Sermon for Easter Day, 20th April 2014
Acts 10:34-43, Colossians 3:1-4, Matt. 28:1-10

When David Cameron published an article in the Church Times (which of course was widely quoted in the Telegraph and other less specialist newspapers than the Church Times), there were lots of people who said how good it was that the Prime Minister had said publicly that he was in favour of the Church of England and that the C of E should stick up for itself more.

Mind you, said the Prime Minister, he didn’t actually go to church very often, and his Christian faith ‘came and went a bit,’ he said. He did remind me a little bit of the caricature figure in WW2 dramas signing up for army service, where the recruiting sergeant asks what his religion is, and he mumbles, ‘Agnostic’, whereupon the sergeant writes down ‘C of E’.

On Thursday there was a big service at Guildford Cathedral for the renewal of vows of all the people in ministry in the Diocese. The Bishop of Dorking, giving the sermon, said that the Prime Minister’s article had been ‘somewhat surprisingly good’. Somewhat surprisingly. His caution might be explained by the comments on the Prime Minister’s article which had been made in various quarters, which tended to focus on the question how Mr Cameron’s Christianity didn’t seem to extend to making sure that people in Britain are not starving and going to food banks.

All this doesn’t take away the fact that the Prime Minister thought that it was important enough, in his busy life, to affirm his Christian faith in a public article. So for that much, I think we must be grateful.

Never mind the Prime Minister; Christianity has been getting a better and better name this year with the advent of the new Pope and the new Archbishop of Canterbury. Both of them are seen as very good adverts for the faith: very good examples of what it is to be a good Christian.

Today on Easter Sunday they reckon that 1.3m people will go to church in the UK. This really isn’t very many, out of the roughly 70m people who live here. So even if the Prime Minister, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Pope are all valiantly pointing up the importance of Christianity, the message doesn’t really seem to be getting through to that many people.

Does that mean there’s something wrong with that message? Our lessons from Acts and St Matthew’s Gospel have the key things. Jesus went about doing good, teaching and healing, but he was arrested and condemned to death as a troublemaker – a freedom-fighter, a terrorist (because always remember, one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom-fighter). He was put to death publicly in the cruellest fashion, being crucified. And He rose again from the dead.

The Gospel story is the most important bit. The story of the empty tomb, of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. I would risk saying that, unless there had been a first Easter Day, and unless there had been a resurrection from the dead, we would not be here, celebrating Jesus and worshipping God in the way that we are today.

Leave aside for a minute the fact that there are only a million or so of us in the UK who will bother to go to church today: if you take the worldwide figures for people celebrating Easter, it’s a very, very large number – and it is a growing number. Christianity is a very fast-growing religion: I believe it is still the fastest-growing religion in the world.

In his first letter to the Corinthians, St Paul explained the significance of Easter. St Paul said, ‘If Christ was not raised, your faith has nothing in it and you are still in your old state of sin’ (1 Cor.15:17).

Now pay attention! Resurrection from the dead, the resurrection of Jesus, is, of course, completely contrary to the laws of nature. It’s a super-miracle, the super-miracle. It is the sign, the sign by which we realise that Jesus wasn’t just a great teacher or a prophet: it’s how we know that he was God incarnate, God in human form.

I’m not going to argue here why I believe in the resurrection – which I, and you, surely do. This is, after all, a gathering of the faithful. But maybe I should encourage you a bit. It’s like adverts for Mercedes-Benz. Merc don’t need to advertise. They can sell every car they make, just by word of mouth. But they have great adverts, nevertheless. Have you seen the one with the chicken? It’s far and away the best ad on the telly at the moment. The reason they made it, and no doubt spent millions on it, was to reassure their customers: to reassure them that they have indeed made the right choice.

So maybe I should also just comfort you, in the same way, about what you already believe. There are plenty of eminent scientists who believe in the resurrection. For the atheists there is Richard Dawkins: for the Christians there is John Polkinghorne: both equally eminent scientists. Similarly in philosophy: for the atheist Daniel Dennett there is the Christian, Richard Swinburne – and Brian Leftow, another formidable logician, whose formal proofs of the existence of God were published recently [God and Necessity, ISBN 978-0-19-926335-6]. Or Roger Scruton, who plays the organ in his parish church.

If you want a good refresher course in why it’s intellectually respectable that we can believe in the resurrection, there’s the famous book, first published in the Thirties and still in print, ‘Who Moved the Stone?’ by Frank Morison. [ISBN 978-1-85078-674-0]. Morison was a sceptic who set out to prove that that resurrection couldn’t have happened, and ended up convincing himself that the weight of all the evidence went exactly the other way, and it did happen. Or of course you can read Richard Swinburne’s ‘The Resurrection of God Incarnate’ [ISBN 978-0-19-925746-1], for a heavyweight philosophy-of-religion treatment from the celebrated former Professor of the Philosophy of the Christian Religion at Oxford.

Back to St Paul. In the lesson from his letter to the Colossians, the very short lesson this morning, he underlines the significance of Easter for us.

‘Were you not raised to life with Christ?’ he asks.

He then says, perhaps rather mysteriously, ‘You did die, and your life has been hidden away with Christ in God’. [Col.3:1,2 (NEB: my translation, resp.)]

Of course this doesn’t mean that somehow we are all ghosts. We have died in the sense that we die in baptism: we die to sin, and have new life in Christ. In that sense, we rise with him. We have been ‘raised to life with Christ.’

And we say He died to save us from our sins, to redeem us. In the words of the hymn ‘There is a green hill far away’, Mrs Alexander wrote, ‘He died that we might be forgiven, he died to make us good,’ and, ‘There was no other good enough | to pay the price of sin’.

The language is apparently language of ransom, of kidnap and ransom, even. But I think that’s not the right way to look at it. If you think of sin not so much as specific sins, specific crimes – although sin can make you do those bad things – if instead you think of sin as whatever it is that separates us from God, then Jesus’ redeeming work was really to bring us back to God, bringing us back home to the true ground of our being. In the words of the lovely prayer,

Father of all,
we give you thanks and praise,
that when we were still far off
you met us in your Son and brought us home.

Even here, where things seem to be very spiritual, very mythical, there isn’t a conflict with science. In her 2012 Gifford Lectures, Prof. Sarah Coakley looks at the idea of sacrifice, sacrifice in the context not just of religion, of Jesus’ sacrifice, or the Jewish idea of a scapegoat, but in the context of evolutionary biology. Apparently the latest analysis is that evolution doesn’t depend on the ‘Selfish Gene’, but much more on co-operation, on selfless behaviour, self-sacrifice. A defining characteristic, the real mark, of humanity is altruism, self-sacrifice, selfless behaviour. We are the most successful species, the theory runs, not because we possess a selfish gene, but exactly the opposite – because ‘greater love hath no man’ is something we can, and do, aspire to.

Professor Coakley mentions in her first lecture –
http://www.faith-theology.com/2012/05/sarah-coakley-2012-gifford-lectures.html%5D – that Charles Darwin was inspired to study biology by William Paley’s argument, that the complex workings of nature meant that they were evidence of the work of a ‘divine watchmaker’. Although the current rather fundamentalist ‘intelligent design’ movement, mainly in the USA, isn’t very believable, nevertheless there does seem to be perfectly good scientific evidence for God, as the creator and sustainer of the universe. It’s really not necessary to be an atheist if you are a scientist.

Oh – and if you want to compare and contrast Prime Ministerial words of faith, you might want to dust off Gordon Brown’s speech in 2011 about his Christian faith, which you can find on Archbishop Rowan’s website. http://rowanwilliams.archbishopofcanterbury.org/articles.php/903/faith-in-politics-lecture-by-gordon-brown.

Nothing political, honest – but Gordon Brown’s piece is head and shoulders over David Cameron’s: really inspiring stuff, not faith which ‘comes and goes’.

So I say, we should shout it from the roof-tops. It makes sense. Jesus was raised from the dead: Jesus is risen! Happy Easter!

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