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Worship at the Abbey

Sermon given at Sung Eucharist on Easter Day: Sunday 4 April 2010

4 April 2010 at 10:00 am

The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster

The late and slow emergence of daffodils and tulips after our long cold winter and in our late spring has somehow seemed right this year. In previous years I have often found a worrying mismatch between a blazing spring full of colour and vibrancy and the penitential Lenten mood of self-denial and abstinence. This year, in London anyway, the emergence of spring has, almost if not quite, waited for Easter: as if now nature with the Church is ready to celebrate the arrival of the season of hope and joy and new life. 

My brothers and sisters, there is much today to celebrate. Jesus Christ, who was crucified, has been raised from the dead and is truly alive. Life has conquered death. Love is stronger than hate. The weapons of earthly power, of destruction and domination in the end fail. Triumphant is the power of self-giving love, the lowly way of obedience, of fidelity, of patience, of generosity. This truth at the heart of our Christian life and our Christian faith is at once an encouragement to us, a sign of hope, and also a challenge to us, a sign of contradiction.

During Lent I have been thinking and speaking a little about how we as Christians are called to imitate Christ and thus share in his life: to embrace suffering as he did, to enter into his death and so to share his  resurrection. This is a predominant theme in the teaching of the apostle Paul, who wrote to the Romans to say, ‘we have been buried with [Christ] by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.’ [Romans 6: 4, 5] It is not easy but it is necessary.

During Lent we have been much moved by examples of suffering and patient endurance. Last Sunday evening here in the Abbey we observed the thirtieth anniversary of the martyrdom of Oscar Romero Archbishop of San Salvador. The archbishop had called on Christians in the army to obey God's higher order and to stop carrying out the El Salvador government's repression and violations of basic human rights. He was assassinated, with the complicity of the government, as he celebrated Mass. Oscar Romero is commemorated on the west front of this Abbey Church amongst the martyrs of the 20th century. Another is Martin Luther King, who was shot on this day 4th April in 1968. Like Romero, he knew the risks he faced in speaking up for truth and justice.

Not every suffering and death we have thought about during Lent has been martyrdom. In Victoria underground station not far from the Abbey, just a few days ago, Sofyen Belamouadden, a 15-year old boy from Acton in West London, was stabbed to death, the victim of gang warfare. The young people were in their school uniforms. More than a dozen have been arrested. Sofyen’s death, a terrible tragedy in itself, his young life cut off in an instant, his grieving family bereft, his promise unfulfilled, is only an example of the terrible toll of life in the wastelands of our modern cities. So much suffering, so much grief, so much anger! We can all think of other cruelty, other victims of inhumanity.

Are we to say that in our modern world, life itself is held cheap? It often seems so. During Lent we heard that a fashion designer, quite young and promising, already successful and on the brink of more achievement, had killed himself on the eve of his mother’s funeral. It is hard for an outsider to understand. Perhaps his mother had been his stability in a shifting world. It may be that the mental or emotional turmoil of the moment seemed overwhelming. Then again, the campaign to allow in the United Kingdom assisted suicide for the terminally ill or disabled seems now to be actively promoted and gathering pace. I recoil with horror as I remember the reassurances in 1967 that abortion would be a rare occurrence. We can easily imagine the slippery slope, culminating in a time when any elderly or disabled person who felt they were a burden on their family would feel an obligation to seek assistance in terminating their life. The slippery slope argument is often denigrated: there will be safeguards, people say. So they said about abortion.

In any case, do we really believe that life is ours, to initiate casually, to terminate at our convenience? So it would seem. ‘It’s my life; I can do with it what I like.’ So we hear. But is that true? We talk about life as a gift. Perhaps we think of it therefore as a possession, something we own, something therefore that we can dispose of at will. That is not the Christian understanding. The prologue to St John’s Gospel tells us of the role of the Word of God in creation: ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men.’ [John 1: 1-4] ‘In him was life’. That surely means that the life we have we should see as a gift, but not a possession, rather as shared with the Word of God himself. The Word incarnate is Jesus Christ our Lord. He shares our human life; our life then is shared with his: gift, not possession.

This surely is why the Christian Church at its best has taught faithfully that life is a precious gift from God himself, a share in God’s own life, a gift to be cherished, to be honoured, to be preserved: why the Church has continued to teach what is enshrined in the ten commandments of the old covenant: that to take life wantonly, whether it is our life or the life of our neighbour, is a treachery, a denial of God, a sin.

Our life on this earth will not last for ever. This we know. One day we shall face death. It may be sooner or later. It may be quick or long drawn out. We cannot expect to avoid suffering in this life. In our imitation of Christ, we are called to embrace our suffering, to see even our suffering as a gift, part of the gift of life, and so to offer it to God.

But this holy festival of Easter, the great Christian feast, offers us the assurance that our death will not be the end, rather a gateway to eternal life: the essential route by which we come fully to see, know and love the Christ we have sought to imitate in this life on earth.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu, in his African Prayer Book, quotes words which take us beyond the restrictions of our earthly life and our worldly vision, to see the future hope that gives us the joyful and reassuring celebration this Easter Day that in Christ nothing can defeat us, not even death itself:

All shall be Amen and Alleluia.
We shall rest and we shall see,
We shall see and we shall know,
We shall know and we shall love,
We shall love and we shall praise.
Behold our end which is no end.

Alleluia. Christ is risen. He is risen indeed. Alleluia.

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