Sermon for Williamstown
Easter Sunday, 27th of March, 2016
‘[T]hese words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.’
Today, Easter Sunday, we celebrate the ultimate unexpected twist in the tale. We remember the ultimate act of civil disobedience, in which someone executed by the powerful Roman Empire just refused to stay dead! In the words of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, we rejoice that: ‘good is stronger than evil; love is stronger than hate; light is stronger than darkness; life is stronger than death. Victory is ours, through him who loves us.’
Or is this all just an ‘idle tale’?
The phrase ‘with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other’ has been attributed to many Christian thinkers, most frequently the Swiss theologian Karl Barth. What happens if we read the story of the resurrection, God’s ultimate ‘Yes,’ with the newspaper in our other hand? How can we reconcile Christ’s endless victory over death, about which we will later sing, with the attack by IS in Brussels on Tuesday? If we truly believe that ‘love’s redeeming work is done’ what do we make of the fact that the Brussels attacks have received pages upon pages of reporting and analysis in the papers, while attacks in Baghdad and Aden yesterday are relegated to small stories on inside pages? How can we sing ‘where, O death, is now your sting’ when we not only observe such violence in the world, we must also acknowledge that we care so much more about some victims of violence than others?
It is not just the news reports of deliberate acts of murder and destruction that seem to challenge the good news of the resurrection. Over this past week the news has also reported on the activities of people who just don’t seem to care about others: the person who drove head-on into a cyclist and then left him by the side of the road; the person who threw a wheelie-bin over an overpass and hit a car; the owners of the 30% of large private companies that pay no tax. These aren’t acts of deliberate menace; but they are the acts of people who don’t seem to care about that ways in which their actions affect others. They are the acts of people who do not see others as being of equal worth with themselves. This is the world in which we live.
The prophet Isaiah described the new creation that God would bring about, the new creation that we declare was inaugurated in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. The world that God had promised was a world in which: ‘No more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days, or an old person who does not live out a lifetime.’ It’s a world in which those who build houses can live in them and those who grow food can eat it. Isaiah tells of a new creation, of joy replacing weeping and life overcoming death. He tells of the time when everything that destroys life – sadness, premature death, injustice, robbery, even genocide – will pass away. Isaiah prophesies about God’s new heavens and new earth, when the former things will not be remembered or brought to mind. Has Jesus’ resurrection initiated that world of peace and justice, or are we just repeating an idle tale?
Some people have been given the gift of perfect faith. They can look at this world with all its death and violence and human indifference without ever questioning God. Others deliberately ignore the imperfections of this world in their focus on what they see as ‘the next world’ and so never ask any questions. But for the rest of us our faith is mixed with doubt and our lives include wrestling with God. And that is okay. The very name ‘Israel’, given to Jacob after he spent a night wrestling with a being who turned out to be manifestation of God, means ‘The one who strives with God or God strives’. In today’s story of the empty tomb we have terrified women and men who do not believe the women’s story. Next week we will hear the story of poor Thomas, still called ‘Doubting Thomas’ after all these centuries, who did not believe the others when they told him that the resurrected Jesus had appeared to them. Faith that is mixed with doubt, faith that strives with God, has a long and illustrious heritage in both Judaism and Christianity. Faith that prays with the Bible is one hand and the newspaper in the other and struggles with the apparent contradiction between the joy of the resurrection and the state of the world is still Christian faith.
So what should we do if we have such a struggling faith? Can we celebrate the resurrection while also weeping at the literal death caused by suicide bombs and the figurative death caused by locking children in immigration detention? Can we confront the world’s massive indifference and still proclaim ‘He is risen’? Those aren’t rhetorical questions. There is an honourable history of ‘protest atheism’; of people refusing to believe in God in a world of so much suffering. But the very fact that we are here in a church on Easter Sunday indicates that that isn’t the path we’ve taken.
One thing we don’t do is celebrate the resurrection as something that makes the crucifixion okay. God raising Jesus from the dead does not make that death less horrifying. When the resurrected Jesus appears to the disciples the wounds caused by the nails are still in his hands. Resurrection is not a simplistic happy ending. When we celebrate the resurrection we are not forgetting everything that came before it. And so when we celebrate the resurrection we are also not ignoring the many ways in which this world is not yet the world that Isaiah described. We rejoice that the new creation is what God has promised and inaugurated, but we don’t pretend that we are there yet. We celebrate the resurrection while also continuing to weep with those who are weeping.
We celebrate the resurrection with hope. In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, those very badly behaved early Christians, he writes: ‘And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three’ (1 Corinthians 13:13). In his letter to the much less badly behaved Romans Paul said: ‘Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen?’ (Romans 8:24). And so, like the early Christians, we celebrate the resurrection with hope, looking forward to that which we haven’t yet seen, the completion of God’s new creation. We still live in a world in which some people act with anger and hatred and other people live with sorrow and pain, but we look forward with hope to a different world and we believe that in the resurrection of Jesus we have be given grounds for that hope.
Most importantly of all, we celebrate the resurrection with love. That sentence of Paul’s: ‘And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three’ ends with the words ‘and the greatest of these is love’. That is the Christian response to Jesus’ resurrection – love for the world for which Christ died. In a world of violence and indifference we live with love, because in Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection we have seen God’s love for us. The resurrection does not provide a happy ending that wipes out the crucifixion, but it does show us that God’s response to hatred and death is love and life. And as those who follow Christ that is our response, too. We celebrate Christ’s resurrection when we respond to the hatred and violence and indifference of the world with love. When we accept God’s love and love one another the news of the empty tomb is not simply an idle tale but the beginning of new life, the new life that we celebrate today. Thanks be to God. Amen.