Sermon for Easter Sunday, 11 April 2004

Sermon for Easter Sunday, 11 April 2004

Someone asked me the other day whether I was able to get away for Easter. ‘No’,
I said, with my tongue in my cheek, ‘I cannot possibly disappoint
the quarter to eleven congregation in the Cathedral at Llandaff’.
Well, we did once manage to get away over Easter, when I was a university
chaplain. We spent it in Majorca, and on Easter Sunday morning went to
a Roman Catholic Mass held in a hotel near ours. Unfortunately, we got
given some wrong information. I thought that we were going to an English
Roman Catholic Mass, and I thought that since English Roman Catholic
worship is usually fairly lively worship, it would be a good place to
be on Easter morning. Imagine my surprise, therefore, and the children’s
total disbelief, when we found ourselves in the middle of a Latin Mass
that was galloped through and lasted for precisely 20 minutes, including
communicating at least 100 people. The conversation about holidays and
Easter made me think again about that Majorcan experience and its connection
with the Resurrection.

In that hotel, there were people from literally every nation and race
and country under the sun, who had all come together at the feast of
the resurrection to worship the God who had raised Jesus from the dead.
The fact that they were Christians transcended barriers of language,
race, culture and sex. Now, it is possible to know all of that with one’s
mind – that Christians are to be found all over the world – a
thousand million in fact. And yet, although one can know it with one’s
mind, one can fail to realise the full implications of its significance.
Perhaps one can only truly do so when one finds oneself worshipping in
an international community. It made me realise, with a greater force
than before, that the God you and I believe in is not American or English
or even British or Welsh, but the God of the whole universe. He is a
God who is bigger than sect or tribe or nation. He is not biased towards
the welfare of one nation, over against another. That was the hard lesson
that the people of Israel had to learn. She was chosen, not because she
was special, or because her salvation was the only thing that mattered
to God, but in order that she might proclaim the good news about God
to the whole universe. Likewise, the God who raised Jesus from the dead
is the God of the whole world, and that is why the Gospel is a universal
Gospel. It is so easy for us as an island nation, and particularly in
view of our imperial past, to appropriate God as if he were our tribal
God, justifying everything we do as His will. We have seen that view
come to the fore over the war in Iraq, when statements by our Government
and the Government of America seemed to imply that somehow God was on
our side, and that his interests coincided with British or American ones.
Now our leaders don’t put it as crudely as that, but a hint of
it comes to the fore now and again. So, too, the Ministry of Defence
wanted the service at St Paul’s Cathedral at the end of the Iraq
war to be a celebration of victory, a kind of religious victory parade,
but the Church authorities made sure that, in fact, it was a thanksgiving
for the end of the war, insofar as it has ended, and penitence for having
failed to live up to the Gospel imperative of loving our enemies.

But lest we think that this is merely the fault of politicians, all
religious people have a tendency to make God in their own image. The
Pope blessed the troops of Mussolini as they were about to embark on
the plunder of Ethiopia, and God was invoked by the Church in Germany
to extend the Fatherland. To everyone who thinks like that comes the
message ‘in Jesus Christ there is no Jew or Greek, male or female,
bond or free’ He is the God of the nations – He is the Lord
of the whole earth. All of us need our horizons widened, our understanding
of the world enlarged, because it all belongs to God, and it is all of
interest to Him. He made it, He sustains it, and He is in the process
of redeeming it. The God we worship is not a local God – a God
who is always on our side. He is the Lord of the universe, and resurrection
life, new life has to be a possibility for everyone or else it’s
not a possibility for anyone. For that is what resurrection means. It
is the beginning of God’s new world.

The Gospel proclaims that when Jesus was raised from the dead, the
course of the world was changed – the promise is the promise that
the whole world will be reborn – it will be God’s brave new
world inaugurated by Jesus, where everything that distorts or disfigures
our humanity will disappear – the resurrection of Jesus is the
assurance that love will win over hate, life over death and God will
triumph over everything – and that this involves the whole of humanity
and indeed the whole creation. It’s not the saving of a few select
souls, but the possibility of new life offered to everyone and everything – that’s
the significance of the resurrection of Jesus.

The second feeling I had as I worshipped on that Easter Sunday morning,
was a great feeling of alienation. I had been deprived of my normal Easter
service, with Easter lilies, anthems, alleluias, hymns that I could sing
with gusto, and a familiar Eucharistic service. Instead, we had the Latin
Mass, and it had been over twenty years since I did ‘A’ level
Latin, and in any case, the officiant hardly stopped for breath. And
again it came to me that we all get so used to worshipping God in our
own way, that when anything out of the ordinary or unfamiliar happens,
we find it hard to cope, and we say that we get nothing out of it, and
perhaps even arrogantly assume that because it was so totally strange
to us, God was not present either, because we felt alienated. The message
of Easter, of Resurrection, is that it is very often in unfamiliar places
and situations that the Lord is to be found. We need eyes to see his
presence. You just look again at the Easter stories. He is found on the
road to Emmaus – with the disciples walking with Him, and they
do not recognise the stranger alongside them. It’s only as they
break bread that the penny drops; or there is Mary in the garden thinking
she was talking to the gardener, when it suddenly becomes clear who the
gardener really is, or there is the stranger on the shore at the end
of St John’s Gospel, who tells the disciples to fish on the other
side of the boat, and they suddenly realise that they are in the presence
of the Lord. In all of these ways, they discover Jesus in places where
they least expected to find Him. If that is so for them, it is also true
for us as well. We expect to find God in the places we choose. God, however,
is not bound or tied to our apprehension of Him, and He makes Himself
known where often we least expect to find Him. He is going before you
to Galilee, said the young man in white in St Mark’s Gospel to
the women who went to the tomb. John Taylor, a former Bishop of Winchester,
writing about this ending of Mark’s Gospel puts it like this: ‘Jerusalem
symbolised the safe stronghold of faith, where age-long forms of worship
were offered. Jerusalem represents for us the traditional centre of our
religious observance – our churches, Eucharist, Easter flowers,
confirmation, baptism, PCC meetings. All, in fact, that most of us mean
by Church. And, of course, the Risen Jesus does meet us there in prayer
and sacrament, in fellowship and in festivals.

But Galilee is the secular world where the disciples came from and earned
their living. It was a cosmopolitan place, a wild place, there were gentiles
there. “Could anything good come out of Nazareth? asked Jesus’ contemporaries”. “Will
Christ appear from Galilee”? What Jesus is saying in Mark’s
Gospel is that we have to find His presence in the world of work, leisure
and money. We may think that we can only meet Him behind the closed doors
of our own weekend Jerusalem, but in fact He is now loose in our world
waiting for us to encounter Him’.

I also thought that Easter morning that if I, a Christian and a cleric,
can feel alienated by the service and language of a church that is not
my own, do we as Christians take seriously the alienation of the vast
percentage of the population from the Christian Church? There is the
danger of the Christian Church becoming a kind of Holy huddle, an in-group
speaking its own language, doing its own thing, in its own way, almost
a kind of elitist religious club. Those who do not belong, can feel excluded
and left out. Not that we mean to exclude them, but that’s the
effect we have on them nevertheless. And we sometimes make them feel
that they either accept us on our terms, or else they can ‘t be
part of us at all. But the message of the Gospel is that it is for all
people and when the Spirit is given, it is given in such a way that communication
is possible between nations and cultures in a way that hadn’t been
possible before – in other words, the Christian Gospel is meant
to break down barriers, not to raise them up. The Spirit is given as
a means for enabling disciples to speak in such a way that everyone can
understand them. It doesn’t give them an alien language which no
one can understand. It enables them to communicate so that they are inclusive,
not exclusive.

The Lord is risen we affirm. He is indeed, but he is The Lord, not my
Lord or your Lord. He is the Lord who is always before us, inviting us
to open our eyes to see His presence in the most unexpected of places,
and He is the Lord whose Gospel, and whose risen life, is not for the
few elect plucked out of the burning, but for every tribe and nation
upon earth, for he longs to reconcile the whole world to Himself. To
that kind of God, be praise, glory, wisdom, thanksgiving, honour, power
and might, now and forever.