29

The Scheme for March – April can be found here

Num 26; Gal 5; Psalm 108

‘Freedom’ is something widely misunderstood in the Christian life – it is not at all the same thing as the idolatrous notion of Freedom so prevalent in western Society, ‘Freedom from . . .’ an unrestricted life.

Those looking in Paul’s letter to the Galatians for such a notion of ‘Freedom’ will find themselves puzzled if not disappointed. Thus far Paul has spoken of their re-adoption of the Jewish Law, especially with respect of Purity, as a Slavery. The imagery he uses is that they are in effect offspring of Hagar, the ‘bond-woman’. but then he goes on in Chapter 5 to explain the nature of Christian Freedom – not freedom to Self indulgence. Thus Not the Freedom as we are taught to think of it. Put another way, OUR problem is that we understand the Christian virtues in isolation. IF Freedom is sucha virtue, then it cannot be so understood, for if Freedom were to self indulgence, it would contravene the Key Christian virtues of humility and Pride. Put another way it is slavery to self, masquerading as Freedom

No, Freedom as understood Christianly is Freedom to do what is right. We are not set ‘free from’, so much as we are set ‘free for’. Set Free from the effects of Sin, which are always and everywhere to turn us in ourselves, and set Free for Love.

Put another way, we are set free to reveal what we are in Essence, to reveal our true nature, Children of the One who Is Love. Thus Paul’s command to walk by the Spirit, is no more nor less than saying, now you are free to be who you really are, children born of the free woman, of the one who says ‘yes’ to God . . .

Through the Bible in a Year – March 28

The Scheme for March – April can be found here

Num 23-25; Gal 4; Psalm 107:23-end

Yesterday we first encountered the story of the prophet Balaam and of course the famous talking donkey . . . a day later than the text it would be well to think of those who appear to be standing in our way,  blocking a path we are set on. Perhaps because they unlike we see the angel of the Lord?

Following on we read of the encounter of the prophet with the King of Moab, who has called on the prophet to curse Israel. In the comedic sense written deep into the Hebrew mindset, we read of Balaam’s Blessing Israel over and over again.

In a sense both elements of this tail speak to us of the lack of our sight and how ridiculous we must often appear to God. God is intent on blessing – our sight is so narrow often we think to curse is only right and proper. Were not the whole business of Blessing and Curse be at its most fundamental level a matter of Life or Death, indeed we might laugh and see ourselves as ignorant infants or foolish sheep. Sadly we are foolish sheep who know not what we do – indulgent laughter cannot be an appropriate response.

Better perhaps to recognise that when the Boanerges ask Jesus, should they, like Elijah call down fire from heaven (hubris in the extreme – who IS like Elijah??), Jesus rebukes them. What must it be like to hear the rebuke of Jesus? It is not something of which we are called to think often, if at all. Before we curse, it might be well to imagine that rebuke.