Sermon given at the Sung Eucharist on Easter Day 2018
The Very Reverend Dr John Hall Dean of Westminster
Sunday, 1st April 2018 at 10.30 AM
It is a real pleasure to wish you all a happy Easter and a happy April Fools’ Day. Although Easter often occurs near April Fools’ Day, 1st April, it only rarely falls on the day. The last time was in 1956, and before that in 1945, 1934 and 1923. In the 19th century, Easter Day coincided with April Fools’ Day only in 1888, 1866 and 1804, and in the 18th century only twice, in 1725 and 1714. It won’t happen again until 2029 and 2040 and then not for another 68 years in 2108 and after that for another 62 years in 2170. So we must make the most of this happy concurrence: happy, because St Paul clearly reminds us that ‘the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.’ We are, he said, ‘fools for Christ’s sake.’ St Paul goes on, ‘For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe.’
We may wonder whether the wisdom of this world is that wise after all. We seem to be surrounded by folly. World leaders, political leaders, seem to be concerned only for their own survival or the self-interest of a comparatively small tribe of people they wish to woo, and to ignore the wider good of society and the world. The leader of one great nation seeks to inhibit and prevent effective world trade so as to protect failing industries in his own back yard, in a way sure to provoke a back-lash and tit-for-tat exchange between nations. Another leader of a great nation is understood to have used chemical weapons in another sovereign country in order to provoke an international row, and to appear all-powerful, thus ensuring his own re-election as president. Cynicism seems to reign in international politics. When that is the case, the good of the world, the well-being of the planet, which should surely be the concern of all world leaders, is trashed for the sake of short-term local advantage.
It is too easy for us to forget the risk of world wars and the horror of the results of such wars. This year we mark the centenary of the end of the First World War. It was known at the time as the Great War. It was described at the time as the war to end all wars. No one ever again, it was said, could possibly face the terrible destruction of men and women and children, of homes, of villages, towns and cities. But all too soon, within twenty years, the world was at war again, now with even more devastating destruction across a far wider spread of the map.
The atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki marked the end of that Second World War and for decades politicians and statesmen and women quailed at the thought that there could ever be such destruction again. The uneasy peace of the Cold War lasted for decades as alliances and international organisations presided over threats and local conflicts seeking to bring peace and harmony. But now the United Nations, NATO and regional groupings seem themselves to be threatened as new risks arise in a war of words that could all too easily break into a war of weapons more devastating than any the world has yet seen. So, where is wisdom to be found?
‘The wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight.’ So said St Paul. He means that there is a better way than the way of the world, the way of threats, the way of power. There is a better way. That way may look foolish in the eyes of the world. But it is the way of Jesus Christ and today we see clearly the vindication of that way. He was dead and buried but he is alive. As we celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, we can be inspired and enabled to follow his way.
So, what is the way of Jesus Christ?
We heard in the first reading St Peter telling a man of power, a man of arms, the Roman centurion Cornelius and his household, that Jesus came above all to preach peace. As St Paul said, ‘He came and preached peace to those who were far off and peace to those who were near.’ Jesus preached peace urgently and above all and to all. Jesus came to bring peace to the world. He himself said, ‘Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.’ And as he appeared to his closest disciples gathered in the Upper Room, his first words to them were, ‘Peace be with you.’
‘Not as the world gives give I unto you.’ Jesus’ way is not the world’s way. But St Peter had more to say. ‘He went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him.’ The world and its powerful people found it hard to accept this man who wanted to bring peace. St Paul said of Jesus, ‘Though he was in the form of God, he did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.’
‘He humbled himself.’ Although he was all-powerful, the Son of God as well as the Son of Mary, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave; he humbled himself and submitted to death on the cross. This way of Christ, the way of humility, might look like a way of weakness, not of strength, a way that is bound to lead to failure, to ruin. And indeed, it led him to the cross. We saw on Good Friday how he was stripped and beaten and mocked with a crown of thorns and made to carry his cross to the hill Golgotha outside the city of Jerusalem and nailed to the cross and how he died on the cross at the ninth hour of the day, reviled by the crowds, rebuked by those crucified with him and abandoned by his own terrified followers, all but his ever-loving Mother and his beloved Disciple.
We live in the world and it would not be surprising if we were to admire the way of the world. We may aspire to be like the men and women in charge: those who dominate the crowd, who set the standard, admired, looked up to, praised at every turn – though we may also see their feet of clay. And we may fall into the temptation of quietly despising the little people, the poor, the slow, the servile, the abject, the vagrant, the abandoned.
But Jesus shows us a better way. From the beginning he was with the little people, the shepherds, the outcastes who came to worship him at his birth. His disciples were not men of power, of substance, but poor fishermen, the lowly, the despised. He himself had nowhere to lay his head.
‘But God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.’
This day of Resurrection, this Easter Day, is the day when we witness the triumph of peace, of humility, of lowliness. ‘Christ died for our sins; he was buried; and he was raised on the third day, and he appeared’ to the apostles and then to more and more people, who came to believe in him.
This way of humility, the way of Christ, became in the fullness of time the defining way in the Western developing world. The very foundation truths of this country and continent and the places influenced by them are the truths of Christ and of his Church.
We see it here in this holy and ancient place of worship. Here for over six hundred years, until 450 years or so ago, monks lived in humility and worshipped God night and day in this church building and its predecessors. Here the monks cared for the poor and sick; here the monks offered education to the young; here the monks produced written works of great beauty; here the monks passed on the Gospel of salvation to all who would hear it. And in the past 450 years since the monastery was dissolved, as the daily round of worship in the Abbey has continued, many of the same works have been accomplished and still today we seek to live and work within that same tradition.
The way of Christ, the way of humility, has triumphed, not the way of strength and wealth and power. On this most holy day of the year, this glorious Easter Day as we celebrate the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ from the dead, he calls us to share with him, to follow him in the way of the Cross, the way he walked, the way of humility, the way of peace. May we this day rejoice at his triumph and answer his call to follow in his way.
Alleluia! Christ is risen. He is risen indeed, Alleluia!