Sermon given at Sung Eucharist on Sunday 1 May 2011
1 May 2011 at 11:00 am
The Reverend Robert Reiss, Sub-Dean and Canon Treasurer and Almoner
After all the excitement of this past week here in the Abbey, including in my judgement the wholly reasonable response of exuberant cartwheels, it might have been easy to forget that today is the first Sunday after Easter. But the readings for today remind us of that fact, and it is that theme that I want to consider this morning. But let me come at it from a rather later perspective.
When the early church was developing in the Greek speaking world it was obviously subject to engaging with a wide variety of external ideas and notions, and one of them was known as Gnosticism, coming from the Greek word, gnosis, meaning knowledge. It combined a variety of ancient religious thought, including some ideas from Judaism and Christianity, but also from other ancient religions such as Zoroastrianism and other Greek and Roman mystery religions. Some early Christians were profoundly influenced by that whole tradition, and at one stage some saw Gnostic Christianity as a legitimate expression of the Christian faith, although the Church was eventually to disown it.
But there were some Gnostic writings that contained some interesting ideas, and one was the so-called Gospel of Philip, which was part of the Nag Hammadi library of Gnostic literature discovered in an earthenware jar in a field in the Upper Nile part of Egypt in 1945. The documents are believed to date from the second and third centuries and the Gospel of Philip contains one saying attributed to Jesus, which a former parochial colleague of mine recently brought to my attention. It says: ‘You who say you will die first and then rise are in error. If you do not first receive the resurrection while you live, when you die you will receive nothing.’
Now I am certainly not saying that we should take that Gnostic writing as though it were said by the historical Jesus, I am sure it wasn’t, neither do I want to treat it as though it were gospel truth, but it does seem to me to contain one idea worth reflecting on in this Easter period. For what does it really mean to believe in the resurrection?
Obviously part of the notion involves some reflection on what historical events happened in Jerusalem in the days following the death of Jesus, and there is a quite proper and fascinating discussion to be had about that, but I do not intend to engage in it now. Part of the belief in the resurrection might also look towards the future, to whatever we might believe happens to us after our own death, although how anyone can claim any certainty about that is, I confess, beyond me! But I suggest resurrection faith cannot just be about historical debate about events in the past, nor speculative debate about what may or may not happen in our personal futures, there must also be the question of what it means to live now in the light of resurrection faith, which is what I think that quotation from the Gospel of Philip is saying; ‘receive the resurrection while you live’. It is about belief in the resurrection making a difference to how we live in the here and now.
How might that be? Well, at a simple level it is worth reflecting that the disciples must have been totally despondent and despairing after Jesus died, and I suspect there are members of this congregation who will have known times when something terrible has happened that means everything seemed to be futile, meaningless, and death-dealing. I do not believe that the resurrection is some sort of drug to relieve despondency, but it can result in a sober recognition that even out of something terrible and dreadful, something good, and creative and healing can emerge. To hold on to that hope even in the midst of turmoil and despair is part of ‘receiving the resurrection now’. But it is also more than that and one clue to what that might mean comes in our Gospel passage itself. Thomas’ reaction to seeing the Risen Christ pointing to the wounds of the cross in his own body was to say ‘My Lord and My God’. Allowing the crucified Christ to be our Lord and our God in the context of our daily living is part of ‘receiving the resurrection now’ and it will mean all sorts of things.
At the very least it will certainly mean seeing Jesus’ self-sacrifice as exemplary should we ever be put in the position of being asked for some self-sacrificial act ourselves. Self-sacrifice of some form, albeit in far less dramatic circumstances than the one Jesus faced, may be a call on any of us in some circumstances, and when a choice about combating evil even at a cost to ourselves is presented to us, saying to that figure of the Risen Christ ‘My Lord and my God’ will make a real difference to how we act.
But it will, I suggest, also make a difference to how we look at the world. The temptation simply to pursue a path of self-gratification and pleasure is a very great one, yet holding up the crucified Jesus as our Lord and our God puts a question mark against all of that and asks us to consider at a very fundamental level the values by which we live, the purposes we find in our lives, and how we treat other people. And to believe that Jesus and all that he stood for was not ended by the crucifixion, but that it was somehow fulfilled by his death such that all that he is is now gloriously alive is potentially transformational of our behaviour.
For just think of some of the demanding challenges Jesus presents to us. ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’ we might think is sensible advice, but ‘Love your enemy, and pray for those who persecute you’, that really is a challenge. ‘Forgive your enemies’ ‘Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor’, ‘Judge not, that ye be not judged’, so many of Jesus’ teachings are really disturbing in their implications, and it is very easy to say ‘Well, he lived in very different times from our own, perhaps I can just ignore those elements that are difficult.’ Of course you can do that, but that is not to ‘receive the resurrection now.’ But allowing those demanding and disturbing challenges of Jesus to seriously engage our minds and our actions, allowing him not just to be a figure from the past but a figure alive now in determining our actions and our responses today, that is to ‘receive the resurrection now’.
To look at the world as a place with God at is centre, to believe that God’s nature is revealed in the crucified Christ, and to allow that Christ to be our Lord and our God that too is ‘receiving the resurrection now’. Do you do that? Do I do that? That is the question belief in the resurrection the resurrection poses.