Readings: Acts10; 34-43, John 20:1- 18
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. The tomb is empty. It is not a symbolic resurrection, but a real one. We live the heart of darkness, as we have seen this week at Notre Dame in Paris, and Northern Ireland, and the nuclear posturing of the United States and North Korea which could obliterate us all. 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. Like many others now on our fragile planet, I am asking the question what makes us truly human? This is the big question for the twenty first century, together with how our humanity cares for the rest of the creation, before we destroy it. There are other images which also convey 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. At the same time, we see the rise of hate crimes and overt xenophobia. 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 and Diocese in spadesful.
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. 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, especially here in Notting Hill. Last night we baptized 12 people in this church, mainly from Iran, and now at least half of this church is Filipino. I thank god for the Christians of Asia, who are the future in our own secular desert. Many analysts predict that the largest number of Christians in 2050 will be from China. On a more local level, I see this flowering daily, as I am privileged to work with people from Community Payback/ Probation Service. The offenders I work with, now majority Muslim, teach me how to flower 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 pf mature stability, as in the recent recognition that what is happened to Christians and other minorities in the Middle East under Islamic State is Genocide. Parliament voted to recognize this persecution as genocide. Yet we still wait for justice and in the meantime the Home Office continues to display a discriminatory attitude to Christians from the Middle East. Amidst those who have been given refuge from Syria in this country, not one is Christian, from a country where 10% of the population is Christian. The anti-Christian discrimination in our own country becomes daily more palpable. The now almost unwatchable BBC, in its coverage of the fire at Notre Dame, did not once refer to it as a church, and only used the meaningless phrase “a cultural icon.” We have much to learn from those who have experienced discrimination and for this reason, this Parish will be hosting a Chaldean Catholic deacon from Iraq for three months in the summer, whose family lost everything to Islamic state. This is a form of maturity and stability which comes from people of faith, not least from the Christian community. 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 yet to be revealed. This is the human condition, and Jesus who goes through persecution, judicial murder, death and resurrection is the archetypal human. 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.
Fires in Cathedrals are not new. These living artifices of faith are renewed all the time. In our own history, when St Paul’s Cathedral was burned down in 1666, a single stone was found amongst the ashes with the word Resurgam on it – I will rise. That’s our Easter message. The poet Maya Lou Angelou, in her narrative of black slavery gave us too our Easter message of hope for all people. “Leaving behind nights of terror and fear I rise Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear I rise Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave, I am the dream and the hope of the slave. I rise I rise I rise. “A blessed and happy Easter – Christ is Risen!