Here is today’s sermon. It’s slightly shorter than usual, because it was preached in an all age communion service. I have left in the references to where the PowerPoint slides fall. If you would like to see the PowerPoint, please email me via the contact page.
There’s one word that stuck out for me in the Easter story this year. It’s not a word you would expect when Easter usually makes us happy.
[SLIDE 2] The word is ‘fear’. What makes us afraid? Suggestions?
There are two groups of people who are afraid in the reading. The soldiers are afraid when the angel appears, rolls away the stone and perches on top of it (verse 4). And the women who go to the tomb are afraid when they arrive (verse 5) and afraid when they leave (verse 8).
Today we’ll think about those two groups of people – the soldiers and the women – and why they were afraid. This will help us understand the importance of the Easter story for us.
Firstly, the soldiers. You can’t blame them for being afraid, can you? It’s not every day that an angel shows up at your place of work and undoes everything you are trying to protect.
Think about what the angel did. In the verses of Matthew’s Gospel just before today’s reading, we hear how the religious authorities asked Pontius Pilate to make the tomb of Jesus secure so that the body could not be stolen. Pilate agrees, and as well as posting some soldiers to guard the tomb, he has a seal put on the stone (Matthew 27:62-66).
We need to think about that seal. What kind of seal was it? Was it this kind of seal? [SLIDE 3]
No: it was a wax seal, like this one [SLIDE 4]. It was the seal of the Roman Emperor, rather like the way even today we put wax seals on legal documents. The seal of the Roman Emperor was not to be broken. Effectively it said, “No-one should tamper with this – on pain of death!”
Well, it’s a good job angels aren’t too worried about the laws of the empire and the penalties for breaking them. And the fear of the guards isn’t just their fear at this sudden, unexpected supernatural act. It’s the fear of empires. It’s the sign that governments and powerful institutions need to fear the kingdom of God.
What do I mean? Well, all sorts of organisations and institutions behave as if they have the final say in the world. Dictators. Governments. Armies. Powerful companies. The media – television stations, newspapers, Internet giants. They think they run our world. They think they can’t be stopped.
[SLIDE 5] Kim Jong-Un can do his worst in North Korea. He can even send his henchmen into a London barber’s shop that mocked his instruction that all men have to have the same haircut as him. But one day he will answer to God.
[SLIDE 6] Rupert Murdoch can run his media empire. His journalists can listen to people’s private mobile phone messages, and his newspapers can print photos that degrade women, but one day he will have to bow down to the God who bursts open sealed tombs.
You name them. If they have power in this world – even and especially big power – then the angel at the tomb reminds them that their power will not last forever. They can do all sorts of things now, but on Easter Day we laugh at their power, because we know who has ultimate power and who gets the last laugh.
Secondly, the women. They are afraid, too, but unlike the soldiers, the angel says to them, ‘Do not be afraid’ (verse 5) and he invites them to view the tomb. He hasn’t rolled away the stone for Jesus to walk out: he has rolled away the stone so the women can go in and realise that Jesus is risen. When they leave, their fear isn’t completely cured, but it is at least mixed with joy (verse 8). [SLIDE 9]
You can’t blame the women for being completely weirded out by the movement of the stone, the presence of the angel, and the absence of Jesus’ body. They never expected any of this. Now they are completely spooked.
But they get to hear the good news: ‘Do not be afraid.’ The resurrection might be bad news for the powerful, but it’s good news for those who follow Jesus. The women get to be the first witnesses of the resurrection. [SLIDE 10]
And you have to stop and think for a moment about how amazing that is. The women are the first witnesses. That might not sound remarkable to us, but two thousand years ago that was revolutionary. Women were not allowed to be witnesses. Only men. In fact, if you want another sign that the Easter story is true alongside what we heard in the Question Time sketch after the reading, this is an additional piece of evidence.
Don’t be afraid, says the angel to the women – people who don’t count in their society, people on the margins, people that the powerful would rather were invisible. These invisible people get the call to take on the most important job on the planet – being witnesses to the risen Jesus. [SLIDE 11]
Yes, before anyone else they get to learn that the risen Jesus will go ahead of his followers – a great promise when we do not know what lies ahead. They get to know that the risen Jesus will meet his followers – the promise that we are never alone in this world.
And it gets even better. The risen Jesus makes them jump out of their skin by suddenly meeting them while they are on their way to tell the disciples (verse 9).
The resurrection, then, turns our world upside-down. [SLIDE 12] Sure, we have to be aware of the powerful, but we don’t need to pay them the respect that many do, because the angels of the risen Jesus are rolling the stones away from their places of death. And when God one day raises all the dead from their graves, their time will be up. Let’s not pretend that the powerful have the last say in this world.
Instead, Easter entrusts the good news to the nobodies. Those who will never gain political power. Those who will never found a multinational company. Those who will never have influence in the media. They get to know that the risen Jesus goes ahead of them and with them. They get to tell the whole world this good news.
Our final section in 1 Corinthians 15 today is the passage designed for the church crèche:
We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed. (Verse 51)
More seriously, to get into Paul’s thought as he brings this glorious chapter to a conclusion, we need to appreciate something of the way the typical Hebrew mind made an argument. It was different from ours. We tend to argue in a straight line: point one leads to point two, leads to point three, et cetera, and on to a final conclusion.
But for the Hebrew you have to think less of the straight line and more of the circle. Think more of a stone being dropped in a pond, and the ripples going outwards. That is what Paul does here. His central point is – well, central. It’s in the middle of the section, and the implications are ripples around it. So rather than explore these verses from beginning to end, I’m going to start at the centre for the main point and then ripple out to the implications and eventually the conclusion.
Firstly, then, where does Paul drop the stone in the pond? I suggest to you that it comes in verses 53 and 54:
For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’
What we have in this central pebble-drop is the image of clothing: the perishable clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. But this isn’t just any old getting dressed: to put one new set of clothes over an old set implies something bigger. It implies a particular kind of dressing up. In short, it implies an investiture. The resurrection of the body, says Paul, constitutes our investiture.
An investiture? Yes: in the resurrection of the body God confirms our royal status as his vice-regents in the kingdom of God. Just as in Genesis 1, humans bear the image of God to look after creation on his behalf, so now in the new creation we are invested with royal status to tend the new heavens and the new earth. Anyone who believes that the life of the world to come is simply one of singing around the throne of God is mistaken: there will be work to do, good work, as we care for the new creation to the glory of God.
Our receipt of a resurrection body is symbolic of this, for it is the clothing fit for the new heavens and the new earth. God has already promised us this status as his vice-regents in the new creation. Think of it as rather like the ways in which Prince Charles became Prince of Wales. He was actually created Prince of Wales by Letters Patent on 26th July 1958, but he was not invested and did not have the coronet placed on his head until the actual investiture ceremony at Caernarfon Castle on 1st July 1969. So today we already have the promise that one day we will reign with Christ in the new creation. But the day on which we receive our resurrection bodies will be our investiture. It will be the public sign that we have the authority to exercise delegated power in the kingdom of God for ever.
You may feel insignificant now. You may count yourself unworthy of the attention of Rupert Murdoch’s army of phone hackers. Hello magazine may never ask to do a photo spread of your beautiful home. Count yourself blessed! For in God’s kingdom the disciple of Jesus is the most significant human being apart from Christ in all eternity. No wonder it was that earlier in this epistle Paul told the warring Corinthians that ‘we shall judge angels’. The resurrection says that our investiture is coming.
This is where it all ripples out from, then: our clothing in our resurrection body constitutes our investiture as God’s vice-regents in his new creation. What, though, are the implications? I offer two implications, and then an important conclusion.
The first implication is that of change. Remember the crèche quote –
We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed?
Hear that reference to ‘change’ which applies to everyone, and then hear what Paul says immediately afterwards. When and how will that universal change happen?
in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. (Verse 52)
The resurrection of the body means complete, instantaneous change. Throughout our Christian lives we labour in co-operation with the work of the Holy Spirit to see our lives change, and to see our changed lives affect our world for the better. To our frustration, we do not see all the change we long for – either in ourselves, or in our world. But when we put on our resurrection body, the formal clothing of our investiture as God’s vice-regents, we are fully changed. This is the Good News of our future hope. As Paul put it in Philippians 1, God has begun a good work in us, and he will complete it on the day of Christ Jesus.
As a teenage Christian, I was bemused by a song written by the Christian singer Randy Stonehill called ‘Good News’. It said, ‘Good news, Christ is returning’, when I thought that the Good News was that Christ has died. Now I see that the promise of Christ’s return is the promise to complete the good news he has begun in us.
The story is told of the enthusiastic Christian who found himself sharing a railway carriage with a bishop. Being suspicious of these bishops – you never could be sure whether they were truly Christians – our enthusiastic friend asked this particular bishop, “Are you saved?”
Wisely, the bishop replied, “Do you mean ‘have I been saved’, ‘am I being saved’ or ‘will I be saved’? Because all are true.”
And the bishop was right. Being saved is more than the forgiveness of our sins. It is the transformation that then begins in this life but which will come to a climax in the resurrection of the body when God will complete the work he has begun in us, and when he will also transform all of creation. Salvation is comprehensive.
None of this is a reason for complacency now. Rather, it is a vision that inspires us now to see more of that change before we are clothed with our resurrection body. Let us anticipate God’s great future now, and let that be a sign to the world!
The second implication is of confirmation – confirmation, that is, of Jesus’ victory over death. Death is beaten, yes, but it isn’t just that death is conquered – it’s about who has conquered it:
When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’
‘Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?’
The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. (Verses 54-57)
The point is this: people have wanted to cheat death or deny death for centuries. At funerals, I sometimes get asked to read dreadful prose which contains lines such as ‘Death is nothing at all’, or ‘I did not die’. Russian Communist authorities kept treating the publicly displayed corpse of Lenin as if to suggest he was not really gone (and – ironically – to encourage veneration, despite their attacks on religion). Wealthy Westerners pay for their bodies to be cryogenically frozen, so that one day they might be cured of the disease that killed them. And it’s all rank nonsense.
Except over Jesus Christ. And because he has conquered death, we shall have victory over it too one day when our bodies are raised and clothed with immortality. Or should I say, not ‘Jesus Christ’ but the phrase Paul uses: ‘our Lord Jesus Christ’. ‘Our’ – because he is over his pilgrim people, the church. ‘Christ’ – because he is the fulfilment of Israel’s messianic hopes. And ‘Lord’ – because he is, and Caesar is not, and the whole world must bow to him. All must acknowledge him. And when we do, the fullness of God’s kingdom comes. His humble servant reign is everywhere to be experienced. The sorrows and injustices of this world will dissolve.
But it only happens with the embrace of ‘our – Lord – Jesus – Christ’, risen from the dead, who will raise us, too. No political schemes will bring in the kingdom, much as we must care about politics. No violence and superior firepower will bring in the kingdom. No pious hiding from the world will do it, either. But we anticipate our resurrection bodies, following the One who has already conquered death.
So – the pebble in the pond caused by our investiture as God’s vice-regents in the new creation as we are clothed with our resurrection bodies has led us to two significant ripples. One is then anticipation of change, in the completion of a comprehensive salvation. The other is its confirmation as the victory over death won solely by our Lord Jesus Christ means that all must bow the knee to his benevolent reign, and in this we shall see the fullness of the kingdom.
What conclusion should we draw from all this? Many Christians would end on a note of future hope of glory. Let’s look forward!
Not Paul. His conclusion, his application, is for the here and now:
Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labour in the Lord is not in vain. (Verse 58)
The resurrection is the great doctrine of hope. Do you ever feel like jacking something in? Do you feel like giving up? This verse is for you. If you are plugging away at kingdom of God things, says Paul, then nothing is wasted. Death will not obliterate it. God will bring what you have done into his new creation, in a transformed way.
Maria Muldaur, the singer perhaps best known for ‘Midnight at the Oasis’, once recorded a gospel album. The track I always remember from it was called ‘Is my living in vain?’ If we’re honest, some of us Christians feel like that sometimes for a variety of reasons, some of them personal, some of them public or social. It just doesn’t feel worth it. A dark cloud descends and envelops us.
But Paul says, ‘your labour in the Lord is not in vain’, and hence why he urges his readers ‘Always to give [themselves] fully to the work of the Lord’. The Resurrection is what will make it worthwhile.
And if I may speak personally, I want to tell you that this verse has been a life-saver for me. I have told some of you how my last appointment in the ministry was a terrible misfit. I wondered why God called us there. I still don’t have an answer for that. But what I do have is a promise here: ‘your labour in the Lord is not in vain.’ Whatever the reason was that God took us there, he will take it up and make it new in his kingdom. He will do the same for you as you cling on to him in your darkness.
But let me end with some beautiful words. My sermons in this series have been inspired by a book on 1 Corinthians by a favourite scholar of mine called Kenneth Bailey. In writing on this verse, he quotes a certain Bishop Bill Frey. And Frey’s words seem a fitting end to this sermon and to this series:
Hope is hearing the music of the future; faith is dancing to it today.
A major controversy in recent weeks in British Methodism has involved the case of the Revd Dr Stephen Plant, who was appointed Dean of Chapel at Trinity Hall, Cambridge. Unfortunately, ancient rules mean that appointment is only open to ordained Anglicans, therefore Dr Plant was ordained into the Church of England. Subsequently and inevitably, he had to resign from the Methodist ministry.
This has produced a lot of agony in Methodist circles, with criticisms of both the Anglican and Methodist establishments. I have followed it on the UK Methodists page of Facebook. What, not the Methodist Recorder? Funny you should mention that, because in today’s Recorder, Dr Plant’s friend, the Revd the Lord Griffiths, Superintendent Minister of Wesley’s Chapel in London, has had a potentially explosive letter published in the Recorder, in which he says he is so fed up with much of Methodism that he will effectively resign from it when he retires.
Now, how do you debate that? Look at the Recorder’s own website, to which I linked above. It is primitive. It has been the same for years. It might just have been acceptable in the 1990s, but that website is now an embarrassment. It gives you little more than an outline of this week’s headlines. It is stuck in an age before broadband, where debates would happen on the letters page. And I can tell you from personal experience, even that was slow. The gap between writing a letter and having it published could be four weeks. Press releases suffered a similar time lag. (And the one where I noticed that? It was about a New Media conference!) Four or five years ago, in frustration at this, I gave up subscribing. It coincided with a time when our household finances were tight, and so when they phoned me to ask why I wasn’t renewing my sub, I’m afraid I chickened out of giving them the kind of customer feedback I should have done.
Of course the Recorder is entitled to limit what it publishes online. It seems in this to be allied to Rupert Murdoch’s way of thinking, that if you publish content online you will lose the customer sales on which you depend. However, rather than either setting up online subscriptions as News Corporation have, or publishing interesting material when the print edition had expired a week earlier, it does nothing. Either you shell out for a weekly paper that hasn’t had a significant redesign or even change of font in thirty or forty years, or – well, nothing. It isn’t realistic in an always-on, Internet-everywhere age. You have to offer something.
Take a computing magazine like PC Pro. It reports news items on its website in a timely manner – after all, they will be discussed all over the Internet. However, it only publishes major articles online after the monthly magazine has gone out of date. That seems to be a sensible balance to me. And if using a tech mag as an example seems unrealistic for this debate, just look at how the premier Anglican publication, the Church Times, combines the PC Pro and News Corporation approaches, with some articles available to all surfers and others limited to subscribers.
So I can understand the frustration that controversial Methodist blogger David Hallam must have felt today, knowing this debate was going on, leading to his decision this evening to publish Leslie Griffiths’ letter on his blog. David has been taken to task on Facebook for breaching copyright, and the breach has been reported to the Recorder. Legally, I’m sure that’s quite correct. But it still begs the question about how people expect controversies will be debated today. We have people on Methodism’s Connexional Team who are well versed in contemporary communications methods. But our one and only newspaper is doing a fine impression of the music industry around the time downloading and file sharing became widespread. It’s hoping all this new-fangled stuff will go away. But that isn’t what will disappear. Luddite approaches to technology are what will die.
One thing is for sure in my mind. I’m not about to resubscribe to the Recorder in the foreseeable future. As things stand, the paper is part of Methodism’s past, not her future, and I’ll stick with Facebook, blogs and official emails to get my Methodist news.
Unless, of course, it can change …
Interesting piece by Andrew Marr in the BBC Magazine: A New Journalism On The Horizon. If digital means the end of cinemas and bookshops as well as record shops, along with the catastrophe facing the newspaper industry, what shape will the future take?
Marr being a journalist with a history in newspapers (he edited The Independent in the 1990s), he has an interesting slant on Rupert Murdoch’s paywall approach. If traffic to The Times sites has fallen by 90% since its introduction, is it viable? But is free content viable, either? Marr suggests an alternative way. Just pay for the content you’re interested in, not the whole lot. Effectively, you don’t pay for the whole newspaper, given that you might want the sport section but not the showbiz coverage.
If he is right, then while this might be the economic solution (cheap enough, but still creates revenue), is it not a further sign of digitalisation being the ally of consumerist individualism? The advent of personal MP3 players has made it harder to share an excitement about a new musical discovery than before. It is still possible, but it is slower and less easy to do so. Will this be the same with journalism?