Easter Sunday - Living the Resurrection

A sermon preached in the United Benefice by Fr James Heard on 20 April 2014

So Father Murphy walks into a notorious pub in Donegal, and says to the first man he meets, "Do you want to go to heaven?"
The man said, "I do Father."
The priest says, "Then leave this pub right now!"
He approaches a second man. "Do you want to go to heaven?"
"Certainly, Father."
"Then leave this den of Satan," says Father Murphy.
He walks up to O'Toole. "Do you want to go to heaven?"
"No thank you very much Father."
Father Murphy looks him right in the eye, and says, "You mean to tell me that when you die you don't want to go to heaven?"
O'Toole smiles, "Oh, when I die, yes, Father. I thought you were getting a group together to go right now."

Underlying this (I agree, rather feeble) joke is the notion that heaven and hell exist as some physical space in the sky or somewhere in this universe that we go to after this life. That’s the cosmology behind this joke and it lingers in our minds. Deep in our psyche is the familiar image of pearly gates guarded by St Peter with his book of life, along with all the theology of exclusion and judgement that comes with that picture. Sadly, the church has used such theology throughout the centuries as a powerful means of control. Believe this, behave yourself, attend church or else. Excommunication/ the fire of hell awaits you! Fear of course being the ultimate sales pitch. But the sort of religion that’s based on fear isn’t a healthy sort of faith; its certainly not one that inspires me.

On Easter Day, we learn otherwise. We get a glimpse of heaven, or God’s reign, God’s dimension breaking in. The cosmic significance of the resurrection is that death and hell have been fundamentally and completely conquered. St Paul writes, ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory. ‘Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?’

The cosmic dimension of this is that in the birth, life, death and resurrection of Christ, the world has fundamentally changed. Heaven and earth have been united. The Easter message today is that God is life-giver. On the cross Jesus took within himself all the violence and evil that could be thrown at a person. He absorbed the hatred, anger, the fists ripping his beard off, the life-sapping flogging, the excruciating torture of the cross. And, sort of like a sponge, he absorbed this evil within himself and responded not with violence, but with love. And we learn that this love conquers all, even death and hell. There is nothing more powerful than this. ‘Love can soften the hardest of hearts, the most rigid minds, the stoniest of souls. Love can do what naked force cannot’ (Graham Tomlin, Looking Through the Cross, p.78)

This suggests a picture of reality that is different to the one of entropy or decay we find in the world. It’s an alternative picture that involves dying to rise. When a gardener plants a seed or bulb in the ground, it looks to all intents and purposes as though it’s died. For months on end, nothing is seen. Yet decay isn’t the only thing that’s happening. Germination starts. And out of the planted seed comes a green shoot, then a stalk, and then the full ear of corn. Of course, a field of corn looks nothing like a bucket for seed. Neither does a daffodil look anything like the bulb that’s been planted in the ground. It looks as though they are entirely different things. And yet they are related and continuous with each other. Its not that one vanishes and entirely replaces the other, but that one emerges from the other. Perhaps that is why Jesus’s followers didn’t at first recognize him. His risen body was different from, yet continuous with, his earthly body, just as a flower is continuous with but different from a seed (Tomlin p.203-5).

In short, today we celebrate God the life-giver, knowing that death and hell are ultimately conquered by self-giving Love. Death is not annihilation, a full stop, a terminus – but rather the horizon though which we pass into the embrace of unconditional Love.

However, it doesn’t take much to recognise that our world and our lives are still profoundly broken. In our world and in our lives today, resurrection needs to be practiced; it needs to be lived out.
In Jim Wallis’ book, God’s Politics, he tells a powerful story about practicing resurrection. He tells a story that took place in South Africa. To all outward appearances apartheid still had a strangle-hold on power and Nelson Mandela was still in jail. Wallis was at an ecumenical service at the Cathedral of St George’s where Archbishop Desmond Tutu was presiding, when a group of the notorious South African Security Police broke into the service. Wallis writes:

“Tutu stopped preaching and just looked at the intruders as they lined the walls of his cathedral, wielding writing pads and tape recorders. They had already arrested Tutu and other church leaders just a few weeks before and kept them in jail for several days. After meeting their eyes with his in a steely gaze, the church leader acknowledged their power... but reminded them that he served a higher power than their political authority.

Then, in the most extraordinary challenge to political tyranny I have ever witnessed, Archbishop Desmond Tutu told the representatives of South African Apartheid, “Since you have already lost, I invite you today to come and join the winning side!” He said it with a smile on his face and an enticing warmth in his invitation, but with a clarity and a boldness that took everyone’s breath away.
The congregation’s response was electric. The crowd was literally transformed by the bishop’s challenge to power. From a cowering fear of the heavily armed security forces that surrounded the cathedral and greatly outnumbered the band of worshippers, we literally leapt to our feet, shouted the praises of God and began dancing. We danced out of the cathedral to meet the awaiting police and military forces who not knowing what else to do, backed up to provide the space for the people of faith to dance for freedom in the streets of South Africa.”

It would take another ten years before Mandela was released but that day, apartheid died during the celebration in the church, and when the Christian community danced for freedom in the streets of South Africa. And it happened by practicing and living in this life the Resurrection!

The Easter message today is that God is the life-giver, that God brings newness out of what appeared to be finished. The Easter message is that in God there are no dead ends, a new door can open in what seemed to be a brick wall. The Easter message today is that in God there is endless compassion, love, patience and resourcefulness that cannot be defeated by even the worst of sinfulness. Can I encourage you today to live and practice Resurrection! A very happy Easter.
Holland Park Benefice