Old High St Stephen’s, Inverness

Sunday 8 April 2012: Year B, Easter Day

SERMON

Texts: 1 Corinthians15.1-11

John 20.1-18

Something of the greatest importance…

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.


If you were to try to sum up the Christian faith, how would you do it? Some think it is about how we behave, a set of rules to live by. Some reduce it to a set of dogmatic beliefs. St Paul, writing to the Christians of Corinth, summed up his message- he calls it Good News, the Gospel- by telling a story:
‘I passed on to you what I received, which is of the greatest importance: that Christ died for our sins, as written in the Scriptures; that he was buried and that he was raised to life three days later, as written in the Scriptures’. For Paul the story of the death and resurrection of Jesus is ‘of the greatest importance’; theses Easter events are of the greatest importance because they are at the centre of the Christian message- as St Paul well understood.
For with Easter, everything changed. Ours is world in which we too often admire people for being greedy, for doing what they want, for being selfish. Easter changes that, because the story of what happened to Jesus is a story about the victory of self-giving love. Just before he was arrested, Jesus went with his disciples to the Garden of Gethsemane, and then went off alone. Mark’s Gospel tell us:

He went a little farther on, threw himself on the ground, and prayed that, if possible, he might not have to go through that time of suffering. “Father,” he prayed, “my Father! All things are possible for you. Take this cup of suffering away from me. Yet not what I want, but what you want.” (Mark 14.35-36).

It is a struggle for Jesus, to go through with what seems to be required of him- for it will mean death for him. Yet in the end, Jesus chooses to do what he believes is God’s will. I think that’s why Christians, ever since, have said, as Paul did, that ‘Christ died for our sins’. He understands that God needs him to do this- to allow himself to be arrested and perhaps even put to death. Jesus is willing to even give up his life, for the sake of others. And in this, the life of Jesus was at one with his preaching.
For smetimes we lesser preachers ought to say to people, ‘Do as I say, not as I do’. We exhort you to faith and effort, well aware that we don’t really match up ourselves. But with Jesus, preaching and life go together. He taught that we should love God and neighbour, and throughout his life he did so. He called on his disciples to give up everything for God: ‘Those who try to gain their own life will lose it;’ he said, ‘but those who lose their life for my sake will gain it’ (Matthew 10.39. John the Gospel writer records that Christ once said to those who would follow him that ‘If you love your life, you will lose it. If you give it up in this world, you will be given eternal life’ (John 12.24). Jesus was the man who lived for others- and we are called to do the same.
Biologists are beginning to see that it is very often when animals- or humans- show altruism that they survive. Altruism is where you put the needs of the others- the pack, the herd- or, in the case of human beings, those whom Christ describes as our neighbours- it’s when you put other people’s needs first that you thrive and survive. This is not the message our culture believe in. Our culture thinks that it’s best if people look after number one. But if you are aged, or too young, you need others to look after you. If you are lonely- as so many people in our ‘me first’ society have become- you crave the attention and presence of another human being. Society will collapse if we continue to peddle the myth that we are all self-contained, that we don’t need each other. If we don’t care for others, if we keep on putting our own wants first, then we are, in fact, doomed.
Jesus shows another way- in his teaching (that we should love our neighbours) and in his life- a life which always had time for others. If the only way to show just how much God cared for his world was for Jesus to go to the cross, and lose his life, then that is what Jesus would do- and he did! Those who try to follow him will be mocked and ridiculed- as, indeed Jesus was. After he had been tried by Pilate, and before he was taken to the place of execution, Romans soldiers had sadistic fun with him:

The soldiers took Jesus inside to the courtyard of the governor’s palace and called together the rest of the company. They put a purple robe on Jesus, made a crown out of thorny branches, and put it on his head. Then they began to salute him: “Long live the King of the Jews!” They beat him over the head with a stick, spat on him, fell on their knees, and bowed down to him. When they had finished making fun of him, they took off the purple robe and put his own clothes back on him. Then they led him out to crucify him. (Mark 15.-16-20)

These are the actions of bullies, of those who like to kick a man when he is down. The bullies pick on those whom they think are powerless; they humiliate those whom they see as different. Jesus endures this, as he endures so much in the last few hours of his life. But God has the last word. Perhaps some of those soldiers were sent to guard his tomb- and in that job, they failed miserably. For the Easter event- when Christ is raised from the dead- puts into perspective the bullying, the humiliation, the pain, the anguish that Christ had gone through. The powerless turned out to be the most powerful of all; love, not hatred, is what is victorious.
When I think about the cross of Christ, I’m reminded of all the millions of others who have been bullied, humiliated, beaten and tortured and even put to death. These things are done to people because of what they believe, or what they have said, or even just because of who they are: wrong race, wrong nationality, wrong religion, or whatever. We are still doing it: killing and brutalising men, women and children, and finding all sorts of reasons for doing so. I think that the cross tells me that when all that is happening, nevertheless God is there. God is there, suffering with those who suffer. And the promise is that somehow, justice will be done. The resurrection of Jesus vindicated him- it showed that he was right, and that his executioners were wrong. Somehow, someday, I trust that all those who suffer because of human brutality will also be vindicated. For the cross tells me that God is on their side, and Easter tells me that love, not evil, is the most powerful force in the universe.
Easter changes everything, and it changed us. Now we also have the chance to live new lives, because Easter happened. That is what we symbolise in baptism. St Paul wrote to the Romans that in baptism, we participate, in a special way, in the death and resurrection of Christ. He wrote, ‘When we were baptized into union with Christ Jesus, we were baptized into union with his death. By our baptism, then, we were buried with him and shared his death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from death by the glorious power of the Father, so also we might live a new life. For since we have become one with him in dying as he did, in the same way we shall be one with him by being raised to life as he was’ (Romans 6.3-6). So baptism represents a dying to an old life, and a participation in what we might call the resurrection life. We have stopped being ordinary people- we are now Easter people!
That’s why it’s appropriate that we will celebrate the Sacrament of Baptism at the Old High today. For baptism is not just about what God has done for us in Christ- although it does remind us of how Jesus dying and rising to new life brings us hope and joy. But baptism also reminds us that we participate in Christ’s death and resurrection. We, too, can die and rise to life with Christ. Sadly, many people are baptised without ever realising the potential of their baptism. For our baptism to make any sense, we need to live it out. We need to be able to learn from Jesus about what it is to die to our old selves, and let God raise us to new life. We can do it, for Christ has done it: he has show us the way. It is the way of obedience to God’s will, and putting other people- and not the needs of ourselves- first. We can die to our old lives, we can let die those things which hamper our living Christlike lives- because God offers resurrection, new life, the chance of living as if Easter really happened.
So when we see a child or an adult baptised, we are each of us challenged to think about our own baptism, if we have already been baptised). We all of us are challenged to follow Christ more closely: to identify what it is that hinders us from loving God and our neighbour, and to let that die- put it on a metaphorical cross, if you will- and allow God to raise new life in its place.
When all seemed lost, when evil and violence and brutality had done its worst, when hope was gone… God was not finished. Easter is God’s greatest surprise- an unexpected blossoming of hope and love, new faith and new life. That is still the promise of Easter, for each of us. For the Lord is risen!- and things can never be the same again!
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 Good News Bible
© 2012 Peter W Nimmo