Bishop Peter's Easter Day sermon

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Chester Cathedral, 21 April 2019

 

We live in an age which does not find belief in God – or at least a confident belief in God – very easy. Many people have a residual belief that there must be some ultimate explanation behind the universe – Something or Someone who has caused it to come into being. But they find it hard to connect such thoughts with the institution of the Church, or its organised pattern of worship and belonging.

One could sum up the situation which the Church faces in Britain, and in most European countries as simply: ‘people seem to be happy without God’.

Churches exist in order to express a need for God, as revealed in Jesus Christ, and to provide the means by which such a need might be satisfied. The work of the Church is a work of witness to God’s purposes for the world, and for each one of us, as revealed in a definitive way in Jesus Christ. I believe we have honestly to face the reality today, as we observe and experience it, that ‘people seem happy without God’.

One could, of course, ask whether people today, in our society, are quite as ‘happy’ as that remark suggests. In terms of material possessions, there is a certain contentment, and in health terms people generally live much longer than in previous generations, although there are very substantial inequalities between richer and poorer communities. But overall, there seem to be high levels of mental illness and depression, especially but not only among younger people, which is very worrying.

I do think that the materialism of the modern world can encourage people to sit comfortably in their particular lives, which can become what have been called ‘echo chambers’ in which no fresh voices can be heard. I’m sure the post-war prosperity of the past 70 years has contributed to the slow but persistent decline of church adherence and attendance.

One sees the same in the Bible. When the people of Israel took possession of the promised land they had the prospect of the safety, security, and prosperity which duly emerged.

Moses promised the people in these terms:

‘The Lord your God is bringing you into a good land, a land with flowing water, a land of wheat and barley……a land of olive trees and honey, a land in which you will eat bread without scarcity……And you will bless the Lord your God for the good land he has given you’.

But Moses then added a warning:

‘Take heed lest you forget the Lord your God……and you say in your heart, ‘my power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth’. You shall remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth……And if you forget the Lord your God and go after other gods and worship them, I solemnly warn you this day that you shall surely perish’.

(Deuteronomy Ch8)

‘You shall surely perish’. What does that mean? Perish in the short term? Or in the longer term?  What does it look and feel like to ‘perish’ in these terms?

As I look around our society, we can in fact see plenty of signs of perishing, as our late-Western society slowly declines. And I’m not immune from all this, as I am a part of this society too.

The scale of family and relationship breakdown offers an obvious symptom. Of two babies born today, only one will expect to be in a household with both its parents when the child is 16. I don’t say this to attack those who are divorced. Sometimes divorce is the best way forward in a situation.  But the sheer scale of family and relationship breakdown, and the consequences for children, surely point to deep-seated problems which have taken root in our society.  I could equally refer to the recent focus on the growth in knife crime among the young, which has received much publicity.

The Church needs to be honest in pointing to such issues, but I don’t think that adopting Private Fraser’s mantra of ‘we’re doomed’, from Dad’s Army, is the best way forward for the Church.  There may be some truth behind it, as the warnings which Moses issued to the people of Israel so long ago remind us, but the Christian response has to start elsewhere, and there are many blessings and benefits of modern society too.

The fundamental point, I believe, is this.

No matter how self-centred and contented a society has become, it cannot provide an answer to the riddle and mystery of death.  No society can do this. That hangs over all human lives, and human societies.  It always has done.  But the heart of the Christian Faith is precisely a response to the mystery and reality of death, by offering us the vision of a crucified God, a vision of crucified love.

The mysterious final journey of Jesus to the Cross is presented in the New Testament simply as the expression and enactment of God’s love.

So I would summarise the centre of the Christian Faith as follows:

Jesus’ journey to the Cross, is God’s journey to us.

The threat of death, which sets the limit to all human lives, in whatever circumstances, is overcome by God’s re-creative redemption of the world. Through death comes new life. St Paul put it this way:

We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the sinful body might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For he who has died is freed from sin. But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him (Romans 6:6-8).

Let me illustrate this briefly from my own life.

I was originally a scientist, and it was quite popular in the early 1970s to think that science pointed the way to atheism. But I never found that convincing. Could everything have come into being by chance? To believe that is quite a big ask. I’ve sometimes said over the years that I never had enough faith to be an atheist. 

In fact atheism offers no explanation for why there is a world, beyond the realms of rather fanciful science fiction.

But perhaps there is a Creator God, who has endowed the universe with order, and moral laws which we are asked to obey. The ‘great architect’ view of God, which Freemasonry, for example, uses to bring together the beliefs of different religions. This was the view of God held by the great philosophers of the ancient world, Plato and Aristotle.

This essentially distant view of God as a cosmic law giver didn’t satisfy me either. If God wanted to create a universe in which everything happened like clockwork, presumably he could have done so. But the universe doesn’t look like a giant train set, and human beings are not like computers which have been programmed with perfect software. Human life is both more fragile and more free than that.

Christianity offers a different, more mysterious, vision, of a God who is both Creator and Redeemer, who chose to bring the universe to its true purpose by becoming part of it, loving and re-creating it from within. The Son of God becomes also Son of Man and confronts the ultimate fragility of life directly.  His life culminates in a vision of crucified love, which triumphs over death in the resurrection.

This is not easy to understand, or to accept, and the modern indifference to the Christian Faith illustrates that. Our digital age, which tries to reduce everything to packets of information, will always struggle with the wisdom of the cross.  It is deeply mysterious, as Charles Wesley’s verse so finely captures:

Tis mystery all, the Immortal dies 
Who can explain his strange design?
In vain the first-born Seraph tries
To sound the depths of love divine’.

This is the logic of holiness, a vision of the beauty of holiness, which began to captivate me 50 years ago, and which continues to captivate me today. It is a vision which is perhaps best set forth in the Church’s worship. A beauty which we cannot rationalise or control, but only glimpse in part, as we see through a glass darkly.

‘Lord I believe, help thou my unbelief’

As the centurion said to Jesus.

If it is indeed the case that we live in an age when people widely believe that they are happy without God, those of us who believe that we can only be happy with God need to go back to the centre of our Faith, to the strange and mysterious beauty which crucified love represents at the heart of the Christian Faith.  ‘For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified’.

Let me end with some more verses from St Paul, which sum up what I have been trying to say:

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
 


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