Easter Day 2015

Happy Easter!!  Jesus Christ is risen to day – Alleluia!

We have gathered to celebrate something strange and often poorly understood – the resurrection is a mystery.  It is literally impossible to take it literally because the Gospels disagree on the details.  The resurrected Jesus is solid enough to eat fish by the side of the lake, yet ethereal enough to appear from nowhere in a locked room and mysteriously vanish.

But to totally reject the resurrection leaves us with the baffling mystery of what caused the mostly illiterate scattered followers of a humiliated and executed leader to find heart again and be so full of energy and new life that they turned the world upside down.

The resurrection is the story of how death is followed by new life – whatever the realities of first century Palestine, it’s a meditation on the human condition.

Good Friday shows how bad the world can get: a good and kind and generous and inspiring and loving man, the brightest and best humanity can be, is executed in a barbaric way.  And then on Easter day we are given new hope.

The broken body of Jesus and his blood spilled by his Roman executioners has become a symbol of life and hope and the centre of the meal that has united Christians for millennia.

The act of Jesus’ judicial murder which scattered his disciples has become the very symbol of his life – the cross the most instantly recognisable emblem of our faith.

Easter does not remove the suffering of Good Friday.

Resurrection is not the denial of death.

Resurrection is what allows us to look at all the horrors of the world, the politically motivated cuts to the health service, the horrific plane crashes, the rise of militant fundamentalists and dictators and warmongers… …we look squarely into the horrors of the world and say – “we will not give you the last word.  We do not believe that this is what defines humanity.”

In the words of Gandhi “When I despair, I remember that all through history the way of truth and love has always won. There have been tyrants and murderers and for a time they seem invincible but in the end, they always fall – think of it – always.”

This year I read a fascinating book, one which I highly recommend – its “The Better Angels of our Nature” by Stephen Pinker.

It’s a huge book that goes into huge detail and presents mountains of statistical data and analysis to prove (I think beyond doubt) that violence has been in decline over millennia and that the present is probably the most peaceful time in the history of the human species. The decline in violence is not a small change, it is enormous!  The evidence is seen in the reduction in military conflict, in the decline in murder, the comparative rarity of genocide, the limits paced on torture and outcry it causes whereas it was once commonplace, the increasingly civilised criminal justice system, and the improvement in the treatment of children, LGBT folks, animals and racial and ethnic minorities. He stresses that “The decline, to be sure, has not been smooth; it has not brought violence down to zero; and it is not guaranteed to continue.”

If you disagree and think that the past was better and civilisation was better in the past think about bodies found in peat bogs and permafrost in eastern Europe – from before the dawn of civilisation – the majority of them reveal that they died violent deaths.  A thousand years ago there were a lot more natural deaths, but still a lot of violent deaths,

You only need a History GCSE to realise that five hundred years ago it had improved further and one hundred years further still.  Since the Second World War there has been a steep decline in all-out war between the nations.

Gandhi’s words are not just wishful thinking, they are fact: “all through history the way of truth and love has always won. There have been tyrants and murderers and for a time they seem invincible but in the end, they always fall – think of it – always.”

But progress does not come in an endless easy cycle of improvement, it comes in a painful struggle with death and resurrection followed by death and resurrection followed by death and resurrection.

Gandhi saw his dictators topple, but he paid for it with his life.

Death and resurrection.  Christ showed us the way, and it is the only way.

Easter is not a historic event that we gather to commemorate, it is a present reality that we are invited to take part in.  We are invited to join the struggle for a better world, to strive for justice and create peace, to build the Kingdom to give hope…

I close with a poem that speaks of the challenge of Easter

EASTER MORNING by Edward Conder

You, Lord Jesus, didn’t stay
Quietly dead and hid away,
You’re still here to cause dissention,
To challenge clerical invention.

For there is still a need of men
To respond to as you did then
To overcome their normal fears
And face the world with fresh ideas.

Give us then the strength divine
To step completely out of line,
Going after where you led,
Doing always what you said,

Not putting you upon a throne,
Nor making monuments in stone,
But out there with you doing stuff
Where life is true and life is tough.

Be our strength when we are weak,
Be there when we your comfort seek,
Be there in glory when we win,
Be there in mercy when we sin.

Lord Jesus, with the spirit fill us,
With his awesome power instil us,
For it is then that we can do
and follow truly after you.

Resurrection Now!

ImageHappy Easter!

What does it mean to wish each other a ‘Happy Easter?’ 

“I hope you enjoy that glass of wine you’ve denied yourself throughout Lent?”

“I hope you have lots of chocolate eggs (though not so many that you are sick?)”

What is Easter all about?

I think liberal Christians can find it easier to believe in Good Friday than Easter.  It takes no leap of the imagination to imagine a good man crucified by an unjust occupying force.  “Nice guys finish last” is a twenty first century cliche.  It’s what we expect.  

But we struggle to believe in Easter Day – if we believe it at all.  New life, new hope, the thought that things can get better – that is a struggle.

But if we don’t believe in resurrection we are cheating ourselves and missing out on the joy that faith offers, and we are missing out on a fundamental truth of human existence.  

I must clarify that I don’t mean the physical coming-back-to-life-from-the-dead – that’s a trick that happens several times in Scripture and is a bit strange and bit mysterious and is a story from the ancient world that is a bit hard to get our modern heads around.

But I mean the historical fact that the disciples who fled Christ at his arrest become the missionaries who turn the world upside down with Christ’s teaching of love and forgiveness.

In our world resurrection is not an incident in history or an abstract theological idea, it is a present reality.

 

“We’re all going to hell in a handcart” – is the subtext (if not the text) of most stories in the Daily Mail.  But they are totally wrong.  The world is getting better.  Fact.

Two thousand years ago the most advanced, civilised nation in the world carried out the death penalty on an industrial scale.  It’s true that the death penalty still exists in many countries worldwide including the United States of America (but in America constrained by a phrase in their constitution that forbids ‘cruel and unusual punishments’ and so no nailing people to planks of wood).  No nation, not even the worst civil rights offenders, practices public crucifixions today.

Things are getting better.  Easter is a constant reality in our world.

Torture still happens, but it is no longer morally acceptable.

We no longer allow slavery.  It still happens, but its not considered a crime.

I hear some of you protest at my glib optimism!  “How can you say the world is getting better – world wars and genocides have occurred in the last 100 years!”

There have been genocides and attempted genocides in the last fifty years, but these are now the exceptions in how we deal with conflicts between people’s – a thousand years ago these were common practice.

Our technological advancement has been faster than our moral advancement – so there are very real dangers.  But we don’t live in the shadow of immanent global destruction in the same way we did a few short decades ago.  We still have the weapons, and they are still a danger, but we are no longer pointing them at each other with the same insane enthusiasm.

Things are getting better.  Easter is a constant reality in our world.

Our technology is threatening the future of the planet.  Pollution and global warming are perhaps he greatest threats that the human race has ever faced.  But we have never been better technologically or morally equipped to meet these challenges.

If the ancient world or the medieval world were suddenly transported through time to take over we all be dead in a generation.

Things are getting better.  Easter is a constant reality in our world.

But we don’t always feel that.

As we get older we lose the innocence we enjoyed in our youth (if we were fortunate enough to have a peaceful and safe youth).  In our life we go from a sate of fluffy childhood loveliness to having to encounter the difficult realities of life, and the older we get the more unpleasant stories we read in newspapers and it seems easy to believe things are getting worse.  It’s seductive to look back with rose coloured spectacles, and look ahead with fear for more disillusionment to come.

But we should look back with honesty and ahead with hope.

Things are getting better.  Easter is a constant reality in our world.

One symbol of the resurrection is how society has changed – is the place of women.  In the ancient world women were property, passed from their father to their husband… When no longer property they had to promise to “obey” their husbands in the marriage service until recently.

It wasn’t until 1918 women over 30 were able to vote in Britain and women were not allowed to be lawyers or accountants until 1920.  It was not until 1828 – just 86 years ago, that women were given the equal right to vote with men.  The first female minister of state was not until 1965 (when Barbara Castle was appointed Minister of Transport).  Equal pay didn’t come until 1970 Equal Pay Act – and that was a very imperfect piece of legislation that has needed several revisions.

Only last year were women given theoretical equal hereditary rights for the British monarchy.

Today women still do not have full equality – but it is prejudice and inertia, not the rules that cause inequality, the rules largely push towards equality now…

Things are getting better.  Easter is a constant reality in our world.

But they get better by struggle, by a recurring process of work and campaigning and protests and sliding back before pushing forward.

It’s not that we are drifting into a better world, it’s that campaigners and organisations and individuals are working hard and standing up to injustice and making sacrifices and being crucified over and over and over yet daring to believe that there is a resurrection to come

Things are getting better.  Easter is a constant reality in our world.

Watch and old television show from the 1960s or 70s and you will be shocked by the casual sexism, and racism, and homophobia.  Even in the last 40 years attitudes have changed for the better.

Another symbol of the change is our attitude to sexuality.  In much less than a generation we have gone from homosexuality being illegal to gay marriage.

Here is a perfect symbol of the resurrection.  The resurrection does not end the story – it begins it.

The resurrection is a message of hope and new life that has to grow and spread.

The celebrations of the first same-sex marriages were exciting, and for many a symbol of resurrection after long years of prejudice, bulling, violence and state-sanctioned persecution.

There will be a song on this subject to come later in the service, but for now I close with one of my favourite poems, Sometimes by Sheenagh Pugh.  I’ve used it before, but it bears repeating:

 

Sometimes things don’t go, after all,
from bad to worse.  Some years, muscadel
faces down frost; green thrives; the crops don’t fail,
sometimes a man aims high, and all goes well.

 

A people sometimes will step back from war;
elect an honest man; decide they care
enough, that they can’t leave some stranger poor.
Some men become what they were born for.

Sometimes our best efforts do not go
amiss; sometimes we do as we meant to.
The sun will sometimes melt a field of sorrow
that seemed hard frozen: may it happen for you.