Worship at the Abbey

Sermon given at Sung Eucharist on Easter Day 2012

8 April 2012 at 10:00 am

The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster

At the beginning of this beautiful Easter Eucharist, we sang with hearts full and voices lifted high the great Easter hymn. At the end of each line we joined in the Easter shout of joy, singing Alleluia! We are an Easter people and Alleluia is our song. Praise be to God! After the long weeks of Lent, after our fasting, abstinence, prayer and generous giving, 'This is the day that the Lord has made; we shall rejoice and be glad in it.'

Jesus Christ is risen to-day, Alleluia!
our triumphant holy day, Alleluia!

The hymn is one of triumph, celebrating the victory of our Lord Jesus Christ over sin and death:

who did once, upon the cross,
suffer to redeem our loss.

Today, the Abbey glitters with the gold of the vestments and the brightness of the flowers. All is glory. But we cannot forget and the hymn will not let us forget that only three days ago we went with our Lord to the cross and there witnessed the agony he endured.

Hymns of praise then let us sing,
unto Christ, our heavenly King,
who endured the cross and grave,
sinners to redeem and save.

We sing hymns of praise that Jesus Christ is risen, but let them not obliterate the reality of the agony of his death on the cross, the physical and mental agony of the torture, the wounds, life ebbing away, and the spiritual agony of his separation from God, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’. Our redemption, our salvation, cost Jesus Christ, cost God, not less than everything.

Let’s pause there for a moment: ‘sinners to redeem and save’; ‘our redemption, our salvation’. Those terms are perhaps familiar to us but we need to reflect for a moment. What do they really mean? Redeemed from what? Saved from what? ‘Redeemed’ means ‘bought back’. You redeem goods from a pawn shop. This is how it works. You need to raise some ready cash that no bank or money-lender will let you have. So, you take some goods to the pawn-broker, who holds on to them and advances you some money in return. When you have spare cash, you go back to the pawn shop and redeem your goods. Sometimes in poorer times in this country people would pawn something every week to put the Sunday roast on the table.

The word ‘redeem’ has other uses. Redeem is an organisation, ‘an international leader in the recovery, refurbishment and recycling of consumer electronic devices’, part of the Prince of Wales’s Mayday network of businesses committed to tackling climate change. Redeem is also the term used for the emancipation of slaves; when they were given their freedom, they were said to have been redeemed.

Now we can apply the terms theologically, in church speak. As Christians, we understand ourselves to have been redeemed and saved through the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ: that is bought back; recovered and refurbished; given our freedom from slavery. We may not like to think of our lives as needing recovery or refurbishment. We might understandably be reluctant to see our lives as slavery. And yet …

I have been thinking this past week of the massively increasing power of communication technology for good and for ill. On the one hand we can all see the advantages of the almost instant world-wide information flow. We know about, and can sympathise with and even react to, tragic events the other side of the world immediately they happen. A few weeks ago, I attended at the Japanese embassy a ceremony commemorating the first anniversary of the great east Japan earthquake and tsunami. One of the people who spoke was a fire-fighter who with colleagues had flown out to Japan to help the rescue effort. Instant communication was able to lead positively to an instant world-wide response offering help. Similarly, the extraordinary changes in the countries of North Africa and the Middle East last year, known as the Arab spring, were said to have been greatly assisted by instant messaging.

The risks and dangers in this instant communication are equally strong. It seems that the brief spell of rioting and looting in London and certain English cities last August was co-ordinated informally through instant messaging. Shops and businesses were looted – bad enough – but innocent people suffered too, burnt out of their homes, through actions that were utterly self-centred and contemptuous of the human suffering they caused. And many of us were shocked by what happened recently following the cardiac arrest on the pitch of a footballer, Fabrice Muamba. A young student last month expressed himself vilely abusively in a tweet: instant communication gone mad. The student is serving a gaol sentence for his racist language and will not be returning to university. Meanwhile after requests for prayer for Muamba in newspapers and electronic means of communication, he seems to be making an encouraging recovery – and it seems his football team is also feeling the positive effects.

So much love and goodness in the world is undermined by so much self-centredness, lack of concern for others, even contempt for other human beings. We need saving from ourselves, redeeming from the slavery of obsession with our own wants, needs and interests, in order that we can take our proper place in a community of love and mutual support. That is the work we celebrate today. Selfishness and sin lead inexorably to death. The death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ have conquered death. Death could not hold him. In the work of Christ, sin was defeated. Death died.

Yesterday evening we celebrated the first solemn Eucharist of Easter at the Paschal Vigil. The great Candle was lit for the first time, representing the light of Christ rising in the darkness. That Candle now burns here beside the pulpit. The light of Christ shone through the whole Abbey when almost everyone in the congregation had received a candle, lit from the great Candle. I say ‘almost everyone’. The exception was a small group of young people who later made their own personal commitment to follow Christ and thus to share in the fruits of his resurrection. Symbolically, they went down into the waters of death in baptism, and arose as a new creation in Christ. Then they too received a candle lit from the great Candle. They received the light of Christ and will continue in his power and grace to shine as lights in a sometimes dark world. Those of us who had already been baptised were sprinkled with some of the baptismal water to remind us of our baptismal regeneration in Christ.

I have been speaking of instant messaging, the technology that allows us to communicate together, that unites us across great distances, across the world. The Church does not despise modern methods, but has a more ancient means of communication that allows us to be instantly connected with our fellow Christians throughout the world. This means of communication also connects us instantly with those who have gone before us and now enjoy the fruits of our Lord’s redemption in the fullness of eternal life. Soon the priest at the altar will take bread and wine, just as our Lord took bread and wine at the Last Supper. As did our Lord, so he will bless them and consecrate them, giving thanks to God for the wonderful gift. He will repeat our Lord’s words: This is my Body; this is my Blood. Then, those of us who come forward for Holy Communion will receive for ourselves, through the bread and wine of the Eucharist, the new life our Lord Jesus Christ won for us through his glorious resurrection.

Without Christ, we fall back into the old cycle of sin and greed and selfishness. Through the grace of Holy Communion, the Church’s ancient means of instant communication in Christ, is to be found new life, new hope, new joy: the triumph of love and goodness. Let that be our life today.

May each of us and those we love have all the blessings of a truly happy Easter!

Thine be the glory, risen, conquering Son,
endless is the vict’ry thou o’er death hast won.