Sermon for Easter 2 Year C - Mr John Stubbs
One of the many anecdotes which clutter up my mind comes from that
repository of anecdotes, the Readers Digest from which over the years I
have gleaned quite a few to add to my store. It concerns a university
class – probably in physics.
“Can anybody tell me what electricity is?” asks the professor. A series of blank looks and then a hand is raised tentatively, before it drops back down.
“Well what is it, then?” asks the professor.
“I’m sorry sir” came the answer. “I’ve forgotten”.
“Oh dear” said the professor, “the only man in the world who knows what electricity is, and he’s forgotten!”
I am not a physicist, but I think I understand what is being said. I won’t ask any of you what electricity is, but perhaps you will allow me as a mere layman to muse on the subject, and some of the questions it raises in my mind. And if I’m wrong, tell me quietly later. As far as I know one cannot see electricity. That may not be strictly true insofar as one can see lightning, or sparks. But in the ordinary way of things one cannot see electricity. You cannot look at a length of wire and tell whether there is any electricity in it, not even if you can see the wire is connected in some way to a source of power. And that is true even if the wire is not covered in any way, is simply bare. You may discover to your cost that it is there if you pick it up, and it is what we call “live”.
We can work out in which direction it may be travelling along a wire, and we characterise its movement as “flow”. We have found ways to create it and to measure it and we have found out how to use it in many many ways. We can see it at work without actually seeing it or without really being any the wiser as to what it is.
By now you may well be wondering what these ramblings are in aid of. Or perhaps you may have begun to sense that it has perhaps some parallels as well as differences with that event which we celebrated last week and which we continue to celebrate today, the resurrection.
It was given to only a very few people to see the risen Jesus. And Jesus himself was only too aware of that fact. Remember those words in the lesson, addressed to Thomas but also in the long term to all of us. “Because you have seen me you have found faith. Happy are they who never saw me and yet have found faith”. Of course it was important that some people did see the risen Jesus. I guess that resurrection faith has to be grounded in that sight of their Lord which the disciples and others saw in the period after Easter. Without it we probably would not have a gospel of hope and might not be here today in this place of worship. But unless Jesus were to become a figure who lived for centuries it was inevitable that he would no longer be there where people could see him. What if he had lived for ever in human form, if that had happened it would have been a total denial of the nature of world which God had created, and made a complete mockery of the statement that Jesus was a human being like us.
We have one additional witness who claims to have seen the risen Lord after not only his resurrection but also his ascension, and that is St. Paul – but we have no account of what he saw, only what he heard.
So how do we know that the resurrection happened – an event which is highly unlikely in the minds of many of our contemporaries. Bishop Tom Wright of Durham writing on Easter Saturday in the Guardian said
“The Easter stories tumble out in bits and pieces, with breathless chasings to and fro and garbled reports – and then stories like nothing else before or since. As the great New Testament scholar EP Sanders put it, the writers were trying to describe an experience that does not fit a known category. They knew all about ghosts and visions, and they knew it wasn’t anything like that. Equally they knew the risen Jesus wasn’t just a resuscitated corpse, still less someone who had almost died but managed to stagger on after all. They had the puzzled air of people saying ‘I know this sounds wacky but this is truly how it was’. They were stumblingly describing the birth of a new creation, starting with Jesus but intended for the whole world.”
We cannot get into each other’s heads. We cannot know what each of us sees in with our mind’s eye. We can only accept what we say to each other and to recognise that, just as if someone says that electricity is in that wire, so when we are told that someone is aware of the risen Jesus or encounters him, or hears him speaking then something real is happening.
There is a sense, however, that we can see Jesus – remember the words of Jesus in the parable of the sheep and goats. What we do to the poor and needy, the prisoner and those in need we do it to Him. In that sense we see Jesus all around us, and we can see something of him in everybody.
And just as we can recognise the existence of electricity by seeing what it does, we can also see something of the reality of the resurrection in the events which followed as recorded in the epistles, and in the history of the followers of Christ since that time, a history of which we in our turn are a part. Eleven frightened men and their associates who go out and beard the multitudes. One who backed down at the moment of crisis in the High Priests house, Simon Peter, then taking on the establishment boldly and fearlessly. The list of those who followed suite is endless.
And for me another example of the power of the resurrection is to be found in those letters to the seven churches in the Book of the Revelation. They are a peculiarly milk and water sort of group. But they and their like overturned the mighty Roman empire.
And just as radio waves, which I take to be another form of electrical activity, permeate our universe, so to does the spirit of the resurrected Jesus. He is everywhere, and yet is there just for each of us. Richard Harries, former Bishop of Oxford writing in the Observer about Rowan Williams on Easter Day has this to say :-
“True religion always leads one to question oneself rather than make claims over others. Jesus is not a possession or a badge of superiority, but the one before whom you stand, in gentle self questioning.
The Christian faith does not offer easy consolation: in some integral way, the sublime hope it gives is linked to our human anguish.”
Jesus death and resurrection took place in the context of Passover – he was after all a Jew!
And Passover is a celebration about freedom, a powerful celebration of an escape from slavery. It was powerful throughout the history of the Jewish people for much of their time the nation was in bondage. It was very powerful in Jesus time because the nation was in bondage to Rome.
Not for nothing therefore did the events of Easter come at Passover, because above all the new creation ushered in by the resurrection was the offer of freedom, what St Paul called “the glorious liberty of the children of God”. But freedom is scary. We can easily join in the celebrations of Wilberforce and the abolition of the slave trade. That was 200 years ago. But what about the modern slave trade in all its forms – what about that?
We can easily be radical about actions 200 years ago. But where does the church stand on issues of human freedom today? Why is it that so often Christians are known for what they will not do rather than what they will do? Why is it we squabble over issues of human relationships ? Why is it that for many Christians, and for much of the church freedom is sin ? Where do we stand on the many issues of human relationships which face us in our world. The risen Jesus challenges us to embrace the freedom he offers, and to work to set aside the obsession the churches have had and still have with control. As we stand before Jesus in gentle questioning, let us look fairly and squarely at our fears, our prejudices, our wish to make others slaves to our own moral stances, everything which constrains our and their freedom, and trusting in the power of that risen Lord reach out for the freedom for which Easter and the resurrection was the first birthday. Amen