THE RENEWAL BEGINS TO UNFOLD

Sermon delivered on Easter Day the 27th March 2016 by Bishop Nicholas JG Sykes in the congregation of St. Alban's Church of England, George Town, Cayman Islands.

Scriptures: Isaiah 65:17-25     Acts 10:34-43     S. Luke 24: 1 -12

Acts 10: 40 “But God raised him up on the third day and made him appear, not to all the people but to us who had been chosen by God as witnesses, who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead.”

As I have noted before over the years at Easter, it is sometimes said in theological circles that the Church of England is an Incarnation and Christmas-type Church, and that the Roman Catholics are a Passion and Crucifixion-type Church, and that the Eastern Churches are Resurrection and Ascension-type Churches. This characterisation comes about because of the emphasis that outsiders may have perceived that the respective groups place on these core doctrines of the Christian Faith, and the characteristic symbolism with which they teach it. It can hardly be denied that the symbolism of the Church of Rome has predominantly been expressed through crucifixes and the imitation of the Cross and Passion of our Lord. The symbolism of the Eastern Church is expressed in the great icons and paintings of the resurrected and ascended Christ, the Pantocrator, the Ruler of all, and in their general view of the church sanctuary as an icon of the eternal and heavenly places. Anglicanism does indeed try to place emphasis on the idea of the Church as an extension of the incarnation of our Lord, and living the Christian life in the context of the here and now, and perhaps because of that emphasis we have not always had as strong a grasp as we should upon the fact and doctrine of the Resurrection of Christ; and connected to that, perhaps, in English-speaking societies Christmas Day has usually had more of a general impact on society than has Easter.

In an Episcopalian theological school I attended forty years ago there was a professor whom I respected highly who insisted on teaching (to my dismay then and now) that the Resurrection of the Lord could just as well be understood as symbolic rather than factual. In general, this point of view argues that after the death of Christ on the Cross, the followers of Christ gradually began to see that death not in terms of the horror of it, but in terms of God working out His purpose for the redemption of mankind through it. They show us that in S. John's Gospel the lifting up of Christ is described as a manifestation of God's glory. So they reason that this glory that was manifested through Christ on the Cross became gradually describable in the collective mind of the Church as a “rising again” of the crucified one. I believe this view has seen a decline in scholarly acceptance in more recent times, but I suppose there are more than a few who still have this general view of the Resurrection to this day.

However, there have been some notable sceptics who when they subjected the evidence for the factual or bodily Resurrection to vigorous scrutiny, have become believers in it. Those who use S. John’s writings as pointers in the direction of not believing in the Resurrection as bodily and factual appear to ignore the witness in the same said writings that it was S. John himself who was the first of the Twelve actually to believe that Christ rose from the dead. St. Luke’s writings, which are his Gospel and the book of Acts, were intended to provide an orderly account of the various narratives of eyewitnesses and ministers of the word, so that people might know the truth about those things. S. Luke clearly had no doubt whatever that Jesus’ Resurrection was factual, and moreover that during His ministry to Israel Jesus taught his disciples that He was going to rise again on the Third Day at the same time that He taught them He was going to be rejected by the authorities and to suffer death.

S. Luke also is among those authors who show us very clearly that it was not an optimistic set of followers who came to reinterpret the very difficult death of Christ as a good thing and then subsequently wrote the Resurrection in to their interpretation. Rather, there was a devastated, disheartened and disappointed group of erstwhile followers, who when they were first told of or shown the mighty signs of the rolled back stone and the empty tomb, could not at first bring themselves to accept the extraordinary evidence of Christ’s Rising. We are told that a number of women going to the tomb early on Sunday morning to anoint the body, even though they would have had to have help to get into the sealed tomb, first to their surprise found the stone rolled away and then to their utter perplexity, found the body missing, though they had seen how it had been laid there just a few hours previously. According to the account, they needed supernatural assistance to be reminded that he had actually told his followers while he was still in Galilee, “that the Son of man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and on the third day rise.” When they remembered this, they went and told the apostles and others, but these words, S. Luke records, seemed to these close followers to be an idle tale, and they did not believe them.

Now, we know from St. Luke’s other great book, the Acts of the Apostles, and S. Paul’s writings and S. John’s and others, that by the end of the first day, the belief in the factual and bodily Resurrection had become firmly established in the minds of a small number. And, as S. Luke records in Acts (ch 10), Peter was soon preaching “But God raised him up on the third day and made him appear, not to all the people but to us who had been chosen by God as witnesses, who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead.” It must be clearly asserted that this belief in the resurrection of Jesus, by the evidence of the writings before us, was foundational to the understanding that the death of Jesus manifested the glory of God. It was never that the manifestation of the glory of God in the death of Christ ever preceded a belief in the Resurrection. Nevertheless, today is Easter Day, and it is well for us to recall that for most of that first Easter Day many of Jesus' disciples, especially the wider circle of them, did not yet believe in what we commemorate now. This shows us that to believe in the Resurrection is not a natural or an easy process. It wasn’t so for the first disciples, and it had to be almost forced upon them by the evidence before them. We should not therefore expect such a belief to be easily established in people today. So it is that not a few people will believe that there was a Christmas but may balk at Easter. I believe though that there comes a time in the life of every true Christian that he is impelled to believe that Christ’s Resurrection is foundational for his whole structure of Christian belief; and we should take note of the fact that this is a repeat in our own time of the earliest disciples’ experience. Perhaps then we Westerners must admit that the Eastern Christians are right to emphasise the most foundational of all the Christian doctrines. For by the evidence both of Scripture and history, it is when we get the Resurrection right, that only then can we get the Atonement and the Incarnation right as well.

Halleluiah! Christ is risen!
He is risen indeed! Halleluiah!