Easter 2015

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All God’s promises find their ‘Yes’ in [Jesus]” (2 Corinthians 1:20)

I was talking to a friend of mine last weekend who is about the same age as me and he was telling me how 5 of his friends had died in the last 12 months!

I said to him, “We’re reaching that age, brother! Gone are the days when all our friends were turning 21, when they were all getting married, when they were each having their first child, and then each getting divorced! We’ve reached that age where our friends are all starting to die, and at some point in the not too distant future we will join them in reaching that next milestone!”

It’s a sobering realization – coming to terms with the fact that the next great stage in life is death! I suppose there’s retirement too, though I have no idea whether I’ll ever reach that milestone, especially since our government keeps moving the goalposts – shifting the retirement age forever forward, lest we become dead weights on the public purse (better dead than a dead weight)!

Of course I personally do have one other big celebration still ahead of me that I am very much looking forward to – namely, the twenty-fifth anniversary of my time as parish priest of Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, and that celebration (along with the 100th anniversary of the foundation of our church building) is scheduled for this coming December. I’m very much hoping I’ll make it that far, even if it does mean that there’s only one big party left for me after that!

Am I displaying middle-aged morbidity? You don’t have to be middle-aged to have a sense of your own mortality. As you know, I’m heading off to Syria in a couple of weeks, and there’s a country where everybody has a strong sense of their own mortality. Young and old alike – everyone there has friends and relatives who have died in the last four years of violence, and no one there can be too confident as to what the future holds.

Indeed, it’s the randomness of the violence there which is so torturous for so many people there. I remember being in hospital in Damascus with a guy who’d had his leg blown off by a mortar shell. What was he doing to get himself into trouble? He was walking to work!

We met a woman there who was a hairdresser, who was working on someone’s hair when a mortar shell came through the shop window! Somehow she survived while the poor woman she was working on lost her head! And she said “thank goodness I gave my baby to the shopkeeper next door five minutes earlier!”

Living in a Syria at the moment will certainly to give you a powerful sense of your own mortality though the truth is, of course, that we are no more immune to death here than we would be anywhere else in the world!

Death in this country may be a little more predictable (most of the time) and may come slightly later and less often but sooner or later death takes us all, or so it seems.

Does anyone escape the grim reaper? Are there any exceptions to the rule? Does anybody’s flesh not go the way of all flesh?

Well … today is Easter Sunday, and so the answer is ‘YES’!

Jesus Christ is risen today! Death is not as all-encompassing as it first appeared to be! Jesus is risen, and so there are cases (or there is at least one case) where death did not have the final word but were the final word was ‘LIFE’!

This is the absolute centre of the Christian proclamation. Indeed, without the resurrection there is no Gospel proclamation at all!

Jesus said a lot of wise things, and I don’t want to minimize any of that, but if Jesus had not risen from the dead, very few people would have remembered His wise words.

Jesus healed people and He spoke of a new world that was full of God and full of love, and yet if He had not risen from the dead we all would have dismissed Jesus’ vision as mere wishful thinking.

Jesus touched lepers and broke down social barriers and showed us that everybody was worthy of respect and love, and yet if it hadn’t been for the resurrection His revolutionary lifestyle would have most likely died with Him!

It is the resurrection of Jesus that gives birth to Christianity as a historical phenomenon. Prior to the Sunday of the resurrection, the disciples of Jesus were a motley bunch of outlaws, following some wannabe religious maniac who was executed as a criminal. If there had been no resurrection that is probably how history would have remembered Jesus, if indeed He was remembered at all!

But the resurrection of Jesus changed everything. It changed the personality of the disciples from a disheartened band of no-hopers into a dynamic group of evangelists, ready to live and die for their master, and it changed the way people looked at everything Jesus had said and done. It forced them to go back and to recall His words and reinterpret His actions, and to recognise that everything He had said and done, even His death, was far more significant than they had realized!

The resurrection is the word of LIFE that forces us to reevaluate everything we thought we knew about Jesus and about the world and about God.

I love John’s account of Easter Day. It’s the longest of the Gospel accounts concerning what happened on that Sunday morning, and goes into a lot of detail as to how exactly they discovered that Jesus’ body was missing from the tomb.

I assume the reason for all the detail is because the account in John’s Gospel directly reflects the way the John the Apostle used to talk about his memory of those events. He was there, and what he seems to remember best was that he did a lot of running that Sunday morning!

I think the whole story has a lovely ring of truth about it. I’ve heard lots of people say that they remember exactly what they were doing when they heard that Elvis had died, or when they heard that Lady Di had died. I personally don’t remember what I was doing on either occasions as those persons didn’t mean a lot to me. I remember exactly what I was doing when my dad died. I was busy painting little figurines in the rectory study when I suddenly realized that I needed to be back at the hospital.

John no doubt remembered exactly what he was doing when Jesus died, and indeed that’s recorded in John’s Gospel too, but it seems that the one scene that remained burnt into his memory even more deeply than the memory of Jesus’ death was the memory he had of that morning when he realized that his master returned to life!

There was a lot of running going on. He and Peter both ran towards the tomb but he outran Peter though when he got to the tomb, even though the stone was rolled away, he didn’t go in immediately. When Peter arrived he went straight in and then John followed, and then they both saw the linen cloths lying there, and the face cloth, which had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen cloths but folded up in a place by itself.

John remembered it all in great detail because it was the moment that his whole life was turned on its head. Yes, Jesus had already touched and transformed his life in many ways. He loved Jesus and he knew that Jesus loved him, and that love had changed him, just as Jesus’ words had changed him. Even so, nothing had prepared him for this!

In the cool light of that Sunday morning, as he starts to come to terms with the fact that Jesus was alive again, John realizes that he’s going to have to reevaluate everything he thought he knew about Jesus – that Jesus was not just someone who was very wise and very loving and very capable, but who was also somebody really weird (in a wonderful sort of way)!

And realizing these things about Jesus also meant accepting fully that God was not who he had originally thought God was, for the God of Jesus was significantly different from the God he had been brought up to believe in.

If you were a good Jew like John you grew up believing that God was the God of the Jews, and the God of the Jews only!

Moreover, if you were a good Jew like John who had been tutored in the synagogue system all of his life, you had been taught that the God of the Jews was not exactly the God of all Jews but really only the God of those Jews who were obedient to the Torah.

There were plenty of Jews who were a disgrace to their race and to their faith – tax-collectors, prostitutes, alcoholics, gays, Samaritans, indigenous folk …

In truth, to be on God’s good side, according the religion John had been brought up in, you really needed to be of the right ethnic origin, exhibiting the right behavior, having the right thoughts, and hanging around with the right kind of people, and Jesus out rightly rejected all of that!

The battle between Jesus and the religious authorities of His day was a battle between two gods. There was the exclusive god of the religious establishment – the god who only accepted people with the right skin colour, good theology, and with a strong history of moral uprightness – and there was the God of Jesus who embraced everybody! These two gods do battle in the pages of the New Testament and the question that remains in the balance throughout the Gospel narrative is which God is going to prove to be the real God!

This exclusivist understanding of God didn’t disappear in the first century of course. Indeed, it is the same exclusivist theology that is the scourge of religious ideologies that we are struggling with in the here and now!

I know that the theology of Islamic State and that of settlers in the West Bank and the theology of Christian fundamentalism each appear to be absolutely irreconcilable with one another but in one sense at least they are all identical. They each have an exclusivist understanding of God, whereby God’s love is extended only to a tiny chosen minority of worthy individuals who are born of the right race or who keep to the right rituals or who hold to precisely the right theology, or all of the above combined!

The god of Al Baghdadi and the god of militant Zionism and the god of the militant Christian right wing all look very different in their minutiae but when you stand back you realise that they are basically the same phenomenon! They are religions of an exclusivist God who saves a chosen few and damns the vast majority of humanity to everlasting torment, and it’s this exclusivist god who seems to reign triumphant over the God of Jesus at Golgotha!

Things looked very grim on Friday night, but they looked different indeed on Sunday morning! The tomb was empty! Jesus had risen! And so the God of Jesus – the God of compassion and mercy who has a place for everyone – this God turned out to be the real God after all, and that changes everything.

They say that when you’re young you think you’ll live forever, which is why young people (perhaps especially young men) take such stupid risks. There’s truth in that, of course. Awareness of your own mortality is something that is acquired with age. Even so, I find that my willingness to take risks has actually increased with my increasing years and (by some people’s reckoning at least) I’m behaving more stupidly now than I ever did in my youth, and I don’t think that’s simply on account of the number of hits I’ve taken to the head!

As I get older I am increasingly aware of my own mortality, and I find that I do increasingly value the everyday pleasures of life – the love of family and friends, the joy of children, the privilege of being able to enjoy good food and good health. Indeed, as I grow older I find myself wanting less and less to let go of all these good things and yet, at the same time, I find that my confidence in the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ grows, and as my confidence in the Gospel grows, so does my confidence in the victory of life over death!

People often ask me “but what if something goes wrong in Syria and you get captured by ISIS thugs?” My reply is always the same – “What’s the worst thing they can do to me? They can kill me, but that’s not the worst thing.” Dying is not the worst thing. That’s not to say that dying is a good thing, and yet I have confidence in the Gospel, believing that love, ultimately, cannot be destroyed, and that He who loves me most is one who will never let go of me!

St Paul says to the church in Corinth All God’s promises find their Yes in [Jesus]” (2 Corinthians 1:20), and it is the resurrection of Jesus that is God’s ‘Yes’ to Jesus and God’s ‘Yes’ to life!

Because Jesus lives we know that we have nothing to fear by stepping out in faith and pouring ourselves out for His sake and for the sake of suffering humanity. Because He lives, we know that there is no power in Heaven or on earth that prevent the ultimate victory of life and love. Because of the resurrection of Jesus we know that the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is the God who made the Heavens and the earth!

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Hallelujah!

First preached by Father Dave Smith at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, on Sunday the 5th of April, 2015.

Click here for the video.

Click here for the audio.

Rev. David B. Smith

Parish priest, community worker, martial arts master, pro boxer, author, father of four. www.FatherDave.org

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About Father Dave

Preacher, Pugilist, Activist, Father of four
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