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Sermon at the Evening Service on Easter Day 2018

"Hold to Christ, and for the rest be totally uncommitted."

The Reverend Dr Tony Kyriakides Priest Vicar

Sunday, 1st April 2018 at 6.30 PM

In Poets’ Corner, in the south transept of this Abbey, there is a window commemorating A E Housman whose poem, Easter Hymn, you heard a moment ago. It is a courageous poem expressing both doubt and hope, even though for Housman hope was a forlorn thing. Housman was an atheist though he remained emotionally attached to a past in which he had believed in God. Perhaps ambivalence best describes his attitude towards the faith of his childhood for when in 1920, at a Cambridge college dinner, he was asked about his religion, Housman replied: ‘I think I should describe myself as a High-Church atheist’, a tribute to his mother’s faith and an upbringing of church attendance and family Bible readings.

Ambivalence. Today we celebrate the risen Christ and I am reminded of Butterfield, a British historian and devout Christian, who concluded his book Christianity and History, with these words: Hold to Christ, and for the rest be totally uncommitted.                                  

Ambivalence. Last year, a UK-wide survey, commissioned by the BBC, found that a quarter of those who described themselves as Christians, did not believe in the resurrection.

What about you? Where do you stand for as Paul insists: If Christ was not raised, then is our gospel null and void, and so is your faith? (1Corinthians. 15:14)

Let us imagine a trial. The case for the prosecution – that the resurrection did not happen – would probably include the testimony of John Spong, a liberal theologian, who claims that science and reason has exposed the soft underbelly of traditional Christian belief and its intellectual bankruptcy. What is needed is a new understanding of God, Jesus, salvation and every other pillar of Christian faith. ‘God is not a noun we are compelled to define; God is a verb that we are invited to live’. While that is a proposition with which I have sympathy, more challenging is Spong’s assertion that Jesus was not a supernatural being but one who demonstrated a new way to live. The resurrection, Spong claims, has been misconstrued. New Testament authors never anticipated that what they wrote would be taken literally.

Yet here, Sunday by Sunday we recite the Nicene creed in which we say ‘on the third day he rose again’? Spong’s response is that ‘the creeds were 3rd and 4th century love songs that people composed to sing to their understanding of God. We do not have to literalize their words to perceive their meaning or their intention to join in the singing of their creedal song... [R]eligion in general and Christianity in particular must always be evolving. Forcing the evolution is the dialogue between yesterday’s words and today’s knowledge. The sin of Christianity is that any of us ever claimed that we had somehow captured eternal truth in the forms we had created.’

If we caricature Spong as a key witness for the prosecution, Rowan Williams (the former Archbishop of Canterbury) mounts a strong case for the defence in that, unequivocally, Williams believes the resurrection of Jesus Christ did take place. What happened in the garden before and after it was discovered that the stone had been rolled away from the entrance to the tomb, may lack clarity, even consistency, but disparity and discrepancy are so often the hallmarks of witness statements following some trauma or other. And for those first witnesses to the resurrection, it was unquestionably a life-shattering experience. Their world had changed for ever. Jesus was no longer confined to the past. Whatever happened, it was little short of explosive; and in reviewing the New Testament's witness to the risen Jesus we have to repeatedly ask ourselves what kind of event would it have been to generate a belief that the world had irreversibly changed, that Jesus was part and parcel of their God-talk, their God-thought, their God-veneration: language, theology and worship inextricably bound to the person of Jesus.

Where, then, does that leave you and me? In Spong, we have the enfant terrible and in Williams, a defender of orthodoxy. Both address the head but neither addresses the heart where my faith resides. What does resurrection mean for you and me in the here and now? This is a question Harry Williams (a priest-cum-monk-cum-theologian) has explored, recognising that for many of us the resurrection has always looked like ‘something in the distance or on the horizon’, ‘belonging to another time and place... [A] past and future with which our connection can only be theoretical, however correct the theory is held to be’. If the past is dead and the future is speculative, the resurrection is ‘robbed of its impact on the present’. Perhaps that explains why tomorrow, Monday, life will be ‘business as usual’: safeguarding the status quo of the institutional Church (with its culture of thoughtlessness, pride and arrogance as the Anglican Bishop of Chichester recently admitted in his evidence to the Independent Inquiry into Child Sex Abuse) or safeguarding the status quo of my own mental and spiritual life insensible to Jesus’ assertion that ‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me’ (Luke 9:23).

Perhaps this is because we have failed to see that resurrection can be experienced in the present if only we have eyes to see and ears to hear. Resurrection, in the here and now, does not make us immune to the turmoil and the uncertainties which are the ingredients of everyday life. Resurrection takes place in the daily grind and routine of our lives quietly and unassumingly. It is often only later that we realise that in some sense or other we have been raised to newness of life, in effect reborn, having heard the voice of the Eternal Word.

I give you three brief case studies.

Two people find that their relationship has diminished to the point where they are sleepwalking alongside one another. Somehow, (God knows how!), a new relationship gradually emerges, one which may no longer possess the rampant excitement of first love but is deeper, more stable, more satisfying and more robust. That is resurrection.

Then there is the person who, outwardly, epitomises success but inwardly despairs of a life which has become emptied of meaning, purpose and direction. It’s never easy to step out, to radically change the course of one’s life with all the risks and uncertainties that entails? It requires courage and determination which, in themselves, might herald resurrection.

Finally, from my own experience as a hospice chaplain, the diagnosis of a life-limiting condition jars open a door of awareness, an awareness of death’s proximity, an awareness which can be soul destroying. Yet, for some people the experience of a life-threatening illness can lead to a different sort of awareness: an awareness of what matters in life, enabling a person to become – paradoxically – more alive. That is resurrection,

Resurrection is, and will remain, a mystery. The historian and the theologian will argue it out between themselves but for you and me could it be that the truth of the pudding is in the eating? In other words, if you and I have been aware of resurrection in our own lives, and the lives of those around us, we may be better able to see that the resurrected life is, as Harry Williams suggests, ‘a country we have already entered and in whose light and warmth we have already lived’.

Resurrection? Where do you stand?

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