Archives for posts with tag: Easter

Sermon for Mattins on the Third Sunday of Easter, 19th April 2015
Isaiah 63:7-15, 1 Corinthians 10:1-13

This week I was influenced by two stage plays. On Thursday I went to see Tom Stoppard’s latest play, ‘The Hard Problem’, as a live relay from the National Theatre to the Everyman cinema in Walton-on-Thames. I won’t spoil the play for you, if you haven’t seen it yet: but you won’t be cheated if I tell you that the ‘hard problem’ is the question, if we know how the brain works, as a kind of super-computer, so we know which bits of the brain control different functions, and we know that they do it by switching little electrical currents, the question, what is it to be conscious of something?

Another philosophical problem touched on in the play is the so-called ‘prisoner’s dilemma’. Why do we often do things which aren’t necessarily in our own interests? If Ned Kelly and I rob a bank, and we are arrested, do I give evidence against Ned? If I do, it may go easier for me. But I probably won’t, out of loyalty to Ned. ‘Honour among thieves,’ even.

In pure evolutionary terms – survival of the fittest – there is no reason for altruism. It would serve my interest best to look after myself. But I may well not do. Why are we often altruistic? This is something that Tom Stoppard looks at in his play. But because it’s a play, and not a philosophy lecture, in the ‘Hard Problem’ the altruistic part is played by a pretty girl, who believes in God and says her prayers every night. The Richard Dawkins part is played by a rather suave Irishman, her tutor, who likes to exercise a kind of droit de seigneur with his female students, and who is an atheist, a materialist.

Imagine these actors transposed into the world immediately following the death and resurrection of Jesus. Instead of a rather dry set of arguments about the way that computers, the way that the most able computer, the human brain, works, and Wittgenstein’s conclusion that ‘of which [we] may not speak, [we] must be silent’ [L.Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 1.21], groping towards an understanding of God by reasoning and inference – which must feel like really inadequate tools – instead of that, they would bump into people who claim to have seen a man who has risen from the dead, who is divine, God on earth.

What a contrast! In the Hard Problem, the actors are tied up with questions about how life – and its creator – works, and whether one can infer from that any information about said creator. Is it an algorithm, or God? The early Christians, by contrast, had accepted the momentous news about the presence of God in their lives, as a fact. They were concerned much more with how they should react to that fact, than whether it was a fact. Doubting Thomas had settled that.

Today our Bible themes, in our lessons, deal with the after-effects of Easter and Jesus’ resurrection. How did it affect Jesus’ followers – and how should it affect us, even though we are so long after it happened? You might be surprised that there is such an Old Testament emphasis, but this is the train of thought used by St Paul in his First Letter to the Corinthians.

St Paul, as a leader of the early church, sought to link the new life, which he called ‘being in Christ’, with the Jewish Law, the tradition of the Jews as spiritual ancestors of the Christians. He was ticking off the people in the new young church at Corinth for forgetting the story of the Israelites, and how by obeying and worshipping the one true God the Israelites of the Old Testament had been saved, led out of Egypt and through the Red Sea.

He goes through the history of the Israelites, how they ‘ate the same spiritual meat’, manna from heaven, but ‘with many of them God was not well pleased: for they were overthrown in the wilderness’. Then comes a moral lesson. ‘Now these things were our examples, to the intent that we should not lust after evil things’. In St Paul’s letter, if you do the wrong thing, if you break the Commandments, you will come to a sticky end.

Looking at things 2,000 years on, it is perhaps a little bit difficult to bring alive in our minds the excitement of the period after Jesus first appeared to the disciples risen from the dead. Even if their lives hadn’t already been changed by being with Jesus, they certainly were when they became aware of His resurrection.

In the light of that cataclysmic fact, some early Christians thought that, as they were God’s elect, saved, they need not worry about how they behaved. There was no need for them to keep the Jewish Law, to abide by the Ten Commandments, any more. They could do what they liked: they could eat, drink and be merry – because tomorrow they would not die, but have eternal life.

In the Old Testament, Moses was receiving from God His Commandments, rules for a good life in the Promised Land. 700 years later, Jesus came, the Messiah. Surely the old Law had had its day. Jesus had given a new commandment, a commandment simply ‘that ye love one another’. But Jesus said He had not come to abolish the Law and the prophets. Instead, His coming was fulfilment of those prophecies, and the Ten Commandments were still valid.

But there is a thread running through Jesus’ teaching, most evident in the Sermon on the Mount, that simply following the letter of the law is not enough: Jesus’ commandment of love involves going the extra mile, doing something extra.

Which brings me round to my second theatrical encounter this week. This one was even more of a ‘virtual’ experience than seeing the Tom Stoppard play by live relay in the local cinema. The second play was one that I read about, in the editorial of a newspaper this Thursday. This is what it said.

‘”The bodies of the drowned are more varied than you’d think,” says the character Stefano in the opening scene of a new play, Lampedusa (in London now …) The work of the young playwright Anders Lustgarten, the title refers to the island where Stefano works rescuing the bodies of those who’d fled from war and disaster in Africa and the Middle East, and found death at sea instead. “They’re overwhelmingly young, the dead,” he observes. “Twenties. Thirty at most. Kids, a lot of them. You have to be to make the journey, I suppose.” The play wants to make its audience ask what kind of society it wants. Within days of its opening last week, 400 people were missing presumed drowned after a wooden fishing boat capsized off the Libyan coast. Its human cargo had all rushed to one side in the hope of rescue. At the start of what is becoming the Mediterranean’s annual drowning season, the question of what sort of society we want to be is a challenge for all Europeans.’ [The Guardian, 16th April 2015 http://gu.com/p/47hb2%5D.

All the commentary on this topic which I’ve read so far concerns itself with how to stop the migrants coming into Europe. Do we set up systems to head them off at the point of original departure, or put up even fiercer barriers at the points of entry?

What would Jesus say? I wonder whether He might point out that it is a matter of luck where we are born. Some are fortunate, and are born in Northern Europe. The majority are born in greater or lesser poverty somewhere else. Is it wrong to try to go where there is a better life? After all, that’s what is celebrated in the Old Testament: the wanderings of the Jewish people, their search for the Promised Land. Just imagine what might be said today if 144,000 people all decided to migrate from a big country into a smaller, more fruitful one. All the talk would be of how to prevent them. Think about it. The population was much smaller then. Think of the effect on their schools and their local services. Much more of an impact than Poles or Romanians might have today.

I think that Jesus might also point out that we are all children of God, wherever we have been born. Rich people are no more deserving than poor. Indeed, ‘He hath put down the mighty from their seat, and hath exalted the humble and meek’. (Luke 1:51) or, ‘For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?’ (Matt. 16:26). It follows that we should not be concerned about nationality in future – we are all, in a real sense, citizens of the same world. There would be no more immigrants, no more strangers. Our sole concern should be to see that no-one should be hungry and in need.

Remember what the early disciples did – no doubt because they believed that this is what Jesus would have prescribed. ‘..all that believed were together, and had all things in common; And sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need.’

It’s a challenge. What do we believe Jesus would say? Tom Stoppard’s play made room for God, even in the rational worlds of a business school and a hedge fund: in his play Lampedusa, Anders Lustgarten has posed ‘the question of what sort of society we want to be’, ‘at the start of … the Mediterranean’s annual drowning season’.

What sort of society do we want to be? Will Easter make any difference to us? I pray that it will.

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Sermon for the Sunday before Lent, Quinquagesima Sunday, at St Mary the Virgin, Stoke D’Abernon, 15th February 2015

Holy Communion and Mattins – Mark 9:2-9: Evensong – 2 Peter 1:16-21

One of the nicer ways to get people, who don’t normally come to church, to darken our doors, is for there to be a concert in church. We are blessed here in Stoke and Cobham with an awful lot of good music. We have all sorts of recitals, here in St Mary’s, and down the road, St Andrew’s hosts regular concerts under the ‘Maiastra’ name.

This is where musicians who have participated in a residential master-class at Aidan Woodcock’s house, at Little Slyfield, just opposite the Yehudi Menuhin School, give a concert, led by their teacher. These are people at the beginning of their performing career, who have already graduated – sometimes more than once – from leading music schools, and have usually won some prizes as well. The Maiastra concerts – the name, incidentally, comes from a mythical Persian bird – are a real opportunity to hear the classical music stars of tomorrow, and they’re very exciting, very good.

These concerts do bring a lot of people into the church who wouldn’t ordinarily come – either because they are not local, or because they just don’t go to church. I hope that some of them, having found a warm welcome and a beautiful space, do decide to come back to worship with us later on.

So far, so good. But I had a rather disappointing exchange the other day with one of the admin staff for the master classes, who was trying to book the church for a Maiastra concert at the beginning of April. ‘How would Friday 3rd or Saturday 4th be? Would the church be free?’ Well, I was rather surprised, because of course that is Good Friday and Easter Saturday. I had to delicately remind the lady that this was Easter, the height of the Christian year, and that, I was afraid, the church was not going to be free.

‘So sorry’, she said, ‘Of course.’ She would talk to the course tutor to see whether the course could be slightly rescheduled, so as to allow the concert to take place without conflicting with Easter. Back came another email. ‘How about the Monday or Tuesday?’ Oh dear.

So I had to go back and explain that that was the Monday and Tuesday of Holy Week – all part of the most important part of the Christian year, so that you couldn’t think of having a concert in the church, unless it was a devotional performance, at all during that week.

Well, of course the concert will eventually take place at some other time. But I reflected on that a bit, in the context of our worship today, on the Sunday before Lent, when we remember Jesus’ Transfiguration. The cloud descended, and a voice said the same words as they heard when Jesus was baptised in the Jordan: ‘He is my Son, the beloved. Listen to him.’ It was a literally dazzling experience for Peter and James and John, as they accompanied Jesus up the high mountain. You couldn’t ignore that. It would be a life-changing experience.

But here’s the thing. Today, very often it would appear that people are ignoring this: that these extraordinary events no longer affect people’s lives. The nice people organising the Maiastra concert had forgotten what the main purpose of a church is. It’s not just a pretty concert venue. At the Church’s General Synod this week, one of the speakers reminded the delegates that studies had shown that, if the Church of England carries on declining in numbers at the current rate, 1% per year, overall in England (although fortunately, not in the Guildford Diocese), there will come a time, sooner rather than later, when churches in many rural parishes will be unsustainable and it will no longer be the case that the Church of England will have a parish church in every city, town and village in England.

So the Church has been embarking on all sorts for programmes of evangelisation: Messy Church, Fresh Expressions, Alpha courses, and so on. And quite a lot of it seems to be working. New people are coming to the the Church. Its interesting that it’s not always the most modern ideas which are successful in involving new people. Apparently the fastest-growing service in terms of numbers attending in the Church of England is – what do you think? It’s Evensong.

Obviously to some extent that’s influenced by the fact that cathedrals are attracting more and more people, and Evensong is seen as a quintessentially cathedral service; although of course we have lovely Evensongs here at St Mary’s every Sunday, sung just as they are in a cathedral; in fact, we sing a little bit more of the service than they do in Guildford Cathedral.

But the fact is that we are 2,000 years away from the spectacular events of Jesus’ time here on earth. It was relatively easy, when compared with our position, for the disciples to go out and spread the Gospel. As St Peter said in his second letter [2 Peter 1:16], they’d ‘been eyewitnesses of his majesty’ – they had seen Him, they’d witnessed the miraculous things that happened; and the inner circle, Peter and James and John, had even seen a foretaste of the Resurrection. The transfigured Jesus was like the resurrected Jesus. It was a glimpse into the future.

As a matter of intellect, as a matter of rational reflection, that’s still tremendously important, even 2,000 years later, even today. For us as Christians, as practising Christians, it’s something we couldn’t even think of ignoring. We have to react. We have to come and worship, and say prayers, and give our sacrifice of praise.

But what about the people who don’t get it? The people for whom church really doesn’t figure in their lives? St Paul has something to say about that in his second Letter to the Corinthians. ‘If our gospel be hid’ – if our Gospel is veiled, if our Gospel is obscure – St Paul says that it is ‘hid to them that are lost’, who are ‘on their way to perdition’, as one translation puts it. ‘Their unbelieving minds are so blinded by the god of this passing age, that the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the very image of God, cannot dawn upon them and bring them light.’ [2 Corinthians 4:3f]

It’s an easy thing to understand. If you are doing well, having a nice life, enjoying good things, you probably don’t feel there’s anything much missing in your life: that’s one kind of distraction. If you are somebody who comes from a home where nobody ever went to church, and you go to school and study at university among people who see a scientific explanation for everything; who don’t need, or feel they don’t need, any kind of reference to God, the Gospel will be veiled from you.

Later on in his second Letter to the Corinthians, St Paul says this. ‘No wonder we do not lose heart, though our outward humanity is in decay, yet day by day we are inwardly renewed. Our troubles are slight and short-lived; and their outcome an eternal glory which outweighs them far. Meanwhile our eyes are fixed, not on the things that are seen, but on the things that are unseen: for what is seen passes away; what is unseen is eternal.’ [2 Corinthians 4:16f]

I think that’s a very good message for us. We can’t see, in the same way that the disciples saw. That unseen reality, that inner spiritual reality, the working of God, is what is permanent and unchanging. It’s just as good now, as it is was 2,000 years ago, as it was in the time of St Paul.

Jesus’ injunction to us Christians was to ‘go and teach all nations, teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you.’ So what is it that we should do? I’m not really qualified to tell you a whole lot about Fresh Expressions of Church or Messy Church – although I can tell you that our Messy Church, run by Churches Together, attracts big numbers of children and their parents each time – but what I think is important and perhaps may open the idea of the Kingdom to more and more people – is the idea that we get over and over again, from Archbishop Justin and Archbishop John Sentamu, that we should be as the Lord intended us to be, and that we should live our lives in such a way as to promote human flourishing: flourishing, ευδαιμονία, something more than just passing your time without hurting anybody, something more than just keeping your nose clean: but instead actively looking out for ways to go the extra mile, to do the better thing.

It’s perhaps a bit unfair to single out anyone, particularly in the last week, for examination against that kind of background, but I can’t help thinking we will all have been a bit challenged by the sad story of the Revd Lord Green, the retired boss of HSBC, who has preached sermons and written books, preaching the virtue of observing the very highest moral standards.

But unfortunately at the same time, his bank was offering to clients a very aggressive form of tax avoidance. When I worked in the City, we were brought up to distinguish, reading the fine print, between tax avoidance, which is legal, and tax evasion, which isn’t. But this now seems to be a place where simply following the letter of the law isn’t enough. The Christian way, the Gospel way, is in fact not only not to evade tax, but also not to avoid it either. It’s rather bad luck, I think, on poor old Lord Green that in his part of the City – as indeed in my part of the City when I was there – nobody told him that the rules had changed, and he perhaps never appreciated that simply observing the law wasn’t necessarily sufficient in order to demonstrate the light of God.

Because, you see, when you do get to be able to see the light, then you will be like the Good Samaritan. You will be actively looking out for people you can help, rather than just sticking to the letter of the law. Let us pray that we will see that light: that the light will shine on us: and if we’re not transfigured, let us pray that we are at least transformed.

Sermon for Evensong on the Seventh Sunday of Easter, 1st June 2014
2 Sam 23:1-5, Eph.1:15-23

First we heard the last words of King David, and then St Paul’s prayer for the Christians at Ephesus. The context is the Ascension, which the church celebrated on Thursday. Leave-taking. The end of the party. I wonder who did the washing-up. When the disciples – and certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus as well as his brothers, when they were all together after Jesus had left them and a cloud had taken Him out of their sight, when it was over, when the ‘farewell tour’, Jesus Christ Superstar, had come to the end of its run: what do you think they all did?

They went back to the upstairs room and said prayers. And maybe they got busy doing the washing up. Because they must have been feeling very flat. We know that when Jesus had been crucified, if we think of the story of the disciples on the way to Emmaus, they were very sad then, when they thought that Jesus had been taken away from them.

So I think we can reasonably expect that they were also feeling very flat and very sad when Jesus had been taken away from them the second time, when He had ascended into heaven. Whitsuntide, Pentecost, had not yet come, although Jesus had assured them, ‘You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses … to the ends of the earth’ (Acts 1:8). But that hadn’t happened yet.

It must have been very difficult, after all the momentous things that had happened. After the roller-coaster ride of following Jesus, suddenly He wasn’t there any more. In the church, we have commemorated that roller-coaster ride, through the Easter season, though the time of Jesus’ passion, and suffering, Good Friday; and then the glorious Resurrection on Easter Sunday; and then His risen appearances, the road to Emmaus, doubting Thomas: all the wonderful stories of the risen Christ.

It is a revelation to us, a sure and certain hope that we have, because of God’s presence with us, His gift of His only Son and His Resurrection from the dead. In Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, Paul prays that God will give them ‘a spirit of wisdom and revelation as they come to know Him, so that with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which He has called you, what are the riches of His glorious inheritance among the saints.'(Eph.1:17)

If you are a Christian, if you go to church, this is a wonderful time of year: the Easter season. It is a time of hope and joy. But in the world outside, there is a sense of challenge. Not everyone is a Christian. Not everyone is aware of, let alone believes in, the wonderful story of Jesus. The Boko Haram people who have kidnapped 200 children, 200 girls, in Nigeria, are actively opposed to the Christian message. They want forcibly to convert people to Islam – forgetting perhaps that the god of Islam is very like the God of Israel and the God of the Christians – and certainly forgetting that God is a god of love.

Also in the world outside, we had an election. Some of you may have heard of my huge success in the Cobham Fairmile Ward election. It was a massive success, honestly: despite representing the Labour Party, I managed to poll in double figures! St Mary’s has much more successful politicians – congratulations to James Vickers!

After the elections, the press and the BBC are talking about the phenomenon of UKIP and what they stand for. It seems that a major part of UKIP’s message is that they are opposed to large-scale immigration and they are opposed to our membership of the EU, perhaps because they see the EU as being a major cause of the immigration which they don’t like.

And then there’s the controversy which has grown up concerning the new book by the French economist Thomas Piketty, called ‘Capital in the 21st Century’, which is all about the widening gap between the rich and the poor worldwide. Prof Piketty offers, at the end of his 573-page tome, some suggested alternatives to the economic policies which are being pursued in all the leading economies. But a Financial Times journalist, Chris Giles, has argued that Prof Piketty’s figures are wrong. If you put more than one economist in a room, they will inevitably disagree! I see that Ed Miliband confessed that he’d only just started reading Thomas Piketty. I have got to page 51.

It does all seem quite a long way away from the world of Easter, from the Resurrection and the Ascension: from the hopeful question from the disciples to Jesus just before He was taken from them, ‘Lord, is this the time when you are to establish again the sovereignty of Israel?’ (Acts 1:6 – NEB), a long way from all that, to the rather gloomy fact that only a minority of people cared enough about the way they are governed, even to cast a vote.

There does seem to be a big gap at the moment, between our church lives and the world outside. It’s all very well St Paul saying in his Letter to the Galatians that ‘the harvest of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, fidelity, gentleness and self-control’. (Gal. 5:22f), but how is that relevant to UKIP and to the world of macroeconomic theory?

What we are not hearing, in all this ferment of debate, is a Christian voice. What about immigrants? A politician says he couldn’t hear any English spoken in his carriage on the Tube. An election flyer says that there is some impossible number of East Europeans just waiting to come to the UK, take our jobs and claim all our benefits. Someone else points out, against this, that the NHS would collapse without doctors and nurses from abroad. Another expert points out that immigrants contribute more in taxes than they receive in benefits, and that fees from foreign students are vital to the survival of our universities.

But – and perhaps I haven’t been reading the right paper or listening to the right station on the wireless – I don’t recall anyone bringing the Bible into it, which they could have done. In the Old Testament, it’s a fundamental point of the Jewish Law that you must look after strangers, aliens, foreigners – in Deut. 10:19, Moses says that God ‘loves the alien who lives among you, giving him food and clothing. You too must love the alien, for you once lived as aliens in Egypt.’ In Jesus’ staggering picture of the Last Judgment in Matt. 25, He says that the righteous shall ‘enter and possess the kingdom’ because ‘… when I was hungry, you gave me food; when thirsty, you gave me drink; when I was a stranger you took me into your home …’ When the righteous didn’t get it, and queried when they had done this, Jesus said, ‘I tell you this: anything you did for one of my brothers here, however humble, you did for me.’

Jesus didn’t blame people for being poor. He didn’t think there was anything wrong with being a refugee. His ancestors, the Jewish people, had all been refugees. He didn’t talk about benefit cheats and scroungers. He didn’t talk about corporate tax avoidance – although he did say, ‘Render … unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s’. Maybe that is a good message for Starbucks, Vodafone and Google.

What about the widening gap between rich and poor, which Thomas Piketty has written about? Are the only things, which can be said, ‘It’s the market’, and ‘There is no alternative?’ If the government gives a tax cut to the highest earners, (which one commentator said was enough for them to go out and buy a Porsche with), at the same time as over 1 million people have had to go to a food bank to avoid starvation – and by the way, that includes 307 people in Cobham and Stoke D’Abernon who have used the Foodbank since we opened five months ago – if there is that seeming bias towards the rich, what is the Christian way to look at it?

Perhaps the answer is in the Magnificat, the song of Mary, the mother of God:

He hath put down the mighty from their seat:
And hath exalted the humble and meek.
He hath filled the hungry with good things:
And the rich he hath sent empty away. [Luke 1:46-55]

You might also remember what Jesus said about camels and the eye of a needle. [Matt.19:24]

But Jesus has been taken away from us. He has disappeared behind a cloud. Disappeared behind a cloud, a cloud of modern stuff. But, you might say, things were much more simple in Jesus’ day. There weren’t any benefit cheats. There weren’t any Romanians using the EU as a way to come and steal our jobs. You just can’t compare how it was then with the situation these days.

I think we should think carefully about it. I know that, in this week in the church’s year, you might argue that Jesus has ascended, and the Holy Spirit is coming – Jesus told his disciples to expect it, in Acts chapter 1 – but it doesn’t arrive till next Sunday. If it looks as though our world is rather godless, that fits with Jesus having left us, with the Ascension time.

But in this world, in our day to day lives, of course the Holy Spirit is here. The Lord is here. His Spirit is with us. So why does it look as though we are we ignoring Him? Is it OK not to want strangers? Is it OK that the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer?

As Christians, what do we think? Have I chosen my Bible references too selectively? Or is it more a question that the world today is more complicated than it was in Jesus’ time, and that some of Jesus’ sayings are out of date these days?

Or have we Christians really got something very distinctive to say, which doesn’t necessarily fit in with conventional wisdom? I’d be interested to hear what your thoughts are.

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!

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.