Tuesday, 21 April 2015

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Monday, 6 April 2015

Easter Homily

It’s Easter Day - and this is the call we hear today:

Are there any who are devout lovers of God?
Let them enjoy this beautiful bright festival!

Are there any who are grateful servants?
Let them rejoice and enter into the joy of their Lord!

Are there any weary with fasting?
Let them now receive their wages!

“Let them now receive their wages!” In the Lent study course we’ve been following this year the session which provoked the most discussion was the one where we read Jesus’ Parable of the Labourers in the Vineyard. That’s the story where a vineyard owner is looking for workers who will harvest his grapes. From the first hour of the working day to the last he keeps sending out to find more workers. At the end of the day he pays them. He starts with those he took on last who had worked only an hour - but he pays them for the whole day. And so he goes on until he comes to those who have laboured all day - right through the heat of the middle of the day. And he pays them the same, the day’s wage. At which they get quite upset: why had the owner paid them only the same as those who had worked just six hours or three hours or only one hour? We had quite a discussion of this - and there was considerable sympathy for their point of view. Of course, you could point out that the people who had worked all day had agreed their wage - right at the start their employer had said he would pay them for a day’s work. But when he pays all the others the same it simply has to be admitted - it’s just not fair.

Don’t expect this parable to be used by any of our politicians who are currently talking about rewarding “hard-working families.” Nor those who talk about seeing that benefits and taxes are adjusted to give proper reward to “deserving UK citizens.” As someone who would finally fail dramatically to gain the votes of the public Jesus got it wrong - we hear that from the crowd on Good Friday when they call for him to be crucified. With parables like this one - and the Sermon on the Mount for a manifesto - Jesus evidently had no political nous. And far from exalting the virtues of the deserving hard worker, he judges us finally as to how good we are at going to help the most despised in society: whether we feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, visit the sick and prisoner - and do this without regard to any Social Benefit sanctions which might justly have been imposed,… without regard to their failure to measure up to disability guidelines,… even reaching out to those whose crimes deserve only punishment.

And that’s the point of Easter. The Resurrection shows that the truth of the Gospel is not good news only for those who deserve it. It’s simply Good News. You might feel you get more out of Easter Day if you came to every service we had in Holy Week - I’d love to tell you that! But the Good News that Christ is risen from the dead is true however long ago you reminded yourself that really you ought to do something about drawing close to him.

“If any of you would be my disciple, then take up your Cross and follow me.” That’s the rather forbidding invitation we hear at the beginning of Lent and throughout Passiontide. But now that we are here anyway there’s just one truth for everyone, however long we have been on the journey. As the hymn puts it:

Lo! Jesus meets us,
Risen, from the tomb;
Lovingly He greets us,
Scatters fear and gloom…

The risen Christ is here for us all. Those words with which I began are attributed to St. John Chrysostom and read in every Orthodox Church at Easter. They go on:

If any have toiled from the first hour,
let them receive their due reward;
If any have come after the third hour,
let him with gratitude join in the Feast!
And he that arrived after the sixth hour,
let him not doubt; for he too shall sustain no loss.
And if any delayed until the ninth hour,
let him not hesitate; but let him come too.
And he who arrived only at the eleventh hour,
let him not be afraid by reason of his delay.
For the Lord is gracious and receives the last even as the first.
He gives rest to him that comes at the eleventh hour,
as well as to him that toiled from the first.

We simply have to believe it!

So what do we find this morning? What do the first disciples find? St. Mark’s Gospel - which we read today - tells us that the first disciples to witness the Resurrection are women: Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Salome, who go to anoint the body of Jesus where they had seen it laid in the tomb. But they find the tomb is empty. The stone has been rolled away. There is just an unidentified young man dressed in white sitting beside it.

That is St. Mark’s account of the Resurrection - except repeatedly to tell us that the emotion the women feel on discovering the empty tomb is not joy but fear. “… they were alarmed,” he tells us. The young man says, “Do not be alarmed.” They flee in “terror and amazement.” And they say nothing, “for they were afraid.”

That’s where the Gospel ends. It’s where we stop today. There are more verses in our Bibles but it seems these were added later. For St. Mark, this is it. An abrupt ending - he even ends his final sentence with a preposition, a word that translates as “for” or “because.” “… for they were afraid.” We might put it, “they were afraid, because…”

And yet here is the truth of Christ’s Resurrection, the vindication of his teaching, his listening, his work of healing, his love and his readiness finally to die upon the Cross. Here is the beginning of that strange institution which has now endured for 2,000 years called “the Church.” From this instant there are all the other instants which have followed in which his disciples would encounter the risen Jesus in the flesh or know his Resurrection as a truth which changes them and gives meaning to their lives.

Is it a problem that the story ends so abruptly? The other Gospel writers tell us how Mary Magdalene would meet the risen Christ in a garden near the tomb. Other disciples discover him to be a companion as they walk along the road. Those who would be called the Apostles encounter him as he comes to them through locked doors in a room in Jerusalem or meets them by the lakeside in Galilee.

But Mark simply stops - with all the emotions churning for those women who first found the tomb to be empty. And that is enough. In time they will understand. The same Mark who breaks off without going on to give us accounts of the Resurrection is the man who has already recorded Jesus telling the disciples that he would go up to Jerusalem, that there he would be betrayed, condemned to death, but then that he would rise from the dead. Now they know it to be true. The implications are fearful. For them and for us - but we are invited to grow in that truth.

It would take more than another 350 years before John Chrysostom would set his understanding of the Resurrection in terms of worship and praise:

Let no one mourn that he has fallen again and again;
for forgiveness has risen from the grave.

Let no one fear death, for the Death of our Saviour has set us free.
He has destroyed it by enduring it.
He destroyed Hell when He descended into it …

Hell took a body, and discovered God.
It took earth, and encountered Heaven.
It took what it saw, and was overcome by what it did not see.

O death, where is thy sting?
O Hell, where is thy victory?

Christ is Risen, and you, O death, are annihilated!
Christ is Risen, and the evil ones are cast down!
Christ is Risen, and the angels rejoice!
Christ is Risen, and life is liberated!

Christ is Risen, and the tomb is emptied of its dead;
for Christ having risen from the dead,
is become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep.

To Him be Glory and Power forever and ever. Amen!