Worship was led by The Revd. Dr. Keith Albans who preached on Easter Faith. The testimonies of the disciples to Jesus’ resurrection are placed in a bigger picture, linking the humanity of Jesus to the divine action and intention of God. The Easter story is one of limitless love, hope and faith and has meaning when we tell it and live it.
Rejoice and Sing 236 Come, ye faithful people, come
Common Ground 46 Haven’t you heard that Jesus is risen
Common Ground 150 You show your friends
Rejoice and Sing 244 O sons and daughters (part 2)
Rejoice and Sing 260 Christ is alive!
Acts chapter 2 verses 14a and 22 – 32
First letter of Peter chapter 1 verses 3 – 9
John chapter 20 verses 19 – 31
An Easter Faith
For us, this is the year of moving… Stationed to York, which for us is a return – 1984 – the year the Minster burnt down – David Jenkins consecrated as Bishop of Durham. Hopefully it will survive our return there this summer!
Jenkins – famous for his assertion that the resurrection was more than ‘a conjuring trick with bones’ – but sadly more famous for the frequent misquotation that the resurrection was a conjuring trick with bones!
Ever since it seems that we have had to endure what I call the seasonal smallmindedness with which Easter (and some other Christian festivals) get dealt with by the media. Fake News is no new invention!!
This year is was the National Trust Cadbury Egg hunt story. Made into a story by the intervention of the Archbishop of York, and even the PM joined in, as did many others, promising boycotts of Cadbury and cancellation of National Trust membership…
And then, just when that story began to fade, we had the results of a survey commissioned for BBC local radio which were released on Palm Sunday… Pick a headline! Resurrection did not happen, say quarter of Christians was the BBC’s choice, although they did add However, almost one in 10 people of no religion say they do believe the Easter story, but it has “some content that should not be taken literally”. Read the survey (2010 British adults on the phone) and you learn that:
§ 17% of all people believe the Bible version word-for-word
§ 31% of Christians believe word-for-word the Bible version, rising to 57% among “active” Christians (those who go to a religious service at least once a month)
§ Exactly half of all people surveyed did not believe in the resurrection at all
“It depends what you mean…” reaction!! After all you could say that 25% of gospel writers were not that clear what they believed about the resurrection!!
I’ve always found it strange that we get presented by others with what they assume are the basic standard tents of our faith (Virgin birth and empty tomb), knowing that both are literally ‘incredible’ and, according to modern thinking at least, ‘unprovable’! And by allowing ourselves to be misunderstood, we have made it all too easy for people to dismiss our faith, lambast our belief, consume our chocolate and play with the Easter bunny!
But we are here precisely because the stories which we share in this Easter season over the next few weeks have nothing to do with seasonal small-mindedness!
We heard three Bible readings. Each is well known, each focuses on the Easter event but while each one is interested in the core foundation of the Easter faith, they do so by tying it into something much much bigger.
Thomas’ story – very familiar account and details:
• Easter evening – locked doors
• Appearance and message of resurrection
• Confirmation with their own eyes
• Thomas absent at first – but a week later he’s there
• ‘Reach out your hand’ (nb does he?)
• Declaration of faith…
But John wants us to see beyond the simple story – he’s painted it on a broader canvas…
• The locked door is no barrier…
• The work of the Father (as the Father sent me…) The gift of the Holy Spirit – The Trinity!!
• The spreading of the message
And on the testimony of the disciples, the story stars its journey of encounter and proclamation.
Acts 2 – Peter was one of the 11 disciples who met Jesus… And here on the Day of Pentecost (link to Jn 20) he tells us something of what he has made of his Easter experience…
• Peter recaps his encounters with Jesus and his sharing in his ministry…
• The death of Jesus is recounted
• God raised him…
And again, Peter casts the event larger and wider…
• Quotes from Psalm 16 – casts the events backwards into the mind and purposes of God…
• He of whom David had spoken!!
• Language of Messiah…
And from the testimony of the two women in a garden, and the frightened men in an upper room, we are into the stuff of everywhere and every time!
1 Peter 1 – So where can we go from there?!
• An inheritance kept in heaven!
• Salvation of our souls…
• Nb Community in Asia Minor are being sustained through persecution by this hope…
This is not a story of seasonal small-mindedness is it?! Anything but. But neither can it simply be a story of “once upon a time”. But it only becomes the story I believe it is meant to be, when we do something with it – tell it and live it!
John Bell’s hymn – one of my favourite modern writers… One of his Easter hymns has this fascinating last verse… “Christ has risen and forever lives to challenge and to change all whose lives are messed or mangled, all who find religion strange.”
And then he continues… “Christ is risen. Christ is present, making us what he has been – evidence of transformation in which God is known and seen.” Wow!!
Another of my favourite modern writers in Brian Wren. One of his shorter and less well known hymns says this:
Look at this man. What does he say? Has he a song for today?
Distant in time, foreign in ways, is he the one we should praise?
Look at this man. What will you do if he is looking at you?
And it’s taking those two testimonies together which I believe brings us to the heart of the Easter faith, because on the one hand it focuses on the real humanity of Jesus and on the other it focuses on the divine action of God – and it holds them not as opposites and extremes, but as two sides of the same coin…
That’s why the Easter story is told the way it is – human events and experiences linked to the action, timescale and infinite purpose of God.
So the Easter faith joins earth and heaven, Jew and Gentile, God and human, Jesus and Christ, Then and Now, death and life, cross and resurrection, and offers us the promise of living in the one reality and experience, literally earthed in the promise and hope of the other…
And in that kind of living, there is no room for seasonal small-mindedness! And in that kind of living we remember that the Easter faith is not an un-doing of all that we were remembering during Lent, and all that we marked again during Holy Week.
It is about God! God raised Christ… This wider perspective is witnessed in several recent writings.
Firstly, Rowan Williams, who features in the latest edition of your Reform magazine, and who in his book ‘God with us’ writes – “Here is divine love that cannot be defeated by violence. We do our worst and we still fail to put God off. We reject, exclude and murder the one who bears the love of God in his words and work, and that love continues to do exactly what it always did.”
We live and tell the Easter story, not in arid debates on things that cannot be proven, nor in trying to assert one thing over and against another. Rather it is in holding together the one and the other, as God is revealed in Jesus.
Secondly, Cynthia Bourgeault and Richard Rohr put it like this: “Jesus stayed close to the ground of wisdom: the transformation of human consciousness. He asked those timeless and deeply personal questions: What does it mean to die before you die? How do you go about losing your little life to find the bigger one? Is it possible to live on this planet with a generosity, abundance, fearlessness, and beauty that mirror Divine Being itself? These are the wisdom questions, and they are the entire field of Jesus’ concern.
Thirdly, in this year’s Easter message from the President and Vice-President of the Methodist Conference, they make exactly this point. First they explain the meaning of the word confidence – it comes from the root words of con “staying with” and fides “faith” “Staying with the faith is a far more appropriate way of understanding confidence at Easter.”
And then they write this: “Do we sometimes race over the reflection of holy week and the pain of Good Friday, in order to reach the joy of Easter? And by doing this, do we deny the pain? Are we really staying with the faith?”
In this Easter season we declare our faith in the God who raised Christ, who joins earth and heaven – nothing to do with seasonal small-mindedness. The images of Easter are of unquenchable, limitless love, of hope that can exist in the midst of absolute disaster, and of the faith that, with God, the final word is one of life, not death.
Finally, I read this the other day in a book from Iona, talking about John’s Easter story. “Applying my reasoning facilities, such as they are, to this story is a huge waste of time. I don’t believe it and I don’t want to believe it. I don’t even think that meaning matters here. It’s not a story to explain, it is a story to live by. Reading or telling stories is about a lot more than what I do or don’t believe. It has to do with poetic sensibility and liberated imagination. Storytelling is resurrection – and resurrection, somebody once said, is a laugh freed for ever and ever.”
Over the past decade we have increasingly come to recognise that we are part of a society which is discovering that the stories we have convinced ourselves are true, don’t work anymore! Have we got the courage to tell our resurrection stories in that climate? Resurrection stories are fragile stories, told against a counter theme of despair, failure and abandonment. To tell stories is to trust in life, to hope. Those things are of far greater import than all the sterile arguments about the fine details.
The Easter faith joins earth and heaven, today and eternity, and as I said earlier, it offers us the promise of living in the one reality and experience, literally earthed in the promise and hope of the other…
Next year will mark the 50th anniversary of our final hymn (also by Brian Wren). He wrote it in the aftermath of the assassination of Martin Luther King, at a time when he was pastor of the Church close to where the event had occurred. And so he wrote:
Christ is alive, no longer bound to distant years in Palestine
But saving, healing here and now, and touching every place and time.
This is our Easter faith – so may we live it in hope and in faith. Thanks be to God.