Tuesday, 22 November 2016

Sermon for 20 November 2016 - Three Prophecies

Jeremiah 23:1-6
This morning we are going to spend some time looking at the passage we heard read from Jeremiah – it would help me if you had your Bibles open in front of you, so you can follow along, as we look at the text - It is quite rare for me to preach on the Old Testament, and so this morning has provided me with a great opportunity to think a little bit about those books in the first part of our Bibles, those stories that deal with God and his people Israel. Jeremiah, who we heard from this morning, comes from over two and a half thousand years ago – a time when God’s people, Israel, were under threat. Pagan kings were invading, or threatening to invade; the people charged with looking after God’s people were not making the right decisions; and God’s people were not living right. Things were chaotic.
Jeremiah was a prophet; it is worth thinking a little bit about what that means – we have a lot of books in the Bible that fall into this group ‘prophecy’. But what does it mean? Often we think of prophecy as something mysterious, it isn’t that. Sometimes we think of prophecy as foretelling the future, it is sometimes that; how are we to understand it?

The prophets were men (and women) who spoke God’s Word, to God’s people, at God’s command.

However, almost without exception, the people do not understand, or they think that a big plan of God is about something very small and parochial. And so we come to our passage today. We will look at three short prophecies within this text, and ask what God is saying.

Three short prophecies
: Judgement - Mercy - Jesus

 First prophecy: vv1-2: Judgement
Lets hear those words from Jeremiah again:
“Woe to the shepherds who are destroying and scattering the sheep of my pasture!” declares the Lord. Therefore this is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says to the shepherds who tend my people: “Because you have scattered my flock and driven them away and have not bestowed care on them, I will bestow punishment on you for the evil you have done,” declares the Lord.

“Woe to the shepherds!” This is serious stuff! We hear, by the mouth of the prophet, God cursing those “shepherds who are destroying” his people.  Of course, this shouldn’t come as a surprise to them – God is clear about the demands he places on those who would lead – we see something very similar in the New Testament when Jesus uses this word “woe” himself, announcing God’s displeasure at those Teachers of the Law, who (instead of helping) make things worse for God’s People. God has charged those in government and religious leadership with a high calling, because he cases so deeply for his people.  God loves his people, and he demands that those who lead must love them too. Love them enough to lead them well; love them enough to teach the Word of God.

This isn’t to completely exonerate the people, though! Although it is the leaders who led astray, the people went willingly, and so bring judgement upon themselves. Yet, in God’s economy, those who lead must bear a greater part of the responsibility. Speaking these words sends shivers down my spine – every time I stand up here, I ask you to trust me – I put myself under the judgement of God. We don’t have to look far to see leaders who put their own interests above the interests of those who they are called to serve – we can think of people in business, local politics, the church, or world leaders. They bear a heavy mantle, and so it is essential that we remember to pray for them.

And so, in this opening prophecy, we hear that God has set himself against the shepherds who misled the flock – and they are to be punished. The punishment that we hear of here is probably the punishment that God sent by the Babylonians, who invaded Israel and led God’s people away captive into exile. The prophet understands something of the bigger picture – the dreadful stuff that is going on, the invasions we thought about a moment ago, are all part of God’s plan for his people – everything is happening because God loves his people. Woe to the shepherds.

The second prophecy: vv3-4:  Mercy
We turn in our Bibles to verses 3&4, which we will read in a moment, we pause and think about God’s loving judgement, his loving anger at sin, and at those who seek to do harm, those who abandon their duties. Yet – that’s not the end of the story, Verses 3 & 4 say:
3“I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the countries where I have driven them and will bring them back to their pasture, where they will be fruitful and increase in number. I will place shepherds over them who will tend them, and they will no longer be afraid or terrified, nor will any be missing,” declares the Lord.
Here, we see God’s mercy, his love for his people take a different shape. God’s wrath and anger at the nation’s sin is poured out, and his purposes complete. Although nothing compelled him, he relented, and act of pure gracious love; his inexhaustible love. His deep, caring love for his people. God promises to bring his people, his remnant home. Although it was at his hand that the people were scattered for their sins, the consequence of their actions, it is God who brings them home.
It was God’s love that drove them away; as his love could not bear the mistreatment of his people, the bad leadership, and open the sin forever. God had to act, and he acted decisively by raising up foreign leaders, and permitting them to wage war – but only for a time.
‘Only for a time’ because it was God’s love that brings his people home again. Not merely home to ruins, desolation, and slavery, however. God brings his flock home so they can flourish, be fruitful, and increase in number. God wants good things for his people, because he loves them. For those who first heard these words, the Jews, this prophecy sounded like a promise to return to the Holy Land, to have new priests, and to have big families. Now, there is truth in that – as we see when the Jews return from exile – but for us as Christians the full picture is a bit different; as we will see – our understanding of blessing ties into who Jesus is, and what he did, and does, for us.

Third prophecy: vv5-6: Jesus
Finally we come to the third section of our passage this morning – the place where it all comes together. We have seen how God’s love for his people results in anger at sin, and bad leadership. We have thought about how God’s mercy and faithfulness to his people, and we recognised that, for the Church, God’s mercy and faithfulness expressed in Jesus. And so we read verses 5 & 6:
“The days are coming,” declares the Lord,
    “when I will raise up for David[
a] a righteous Branch,
a King who will reign wisely
    and do what is just and right in the land.
In his days Judah will be saved
    and Israel will live in safety.
This is the name by which he will be called:
    The Lord Our Righteous Saviour.
A few moments ago we thought about what the promises of God were understood to mean by some of those who first heard them; but now, with this promise of a King – the messiah – Jesus – King David’s heir, we can think about what those promises mean for us, God’s people, the church – those who respond in faith to the claims of Jesus.

We thought about ‘returning home’ and yet as Christians we recognise that we are truly home only in Jesus. We thought about the new priests to replace the evil leaders, but as Christians we know that our true priest -our true shepherd- is Jesus. And we thought about the growth of families, but for the church, our true family in Jesus – and it grows as we welcome people to respond in faith to Jesus.

God says that his people will no longer be afraid, or terrified – and we know that since Jesus has triumphed over death there is now no fear – even in the grave for those who are God’s people. We can see how Jesus, in this final prophecy fulfils God’s promised blessing for us- however- we need to delve deeper.

Jesus is the mercy of God, because in him, and in his cross, we see the judgement of God poured out against sin. Jesus fulfils the first prophecy, too. He was punished for our transgressions, for our sins. Jesus died to take the punishment for the sins of his people. The good Shepherd suffering like a wicked Shepherd, and prays “Father, forgive”. In Jesus, and only in Jesus do we see the love of God for his people displayed in perfect just judgement, and abounding gracious mercy.

To Conclude – We have thought about God’s love being shown in his judgement, and in his mercy – but these two come together perfectly in the person of Jesus Christ. I want us to think about whether we know that love of God, which wrought in judgement and mercy at the cross, brings us blessing, and saves us from fear – even fear of death. How can we know it? We can know, because in the words of Scripture he calls to us - warns us – loves us. So, let’s take that love upon ourselves, and offer ourselves and our lives in response.

Amen

Tuesday, 16 August 2016

Cranmer, Calvin, and a Godly Synod.

Just a brief post today, as I wanted to share a quotation which I stumbled across on Facebook.

It details part of an ongoing conversation between Thomas Cranmer - Archbishop and architect of the English Reformation - and John Calvin - famous for inventing Calvinism, which is not really true - concerning a 'godly synod' intended to oppose the Roman Catholic Council of Trent.

Here is the quotation (from Cranmer to Calvin):

"As nothing is more destructive to the church than heresies and disputes respecting the doctrines of religion, so nothing is more efficacious in gathering together the churches of God, or more powerfully strengthens the flock of Christ, than the uncorrupted doctrine of the gospel and agreement in opinion. Wherefore I have often desired, and still do desire, that learned and pious men who pass others in learning and judgment, should meet in some place free from danger, where by mutual deliberations and comparison of their opinions, they might consider all the points of ecclesiastical doctrine, so that by weighty authority they might hand down to posterity a work, not only rightly setting forth the doctrines themselves, but also the manner in which they should be expressed. Our adversaries now hold a council at Trent, endeavouring to establish errors, and shall we neglect to hold a godly synod, in which we may refute errors, correct erroneous doctrines, and set forth those things which are true? I am told that they are constructing decrees respecting the worship of the bread — surely we ought to use every means possible, not only to fortify others against this idolatry, but also that we ourselves may agree in doctrine respecting this sacrament. You must be well aware how much the dissensions and varieties of opinions respecting this sacrament of unity, have undermined and shaken the church of God. Although in some places these dissensions now no longer exist, yet I would wish for agreement concerning this doctrine, not only as to the matter itself, but also as to the words and manner of expression. I have now stated my desire, which I have also communicated to Melancthon and to Bullinger, and I entreat you to consider amongst yourselves in what manner such a synod may best be assembled. Farewell. From Lambeth, 20th March, 1552."

Your most beloved brother in Christ, Tm Cantuar."[1] 

[1]  Cranmer, Thomas. Writings of the Rev. Dr. Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury and Martyr, 1556. Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1842. 

Friday, 12 August 2016

Justification by Faith and Our Participation

Today's post grows out of my continued reading of Charles Raith's short, but reasonably dense, book Aquinas and Calvin on Romans: God's Justification and Our Participation. The title, as I am sure you will agree, is quite self explanatory. The work ostensibly moves through Paul's letter to the Romans as a way of discussing Aquinas' and Calvin's different readings of the text. The main two prongs of his argument being: first, Aquinas' position is, in fact, not the same as the "schoolmen" who provoked so much of Calvin's ire; secondly, Calvin's mind-set of competitive causality - that is to say, that human and divine causality are mutually exclusive - is flawed, and circumvented by Aquinas' participatory reading of Paul.

You might not be shocked to read that I disagree with this second point.

You may - depending on how much Aquinas you've read - not be shocked to read that, in many areas, Calvin and Aquinas are in profound agreement; both seeing themselves, in some respects, as heirs of Augustine. Both share the language of election, justification by faith, unmerited grace, &c.

Where, then, is the disagreement?

This is where we enter the discussion - which may seem, to many readers, akin to 'angels dancing on pinheads' - as to the way in which justification by faith 'works', particularly in relation to our longer-term hope of sanctification - that is to say, becoming more like Jesus.

Beginning with Aquinas - for no other reason than he was chronologically first - it is to say that justification, or a right standing before God, begins in God and has its outworking in our faith. Our faith becomes the way in which Christ's righteousness is 'infused' into us. In fine, something of Christ becomes something of us so that we in ourselves are made righteous in and of ourselves. We are made righteous before God in se. Being, therefore, made righteous people Aquinas understands our sanctification to be part of justification, not a second grace.

Moving to Calvin who says that the justification we receive by faith - a faith that, again, begins in the faithfulness of God - is more like a cloak, of sorts. His analogy is that we 'wear' Jesus' righteousness to cover our sinfulness - although we remain in ourselves sinful. This is a righteousness that is extra nos - outside of ourselves. We use the term 'imputed' here to mean 'ascribed'; Jesus' righteousness is imputed to us, we don't become righteous in se. This means, in an almost clinical way, that justification - a right standing before God - and sanctification - becoming more like Jesus - are distinct works of God for the believer.

Hopefully you are still with me - not long to go - I want to explore the implications of these two positions a little further.


Beginning again with Aquinas: because righteousness is 'infused' in us - and because, therefore we are righteous in se - we can do works that are good, in and of, themselves as they come from our transformed and newly righteous will. But - and here is the major downside - it also means that when we sin we damage the righteousness in us. Which - to conclude Aquinas for today - means we must either (1) participate in our salvation by good works, or (2) lose our salvation by sinning.

Things are completely different for Calvin, however. Because, here, we think of righteousness as a 'cloak' that covers us - whilst God slowly does the work of sanctification in us - our works are never good in se. We cannot, therefore participate in, or add to, the righteousness that is extra nos - outside of us, alien, and fully Christ's. The corollary to this is that when we sin - and we do sin - our sin cannot damage our righteousness, because it is not our own righteousness, it is fully Christ's.

This is why I remain convinced by Calvin's reading of Paul. Aquinas' ever repeating pattern of avoiding sin, sinning, restoration, avoiding sin, sinning, restoration, that forms the heartbeat of Thomist morality is alien to the gospel I know - the gospel where Christ came to save sinners. Calvin, conversely, presents Christ as a place to which I might flee; a refuge where I might hide; a righteousness upon which I can fully depend.

Isaiah 61:10 (ESV)
 I will greatly rejoice in the Lord;
    my soul shall exult in my God,
for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation;
    he has covered me with the robe of righteousness,
as a bridegroom decks himself like a priest with a beautiful headdress,
    and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.


 

Wednesday, 10 August 2016

Justification by Faith and Baptismal Regeneration

This week, I've been working through a little book on historical theology, particularly how - if at all - we participate in God's work of bringing about justification. This book, which is cited below, inevitably crosses the issue of baptism. This is following a fascinating Formulary Friday post by Tom Woolford over on the Church Society Blog, which concerned a particular phrase in the Book of Common Prayer Baptismal Service:

"seeing now this child is regenerate"

There is much that can be said about the way that Anglican theology has been, and continues in certain quarters, to be shaped by both the over-arching theological themes found in the formularies, and the specific phraseology found that seems to run contrary to the grain of the whole. This conversation, however, is helpful as it allows a vital context for other conversations to take place.

It is in this vital context that I want to explore Calvin's Causal Schema offered contra to the Council of Trent,[1] wherein - leaning on an Aristotelian fourfold division of causality - he argues that the causation in play, concerning justification by faith alone by grace alone, should be understood as follows:

  1. The Efficient Cause - The Mercy of God
  2. The Meritorious Cause - Christ
  3. The Instrumental Cause - Baptism ("the Sacrament of Faith")
  4. The Formal Cause - The Righteousness of God (in that he makes us righteous) [2]
Elsewhere Calvin seems to drop baptism as the instrumental cause, focusing solely on faith, our faith, as the instrumental cause by which justification is brought about [3] yet, even there he argues that baptism is conductive to our faith in God. [4] So for Calvin, faith without baptism seems almost unthinkable.

This 'both/and' approach to baptism and faith finds itself expressed within the 39 articles

"Baptism is not only a sign of profession, and mark of difference, whereby Christian men are discerned from others that be not christened, but it is also a sign of Regeneration or New-Birth, whereby, as by an instrument, they that receive Baptism rightly are grafted into the Church; the promises of the forgiveness of sin, and of our adoption to be the sons of God by the Holy Ghost, are visibly signed and sealed, Faith is confirmed, and Grace increased by virtue of prayer unto God."[5]
Although the detailed work of presenting a fourfold causal schema is not undertaken here (and rightly not so, as I suspect a strict  aristotelianism cannot be found within the pages of scripture), and yet we see clearly this notion of instrumentality.

However, and here is the crux, "they that receive Baptism rightly".

We are not to infer that this is a point that appertains to the worthiness of the minister; rather I would contend those that receive baptism as a sign and seal of the grace which is given in the elect, are those who receive baptism rightly.

Sunday, 31 July 2016

Evensong 31 July - Psalm 95


Introduction:

What is God like, and how should we respond?

Two big questions.

These are two very big questions for fifteen minutes on a Sunday evening.

Theologians, philosophers, thinkers, and I’m sure all of us have spent time asking these two questions.


So before we begin to look at the psalm in more detail, let us pray:

        Heavenly Father...

The psalms were written by people who spent their lives trying to answer these questions as best they could. Through them, and through their words, God offers us answers to the big questions like “what is God like, and how should we respond”. This psalm is no different, it answers the first question: “what is God like” by telling us ‘God is our sovereign Creator and he is our shepherd’. The second question: How should we respond? The psalm says ‘We should worship and listen to his voice’. And what does his voice tell us? It tells us not to harden our hearts and rebel against him, because if we do – we will not enter his rest.

God is Creator and shepherd; we should worship and listen; God tells us not to harden our hearts.

So, by way of an overview: you may have noticed that Psalm 95, is a psalm of two halves.

The first half (verses 1-7) is an exhortation, or an encouraging command to, worship. In this first section, God is the sovereign creator who has saved a people for himself. Although this refers back to the saving of the people of Israel from Egypt, it is no less true for us who have been saved from sin by the cross. It says also He is a shepherd to his flock, again, we understand that to mean he shepherds those who seek him by faith, the church.

The second half (verses 7-11) is God’s warning to us not to harden our hearts, not to make demands of him just because we are, outwardly, a part of the people of God.

Let’s take a few minutes to look at the detail.

First point (verses 1-7) – Praise and Worship

The psalm takes us on something of a ‘spiritual journey’, not unlike our service this evening. And it does so, beginning in verse one and two where the psalmist encourages us in our singing.

I’m pleased to say that I think you have all taken his command to heart, because I think we’ve all excelled in singing for joy to the LORD this evening. But, we aren’t gathered as a ‘singing club’, are we? Likewise, the psalmist doesn’t just tell us we should worship the LORD in song and thanksgiving, he tells us why we should. And, it is quite straight forward looking at verses 3-5:

 “for the LORD is the Great God, the great King above all gods”.

Now, are there other gods? Many people in the ancient world when this psalm was written simply accepted that there were. They knew that other nations worshipped multitudes – perhaps they were “real”? The psalmist doesn’t entertain the discussion. even if there were other gods, the LORD is the King over all. He is the great God. And so, it is not hard for us to see our modern gods in the same light – perhaps the most popular of these, money, or success, or anything that distracts us from a life of discipleship – a life following Jesus -  we have made into a god. We have worshipped it. We have committed idolatry. But, when we compare our little gods, money, success, anything, to the Great God the LORD we see that our gods are no gods at all. We should worship as a response when we recognise who God is, and what he is like.

The psalmist takes us on further – we have sung and given thanks (verses 1-2), we have been confronted with the greatness of God and our duty to respond to him in praise (verses 3-5) – now the psalmist calls us deeper into worship. We are to bow ourselves down, to kneel before him, but not out of fear. Rather, we are to do so as we recognise his care for us. Verse 7 tells us that we the Church (the Israel of God) are the flock under his care. God is frequently thought of as shepherd in the Bible – Perhaps most famously in Psalm 23 The Lord is my Shepherd, but also when Jesus calls himself the Good Shepherd in the gospels. God cares for us, and this is cause to praise, but also cause to listen to his voice. Jesus says not only that he is the Good Shepherd, but also that his sheep know his voice.

And so, finally in this first half of the psalm, the psalmist culminates in a plea for those who hear the psalm to listen to the voice, or the message of God. This is in the end of verse 7: “O that today you would listen to his voice!”.

Second Point (verses 7-11)– God’s Voice, God’s Warning

We have been called to hear the voice of God. And that is the purpose of a sermon or a Bible study, to hear God speak from the pages of scripture. And just in case we were in any doubt as to the content of God’s message, the second half of this psalm from verse 8, is a summary of what God has to say to us.  It can be thought of as a summary of the witness of the Old Testament. “Do not harden your hearts as at Meribah, as on the day at Massah in the wilderness”.

To be honest with you, I had to look these two places up! How often is it that we fail to understand the Bible fully because we simply haven’t spent enough time exploring the stories, looking at the people, the events, the places, and seeing how God has worked through all of them. To get to the bottom of this we need to find Exodus 17:7 – jot it down if you are taking notes, it is worth a look later  – a biblical concordance would have sent you there, or a good commentary on the text.

Reading from the start of the chapter, we hear of a quarrel that broke out among the Israelites and Moses. The people of God had recently been freed from slavery in Egypt by mighty miracles, and led away to safety, but they still demanded more. They demanded water by miraculous sign. They doubted God, and tested him. Even those they were visibly within the people of God, their hearts had not learned to trust God as their rock. And so, the place was called Massah which means testing, and Meribah which means contention. They had Moses strike a rock to produce water, which they thought would save them from thirst. But they were foolish and stubborn because the Lord is the rock of our salvation. We heard that in verse one, and as the ancient Israelites needed to be reminded, so do we. It is no different now, for the people of God, the Church. We might be visibly “in”, but we have failed to grow in trust and faith, because we have not yet learned to see who God is, and we have not yet listened to his voice.


Conclusion

Do we put God to the test? Are our hearts so hardened that we do not believe he rewards those who seek him by, as Hebrews 11:6 tells us in no uncertain terms. We must learn to trust the providence of God, his forward planning. We can trust him because we can know what he is like. We saw that in the first half of the psalm. He is the great God, who makes a people for himself to shepherd.  In the Old Testament he did this by at the exodus; in the New Testament we see him completing this work on the cross.  

He shepherds his people, and speaks to them by his word. And when he speaks to his people, he warns them. He warns them so that they might return to him. He warns them not to harden their hearts, and refuse to obey because in so doing they miss out on entering into his rest.

This is serious stuff, but we must not forget: The voice of God that calls to us from this psalm this is cause to rejoice. God wants us to turn to him in joy and worship, with humble hearts, so that we may enter into his rest. So come Let us shout aloud to the rock of our salvation  - Amen

 

 

Thursday, 2 June 2016

A Homily for Justin Martyr: 1 Corinthians 1:18-25

Justin, who we remember today, was a prominent Christian apologist, living, working, and worshipping among the first few generations of Christians. Born at Flavia Neapolis, about A.D. 100, Justin converted to Christianity at around thirty years of age. He taught and defended the Christian religion in Asia Minor and at Rome, where he suffered martyrdom about the year 165. Of his theological work two "Apologies" bearing his name and his "Dialogue with the Jew Tryphon" have come down to us.

We have an account of Justin’s trail, which includes an exchange between Justin and the Roman prefect:


The Prefect Rusticus says: If you do not obey, [that is obey the command to sacrifice to pagan gods] you will be tortured without mercy.

Justin replies: “That is our desire, to be tortured for Our Lord, Jesus Christ, and so to be saved, for that will give us salvation and firm confidence at the more terrible universal tribunal of Our Lord and Saviour.”

          So, let us pray:

I am going to talk about Justin’s martyrdom as wisdom in the economy of God. For that, we will focus on a particular line from St Paul, found at verse 23 of our reading from Corinthians, (you may wish to have it in front of you): 'but we preach Christ Crucified'. But first, it serves to think a little about Paul’s letter and its value for us. I think there are three particular reasons we must sit up and take note:
First: this letter really was written to us in a particularly explicit way. If we look at the opening salutation, unlike most of Paul’s letters that were written to a place, or an individual, this was written to all Christians. That is in verse 2, if you want to check.
Secondly: this letter concerns, broadly, the Church as the Body of Christ. As we meet to read the scriptures, and to celebrate the Lord’s Supper, we meet as his Body, and so this letter speaks directly into our congregational life.
Thirdly: Paul deals with, in this letter particularly within this opening chapter, those who would fracture this Body – this is a concern of universal and eternal value, as we struggle today with various divisions.
Paul proposes an answer to this problem, however. He wants us to cling not to our pet theologians – even our favourite 16th Century ones – and cling instead to the Cross of Christ, verse 23. This Cross, Paul says, is godly wisdom for those who are called, verse 24. But foolishness to those who are not of God, verse 18. Paul wants us to find our unity as a Body in the suffering body of Jesus.
"We preach Christ crucified."

I sometimes tell the story about a chapel, surrounded by ivy, which had that verse written above the door.
 
The ivy grew, and covered the words, and as it did so it mirrored what was going on in the chapel. So after a while the ivy grew and it said: "We preach Christ" – and Jesus was there in the preaching, they were Christocentric, but the New Testament's focus on the cross had been lost. And then after a while, it said, "We preach" – and there was a pulpit ministry, but increasingly moralistic and not much about Jesus. And then in the end it just said "We" – and they had become a social club.
I will be honest with you. This chapel does not exist.

I talk, of course, about the Church and her faithlessness to the message of the gospel: to preach Christ crucified. At one level, we shouldn't be surprised. The cross, to the unregenerate mind, is folly. It is loss. It is to be derided. Everything in the secular imagination cries out against the value of the cross of Christ.
Likewise, Justin's martyrdom is not to be valued in earthly terms. There is nothing good, or moral, about his death, or even any death. Had Justin lived, perhaps we would have had greater works of theology, much more to study.
But, no.
The world may make demands of us to conform to their pattern of wisdom; oftentimes the church will, too. Inevitably, part of our time here does just that. But we must not forget: Godly wisdom is the participation in the death of Christ. By his martyrdom, Justin became a teacher of this profound mystery.

 Amen.

 

Saturday, 26 March 2016

Easter Day - A Homily: John 20:1-9

Introduction:

Good morning, Happy Easter, it is a great joy for me to be with you this morning, and to get the opportunity to open the Scriptures with you. I last preached here four weeks ago, and then we spoke about how time was short before Easter, and the need to prepare ourselves spiritually. I said that we needed soberly to take stock of our lives. Well, I have a confession, this morning. I have failed to do that. Frankly, I am not sure that it is even possible to prepare oneself, properly and adequately, for Easter. We will see in this morning’s reading that the disciples were not ready. The resurrection of Jesus took them by complete surprise. In the sermon we will also think about the wondrous “new creation” that flows from Jesus resurrection. And finally we will think about the challenge that faces the disciples, and faces us. The challenge to see and believe; that believing we might have life in his name.

So, let us pray:

Heavenly Father, we thank you for the gift of your son Jesus Christ, Light of the World, and Word of God. Speak to us now that Word. Amen.

Homily:

St John begins this morning’s reading by telling us that it was “very early on the first day of the week, and still dark”. John is doing something clever here; he is weaving together ideas from other places in the Bible. He is trying to get us to think, to think about what the Bible has always taught, and what the Bible might be teaching now. We can see that light and darkness are such powerful themes throughout the Bible, particularly here in the Gospel of St John. At the beginning of his gospel, the part we often hear at Christmas, John calls Jesus the light of the world. He says that Jesus, the light of the world, came into the darkness. And that the darkness did not understand the light. And that is, very much, where this morning’s gospel passage begins. The darkness of human sin, the darkness of hate, greed, the darkness of broken relationship with each other and with God, has had its way. The Darkness of Sin has killed the Light of the World.
Darkness seems to have had its victory. And, whilst it was still dark, Mary Magdalene goes to visit the tomb.

She goes with a small group of other women. But John wants us to focus on Mary, on her story, as she comes to the fore to pass on the most important message in history. We cannot be entirely sure of her motivation for visiting the tomb so early. Perhaps she went to anoint the body; perhaps to weep; perhaps just to sit close to her lord. Whatever the reason, we find her there; in that garden of graves; in the dark; on that cold first day of the week.

The language of Darkness appears elsewhere in the bible, as does this focus on the day. Note how John tells us that it is the first day of the week. This is a small but important detail in the story, where John wants us to take note of the creative work of God. For him, resurrection parallels creation. So this passage harks back to the story in Genesis:

“In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, 2 the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. 3 Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. 4 And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. 5 God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.”

Unwittingly, Mary finds herself caught up in the “first day” of a new creation. Everything is being made new around her. But, she can’t yet see it. All she can see is the empty tomb, the darkness, the deep. She cannot yet feel that wind from God that is carving out day from night; and calling her and the world into the first day of the new creation; the first day of resurrection.

Mary, oblivious at this stage to the work of God going on around her, runs. In confusion, and sadness, she runs to get the other disciples; Peter and ‘the one whom Jesus loved’. She says to them:

‘They have taken the Lord out of the tomb and we don’t know where they have put him.’ 

The two men hear this and, shaken, run to the tomb to investigate. The beloved disciple is first to arrive but it required Peter, true to form, to enter the sepulchre. He blusters in, and speechless, surveys the empty tomb. The beloved disciple follows. He sees the grave cloths (it must be getting light by this point) the bandages, strips of linen that had swaddled Jesus tightly as he lay dead in the tomb remaking the Sabbath rest, discarded.

This could be no grave robbery.

No overzealous gardener.

Something new was happening.

The Gospel tells us that “he saw and he believed. Till this moment they had failed to understand the teaching of scripture, that he must rise from the dead.” Things are beginning to make sense to the Beloved disciple. Jesus had said “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” But the Bible tells us that time and again “they did not understand what he meant and were afraid to ask him about it.”

You see, the disciples were not expecting this. No-one was expecting this. Everyone in the ancient world knew this one simple fact – the dead do not come back to life. Some, but by no means all, within the Jewish religion had developed an idea that in some future “age to come” after the end of earthly history it might be possible. But not now. Not here. Not like this. Not in the middle of history, in a borrowed grave, for a man who died a criminal’s death.

And yet, here it was, staring them in the face. Only now would could they see and believe. And so it stares us in the face, too. Will we take this chance to see and believe? The empty tomb, the reality of Jesus resurrection challenges us to take seriously the claims of the man who said “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” But who also said: "Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you".

The empty tomb that stands before us this morning speaks to us of the new creation that God is making; beginning in Jesus and overflowing to us; but, it also stands as a challenge to us. Will we dismiss the empty tomb and close our eyes to the resurrected Christ who calls us to live a different sort of life, a resurrection life now, trusting in him for eternity. Or will we hear that call, and by faith uproot ourselves and run with Peter and the beloved disciple to stand in awe before that empty tomb. Will we see and believe?

John, at the end of his Gospel says this: “these have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name.” Gaze with me, this morning, into the empty tomb. See, and believe, just as the disciples did all those years ago. Place your trust in him, I pray. The tomb is empty, and he stands poised to meet with you. Place your trust in him, and as we gather around the Table with expectant hearts, feed on him by faith, feed on him who is alive forevermore.

Amen.