Sermon for Festal Evensong, Te Deum & Benediction Sunday 27 March 2016
Sermon preached by Fr Michael Bowie
We’ve been hearing from Bishop Jack this week about what God is like. He reminded us that God is like Jesus: endlessly loving and accepting of us.
As Lent began I suggested to you that this season of preparation for Easter calls us to recollect ourselves before God, to try and remember who we are: something God does for us all the time, but we busily fail to do most of the time. We are called to do that so as to be more fully ourselves. Recalling who we truly are, children of God; living a recollected life with a consciousness of our true parenthood, of what God is like, of Jesus, is the goal of our faith, and it is embedded in the Easter story.
Because of Easter we are set free, freed to be ourselves, children of God, brothers and sisters together with Jesus Christ, instead of unrelated individuals fighting for our place in the world. The trouble is, of course, we don’t get it. Like Peter, slipping back into the sea when Jesus calls him to walk towards him, we set out and we falter. Especially during Lent, if we’re honest. Well that’s OK too, as we heard from St John Chrysostom at the Vigil, because the point of Easter is that we don’t do this alone, this living and dying. In fact the point of Easter is not that we have do anything: rather, we are reminded to be the person we were created to be, so that it is visible to others as well as to us; we must learn to be visible as our true selves.
That may mean that we need to take off many layers, like those on the icon of which Bishop Jack spoke on Good Friday – the overlay of wealth, the grease of religion and the grime of time. We have to take off all that bad adult learning, sham sophistication and self-justification, the things that make barriers between us and other people, between us and God, and find the way back to the child-like trust in God which Jesus commends to us. Letting that be visible is a risk and there’s our problem. We don’t do risk any more, do we?
One Maundy Thursday in Berkhamsted, to finish the school term, our Middle School participated in an excellent service which gathered up the whole Triduum into two hours, starting at school with the last supper and betrayal, then walking down to church with a large cross. Outside church the trial and crucifixion were represented, and then we had an Easter morning celebration inside. It wasn’t Oberammergau, but in terms of the children’s experience, actually, it was. The scariest bit was when the excellent child who was playing Jesus appeared to hang dead from the big wooden cross he’d carried down the hill.
A senior member of staff (who is now the head teacher) said to me just before we set off that day, ‘I’ve managed to do a risk assessment of the walk down, but I haven’t managed to get beyond that. If anything goes wrong I’ll have to do the risk assessment afterwards.’ As I pointed out, at least by then he’d know what to write! These days, a wise teacher might avoid writing a risk-assessment of crucifying a child.
But Easter is about risk, the sort you can’t quantify in advance: the suffering and death of Christ is God’s greatest risk undertaken for us. On Easter Day, after it’s all over, it’s easy for us to say, ‘well, that’s done for another year’. But it isn’t, entirely, unless we understand what was risked: otherwise we are in danger of underestimating not only what was done but what was achieved.
It is difficult for us to talk about Easter convincingly in concrete terms. In that school service, Jesus reappeared to appropriate and general astonishment in the gallery at the back of church. Similarly, in one of the films we showed in the chancel during Lent, Passolini’s The Gospel according to St Matthew, he is simply and suddenly present again. How do we connect with that, make it a present reality for us in 2016?
Gustavo GutieÌrrez focuses on this in his thinking about Easter:
If so many texts and discourses on the resurrection sound hollow to us, it is because their authors have not experienced unjust death. This may be why in Latin America the resurrection is charged with energy and it reaches a new depth. …
We do need to heed the brutal reality of the crucifixion, an unjust death, as we keep in mind the persecuted Christians, and others, in Syria and elsewhere, and those who’ve yet again fallen victim to acts of terrorism for whom we’ve been praying.
GutieÌrrez, after suggesting that we ground our understanding of the resurrection in the injustice of torture and murder that are still to be seen in the world, recalls that after Peter’s first preaching of the resurrection in Acts 2, his listeners’ response was to ask him, ‘what should we do?’ (2.37)
That remains a key question for us when we get to Easter Day, however we’ve observed Lent and Holy Week. The first answer is, as Bishop Jack told us at the beginning of the week, not to ‘keep’ it, like something boxed up so as not to be shared, but to ‘celebrate’: certainly today with chocolate and champagne, but also more extensively, to celebrate with our whole life, in the pursuit of joy and justice.
We connect with the resurrection by celebrating it: not just here, but in our households and families and workplaces; with our lives, as living witnesses to Jesus and the truth of the Good News ourselves. Because that is who you are, the self you need to remember, buried in all that weighs you down, and needing to be released. Easter is truly a champagne doctrine, an effervescent truth, which must burst forth as joyously and obviously from us as our Lord did from the tomb.