Saturday, 6 April 2013

Easter Day sermon


IF I WERE A BETTING MAN, I would lay good money on two basic messages going out from pulpits this Easter.
Pastor Gospelman believes passionately in the bodily resurrection of Jesus, the empty tomb, the angels, the whole supernatural shebang. Every Easter he denounces the wicked liberals, not least The Reverend Jeremy Smoothtongue up the road, for their unwillingness to acknowledge that the Bible is true, that God really does do miracles, and that – as the demonstration of those two points – Jesus really did rise again.
He may try a few stunts to show that eye-witnesses can tell strange stories and still be speaking the truth: watch him eat a daffodil in the pulpit. He may quote the old chorus: "You ask me how I know he lives? He lives within my heart!" Yes, Jesus is risen from the dead, and he is therefore alive and we can get to know him for ourselves.
When it comes to the "so what?" the Pastor is equally emphatic. There really is a life after death! Jesus has gone to prepare a place for us in heaven! Salvation awaits, in a glorious, blissful world beyond this one. We are, after all, "citizens of heaven", as Paul says, so when we're done with this wicked world our souls will be snatched away to be there for ever. We shall be reunited with our loved ones (don't you wish there was a better phrase, even a better cliché, for saying that?). We shall share the life of the New Jerusalem. "Here for a season, then above, O Lamb of God I come." "Till we cast our crowns before thee, lost in wonder, love and praise."
Alas: Pastor Gospelman has missed the point. Much of what he says is true, but most of it isn't the truth that the Easter stories were written to convey.

DOWN THE ROAD, FORTIFIED BY champagne in the Rectory after the midnight Easter Vigil (why not break the Lenten fast in style, even if your fasting itself has been, well, somewhat sporadic), Mr Smoothtongue is in full flow. We know of course that the crude, surface meaning of the story can't be what the writers really meant. Modern science has shown that miracles don't happen, that dead people don't rise. Anyway, what kind of a God would break into history just this once, to rescue one favoured person, while standing back and doing nothing during the Holocaust? To believe in something so obvious, so blatant, so... unspiritual as the empty tomb and the bodily resurrection – it's offensive to all one's finer instincts.
In particular, it might be taken to mean (as his good friend Pastor Gospelman up the road would no doubt imagine, bless his fundamentalist socks) that Christianity is therefore superior to all other faiths, whereas we know that God is radically inclusive and that all religions, all faiths, all worldviews can be equally valid pathways to The Divine.
So... the stories of the empty tomb were probably made up many years after it all. The learned Rector wants to make this quite clear: they are a remythologization of the primal eschatological drama, which caught up the disciples in a moment of sociomorphic, possibly even sociopathic, empathy with the apocalyptic dénouement of the Beatific Vision. Hmm. No, the congregation didn't quite get that either. But then they, too, had ended the Lenten Fast in style.
When it comes to the "so what?" Mr Smoothtongue is emphatic. Now that we've got away from that crude supernatural nonsense, the way is clear to "True Resurrection". This, it turns out, is a new way of construing the human project, breaking through the old taboos (he has traditional sexual ethics in mind, but is too delicate to mention it) and discovering a new kind of life, a welcoming, yes, inclusive approach.
The "stone" of legalism has been rolled away, and the "risen body", the true spark of life and identity hidden inside each of us, can burst forth. And – well, of course, this new life must now infect all our relationships. All our social policies. Resurrection must become, not a one-off event, imagined by pre-modern minds and insisted on by backward-looking conservatives, but an ongoing event in the liberation of humans and the world.
Mr Smoothtongue is on to something here at last, but he doesn't know what it is. Or why.

WHAT PASTOR GOSPELMAN never notices is that the resurrection stories in the four Gospels aren't about going to heaven when you die. In fact, there is almost nothing about "going to heaven when you die" in the whole New Testament. Being "citizens of heaven" (A (a phrase which is used by St Paul in Philippians 3.20) doesn't mean you're supposed to end up there. Many of the Philippians were Roman citizens, but Rome didn't want them back when they retired. Their job was to bring Roman culture to Philippi.
That's the point which all the Gospels actually make, in their own ways. Jesus is risen, therefore God's new world has begun. Jesus is risen, therefore Israel and the world have been redeemed. Jesus is risen, therefore his followers have a new job to do.
And what is that new job? To bring the life of heaven to birth in actual, physical, earthly reality. This is what Pastor Gospelman never imagines (though his preaching does sometimes accidentally have this result). The bodily resurrection of Jesus is more than a proof that God performs miracles or that the Bible is true. It is more than the Christian's knowing of Jesus in our own experience (that is the truth of Pentecost, not of Easter). It is much, much more than the assurance of heaven after death (Paul does speak of "going away and being with Christ", but his main emphasis is on coming back again in a risen body, to live in God's new-born creation).
Jesus' resurrection is the beginning of God's new project, not to snatch people away from earth to heaven, but to colonize earth with the life of heaven. That, after all, is what the Lord's Prayer is about.
That's why Mr Smoothtongue's final point has a grain of truth in it, though all his previous denials make it impossible for him to see why it's true or what its proper shape is. The resurrection is indeed the foundation for a renewed way of life in and for the world. But to get that social, political and cultural result you really do need the bodily resurrection, not just a "spiritual" event that might have happened to Jesus or perhaps simply to the disciples. And his insistence on "modern science" (not that he's read any physics recently) is pure Enlightenment rhetoric. We didn't need Galileo and Einstein to tell us that dead people don't come back to life.
When Paul wrote his great resurrection chapter, 1 Corinthians 15, he didn't end by saying, "So let's celebrate the great future life that awaits us." He ended by saying, "So get on with your work, because you know that in the Lord it won't go to waste." When the final resurrection occurs, as the centrepiece of God's new creation, we will discover that everything done in the present world in the power of Jesus' own resurrection will be celebrated and included, appropriately transformed.
Of course, when the muddled Rector tries to make Easter mean "liberation from moral constraint", and "discovering the true spark within each of us", he is standing genuine Christianity on its head and making it perform tricks like a circus lion. Easter is about new creation, a huge and stunning fresh gift of transforming grace, not about discovering that the old world has been misunderstood and needs simply to be allowed to be truly itself. Romans 6, 1 Corinthians 6 and Colossians 3 stand firmly in his way at this point.

HANDS UP ALL THOSE who have heard one or other of those sermons. Thank you. How much did I win?
Now hands up those who have heard a sermon which reflects what Paul is talking about in Romans 8, or the evangelists in their final chapters, or John the Seer in Revelation 21 and 22: that, with Easter, God's new creation is launched upon a surprised world, pointing ahead to the renewal, the redemption, the rebirth of the entire creation.
Hands up those who have heard the message that every act of love, every deed done in Christ and by the Spirit, every work of true creativity – every time justice is done, peace is made, families are healed, temptation is resisted, true freedom is sought and won – that this very earthly event takes its place within a long history of things which implement Jesus' own resurrection and anticipate the final new creation, and act as signposts of hope, pointing back to the first and on to the second.
I thought so. Thank you.
So, let’s do Resurrection work!...

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