WITNESSING TO HIS GLORIOUS LIFE

Sermon delivered on the Third Sunday after Easter (Easter 3), the 17th April 2016 by Bishop Nicholas JG Sykes in the congregation of St. Alban's Church of England, George Town, Cayman Islands in the service of the Holy Eucharist.

Scriptures: Acts 9: 36-43     Revelation 7: 9-17     S. John 10: 22-30

S. John 22: 23f Jesus was walking in the temple. ... So the Jews gathered round him and said to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Christ, tell us plainly?”

Some time after Easter in the Cayman Islands there is always the Batabanoo Carnival, though I suppose because Easter was early I have heard little of that so far this year. A feature of all carnivals is the costume or the mask. Perhaps the attraction of dressing up and putting on a mask is an attempt to escape the restrictions of one’s own circumstances and personality, and to become for a short time something or someone that real life denies to us. Within that changed persona one can feel free in certain ways that violate the norms of our regular lot in life. The time comes soon enough when the costume and the mask have to be taken off, and the release from the dictates of reality must come to a close.

The witness of the apostles to the resurrection of Jesus Christ is a witness to something that, like the effect of an event of pageantry or even some occasion of profound shock, seems to expand our normal reality, and yet, the apostolic testimony is that, unlike most such events, this is one that does not fade away. On the one hand the event of pageantry or festival or concert is an episode, perhaps an important one, that occurs within the confines of our existence; and the ordinary norms of real life that someone might have transcended as a participant in the event are still there when the event is over. On the other hand, the apostolic testimony to the Resurrection of our Lord shows that in this fact we have a Life revealed that establishes a fresh set of norms for all life. The dimensions of real life can never be the same again. What we thought was real life before, becomes an old costume when we measure it against the reality of the new norms. These new norms face down the old norms of guilt and condemnation and inadequacy with a redemption that has been effected, a ransom that has been paid, a blood poured out from a sacrifice that cleanses, a Christ that suffered death on our behalf, and a life that triumphs over death, a life of immeasurably greater dimensions than the biblical threescore years and ten or fourscore years of human life upon the earth. This life is the abundant Resurrection life of Jesus Christ.

The lessons from Acts and from Revelation testify to the Resurrection Life of Christ in contrasting ways, Revelation having the perspective of a vision of life after we die, and Acts describing the perspective of a restoration of life before we die. St. John the Divine’s vision describes a great multitude of worshippers from every nation before the throne of God and before the Lamb joining with the heavenly beings, the angels and the 24 elders and the four living creatures, in expressing praise and thanks and worship, and ascribing all salvation to God and to the Lamb. The multitude of worshippers from the nations of the earth are clothed in white robes, a symbol of resurrection glory, and holding palm branches, an expression of victory and gladness after war. It is explained to the visionary that these have “come out of the great tribulation”. They were persecuted to death on earth, as so many to this day are being persecuted. They were faithful to Christ, for, it is stated, they washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb, and now all their hunger and their thirst is assuaged, their pain is relieved and their sorrows are turned to joy. These escaped from death in the sense that although they died to the earth they are not dead, but rather live with great fulfilment and blessedness, “for the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd.”

The book of the Acts of the Apostles, on the other hand, includes a number of extraordinary miracles, among them several accounts of healings and even of a few people raised from the dead. The context of all of these wonders is the life and healing that flows from the Risen Christ. Perhaps many of the earliest Christians thought it was possible that Jesus would return before any of them died, and so the restoration to life of Tabitha (that we heard about in our first Lesson) would be a vindication to them of their faith. Even in modern times there are accounts of miracles as extraordinary as this. If we believe in the Resurrection of Christ, as we are bound to as Christians, it would be foolish to disbelieve utterly the possibility of someone being returned to life on earth, very rare though we would probably expect it to be. We are not told whether Tabitha herself, remembered for her acts of great industry and helpfulness (and therefore perhaps thought of by St. Alban’s as the patron saint of Church Mice), would have herself wanted to be brought back to life on earth rather than enjoy a life of fulfilment and blessedness in heaven. Perhaps she identified with S. Paul’s view in Philippians 1: 21ff: “To me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If it is to be life in the flesh, that means fruitful labour for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account.” Perhaps that is rather what Tabitha might have thought too.

In the Gospels Jesus is not so much shown as pressing the claims of His Messiahship or His divine Sonship on people, as challenging them to recognise what their own deepest heart and soul know Him to be. I am regularly reminded during Holy Week that this might be the implication of Jesus’ answers to His accusers as to whether He was a king, or whether He was the Christ, when He answered in the form “Thou hast said it”, or “You say that I am”. The force of these answers was to pierce into those parts of the souls of His accusers that really did in fact recognise Him, though they did not have the courage to admit to such belief, for fear of their being set at odds with their own circumstances and those they were answerable to. In our Gospel today, Jesus’ hecklers taunt Him to tell them clearly whether or not He is the Christ, and in return, Jesus challenges them to think about the things He has done to their certain knowledge. “In what I have done,” He challenges them, “Do you recognise me?” For it is this recognition that separates the true disciple, the true member of the flock, from one who however vocal he might be, has not yet become a friend of God; and with that recognition, says Jesus, if it is inwardly and outwardly acknowledged, and its implications bravely followed, he has safety to eternity. A major feature of the Resurrection accounts also is recognition. Jesus does not assert His claim with compulsion, but He shows them who He is by His wounds or by an action such as blessing and breaking bread. About the raising of Tabitha, St. Luke records that it became known throughout Joppa and many believed in the Lord. This shows they recognised the Lord’s hand, rather than just Peter’s, behind the event.

His Presence and Power with us now, in Eastertide 2016, may be recognised in His works with you, with me and with the church. Do you acknowledge that with this Presence and this Power there is a new set of norms for all of life, and in particular for your own life? Indeed there is a fundamental clash of ideas now taking place throughout our Western civilisation, a clash that has reached our own Cayman Islands, and the side that you and I will finally come down on in this war of ideas, depends upon our response to that very question, whether we acknowledge that with this Presence and this Power there is a new set of norms for all of life, and in particular for our own life. The human and divine drama that you and I are now engaged in is no light-hearted comedy. It is nothing other than the pursuit of the true reality, or (to describe it another way) the dramatically real truth, flowing from the abundant life of the Risen Christ Himself. Let us then indeed be wholehearted followers of this glorious Way.