SERMON BY THE VICAR EASTER DAY 2018
This week we entered the Heart of Darkness. I am of course speaking about Holy Week, in which we entered the heart of darkness of betrayal, collapse, violence, judicial murder and execution. The events of Holy Week take us to where we are, and are inseparable from the celebration of Easter, when we join in the triumph over evil and death which Jesus Christ accomplished for us by his victory over death. So if you missed them, I'm sorry. Jesus does not rise by magic, and he is not the Easter Bunny, but here it is. The tomb is empty. It is not a symbolic resurrection, but a real one. We live the heart of darkness, as we have felt and seen with all who are persecuted for their faith, as the Prince of Wales says in his Easter message, the continuing tragedy of Grenfell, the rise of xenophobia, nationalism, and protectionism, and the nuclear posturing of the United States and North Korea which could obliterate us all. We are not, by any reading, in great political shape. There is an Easter hymn of the Orthodox Church addressed to Christ which says this, “You descended to earth to redeem mankind – and not finding him there, you descended to Hell. There you found him. There you rescued him.” Holy Week and Easter speaks directly to this Heart of Darkness which is the human condition. Last month I was fortunate enough to visit Myanmar/Burma, and to hear directly the big plans of China for the region and beyond. The city of Kunming in south west China is to become the new hub for the booming Artificial Intelligence industry, especially robots, and as a transport hub for the new high-speed railways to Bangkok, Singapore, and throughout the region. This is all part of the One Belt One Road programme of the Chinese Government for the next 50 years. This is the one big political idea for the 21st century. Like many others, I do not see any big political idea closer to home. Also like many others right now, especially with the growth of AI, I am asking the question what makes us truly human? Netflix has helped me with this, especially the series Altered Carbon which has fascinated me. Altered Carbon presents a view of humanity which is not far off – here, humans are frozen when they die and kept refrigerated until someone buys the “sleeve” (as the body is called) to wear when the body gets unfrozen. All the bodies or sleeves are owned by the Government, who also patent the DNA. Altered Carbon raises the question of the soul, life and death – in other words, what makes us human. This is the big message, the strap-line of Easter - The new life of humanity. There are also other images that speak directly of the new life of Easter, principally from nature and the natural environment, so I want to use those this morning. As a farm boy, I have always responded to the rhythms of nature. So I want to use three images this Easter Day from the natural world – growth, flowering, and mature stability and death.
Growth: The reading set from the Acts of the Apostles tells the story of Peter’s confession of faith. In it, we are presented with a picture of a man who testifies to the Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead with fluency and confidence. Remember the earlier stories of Peter which we have heard from Palm Sunday onwards of Peter as a broken man, half destroyed by his own betrayal of his Master. Betrayal is a very real feeling abroad right now, especially in our own society and culture. People feel betrayed by their elected representatives, particularly in the handling of the often infantile and rarely uplifting debates about Brexit, as we alienate all our neighbours and move into a worldview akin to the hermit Kingdom. At the same time, we see the rise of hate crimes and overt xenophobia, not least anti-Semitism in politics. For this reason, we are proud to host this major exhibition commemorating the 70,243 men women and children murdered by the Nazi regime in less than a year. We know that those who cannot remember are doomed to repeat. On the theme of betrayal, people feel betrayed by the church in the light of the findings of the independent Enquiry into abuse in the church, especially its Bishops and hierarchy. In the meantime, we are left without societal vision. This cannot be a healthy model for the future in which we look to growth- economic growth maybe, but more importantly growth in the human experience as rounded, connected, and spiritual beings. But if we want to see real growth, go back to the reading. Peter is the one who betrayed Jesus Christ and now in Peter we see a man transformed. Something has happened to him, and he has a confidence and an authority which was not there before, and this confidence and authority has followed on from a very public betrayal and collapse. The betrayer becomes the defender. As a priest, I see this again and again – individual’s lives transformed by the grace and power of the Resurrection life, leading them on to things they could never have dreamed possible. I would say that this is one of the principal jobs of priests in Parishes – to nourish, develop, and coax this change into being – in individuals and in community, to raise the game, to be vision led, and to be open to the many possibilities for change and renewal. This is Growth, and thank God we experience this in this Parish, whatever the rest of the church is doing.
Flowering. We flower and flourish when we are with others, which we call community. Community is an ambiguous and tendentious word. Many of the people who speak about community are exactly the ones we would like to run a mile from. You may be thinking that right now. But like it or not, the Christian community is marked by the characteristic of being a Resurrection community. Without this, the community is nothing. Listen to this: “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” This community, marked by the Resurrection, is the opposite of a club. Take the word used to describe this community – church. This English word translates the Greek ekklesia. The ekklesia in classical antiquity was the municipal authority of a town – the Borough Council you might call it. And to be a member of the ekklesia, you had to be an adult, freeborn, male. What did the early community of the Resurrection do? It took this term, ekklesia, and immediately transformed and publicly subverted it by admitting women, children, and slaves. No more dramatic and public redefinition of language could have been possible. The ekklesia reborn – no longer a club, but a living community of the Resurrection. When churches live this new life, they flourish and flower. Why should it be that the Diocese of London has been for the last two decades years a growing Diocese? Part of the reason must be the huge variety of backgrounds, languages, and cultures, present in our Diocese and City of London, with more than 200 languages present in the Church schools of this Diocese. During this time, immigration into London was higher than any other world city, including New York and Los Angeles. A very convincing case can then be made that the flowering of our world city is directly attributable, partly, to this high rate of immigration. Immigration and emigration are part of what has always shaped our community. These insights from our Resurrection faith will continue to be offered to society as a whole, “What makes our community healthy and whole?” Over the past months, I have been privileged to see this happening with the group of people from Community Payback/ Probation Service I work with week by week in this Church. The offenders I work with, now majority Muslim, teach me this daily in the life of this Church. This is community in living action, helping to put right what has gone wrong, so that all may enjoy mutual flourishing.
And now, mature stability and death. Speaking as we find is an aspect of mature stability, as in the recent recognition that what happened to Christians and other minorities in the Middle East under Islamic State was Genocide. Last Easter, Iraqi Christians were still living in exile from their hometown in and around Mosul, then occupied by Islamic State. But since then, we have seen the collapse of the so-called Caliphate, and now Christians and others begin to return to , and rebuild, their homes. I was blessed to be asked to visit there in August and to see this new life after the destruction of the jihadists, many of whom came from this country, and a significant number from this borough. This is new life, and mature stability. A mature, stable faith will always offer this. Addressing teachers in Catholic schools on the subject of radicalization, Cardinal Nicholls recently pointed out that it takes only a few hours on the internet for a young person to be radicalized as they are, in the chilling words of Islamic State groomers, “clean skins.” In other words, the spiritual vacuum of our secular society leaves children and young people dangerously exposed. A convincing case could therefore be made against the prevailing secular fundamentalism that it is a denial of the human rights of children to be spiritually equipped. Being spiritually equipped in the face of death also characterizes the human condition at its best. As you know, the Gospel of John which we heard today mirrors Genesis in what is technically called typology. The Genesis narrative opens with the words “In the Beginning” - this is mirrored by John consciously as he begins his Gospel, “In the beginning was the word.” If John’s account is therefore of the new creation in Jesus Christ, what completes creation? In the words of a Russian Orthodox theologian, it is the three words of the dying Jesus on the Cross “It is finished.” It is no accident that these words are found in the Gospel of John only, and not in the other Gospels. The words do not refer to his own life on earth, but to creation which is completed through the creator being crucified on the cross. In other words, if birth is the beginning of the human experience, it is death which completes it and makes us fully human. Our true humanity is therefore yet to be revealed – so everything from our birth to our death is characterised by radical insecurity as we shelter ourselves in a fragile tent. This is the human condition, and Jesus who goes through persecution, judicial murder, death and resurrection is therefore archetypal human in the image and likeness of God. The Easter community is the extension of this new humanity as we are born again through our baptism, our life in community, our physical death, and the glorious life of the Resurrection.
The Christian community has at its heart, Mary Magdalene’s, the Apostle to the Apostles, declaration of faith “I have seen the Lord.” If we are able to say that in our hearts, then we are truly living the Resurrection life – growing, flowering, maturing dying and rising to new life all the time. “I have seen the Lord.” For we are an Easter people, and Alleluia! is our song.
A happy and Blessed Easter