Sermon for Williamstown
Easter Sunday, 21st of April, 2019
‘[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 what I like to describe as ‘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’?
You may have heard of the Australian rugby player, Israel Folau. I know absolutely nothing about rugby, except that it is named after the English school in which the book Tom Brown’s Schooldays is set; and I would know nothing about Folau except that he has an apparent habit of promoting his particularly exclusive form of Christianity on social media. Most recently he shared an image on Instagram that said, ‘Warning Drunks Homosexuals Adulterers Liars Fornicators Thieves Atheists Idolaters Hell Awaits You’ and captioned the image, ‘Those that are living in Sin will end up in Hell unless you repent. Jesus Christ loves you and is giving you time to turn away from your sin and come to him’. Folau then quoted from the Book of Acts and the Letter to the Galatians in the King James Version. In response Rugby Australia and the New South Wales Rugby Union have said that they want to terminate Folau’s contract, rumoured to be worth $4 million over four years, for breaches of the sport’s Code of Conduct, and the matter will go to a hearing.
It won’t surprise you to hear that I think Folau is wrong. Not just because Folau sees homosexuality as a sin, nor because he apparently focuses on issues to sexuality and gender identity to the exclusion of that questions of wealth and poverty with which Jesus was more concerned, but because God is our only judge, Jesus specifically warns us not to judge each other (Matthew 7:1-5), and God is much less judgemental than Folau is.
Today we are celebrating, as we celebrate every Sunday, the resurrection of Christ. God has said a resounding NO! to death and hatred and evil and hell, and a resounding YES! to life and love and good and the new creation prophesised by Isaiah. In the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus we see the inauguration of that new world in which: ‘[n]o 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,’ a world in which those who build houses can live in them and those who grow food can eat it. Isaiah told the people of Israel of a time when joy would replace weeping and life would overcome death, a time when everything that destroys life – sadness, premature death, injustice, robbery, even genocide – would pass away. Isaiah prophesied about God’s new heavens and new earth, when the former things would not be remembered or brought to mind, and as Christians we believe that in Jesus’ resurrection we have seen that world of peace and justice born.
But who will live in this new world? Jesus stunned and offended the righteous of his day by telling them ‘truly I tell you, the tax-collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you’. (Matthew 21:31) Jesus ate and drank with tax-collectors and sinners; was ministered to by women, even sinful ones; and fed all those who were hungry and healed all those who were sick. No wonder the powers-that-be arranged for his death; he challenged their privileged position.
After Jesus’ death and resurrection, his disciples discovered that the new creation it inaugurated went even further. Not merely the lost ones of the tribes of Israel, but Gentiles were included. Today’s reading from the Book of Acts is the sermon Peter preached to the household of Cornelius, a centurion of the Italian cohort. Jesus had died and been raised not just for Jews, but for Gentiles, too. Geoff Thompson, who teaches at Pilgrim Theological College, has written a book titled Disturbing Much Disturbing Many: Theology Provoked by the Basis of Union, in which he points out how novel Peter’s words are. There had previously been no suggestion that Gentiles could be included among the people of God; the prophets had look forward to God restoring the nation of Israel and conquering the Gentiles who had persecuted them. (pp. 201-206) But the first Christians discovered that, as Peter said, ‘God shows no partiality’. The early Christians read those prophecies of the new creation in the light of the working of the Holy Spirit and discovered that even the Gentiles were welcome in this ‘new age of God’s gracious universal renewal in which the Jewish-Gentile divide was broken down’. (p. 204)
We forget how revolutionary this understanding is, we Gentiles who have now been grafted into God’s people. We read about Jesus welcoming tax-collectors and sinners and it doesn’t shock us. And so rather than imitating God’s invitation to us, even us!, and welcoming others, Christians are all too willing to reject. We believe that in Christ God broke down every dividing wall that would keep us out, but we then eagerly build walls back up to keep out others. We forget that Christ’s blood of the new covenant was poured out for everyone for the forgiveness of sins. We know that only by grace we are saved through faith, but we turn faith into a ‘work’ that earns us our salvation. And so we turn on others and tell them that they, unlike us, are going to hell.
It’s a difficult problem for humans, God’s grace. Jesus told the religious leaders of his day, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ (Matthew 9:13; 12:7) but that offends our sense of justice. And in the world in which we live, in the in-between time between the inauguration of God’s new creation and its fulfilment, we do still need a justice system. The Royal Commission revealed how dangerous it was for some churches to treat the abuse of children by clergy as a sin to be forgiven, rather than a crime to be reported to the police. Some things are crimes, and need to be treated as such. But at the same time nothing we do separates us from the love of God. As the Apostle Paul wrote to the Romans: ‘since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus’. (Romans 3:23-4). That is what we celebrate today; that love’s redeeming work is done; that Christ has burst the gates of hell – for us, and for everyone.
This is why I disagree with Israel Folau. Not because he describes homosexuality as a sin rather than a protected attribute under anti-discrimination law, but because he tries to put limits on God’s grace, as though Jesus died only for those of whom Folau approves. To limit God’s love like that is to turn the resurrection into an idle tale, rather than the ultimate victory of goodness and life. It is only when we accept that God’s love is for us and for everyone that the news of the empty tomb becomes for us not simply an idle tale but the beginning of new life. Today is a day for celebration; saints and sinners celebrating together God’s triumphant love; the love seen in Jesus; the love from which nothing can separate us. Christ is risen from the dead and so all fear of death (and hell) is over. Thanks be to God! Amen.
Just wanted to take the opportunity to thank you for your words. I read your sermons every week, and always gain something from them.
Wishing you a happy Easter (and I hope you get a good rest after the busyness of Holy Week).
Thank you so much. A happy Easter to you, too, and since it’s 8.30 am and I’m still lazing around in my pyjamas, yes, I’m having a good post-Holy Week rest.