Easter Day, 2017 - Bishop Stephen's Sermon
It has been said of Christians that we are so heavenly-minded that we are of no earthly use. I think this is quite wrong. Today of all days we are invited to lift our vision above the everyday. Our reading from Colossians is exhorting us to bring heavenly qualities to our earthly lives. Some of us from Ely are going to be on The World This Weekend on Radio 4 at lunchtime today in a package about Brexit and the nature of Englishness. Whether this is broadcast or not, I pointed out that we Christians are automatically people with dual citizenship. We are citizens of the United Kingdom and also of the Kingdom of God. Our identity is in Christ, crucified and risen. He died on the cross and went down to raise people from Hell to reveal to us for all time that he would not save himself by defining himself over-against anyone. No national identity should be used to separate us from our neighbours. Jesus came to save all people, not some people. To be English means to embrace many ethnic backgrounds and varieties of cultures which contribute to a rich common life in flourishing communities. This is not least true within the wider Christian community. The Church of England has a lot to learn from African and Asian churches in the UK. There is huge strength in our diversity and depth. We have to learn how to be guests as well as hosts to one another, in such a way that Englishness is defined by the quality of our hospitality to the stranger. This is part of what it means right now to be part of the New Creation inaugurated in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. The Colossians text helps us to connect the wonderful good news of Easter to our lives today. When Jesus is killed and when he is raised, in some way we are killed and we are raised with him. And his past-tense resurrection and our past-tense-but-still-future resurrection help us to lift our eyes to the heavens above, both to see the resurrected Christ and to orientate our lives to him. This orientation cannot be taken for granted. The wiring in my house is old and very mysterious. Fuses often blow and power is temporarily lost. Then we have to reset alarms and other gadgets. So, too, believers get off track. Our "power" goes off - or better expressed, our ability to access that power goes off. When we reconnect we need to reset our lives. And so for the author of our passage, setting our minds on the things that are above is not a one-time-only decision but a decision that needs to be made over and over again. Over the next several years we, as the nations of the United Kingdom, are going to face significant changes and opportunities as we leave the European Union. We need to be hopeful and creative so that at every change we are ready afresh to reset our lives in the service of the Risen Christ.
We are still members of the European Union for another two years and there will be transitional elements after that. Whatever our relationship with the EU, we shall still be a European country with a culture we share with people on the continent. I recently went to see the Michelangelo and Sebastiano exhibition at the National Gallery. Those paintings and sculptures were all created in Renaissance Italy but have been brought together in London so that we can lay claim to a shared heritage. This idea of continuity and change applies to how Matthew sees the weave of his gospel. The women come reflectively to the tomb. They cannot, of course, be witnesses to the Resurrection itself because no one can see God, but they are promised by an angel that Jesus has risen from the dead. They witness in the earthquake and the emptiness of the tomb the traces of the divine activity that has brought it about. This is remarkably coherent with Joseph’s experience at the beginning of the gospel when he is told by an angel that Mary’s pregnancy is not the result of adultery, but of the invasion of God’s grace and power. At the beginning of the gospel Jesus emerges from the womb of Mary. Now he bursts free of the tomb. Nothing can seal Jesus the Son of God in the realm of death. He is God with us until the end of time.
The women believe this and so meet the Risen Lord. In the midst of earthquake and angelic appearances, this completes the continuity of the women’s faithful witness: they have seen Jesus die, seen him buried, and kept vigil at his tomb; they have seen the emptiness of his tomb and heard the news of his rising; now they take hold the feet of the one they had seen nailed to the cross.
Matthew stresses the direct continuity between the Passion and Resurrection of Jesus. They are not separate events: there is not a break between the death of Christ on the cross for our sins and his Resurrection to bring us to new life. At the Michelangelo exhibition in one room there is the most harrowing painting of the death of Christ, with the body of Jesus lying on the ground as Mary his mother breaks her heart in anguished prayer. In the very next room, we encounter remarkable statues representing the risen Jesus in all his glory. Michelangelo rejected one of the statues of the Risen Christ because there was a flaw in the colouring of the marble on the face of Jesus. He ordered it to be done again, hence the second statue. When you compare them, however, the first piece is much better, in spite or because of the wound in the marble. That is the truth of the continuity of passion and resurrection that Jesus is raised with his death scars. Tragedy and triumph become one. This is why I can believe in the God who is on the side of all those being oppressed in Syria or South Sudan or anywhere in the world. Jesus goes through death and hell to bring us to heaven.
In our first reading from the Book of Acts Peter offers a summary of the Apostolic faith to an audience of Gentiles in the house of Cornelius. We proclaim that faith still today with the same quality of Easter joy. The faith is proclaimed now throughout the world by all those who are citizens of the Kingdom of God like we are and seek to be. But this faith has to be lived inhabited by us in Ely. We have read that the guards at the tomb fall down as though dead because their take on what life really is too narrow to be true. The guards at the tomb were terrified of the angel, but it did not make them believe the Resurrection. The truth of Jesus has to be lived in discipleship, says Stanley Hauerwas. The message of Colossians is that live heaven in our daily lives because Jesus is risen from the dead and this begins to shape all that we practice in how we pray, how we shop and how we seek justice and peace. Now is eternal life is risen with Christ we stand.
Alleluia. Christ is risen! He is risen indeed. Alleluia!