Festival Day - 12 July 2014
Acts 10.34-43; Luke 24.1-12
We can look up the records and there it is: Andy Murray won Wimbledon in 2013, the first male British player to do so since Fred Perry in 1936. Last year, despite all those moments leading up to the final when we didn’t quite dare look at the screen, we believed it. The ground had been prepared by the Olympic gold win. Perhaps the tide had turned. However, that was last year. This year, seemingly all too predictably, Andy lost - not in the final, not even in the semi-final but in straight sets in the quarterfinal against Dimitrov. After all the years of doubt, the fervour of belief that last year engendered now seemed a fantasy. Reality had returned.
Or, if you’re not a tennis fan, you may prefer to think of the World Cup. It was somehow reassuring for our doubt, our disbelief, that England was so quickly knocked out of the championship. If then we transferred our allegiance elsewhere we might have found ourselves watching on Tuesday evening and muttering like Victor Meldrew, “I don’t believe it!” as Germany produced goals like firing a machine gun. It seemed unreal: indeed the reports the next morning giving the reaction of all involved concentrated mostly on the stunned, disbelief rather than the extraordinary success.
Here are we, gathered as sons and daughters of the Resurrection. What unites us is belief in something so improbable, so utterly unique, so unparalleled that when some of the women came to report their experience at the tomb the men thought it just an idle tale. The first witnesses in Mark’s Gospel were, so he tells us, utterly terrified by what they found and didn’t dare say anything to anyone. Yet, believe they did: and how!! In just two decades, the known world was reconfigured. A whole new way of relating to one another, to the world and to God had begun to take over. How do we picture it? Do we imagine it being a bit like someone hearing that the parish church on the other side of town has a new priest and exciting things are happening there? We feel a loyalty to where we are but, after a bit, we go along to see. Then, if it does seem to have something new, we might transfer our allegiance. Was it a bit like that, do we think?
The New Testament suggests something much more radical; more revolutionary. It involved huge risk: you placed yourself firmly on the side of those challenging the existing authorities, challenging the prevailing wisdom; you were cutting yourself off from the religious groups that were entwined in the fabric of society and joining what? Well, essentially a movement that had to begin largely underground; a movement which necessarily became the centre and focus of your experience; a movement which supplied you with your friends, your partners, your social life - with everything. As the Acts of the Apostles tells us, “they spent much time in the Temple, they broke bread together and ate their food with glad and generous hearts.” (Acts 2.46)
There is a temptation for many of us to think back; back to when we were younger and it was all so different. There can’t really be any now who remember something like the glory days of the Anglo-Catholic congresses of the 1920's and 30's but we all tend to have our rose-tinted views of the past. This does not sit well with Resurrection. The resurrection of Jesus is God’s new act - and the newness never ceases. The resurrection brings in the new today as much as ever: the challenge for us is to hear the voice of the Spirit, to hear the Lord calling us to ‘come and see’ - and to have confidence in God who continues to offer us life and hope and love.
Confidence is a key word - and not something which comes easily to us today. We tend not to have confidence in government, in education, in health care, in banks - the list is endless. Of course, confidence literally means ‘sharing faith with...’ You can’t be confident on your own. It has to be a shared experience. We, who believe in the resurrection of Jesus, are companions - those who break bread together: not only the bread of the Eucharist but ordinary meals (and not so ordinary ones as well!). When we say that Christians share both the bread of the Eucharist and the bread of their dining tables, we are recognising that this too is a shorthand. For the sharing that faith in Christ asks of us is a total sharing of life, investing our life with others in the household of faith (remembering Jesus’ response “Here are my Mother and my Brothers!”) - and out of such sharing confidence grows. Then, instead of being always on the edge of deep gloom; becoming more and more pessimistic about the future of the church (and everything else!), we find ourselves being nudged into a new hopefulness, a new sense that God is truly at work and resurrection life is more real than the passing things of the world.
A day like this, then, is hugely important. It is a tangible reminder of some of the things that are at the heart of our believing in the resurrection of Jesus. First, we celebrate this sacrament together. We come apart deliberately to allow the risen Lord to draw us into his presence, to speak his word to us and to enfold us in his love. Secondly, we give expression to our mutual dependence: we can only be members of the Body of Christ together - not just as accidental members of a church congregation Sunday by Sunday but as the new family in Christ. In other words, allowing the relationships of the Body of Christ to claim a priority, to re-organise our social horizon. Thirdly we come to be renewed in the power of the Spirit; to set our minds on things above (as Paul puts it).
Arguably, even more important than the meaning of this day for us, is its significance for the life of the world. We have, once again, heard the government expressing fears about the radicalisation of Muslim youth. Yet the real response is a radicalised church: Christians who are once again confident in the astonishing new life that flows from the resurrection of Jesus; confident of the power of God to bring life out of death; confident of the love, joy and peace that fill all who embrace the Spirit of Christ.
The northern hemisphere is at a critical moment. Governments, faced with immense tasks and problems move further and further towards the totalitarian rigidity that distorted Eastern Europe for so long; Christianity, Judaism and Islam find it increasingly difficult to engage with society and religion becomes more and more a way of escape from reality. In the process, belief in God drops out. Religion becomes, in some ways, more important but it is a futile, self-made religion that is no better than the many drugs and addictions on offer. You may think it is a preacher’s rhetoric to speak of belief in God ‘dropping out’ but in the latest revision of doctrine teaching in the Church of England the word God only appeared twice in the proposed syllabus and that only in the phrase ‘God’s church’ - as opposed to Mickey Mouse’s church or anyone else’s! We are, of course, speaking of good, well-meaning people. What is lacking is sufficient experience of the life of the household of faith. As the Psalmist puts it in Psalm 85 “happy are they who dwell in your house; they will always be praising you.”
So we rejoice together, companions of the risen Lord. We renew our faith together and we commit ourselves to still greater immersion in the mystery of the God of life, the God who brings life out of death, the God who enfolds us in his love as we do the simplest things - sharing bread together and giving thanks for God’s infinite, creative generosity in Jesus Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit, now and to the end of time.
Peter Allan CR