• Acts 10:34-43
• Colossians 3:1-4
• John 20:1-18
We have now come to what we have been preparing for during Lent: the celebration of Easter and Christ’s resurrection. Lent, a period of 40 days, is modelled on the time our Lord spent in the wilderness, where he went without food for forty days and forty nights.
During this period, as part of our preparation for Easter, it is common for Christians to give something up for Lent. I must admit I never thought that the time would come when I would be required to give up church for Lent. But this is something that we have had to do this year because of COVID-19.
We are all agreed that the nature of the virus and how easily it is transmitted made giving up meeting together in church during Lent something we had to do. However, the important thing about giving something up for Lent is that it is meant to be something that it is hard for us to give up. The problem with giving up church has been that it hasn’t always seemed as if we have found it that hard to do.
We have given up coming to church and meeting together far more easily, for example, than people seem to have given up eating in restaurants, or drinking in bars, or even going to the beach. We have, as Christians, instead embraced going online with an enthusiasm that has been commented on even in the secular press. And why not? We are educating our children online, studying online, working and relaxing online. Why not worshipping online?
Please don’t misunderstand me! It’s been a useful substitute being able to use online resources to worship, study, pray, and keep in touch with one another. Here, at Christ Church, we have been putting Broadcast Services online and sharing with each other online. Being able to take ‘church’ online is a substitute that has, at times, undoubtedly been a blessing. My fear, however, is that the substitute may take over from the real thing.
Again, there have been some interesting articles in the secular press on what effect going online during the present crisis will have on the church after the crisis eventually comes to an end. The articles this Easter in the Spectator and Economist magazines, for example, are particularly thoughtful.
Which is all very interesting, but what has it to do with Easter Sunday?
Just this: taking church online has been a relatively easy option, but in a crowded virtual market-place, getting people to watch and stay watching means that you have to give people what they want if you want to hold their attention. The very ease with which we have closed our churches and gone online has not only created a positive feeling that the church can survive online, it’s also led to a focus on a message of optimism.
Paradoxically, in a time of despair that’s what people want, and we have been anxious in the church to give it to them. The temptation this Easter Sunday particularly is to rush to optimism, mistaking optimism for hope, and failing in doing so to hear the hard and challenging message of Easter for the present time.
Today, Easter Sunday, does seem to offer the message that we need to hear at the present time. The message that God loves us; that he has triumphed over death; and offers new life and a bright future.
It’s a message that I am sure will be popular in the crisis we are experiencing. A message well-suited to the virtual world in which we now live; a world of instant amusement and satisfaction. I would, I know, have more chance of being heard if I embraced it. It is, however, a message of false hope, made all the more dangerous by the way it parodies the real message of Easter.
The problem with it is that it ignores how we got here to Easter Sunday. We got here only after our Lord had been betrayed and falsely accused, mocked and denied, beaten and flogged … and then crucified.
Crucified, not only because of our sin but for our sin. Only a few days ago, on Maundy Thursday, at the Last Supper, Jesus told us that his body is given for us and his blood poured out for us (Luke 22:19-20). We want hope and optimism, and that’s understandable, but there can be no hope and optimism without pain, suffering, and death.
‘But,’ you reply, ‘surely we have that by the thousands this Easter.’ What on earth do I think is happening now with COVID-19 if not pain, suffering, and death? But for pain, suffering, and death to be redemptive, it has to have a purpose, and we have to learn from it, or else it will all be in vain.
The present situation, for example, has frequently been compared to the wars of the last century, but what did they teach us? What did we learn, for example, from the deaths of millions in the first world war? The philosopher Hegel said: ‘But what experience and history teach is this - that people and governments never have learned anything from history …’
So, this Easter before we rush to post messages of optimism and confidence for the future in the desire to get more clicks and likes online, we need to pause and ask what we are learning from this time of pain, suffering, and death. And I don’t now mean things like we should relax and take life more easy; that we should spend more time with our families; or that we can do a lot online and at home without even having to get out of bed. I mean what have we really learnt?
In Revelation 9, St John has a vision of terrible plagues afflicting the human race. At the end of them, he writes:
‘The rest of mankind, who were not killed by these plagues, did not repent of the works of their hands nor give up worshiping demons and idols of gold and silver and bronze and stone and wood, which cannot see or hear or walk, nor did they repent of their murders or their sorceries or their immorality or their thefts.’ (Revelation 9:20-21)
The Ten Commandments were written on two tablets of stone. They gave two sets of responsibilities: one to God and one to each other. Our Lord, when asked what the greatest commandment was, said it was that we should love God with all our being: heart and soul, mind and strength. And, he said, the second was like it that we should love our neighbour as ourselves (Mark 12:29-31). These two commandments represent the two parts of the Ten Commandments: love of God and love of our neighbour. We listen to this summary of the commandments by our Lord at every Eucharist.
St John, in his vision, said that mankind, after experiencing terrible plagues, did not repent of its failure to worship the one true God, nor did it repent of its failure to love each other and instead continued to practise evil. Something terrible that should have led people to repent had no effect on their behaviour. They learnt nothing from it.
Now to avoid any possible misunderstanding, let me say that I am not saying this morning that God sent COVID-19. But what I am saying this morning is that we need to hear what God is saying to us through COVID-19.
The Holy Father, Pope Francis, on March 27 gave an ‘Urbi et Orbi’ message from an empty St Peter’s Square in Rome. I want to quote from it because it says something important that I believe we especially need to hear this Easter. Comparing the present crisis to the storm that Jesus and his disciples experienced on the Sea of Galilee, the Holy Father, said:
‘The storm exposes our vulnerability and uncovers those false and superﬂuous certainties around which we have constructed our daily schedules, our projects, our habits and priorities. It shows us how we have allowed to become dull and feeble the very things that nourish, sustain and strengthen our lives and our communities. The tempest lays bare all our prepackaged ideas and forgetfulness of what nourishes our people’s souls; all those attempts that anesthetize us with ways of thinking and acting that supposedly “save” us, but instead prove incapable of putting us in touch with our roots and keeping alive the memory of those who have gone before us. We deprive ourselves of the antibodies we need to confront adversity.’
So, will we repent or will be like those in St John’s vision who refused to change? We began Lent with the words:
‘Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.
Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ.’
The talk in the media at the moment is of when the lockdown and the present restrictions will end and of when a vaccine will be found. When will life be able to return to normal? When will the economy get moving again? When will we see a return to global growth?
When will life return to normal?
For those who have lived through Easter, there can be no return to normal life. Indeed, there can be no life at all until we kneel in repentance at the feet of the Crucified Christ. For the real challenge to us this Easter is posed not by COVID-19, but by the Cross of Christ.
We have to face the challenge the Cross brings to each one of us. Not to seek to move beyond it, but to identify with him who is nailed to it, and to face up to our own mortality, weakness, and sin and, as he dies there, to die with him.
For unless we have died with him on the Cross, died to self and the false gods of our day, there can be no Easter Sunday for us. There can be no message of hope and confidence for the future, only false optimism and empty promises.
In our second reading this morning, St Paul writes: ‘for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God’ (Colossians 3:3).
The message of Christ crucified and we crucified with him does offer hope. Not that everything will be OK after all. That was not what Christ offered his followers. ‘In the world you will have trouble,’ he told them. But he continued, ‘Be of good cheer, I have overcome the world’. In other words, in the midst of all the troubles, uncertainties, difficulties, dangers, and deprivations of this life, our life, if we belong to Christ, is hid with Christ in God.
St Paul tells us:
‘When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.’ (Colossians 3:4)
There is hope and there is a future to look forward to, but it is not the easy hope of social media; the hope that comes effortlessly and without pain. It is not a future that will be comfortable and free from suffering. In the world, we will have trouble. But Christ’s followers can face that trouble knowing that Christ has overcome the world.
So, my hope this morning for me and for everyone watching or listening to this broadcast is not a ‘return to normal’, but a turning to Christ. It is only in turning to Christ that we can find hope. Hope which is ours because God loved us so much that he gave his Son to die to bring it to us.
St Paul begins the second reading:
‘If you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth …’ (Colossians 3:1-2)
This morning don’t set your sight on getting back to normal. Set your sight higher than that! Don’t seek a return to economic growth, seek something far more profitable: your spiritual growth. Seek and set your mind on things above: on Christ himself.
The present time has been, and still is, a time of fear, pain, and death. Don’t let it be a wasted time. Let it be a time when you discover the life and death of Christ in your life and as you die with him hear the words of real hope that St Paul speaks to us today:
‘When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.’
This morning our only hope is in Christ: Christ Crucified and Christ Risen.
Alleluia, Christ is risen.
He is risen indeed, Alleluia.