Synod 2019: Sermon

The Lord is risen for each one of us.

Bible readings: Isaiah 25: 6 – 9; John 14: 15 – 20; I Corinthians 15: 12 – 19.

On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine, of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined. And he will swallow up on this mountain the covering that is cast over all peoples, the veil that is spread over all nations. He will swallow up death for ever; and the Lord GOD will wipe away tears from all faces and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the LORD has spoken. It will be said on that day: Behold, this is our God; we have waited for him that he might save us. This is the LORD; we have waited for him; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.

If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you for ever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you. I will not leave you as orphans, I will come to you. Yet a little while and the world will see me no more, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. In that day, you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me and I in you.

Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. (I Cor. 15: 12 – 19)

“For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile….” (I Cor. 15: 13, 14)

… and your faith is futile “. These are clear-cut and hard words, which leave us shocked. And there is more: If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. (I Cor 15: 19): “Most to be pitied ” or “the most miserable “.

These words give us the goosebumps, despite the heat! Paul affirms that, either we believe the unbelievable, almost inaccessible, message of the resurrection of the dead, or we fall into the abyss of radical scepticism. One cannot ‘half believe’: we have to choose; we are forced to respond.

And yet, we must ask ourselves: are we able to force many of our brothers’ and sisters’ backs against a wall and insist that they affirm that those who do not believe in the resurrection of the dead have a futile faith? Are we ready to risk emptying our churches because of this argument? Are we sure that there is faith in the resurrection of the dead, in this Europe which strongly declares itself to be Christian but which acts so often without a crumb of love?

And what does it mean, in concrete terms, to believe in the resurrection of the dead?

Paul is writing to the Corinthian Church, a lively and combative congregation, we might even say a little like our own Church. And it would be easy, even gratifying, to be able to say, at this point, that: “We are the Corinthians, men and women of the Church, busy with the life of the Church, full of gifts and possibilities – perhaps a little agitated and conflictual, but certainly lively!”

We know that the church in Corinth was formed largely of believers coming from pagan backgrounds, belonging to differing social and economic classes; they were litigious, and divided into different factions. They were women and men who lived their faith in an intense manner, and who believe that their adhesion to ‘the Way’ had to show itself in a concrete manner, ‘in the here and now’, in their daily lives. It was, we might say, a church community which was spiritually rich, vivacious, forceful, which had made faith its reason for living. Can we say the same of ourselves and of our own church communities? I fear that we are not like the Corinthians; no, not even we who find ourselves meeting together today on this warm August afternoon. And we are not like them, principally because we are responsible, together, for what happens in the world.

We are responsible together because our daily lives, our wellbeing, our lifestyle, are all maintained by the death which surrounds us. It may seem banal to say: ‘we live sinfully’; but is it really ‘banality’? How often do we have the courage to use the term ‘sin’, considered by most to be ‘outmoded’, apart from during our prayer of confession at worship? And yet, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “if it was only through the death of Christ on the cross that sin was defeated, then it must be a very serious matter, even if we are so often unaware of the fact.”

And it is so often the case that we are unaware of sin. How often do we reflect on our own responsibility? By this I don’t just mean a recognition of a general theological statement, but I am speaking about our daily lives, in which we have food and water and comfort. I don’t want to appear to be a ‘moralist’, but I ask myself if we ever manage to be really aware of being cogs in the system which produces this world of death: a world which allows children to be abandoned or abused, forced to work or to be soldiers, to be prostitutes or sources of transplanted body organs for rich people; a world which each day records mistreatment, even murder, of women – everyday women, who don’t necessarily live in war-torn countries but who may be our neighbours, friends, sisters, people we meet when we go shopping or to the post office, whom, perhaps, we no longer meet simply because they are now buried in their homes… The reality is that we, members of a Church which is committed to justice and peace, still live in our ‘tepid state’ (as Primo Levi would say), forgetful of, even indifferent to, those dying in the Mediterranean, the atrocities in Libya, the cruelties perpetrated in so many countries involved in armed conflict; but also unaware of injury and death at work, of increasing pollution, of the death of our planet.

And yet, we are not on our own; we have not been abandoned by the Lord: his Spirit accompanies us, giving back life and dignity to martyred bodies, giving sense to our existence, walking alongside us, meeting us along the way, crossing frontiers with us and meeting us in our pain. The Lord is also the force behind our commitment, the One who sustains us in our fragility when our miniscule numbers and the power of evil make us feel impotent. It is true that many of us have not forgotten, and do not forget, the sufferings of those around us; it is true that many of us are involved in bearing witness to the presence of God in the world, through church and community which together care for the environment and its equilibrium, living sober lives, seeking to take into account limited natural resources, respecting the lives of those who live around us.

It is true that our witness as Church and, often, as individuals, is lived through projects such as Mediterranean Hope, or the Humanitarian Corridors, working with others in campaigning for the safeguarding of human rights, the protection of fragile and exploited places and people; it is true that we have often made courageous decisions which were ‘against the stream’; it is true that, through ‘Being Church Together’, in many of our congregations we have the blessing of sharing with people of other countries and cultures, whose stories and ways of expressing the faith enrich us; it is therefore true that we try hard, and seriously, to live a ‘new existence’, a way of living in which it is evident that it is God who is the source of who and what we are: a life in which the presence of the Holy Spirit is tangible, with the riches of his gifts and power.

But, just as we were feeling a little consoled by all this, Paul, at verse 32, warns us and puts us on our guard against any easy sense of self-satisfaction which we might have in us: ‘If it is for this life only that we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. If the dead are not raised, then “let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die”‘.

Here Paul raises in us, yet again, a sense of disquiet. All our activities are as nothing. Yes, certainly, we have made our (slight!) contribution to the betterment of someone else, and we ourselves feel the better for it; but we must be aware that if we have done all this only for human glory, it has all been futile. Paul tells us exactly this: let us enjoy life, for if the dead are not raised it is no use fighting the beasts in Ephesus. We might as well eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.

What does Paul mean by this? He means that it is not our enthusiasm, or our capacity to fill our churches, nor even our human drive, which makes the difference. All these things are important – even, perhaps, necessary; but the difference comes from the Holy Spirit, and it is fed by faith which is rooted in the death and resurrection of Jesus. Paul affirms that we are able to create an association, a team, a group which sets itself to work for the wellbeing of people, or the planet; but, if we do not believe in the resurrection of the dead we are not a Church. Why not? Because, at its heart, our faith is that Jesus Christ is risen from the dead. If we do not believe in this, our faith is futile and will not survive the storms through which we are living. This is an unwelcome message and it is difficult to hear and to accept, but it is uniquely necessary, Paul tells us.

So, what are we to do? We can continue to bring aid to the sick and to the afflicted, to accomplish wonderful actions. But with our death, all this comes to an end, and our prize will be the gratitude of those whom we have helped, and the approval of our friends, and a nice funeral and a grave stone which reminds posterity of our existence. All that is a possibility. But the Gospel message today reminds us that all this belongs to our ‘old life’; the Gospel message is that the Lord will destroy death for ever and that we shall not be alone; that when we fall we shall receive aid to lift us up again. The Spirit of truth will help us to believe in that which Paul defines as ‘folly’ (because it is something incredible, unacceptable for our pragmatic ways of thinking). And if we think about it seriously, it is true that this story is ‘folly’: how can we believe in a Love which is different from ours, a total love such as Jesus has shown us? Doesn’t this ask too much of us? Isn’t this humanity of Jesus, at the end of the day, just a little lacking in our (weak) humanity?

And this is the point: just like the Corinthians, we would like a faith adapted to our wishes, a human faith. We would like to feel ourselves ‘risen’ in the here and now, within the confines of our known world, within the concrete life which we love. We want a God who, after becoming flesh for all of us, knows how to return to being God, without involving us; we want a God who doesn’t ask us to go beyond our boundaries, a God who does not destabilise us. But here Paul pins down both the Corinthians and us: if Christ is human, totally human, his resurrection is not something outwith real history; it is not a symbol or a mythological episode from ‘the epoch of the gods’, but a question which involves us closely, which touches us insofar as we are also human beings. For Paul, it is not sufficient to believe in the resurrection of Jesus; it is necessary also to accept the idea of our resurrection: the resurrection of Christ was not a prodigious but un-natural event, outside of us and unrepeatable, but The Event which bursts into our lives, which marks our whole existence both physical and spiritual, in our places of work, in our homes, in our relations with the world and with our friends, in life and in death, because Jesus is the first born of the dead “the first fruits of them that sleep”, and his resurrection is the event which signals the end of our (old) lives, full of sin, and the gift of an extraordinary opportunity to be born again, as new men and women; and all that without merit, and without us playing any active part.

And so, if we really believe that which we claim to believe, we must bring to the fore once again, from within our credal statements, those elements of our faith which emphasise this reality which transforms everything; and we must live them in a concrete and significant way. For if our faith remains an affirmation which is not lived and which does not form the bedrock of our lives, it is futile: that is, dead and useless. The Lord requires that we base our earthly lives on the resurrection of the dead: upon this incredible event, which is placed beyond the limits of ‘the acceptable’ by wise humanity (which is so full of ‘good sense’, with its feet firmly on the ground), humanity to which, so often, we happily belong. The Lord invites us to put our faith joyfully in him: the only One who can liberate us from the sin which encircles and seduces us; the only One who can liberate us from this power which blinds us and stops us from believing in the resurrection, and therefore in Life, even though this Life is here in the midst of us, in our world and in our daily lives.

Because, my friends, the joyful message of the Gospel for us this afternoon is that we are not only surrounded by death, but also by Life and by Love, which, despite everything, continue to act. The resurrection of Jesus, and of the dead, is not proven, nor is it possible to prove it; we may only accept it by faith. But Paul tells us that the resurrection of Jesus is the heart of our faith, that which gives it sense and significance. And he encourages us to have faith, and to be steadfast and immovable.

Therefore, my friends, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that, in the Lord, your labour is not in vain.


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