Sermon given at Evening Service on Sunday 18th May 2014
18 May 2014 at 18:00 pm
The Reverend Tony Kyriakides-Yeldham, Chaplain
‘To learn the meaning of the resurrection is the task not of one age but of all’. B F Westcott.
A woman was moving home. She had already packed her clothes and the china; the furniture had been loaded onto the removals lorry and all that was left was her dog, a brown cocker spaniel. She gently placed the dog in its bed, placed the bed in a tea-chest, and asked the removers to place the chest on the van. They would transport everything to her new home, and complete the unloading and unpacking before she arrived.
At her new home, the removers set about their work. There were some hours before the new owner would arrive and all was going well until the men opened the tea-chest and found the dog dead. They panicked until one of them came up with an idea. 'Let’s go and find another dog to replace this one. She'll never know the difference.'
It took them a good few hours, scouring all the pet shops but eventually their luck held and they found a brown cocker spaniel which could have been a twin of the dog that had died. They placed him in the tea-chest and waited the arrival of the owner.
When she arrived, they opened the tea-chest, and there was her dog jumping, barking and wanting to explore its new home. The woman went white, her jaw dropped and her eyes became as wide as saucers.
'Is there anything wrong?' the men asked. Still staring at the barking dog, she stammered, 'Yes there is. When I put the dog in there, it was dead!'
If only our Christian ‘resurrection faith’ had a equally straightforward explanation.
In tonight’s reading, we are approaching the end of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians and we have a Church in trouble. The source of that trouble is clearly something to do with the fact of resurrection. It could be that some Corinthians had rejected the notion of a future resurrection because they considered themselves, in some sense, already raised? Or then again it could be that some no longer believed in a future life after death?
I want to leave those questions behind and instead for us to register what is clear: the Corinthians have abandoned a central tenet of faith, the resurrection of Christ.
In taking them to task over this, Paul begins by reminding the Corinthians of the ‘terms and conditions’ of their faith: what they bought into when they were baptized. Today, in our online consumer world, there are churches which offer baptism at the touch of a computer button, which leaves me wondering whether those receiving a virtual baptism have to tick a box acknowledging that they have read and accept the ‘terms and conditions’ of their baptism?
Be that as it may, Paul reminds the Corinthians of the good news that he had once proclaimed to them, and he now reminds them of that good news by making a confession of faith, the faith which he had himself received: that same faith with which he had entrusted them. In making this confession of faith, Paul’s purpose is to get the Corinthians to revisit the confession of faith they made at their baptism.
Paul’s confession of faith has a clear structure and is probably the earliest creed of the Church. Christ died for our sins, he was buried, he was raised on the third day, he appeared to Cephas and then to the twelve.
It’s a creed which makes no reference to an empty tomb and has nothing to say about the resurrection other than it has taken place. It is a fact. The Jesus who died on the cross is the same Jesus who has shown himself to be alive.
So, the first thing we can take away from tonight's reading is this: the resurrection is not some phenomenon that needs a psychological, metaphysical or spiritual description. I don’t need to understand the physics of electricity to accept that electricity comes out of a socket to feed my television, my radio or my mobile battery. The Jesus who died on the cross is the same Jesus who has shown himself to be alive. In the words of a national billboard campaign: Jesus Christ has risen from the dead. Get over it!
Paul is faithfully handing on the confession he has received but he does something more. To that confession of faith Paul has received from others, from the Church and from tradition, he now adds a few sentences which make that confession of faith distinctly his.
The confession of Cephas, the twelve, the five hundred, James and all the apostles is not complete until Paul has made it his own – has taken personal ownership of it: not intellectually but faithfully. That is the second thing we can take away from tonight's reading: what the Corinthians need to hear is a confession of faith that is spoken with integrity as well as with personal authority: a confession of faith which is just that - faithful.
And one further thing? You and I need to proclaim the significance of that confession of faith for our generation. Westcott, a farsighted nineteenth century theologian put it like this: ‘To learn the meaning of the resurrection is the task not of one age but of all’. The significance of the resurrection needs to be prayerfully discerned anew for every community and situation. As one example of this, I offer you the thoughts of a twenty-first century theologian, Stan Hauerwas.
As Christians, we believe that through a crucified but risen saviour God sets our sins aside. Hauerwas focuses on what it means to be God’s forgiven people. Too often, we forgive others as a way of exerting control over them. We fear accepting forgiveness from another person because their gift of forgiveness makes us powerless, and we fear the loss of control. Only by learning to accept God’s forgiveness, as it is revealed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, can we acquire the power that comes from learning to give up that control. To be forgiven means that we must face the fact that our lives actually lie in the hands of others.
When we exist as a forgiven people we are able to be at peace with our histories, and so allow God – not our histories – to determine who we are and who we might become, by God’s grace.
We have been wounded by our personal histories, our family histories, our national histories, and our cultural histories. The question for tonight is this. Are we prepared to accept our new status as a forgiven people and let go of those histories? To let go – and let God!