Old High St Stephen’s, Inverness
Sunday 31 March 2013: Year C, Easter Day
(from the Revised English Bible)
For this life only…?
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
Sometimes it’s suggested that Christianity is being marginalised today. No longer are the children’s swings in the public parks of Inverness no longer chained up on Sundays (so it isn’t all bad!). And it isn’t bad if Christianity is no longer being used to prop up the establishment. For Christianity began when a man who had been seen as a threat to the establishment was put to death for being a troublemaker.
Some say that it’s gone too far, that Christians are starting to be persecuted in this country. But in his Easter sermon in 2010, Rowan Williams pointed out that all we have to put up with is ‘wooden-headed bureaucratic silliness combined with a well-meaning and completely misplaced anxiety about giving offence to non-Christians’. That hardly measures up to the read suffering Christians in other parts of the world have to put up with, he said: ‘Whenever you hear overheated language about this remember those many, many places where persecution is real and Christians are being killed regularly and mercilessly or imprisoned and harassed for their resistance to injustice. Remember our brothers and sisters in Nigeria and in Iraq, the Christian communities of southern Sudan… the Christian minorities in the Holy Land … or in Zimbabwe.’
It’s not that we are persecuted in this country; but I’ve a feeling many people are condescending to us. They think that God, for us, is like drink for an alcoholic. They imagine that faith is something which helps take away the reality (as they see it) that the universe is cold and unfeeling, and that life is ultimately meaningless. They don’t persecute us. They just we’re to be pitied..
And after all, look at their story. Jesus of Nazareth comes and speaks about love, and peace, and hope. But the powerful and cynical- in the religious establishment and in the government- realise that that this threatens their power. And so Jesus is killed in a nasty way, is buried in a rock tomb, and a stone is rolled over the entrance. Hope is snuffed out; love is killed off; death triumphs. Another dead idealist. And people trying to live in his way: they’re to be pitied, really.
Years ago, when the musical Jesus Christ Superstar came out in the cinema, a lot of churchgoers went along and, although they liked a lot of it, came away a bit disappointed. Because the film ends with the death of Jesus. Which is a bit like leaving James Bond hanging over the piranha tank, and not letting us see how he gets out of it. Or Harry Potter, lifeless, having been zapped to death by the wicked wizard, Voldemort.
(For those of you who have never read Harry Potter, I can tell you that he does get killed in the last book and film- but his death is not the end).
The makers of Jesus Christ Superstar thought the crucifixion was the end. They couldn’t quite see their way to including Jesus rising from the dead. That, they must have though, would not appeal to their audience. Let’s have dramatic story of Jesus. But leave out the rising to life bit, please.
Funnily enough, within a few years of Jesus’ supposed resurrection, there were folks in the Church at Corinth thinking like that. But St Paul thought that was literally hopeless thinking- if you think like that, then I pity you, he tells them: ‘If it is for this life only that Christ has given us hope, we of all people are most to be pitied’, he told them. Paul is not saying that Christianity is missing something without resurrection. He’s far more radical than that. He thinks that Christianity doesn’t make sense without resurrection. This passage is one we quite often hear a funeral services. Indeed, should anything nasty ever happen to me, I’d like 1 Corinthians 15 read at my funeral- in full! For it is Paul explaining exactly why resurrection is important. And it links Jesus’ resurrection to our own hopes for something beyond death.
Near the beginning of the chapter is Paul’s version of the Gospel story we heard earlier: ‘First and foremost, I handed on to you the tradition I had received: that Christ died for our sins, in accordance with the scriptures; that he was buried; that he was raised to life on the third day, in accordance with the scriptures; and that he appeared to Cephas [that is, Peter], and afterwards to the Twelve [disciples]’ (1 Corinthians 15.3-5). This is the foundation of the Gospel for Paul. All else depends on this. Resurrection is central, essential. Without it, Christian faith is nothing; and those who preach it- like Paul- are liars, as he writes: ‘if Christ was not raised, then our gospel is null and void, and so too is your faith; and we turn out to have given false evidence about God, because we bore witness that he raised Christ to life’.
Without resurrection, says Paul, there is no hope. If you think like that, then you’re really saying that Christianity is only about this life. To which Paul replies, ‘If it is for this life only that Christ has given us hope, we of all people are most to be pitied’. He agrees with those who feel condescending towards Christians, because we think we’re only hoping for this life! Paul agrees that understanding Christianity as only a hope for this life, that trying to live by the ethics of Jesus, without believing in resurrection, is pointless. We deserve to be pitied if we think that way. ‘But the truth is…’ he says: Christ was raised to life. Only on that basis does Christianity make sense.
The part of Germany where my wife comes from is near the areas of the Rhine which grows some of Germany’s most famous wines. The story goes that every year, the Bishop of Fulda sent a messenger on horseback to the abbot of the Johannisberg monastery on the banks of the Rhine, giving permission to begin picking the grapes. But in 1718 the messenger was delayed (perhaps he was robbed), and the monks began picking the grapes off the vines some 14 days later than usual. Naturally, the monks expected that the wine wouldn’t be any good that year, because generally speaking, if you leave fruit too long, it goes off. In fact, the rot did chemical things to the grapes which made for a rich and complex wine. Today ‘Spätlese’, the late harvest Rhine wine, is among the most sought-after and expensive German wine.
Grapes, like many other fruits and vegetables, can taste quite different according to when you pick them. So it’s not uncommon for us to harvest crops at different times. So new potatoes taste differently, and late grapes can be rotten- or special! In ancient Jewish harvest rituals, the first of the harvest was dedicated to God. The Old Testament Book of Leviticus tells farmers, ‘you reap [the] harvest, you are to bring the first sheaf of your harvest to the priest. He will present the sheaf as a dedicated portion before the LORD’ (Leviticus 23.1-11). This was the ‘firstfruits’- still part of the harvest, but the earliest part.
And so Paul says: ‘the truth is, Christ was raised to life- the firstfruits of the harvest of the dead’. Paul believed that death was the result of human sinfulness. He understood the story of Adam in the Garden of Eden as tale of how human beings can never measure up. Adam sinned against God, and that story is the story of every human being: ‘in Adam, all die’. But now there is a new Adam, who reverses the sin of Adam- Jesus Christ. The rising to life of Jesus shows that sin and death are defeated. The man, Adam, brought death into the world; another man, Jesus, brings resurrection:
For since it was a man who brought death into the world, a man also brought resurrection of the dead. As in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be brought to life; but each in proper order: Christ the firstfruits, and afterwards, at his coming, those who belong to Christ.
The rising of Jesus is the early harvest, just the beginning. Paul says that we also participate in this resurrection: we too can hope to rise, as Jesus did, to eternal life with God.
Our condescending friends might well say at this point that believing in a life after our natural death is also just a crutch. ‘Pie in the sky when you die’, they say. It’s a fairy story, offering a crumb of comfort to the gullible. Wouldn’t we better admitting that this is the only life we have, and working to stop suffering, to end poverty, to end wars, to work against injustices?
My reply is: of course we should do these things! Because what is happening when people suffer needlessly, or folks are pushed into poverty, or leaders take their people to war and commit injustices? What happens is that the innocent get crushed- as Jesus was crushed. The Gospel story of Jesus’ death is, at its hear, the story of the judicial murder of an innocent man by conniving and uncaring powers. But listen to what happens when the dead rise:
Then comes the end, when [Christ] delivers up the kingdom to the Father, after deposing every sovereignty, authority, and power. For he is destined to reign until God has put all his enemies under his feet; and the last enemy to be deposed is death.
The Roman governor and the Jewish High Priest did their best to stamp out Christ’s message of love, grace, forgiveness and peace. They used their power to put him to death, bury him, and they rolled the stone in front of the tomb and thought: ‘that’s the end’. And so it is. Death is the end. The end of life, the end of hope. Always. Except once. The exception we call Easter, when God’s power overcame all human power.
In Church, we make a lot of Good Friday and of Easter Sunday. But certainly in this congregation, we don’t have any services on the day in between, often called Holy Saturday. It’s the day between death and rising to life, between the tragedy and joy, between hopelessness and new hope. But maybe there is a sense in which every day, for Christians, is Holy Saturday. We all know, all too well, pain, suffering, despair, and, yes, death. Christians will be persecuted for their faith, or have to put up with bureaucratic nonsenses. We will be misunderstood and mocked and pitied by people who do not understand that ours is not a faith for this life only. But we don’t need their pity, for our faith is not just for this life only.
Without faith Jesus’ resurrection, nothing else about Jesus makes sense. As one commentator puts it, ‘If resurrection is undesirable and impossible, then Christ has not been raised, and if Christ has not been raised, there is no gospel to proclaim, no redemption from sin, no correction for injustice, no love stronger than hate, no faith to drive our fear, no comfort to heal sorrow, no ultimate hope for humanity or history, no future for truth, beauty and goodness’ (Charles G Adams in Preaching God’s Transforming Justice Year C, p194). But Christ has been raised! So there is a gospel, redemption, justice, love, faith, comfort, hope, and a future for truth, beauty and goodness. We don’t need their pity! Christ is risen! Hallelujah!
Ascription of Praise
Praised be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,
who by his great mercy
in raising Jesus Christ from the dead
has given us new birth into a living hope:
the hope of an inheritance reserved in heaven for us
which nothing can destroy or spoil or wither! Amen!
From 1 Peter 1.3-4
Biblical references from the Revised English Bible
© 2013 Peter W Nimmo