Sermon at the Sung Eucharist on the Second Sunday of Easter
Eight years ago in a parish in Winchester, after the Easter Vigil, I was greeting folk at the Church door.
The Reverend Mark Birch Minor Canon and Precentor
Sunday, 11th April 2021 at 11.00 AM
Duke of Edinburgh anecdotes are legion – this is mine.
I once worked in a new hospice for young adults. It was opened by Her Majesty the Queen, and the Duke was accompanying her. Around the Queen, all was coy smiles and slightly awkward bows and curtsies – around the Duke was something more like muffled hilarity, the sound of fists being pushed hurriedly into mouths. To a group of nurses he said ‘So – they come in here – you look after them – and then you send them out in a box!’ What else could they say but ‘yes, Sir.’ – their whole work summed-up with customary frankness and vigour – but there was nothing callous in it; but a kind of candour that hospice-workers, in particular, could easily relate to. May he rest in peace.
Eight years ago in a parish in Winchester, after the Easter Vigil, I was greeting folk at the Church door. I was pleased to have reintroduced a service that hadn’t been celebrated in that church for several years, and one of my greatest allies in that endeavour was Bishop John Baker, of blessed memory, who had retired into the parish some years earlier. He was once a Canon here at Westminster and Rector of St Margaret’s before being made Bishop of Salisbury. A man of great learning and evident holiness.
It took him some time to get out of the church, being rather infirm, and so he and his wife Jill were among the last to leave. I hoped to celebrate a moment of achievement with them, as well as wish them a happy Easter, and so was disappointed to find a look of great anguish on their faces. ‘That terrible reading from Exodus’, the bishop remarked, ‘All those Egyptians killed. We shouldn’t be reading it.’
I was a bit non-plussed. He knew, and I knew he knew, that this text, the one we heard again this morning, is a key part of the story of the Passover and the delivery of Israel from slavery, and is therefore key to understanding the context of Christ’s death and resurrection - as a new Passover, delivering humankind from ultimate slavery; the slavery of sin and death.
He knew all that, and he knew that this is one of the mandatory readings at the Easter vigil, but the violence of it troubled him - shook him.
Because the violence in the story is directly attributed to God. God promises the Israelites that he will ‘fight for them’ and will gain glory for himself against Pharoah and all his army. We are told he himself tossed the Egyptians into the sea, leaving their dead bodies to line the seashore. And all this after the Passover itself and the death of all Egypt's firstborn.
John Baker, being a fine biblical scholar, could easily have framed an argument about types and antitypes, soothing away our concern over this death and destruction with any number of elegant hermeneutical turns. But on that Easter Day he forced me to face the violence head on, and to share his anguish.
Because of course this isn’t just an event in ancient history. It is a ‘type’ of any number of atrocities and slaughters in which divine justice is invoked; where the victors feel justified in claiming that God was on their side, fighting for them. Even in what appear to be very secular and largely bloodless battles, in boardrooms, in democratic elections, in the cut and thrust of the market, the victors often feel that there was more than just luck on their side, and that the losers have been judged to be losers by 'the Universe' if not by God.
But perhaps there is a hint, even in this Exodus story, of something different - the germ of an idea that points forward to the story of Jesus, setting the context for his death and resurrection.
The Israelites, after all, should have been the losers, and not in the way that the English fleet should have lost against the Spanish Armada, but for the advantages of smaller boats and nimble seamanship. The Israelites were really no army at all, and were being chased by the most powerful army of their day. Pharoah and his chariot drivers were legendary - terrifying and overwhelming in ferocity. The Israelites were kettled on the sea-shore, it should have been their bodies littering the sand by the end of this story. No amount of cunning could save them, and yet these losers tasted an unimaginable victory.
Today’s gospel begins with another bunch of losers, huddled behind locked-doors. Their leader had been put to death by the Romans with (at the very least) the connivance of their own religious authorities. He had been done away with in the most brutal and shameful way imaginable - crucified, with the charge written over his head – The King of the Jews. They were losers for following a failed king. And not only them, but Pilate made all Israel the losers - refusing to modify the accusation to ‘this man said he was King of the Jews’, and so bringing them all under the same humiliation.
It is often said that the resurrection of Jesus is not just a happy ending to a sad story. Neither is it just another one of those beloved tales where, against all the odds, against all expectation, the baddies get their come-uppance and the plucky underdog wins the day.
The resurrection of Jesus doesn't leave bodies by the seashore, or an Armada scuttled, or rueful miscreants carted off to prison to face their just deserts. It is an entirely new story, and it is fearful - the disciples are frightened to see Jesus (why else would he bid them 'Peace'?) because none of them could imagine what this might mean beyond a likely retribution for their denial and cowardice.
We are told that they only began to rejoice when they saw his hands and his side. He was still the crucified-one, still the loser. Thomas, too needed to see those wounds, in order to know that this wasn't some kind of group denial, an imagined happily-ever-after dreamed-up by his friends, but a whole new story, where losers win, but not at the expense of anyone - where losers win as losers, still marked and wounded.
The resurrection is not victory over anyone - sin and death are not enemies in that sense. In Augustinian terms sin and death are lack, privation, deficiency - parasitic, at most, on life and goodness. Christ once dead dies no more - wrote St Paul - Christ is alive in a completely different way, for he is alive as the one who died, as the victorious loser, the living dead-one, 'the Lamb standing as though slain' in that paradoxical phrase from the Revelation. He is the victorious victim, not the surprise winner, leaving victims in his wake.
So we who share his risen life are not called to be winners in any earthly sense. The early church, we are told, modelled this in an extraordinary way:
‘no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common... distributed to each as any had need’
This was not a community of winners, but one where possessions were given up, lost (effectively) - you had to be prepared to be a loser to be part of this community - giving up life in order to find it.
Now, it is fair to say that the early church thought that Christ would return very soon, and so long-term financial strategies weren't a consideration, but nevertheless, there is a principle we might keep in mind - that the church is to be a community of victorious losers, through our victorious loser-king. This is where life is to be found.
And this remains so hard for us to believe, to understand, let alone to live-by, and not just because, unlike Thomas, we don't have Christ's hands and side to show us what it looks like. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe, Jesus promised. Blessed are we who commit ourselves to working out what this new story means - how to be a victorious loser - one who shares a victory at no-one's expense - one who like John Baker, God rest his soul, knows that there can be no victory where bodies lie slain, where others are sacrificed, where human needs are not addressed; that is the old story, beyond which we must move.
As a nation we face a particular moment of loss at the end of a year where losses have been legion. I would never have dared call the Duke of Edinburgh a loser – I’m not sure I would have come off terribly well – but I hope that all the things he lost in this life – his Naval career, his own sense of personal ambition – I hope that even in this life, and certainly beyond it, these losses will prove to be his greatest gain, his greatest victories.
For this is the Christ we proclaim – the great loser – who rises not to shame or condemn anyone, let alone leave anyone dead on the shore, but to invite them, to invite us, in St John’s words, to have life in his name. Alleluia.