Preached on Sunday, 16.04.2017
By the Reverend Dr. David Sinclair
This is the day that the Lord has made; this is the day that he rose again; this is the day that tells us who we are; this is the day that defines us. This is the day of resurrection, the day when we celebrate new life, new possibility, the transformation of the world and its people, the renewal of the earth. This is the day when we announce again to the world that Christ is risen, and death is defeated, that death holds us no longer in fear and dread, death has lost its power over us, our sins are forgiven , our fortunes are restored, our tears are turned to shouts of joy.
But you may have noticed that we began not with a phrase from the story of today, but fromthe story of Friday. Matthew believes all the elements of this weekend’s celebrations are earth-shattering; he records earthquakes all the way through his telling. But he also believes, and so do we, that you cannot separate out different bits of the story – the bits we like to tell, or hear – while quietly dropping the bits that are scarier, or more difficult. So Friday’s earthquake and Sunday’s earthquake are connected – you can’t have one without the other.
It is at Christ’s crucifixion that the temple curtain is torn – and Matthew’s original Jewish readers would know what that was all about; it’s why he adds the seemingly unnecessary ‘from top to bottom’. He doesn’t want anyone to have the impression that this is a little tear that can be mended by a piece of clever stitching. He wants everyone to know that the curtain is ruined beyond repair; it has no further relevance or usefulness.
As his readers would have known very well, the temple curtain was the barrier in front of the holy of holies, beyond which not even every priest could go. The curtain was the dividing line between the sacred and the profane, the realm of the eternal and the realm of the temporal, heaven and earth, God and humanity.
The barrier is broken, and no longer can the forces of the state lay claim to unfettered sovereignty, because heaven has invaded earth. The curtain of the temple is torn in two, from top to bottom, when the human life in which God could be seen is ended in a conspiracy between the religious authorities and the government. These two realms have joined forces to condemn the life of God in an attempt to preserve themselves from the demands and from the judgement that life represented. What they did not know, what they could not anticipate, was that that very alliance opened them both to the very life they sought to finish.
And we, we who gather here and everywhere on this day, we who gather from east and west, from north and south, we who bring continents together, and peoples together, and life together, we gather to celebrate and to bear witness to a life that defines us – a life in which the barriers are broken, and nothing is profane, and no one is condemned; a life in which sins are forgiven, and lives are restored. And the eternal one who walks out of a tomb on Easter morning tells us three things, three things that in Matthew’s telling are repeated: Jesus is raised from the dead, he is going ahead of you, you will see him again – Jesus is raised from the dead, he is going ahead of you, you will see him again.
And that is what defines us: those three things, new life beyond the power of religion or government or even death to deny; a future in which Jesus and the life of Jesus lead us, encourage us, and guide us; a hope that all have a common destiny, that God’s kingdom will come, and that we will see it. We have those three – new life, new purpose, new hope. Everything else is secondary; it’s the backing, the building blocks, the way in – or perhaps the way out. Because the life of Jesus is not about being confined; it’s about being released; it’s about freedom and open spaces.
So here’s the thing: why don’t we always see it that way? Why is Christianity not viewed by others in those terms? Is it something we said? Is it something we did? Have we given the impression that Christianity is kind of like learning your times tables, passing exams, graduating? Because, sisters and brothers in Christ, I think we may have done just that.
I think we may have given people the idea that there are qualifications you have to get before you can sit round this table; I think we may have allowed people to think that we have a ladder of knowledge to ascend before we can attain the holy of holies (and actually that was one of the first heresies to be thrown out by the early church as it tried to work out what it actually believed). And I think these things because of the experience of many of us in this congregation when we went before a judge as witnesses to testify to the faith of one of our friends in this congregation.
He had to prove to the satisfaction of the immigration authorities that he really is a Christian. I wonder how many of us could feel confident in our ability, in a language other than our native language, or indeed at all, to convince a judge of our Christianity. Back in the 1970s I remember seeing a poster that asked: ‘If you were on trial for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?’
Apparently, for this judge, there was not enough evidence to convict or, in this case, to save – and he stands convicted of not being a Christian. The evidence of, I think, about fifteen members of this church was not enough; we were not able to say enough to turn around what was clearly a decision made before the proceedings began.
We were summed up, basically, as naive, well-meaning, misguided fools. The British Home Office understands Christianity better than any number of Christians who might choose to argue against it. And the basis of their position was that nearly two years ago, our friend could not recite the ten commandments or discuss the story of the Garden of Eden. The fact that he is here every week, far more regularly than many of our members, that he attends every bible study, every class in the faith that we can provide, that he is humble, honest, thoughtful, that he seeks to grow in faith as in life; none of that, expressed in fifteen different ways, moved the judge one inch from the opinion provided for him by the Home Office that the real person is devious, manipulative, dishonest, and has duped us all.
It is a disgrace. It shames our country. It should embarrass our country that one of its official arms is so ignorant about the faith that is supposed to underpin our country and how it works. People come here from other places thinking, believing, expecting that this is a Christian country – but it will take more than bishops in the House of Lords, coronations at Westminster Abbey, or even the daughter of a vicar as the Prime Minister, to make it so.
Today is the day that defines us. Today, the day of resurrection, the day of new life, a new future, and a new hope, is the day that defines us. Because if we ever abandon new life, new future, new hope, as the basic tenets of our resurrection faith, we will have abandoned our faith in the one who was raised to life as the answer to the preservation priorities of authorities of all kinds.
One of the most famous sermons of the last century was built around the phrase: ‘simply accept that you are accepted’. It cut through all the angst of Christians over the years who tried to work out if they really were Christian, if they really were saved. What was the evidence they needed? Was it inner conviction? Was it success in life? Was it the blessing of the church? How would they know? How could they know? You are accepted by God, they were told; just accept that you are accepted.
So here’s a thought about the story we have been living this last week. When the religious authorities take Jesus to the civil authorities for condemnation, when they go to Pilate, the answer is: this is about religion, deal with it yourselves. Even Pilate knew where his competence ended. Wouldn’t it be refreshing if the same were true of our civil authorities? Wouldn’t it be novel if the Home Office were to say to the church: ‘here’s someone who claims to be a Christian; perhaps you can help us out by telling us what you think of that – because it’s beyond our area of expertise’? It is indeed beyond their area of expertise, but that doesn’t stop them blundering on regardless. Perhaps they are afraid that the church will listen to that sermon; perhaps they are afraid that the church will act on that sermon; perhaps they are afraid that the church will live out the radical acceptance that we express around this table, and speak into the nation and the world: ‘simply accept that you are accepted’.
In the early days of the church there was one phrase that was enough to identify someone as a Christian: Jesus is Lord. Those three words were an acceptance of the acceptance offered to them by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus the Nazarene. But those three words set them on a collision course with the cult of the emperor, it set them apart, made them a target. They had announced their allegiance to the one who walked out of the tomb; they had set themselves on the way of new life, the road to a new future, in the new hope of the arrival of the reign of God. That phrase defined them. And it defines us. Today defines us.
Today, the day that Jesus was raised, the first fruits of God’s promise, the ultimate sign that the temple curtain with all its divisions and barriers had indeed been destroyed, and destroyed forever. Today we gather to celebrate that destruction, to celebrate the end of division, to announce new life, new future, new hope. Perhaps also today we can commit ourselves to the lordship of Christ in a way that announces new life, that works for a new future, that offers a new hope – and can welcome anyone who wants to join the journey to walk with us, learn with us, serve with us, pray with us, live with us, hope with us. And maybe, just maybe, we can work to make all that true of our country as well. This is the day that the Lord has made.