How does Easter work? A Sermon for Evensong at St Mary the Virgin, Stoke D’Abernon, on Palm Sunday 2015
Isaiah 5:1-7; Mark 12:1-12; Romans 7

This time last week I was in St Andrew’s Cathedral in Sydney, Australia. Even allowing for the time difference, at the beginning of the sermon there, you are in for a much bigger sermon than my little efforts here. The Sub-Dean, Canon Chris Allan, preached for nearly 40 minutes – and in the pew sheet there were two blank pages for you to make notes in! He was preaching about Romans, chapter 7. What he said – or rather, some of what he said – was this. It leads rather neatly into what I want to say at the beginning of Holy Week today.

In his letter to the Romans, St Paul wrote that being married is a legal relationship. Break your marriage and you break the law. But if your spouse dies, the law no longer binds you. You can marry again without breaking the law.

Pardon? I thought. Surely, there is no law against cheating on your poor spouse. Instead it’s a classic example of the dichotomy, which all lawyers are familiar with, between something which is illegal and something which is immoral.

But of course in the context of St Paul’s letter to the Romans, the ‘law’ is the Jewish Law, the law of Moses: the Ten Commandments and the books of Deuteronomy and Leviticus in the Old Testament.

That Law was, is, a moral law rather than a civil law. It is against the Jewish Law to commit adultery. To keep to the Jewish Law, generally, is to avoid falling into sin. Paul says, rather mysteriously, that until that Law was given to Moses, there was no sin. Perhaps this is like saying that, unless we have black, we cannot understand white. Until there was a Law to be broken, there were no breaches, no crimes against the law, no sins.

The coming of Jesus has released us, as if, having been ‘married’ to sin, inseparably hitched to it, we had died, ‘died to sin’. As a result, our legal tie, our ‘marriage’ to sin, is over.

This comes about as a result of the death and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus was a man as well as being divine. As such, he was, potentially at least, ‘married’, inextricably linked, to sin. But He died, and the link died as a result. Then He rose again, no longer human, but divine.

If we somehow die with Him, our bondage, our ‘marriage ties’ to sin will be dissolved, like a widow’s former marriage. But as St Paul pointed out in Romans chapter 7, in one sense, perhaps it doesn’t work. Even after we have become Christians, our links to the former partner – dare I say to the old ‘ball and chain’? – are still there. I know what the good is, and I want to choose it, says St Paul, but I don’t do it. I still do the bad thing instead. I can’t help it.

Does that mean that we’re like the bad tenant farmers, the evil husbandmen, in Jesus’ parable of the man who let out his vineyard? God has planted a vineyard, a fruitful vineyard, and has let it out. Will the tenant farmers pay the rent? Or in Isaiah 5, God has dug and planted and done everything necessary for his vineyard, that he has planted, to bear tasty fruit – but it doesn’t.

God will be cross. He will dig up the vines that produce bad stuff, vinegar instead of wine. He will punish the tenant farmers for the way they have abused his rent-collectors.

Those favoured tenants, given leases over Chateau Lafitte (or maybe Château Musar, as we’re in a Middle Eastern context), have spurned their obligations to the landlord. Appallingly, they have even killed the landlord’s son rather than honour their contract and pay the rent to him.

Jesus is telling a parable. He’s drawing a picture, making an analogy – much in the same way as Isaiah did, generations ago. No more special relationship, no more chosen people. They, the Israelites, have produced a duff vintage, not even plonk.

Was this going to turn out badly? On one level, yes. The people in the promised land wouldn’t pay their rent. The harvest was lousy. So God would plough up the vineyard, he would forfeit the lease.

But are we like the evil husbandmen? If St Paul is right, and we never stick to what is right, even though we know what the right thing to do is, will we be cast out of the Lord’s vineyard? The Easter message is that the exact opposite will happen. Although the only Son was killed, he was raised up again. This is a sign, a sign that He was not defeated, not defeated by sin and death. In effect, even though they had murdered Him, the son will go back to those husbandmen and give them a second chance.

The other thing is who the husbandmen were. In the New Testament, when this story comes up in St Mark, or, in almost the same words, in St Matthew or St Luke, the suggested interpretation is that they were the Jews, or more particularly the Pharisees, who were on a course of deadly opposition to our Lord. But ‘the stone which the builders rejected has become the head of the corner’. There is no chosen people under the new Covenant, the Covenant summed up in John 3:16, ‘For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.’ Instead, whoever believes, wherever they come from, can be saved; everyone, not just the Jews.

The Easter message isn’t that God will miraculously fix us, fix all our faults. St Paul may have found it very frustrating, but the reality is that, in this life, we are not perfect. But in the next – as the hymn says, ‘in this world and the next’, we will have died, we will have left sin a widow, so our bonds will have been broken. And meanwhile, we have this ‘blessed assurance’ in Jesus, that God will forgive us when we fall short – and ‘falling short’ is the literal meaning of the Greek word for ‘sin’, άμαρτια.

So we may indeed, in a sense, be like the bad husbandmen in Jesus’ story. As long as we live, we can’t escape our sinful nature. But it does not mean that we’ll be cast out into the outer darkness. Provided that we repent, that we acknowledge our sins before God and try to improve, we will be forgiven, God will still care for us.

As we start Holy Week by remembering Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem on his donkey, there is some tension between our feeling joy with those crowds who strewed his path with palm leaves, and the undertow of foreboding, the dark shadow of the cross.

He looks like the one to save his people. It may only be a donkey, but it is a triumphal procession. But are we good enough? In our hands, God’s Château Lafitte has produced plonk. And we haven’t paid the rent.

What next? Come back, come back every day this week, and see. But this isn’t Sydney Cathedral, so I don’t need you to write notes.