Sermon for Evensong on the First Sunday after Easter, 7th April 2013
Isaiah 53:1-6, 9-12; Luke 24:13-35 –

This has been a rather challenging Easter time – and I don’t just mean that there is heightened tension in Korea, or that the weather has been totally dreadful so that thousands of lambs have been lost in snowdrifts, although of course those are dreadful things that have happened round this Easter – I was thinking instead about the terrible case of the Philpotts, convicted of killing six of their children.

Rather extraordinarily, the Chancellor of the Exchequer has tried to link their depravity to the fact that they were receiving social security benefits. The judgement in the Philpott case came a few days after the government brought in sweeping changes in the Welfare State, which were widely criticised by the churches generally – if anyone would like to know more about what the churches have said about the government’s reforms to the Welfare State, please ask me after the service and I will make sure you get a copy of the report prepared for the Free Churches, which was endorsed by 42 Anglican bishops including our Bishop Ian.

Among other things, it points out that most of the social security budget goes on paying old age pensions, and only about ten per cent goes on unemployment benefit. Most unemployed people are unemployed for less than a year; and more benefit is paid to those who are in work, but whose pay is too low to allow them to afford to pay rent and eat.

But perhaps the most challenging thing that I came across in the last few days was a headline on Twitter, ‘Spare a thought for the prison chaplain who has to minister to Mick Philpott.’

Well, I had all that in my head, but then I realised that in my sermon I should not forget that we are still in the time of Easter and we are, in our church life, focussing on Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. The Bible lessons tonight are from Isaiah, where you might have heard in your head the aria in Handel’s Messiah, ‘He was despised and rejected’, the prophecy that the Messiah would not be a triumphant king but would be a suffering servant who would suffer and take upon himself the sins of the world; and the other story, of the two disciples walking to Emmaus encountering Jesus, not realising who He was, even though He was explaining to them what the Hebrew Bible had said about the Messiah, for example indeed in passages like the ‘He was despised’ passage in Isaiah, and then when they sat down to eat together, ‘He took bread, he gave thanks, he broke it and he gave it to them’, and then ‘their eyes were opened’ and they knew who he was. The memory of the Last Supper came to them vividly.

So should I talk to you about the greatest thing, the heart of the Gospel of Christ, His resurrection, or should I take it for granted that, yes, you believe in the Resurrection, and get on straightway to how it should affect us in the way we behave as Christians, how we treat people who are as bad as Mick Philpott?

I can imagine that, if for some reason somebody who doesn’t normally go to church – perhaps who doesn’t believe very much – if somebody like that has joined us for tonight’s service, when I pose that question, they will think that we are rather odd people. The Resurrection is clearly a piece of picturesque nonsense, they will say. Nobody could possibly believe in it, and anyway, this was 2,000 years ago. Nobody’s ever seen anything like it since.

But on the other hand, real life questions about how we look after people who are less fortunate in society and how we deal with people who seem to reject the whole basis of society itself, who seem to reject the idea of having any care for people other than themselves, are live issues which everyone in society should be concerned about.

Well, if you take that view, whatever else you do, you should come to the open meeting which will be held at Church Gate House, St Andrew’s, on Tuesday night, by our MP, Dominic Raab, when he invites us, his constituents, to question him and make representations to him so that he can represent us better in Parliament.

It would be interesting to know whether he sympathises with the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s view, that in some way, being on benefits made Mick Philpott more likely to commit manslaughter of his children. Perhaps our MP has a different view. It will be very interesting to learn what he feels, and perhaps to ask him to take some messages back to Westminster.

But what about those two disciples on the Emmaus road? They were very sad. They had heard all Jesus’ teaching. They had learned from Him that we should love our neighbours as ourselves: so if our neighbour is out of work, sick or disabled or needy in some other way, Jesus’ teaching seems clear. We should treat that neighbour as we ourselves expect to be treated.

Cleopas and the other disciple would remember the Sermon on the Mount. If somebody strikes you, turn the other cheek. ‘Blessed are the merciful’. And they would remember Jesus’ teaching, ‘Judge not, lest ye yourselves be judged’.

So when confronted with an evil person like Philpott, according to Jesus’ teachings, they would have hated the sin but tried to love the sinner, they should have tried to forgive the sinner; they would have faced the same challenge as the prison chaplain is no doubt facing now.

But the problem for Cleopas and the other disciple (perhaps it was Mrs Cleopas), was that they had heard all Jesus’ wonderful teachings and they had begun really to believe that He was the Messiah, the chosen one of God: that He was going to bring in the kingdom of God, so that all His teaching about love and forgiveness would make sense.

If it had been today, they would believe that Mick Philpott would listen to the chaplain, would be repentant in time, would pray for forgiveness and would become a reformed character. But they were afraid that none of that was going to happen; in effect they were like the newspapers today, thrashing about: some saying very intemperate things going one way, and others equally trenchantly preaching the other way, in relation to such things as social welfare and criminal justice.

Nobody has said why their particular view is to be preferred. It is assumed that, if you read the Telegraph, or the Daily Mail, you will have a particular view; you will sympathise with what those papers – and perhaps George Osborne also – have said. If you read the Guardian, you will have an altogether contrary opinion, but equally, you will feel very strongly that it is the right thing.

But none of the newspapers has pointed to any reason why their particular view was right or wrong. That was how the poor disciples, Cleopas and the other one, felt after Easter. All the bright promise of Jesus’ preaching and teaching, the great crowds which He had drawn to Him, the baptisms, the healings of the sick, the various other miracles, even raising Lazarus and the widow of Nain’s son from the dead – they had all come to a crashing halt at the hands of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish leadership and the Roman administration.

Pontius Pilate wanted to avoid any possibility of civil unrest, and therefore he had countenanced the patently unjust killing of Jesus on the cross. Poor Jesus had therefore died, in the most horrific way – and that’s as much as Cleopas and the other one knew. The whole brave enterprise had ended in calamity.

It made it look as though everything that Jesus had been promoting and preaching about was, after all, just His opinion. It had looked right at the time; it may have sounded fine coming from Jesus’ mouth – but however eloquent He was, in the ultimate analysis Jesus was just another human being, and therefore He could be brought to a halt, he could be controlled by authority, by the brute force of the Roman soldiers.

He could be – and in fact He had been – killed.

When He met Mr and Mrs Cleopas, what Jesus did was to go through what the Hebrew Bible said about the Messiah, to remind the Cleopas’ what they were looking for, what the Messiah would be like: that He wouldn’t be a triumphant warrior, but he would be more like a suffering servant.

But He didn’t get through to them. The Bible says that their eyes remained closed to Him. They didn’t rumble who He was. It was just as I was saying earlier, that they knew that the Messiah was supposed to do certain things and was supposed to be certain things: but they couldn’t see how it could apply to Jesus, in the light of what had happened on the cross.

In the ultimate analysis, after a brave show Jesus had just been killed, extinguished. He couldn’t do any more good. Then when Jesus broke bread as He had done in the Last Supper, all of a sudden the light went on in their brains, their eyes were opened, and they realised that He had come back to life, and there He was, alive with them.

So the prophecies in the Bible were not empty ideas, not just pretty stories. Jesus was the real thing. The Cleopas’ realised that indeed, the Kingdom of God had started.

So let’s look again at what everybody thinks about these various events, that have happened in the last week. But let’s look at these events in a different light. It isn’t the case that there is no touchstone, no standard against which to judge what the right thing is to do.

There is a standard: the standard of the kingdom of God. So when you are confronted by Mick Philpott, the question is not what the journalists in the Telegraph or in the Daily Mail or in the Guardian think are the right principles to be followed.

Instead the principle should be, ‘What would Jesus do?’ because, the Lord is here. The Lord is with us. He is risen indeed.

‘Behold, I tell unto you a mystery’. That mystery is that Jesus was raised from the dead. The sacrifice was not in vain. Even though it was 2,000 years ago, it still means that everything has changed. The judge said that Mick Philpott ‘had no moral compass’. Frankly that could also be said about some of the newspapers. Jesus rose again from the dead. That is the most important thing in our lives – even today. It has given a ‘moral compass’ to all Christians. That moral compass includes the commandments of love and forgiveness that Jesus preached. Or to put it another way, we could just ask, ‘What would Jesus do?’

That’s how the chaplain will be starting with Mick Philpott. That’s how we should start, every day.