Sunday, April 8, 2012

Easter Sermon I

The 9 a.m. Service, St. Andrew's Church
Easter, 2012
The Rev. Dr. Philip Wainwright, Priest Associate

The New Testament frequently describes the spiritual world and the Christian
life in terms of military affairs. One of Jesus’s parables is about a
general facing an army that outnumbers his own, and there are the passages
about spiritual warfare in Ephesians. When Paul is referring to others who
are doing the same Christian ministry as he is, he calls them his
fellow-soldiers. Paul urges Timothy, another fellow-worker, to think of
himself as a soldier, too. Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ
Jesus, he tells him.

I mention this because this image of war and battle is used a lot in
relation to the Easter message. Paul talks about Easter in terms of death
being swallowed up in victory, and goes on in the famous words, 'O death,
where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?' Many Easter hymns use
the same image: ‘the strife is o’er, the battle done, the victory of life is
won, the song of triumph has begun—Alleluia!’ What I want to do this morning
is to apply this image to us.

Most of us don’t really picture ourselves as soldiers of Christ. ‘Onward
Christian soldiers’ has gone out of fashion as a hymn. So let me suggest a
different rĂ´le, but still using the same image: let’s try thinking of
ourselves as members of a resistance movement. Because in the spiritual war
described in the New Testament, we are actually part of a people who have
suffered defeat, and are now subject to an occupying power. Remember who is
the Prince of this world according to the New Testament. That’s why, despite
the victory over death we celebrate today, people we know and love still
die. Death has been defeated, but it has not yet been put to death itself.
Death is on the run, retreating in disarray, but where we live, it still
rules. The Bible says that the last enemy to be destroyed is death, and that
comes after Christ’s second coming. Easter is a celebration that death has
been defeated, but it has not yet been destroyed. So we who celebrate its
defeat today are like members of the resistance in war-time Europe, hearing
and celebrating the news of great victories in North Africa and the Pacific,
knowing what that means for the future, but also knowing there is still much
to be done where we live. It’s a useful image, because it also reminds us
that there are things we can do to help bring the final destruction of the
enemy closer, acts of sabotage that undermine the authority of the occupying
power, until liberation comes.

One thing we can do as the resistance to remind our fellow-citizens that the
enemy is still the enemy. We have been under enemy rule so long that some
people have stopped regarding death as their enemy. ‘Death is part of life’,
they say, ‘we just have to accept it’. When we read God’s word, we recognise
that as misinformation, as enemy propaganda. Death is not part of life, it
is the opposite of life, and opposed to life. To believe that it must just
be accepted, even with good grace, is to be fooled by the enemy. Dylan
Thomas expresses biblical truth in his poem: ‘Do not go gentle into that
good night/ Old age should burn and rave at close of day;/ Rage, rage
against the dying of the light.’ Even if we don’t say it, inside when
reminded of death we should burn and rave and rage. We should know our
enemy, and make sure that others know the enemy too. That’s when the news of
the enemy’s defeat becomes good news.

Celebrating the fact that this enemy has suffered a catastrophic defeat is
an act of defiance. There on the cross Death thought it was about to win its
usual easy victory, just like Rommel in the desert, but in fact it was
totally defeated! Jesus, Who truly is an Army of One, and the only real Army
of One there ever can be, dealt that enemy a blow which is going to prove
mortal in the end, even though the war isn’t over yet. But telling others
about that defeat is more than defiance; it is sabotage, because it really
undermines the enemy, which is why there’s so much pressure on us by the
Prince of this world to keep quiet about it, to keep it just among us

When we remind people who aren’t Christians about Christ’s victory over
death, we won’t always get a positive reaction. It was the same way for the
resistance. For some people in occupied countries in Europe during the
second World War, news of victory elsewhere was first irrelevant, it didn’t
change anything in their lives that day, and second dangerous, things would
only get worse if they were caught celebrating it. But sometimes we will get
a positive reaction. Some in occupied Europe, when they heard others
whispered about the defeats the occupying power was suffering, began to feel
that something in the world was changing, and they found new heart, new
courage in themselves, and all of a sudden it became easier to recruit
people for the Resistance, easier to get people to hide those on the run,
easier to get money or supplies for the resistance cause. It didn’t seem
like such a lost cause after all. Spreading the news of victory, even in
whispers, was itself a blow against the enemy.

Now you’re all here to celebrate Christ’s victory over death, so there’s no
doubt you know the long-term implications of this news, but there are two
points I want to make as a resistance leader. First, remember that enemy
propaganda will still be coming at us every day, with its ‘death happens,
nothing can be done about it, Easter is just a nice story, a metaphor at
best.’ Because of what Christ did on the cross, death is no longer the end
for those who put their faith in Him, but Satan uses the fact that physical
death will continue for a while longer to confuse and discourage us. Know
that for what it is, defeatism, and don’t let it take you in. Second, share
the good news of this victory with your friends. We all have friends who are
not celebrating, who don’t really believe anything has changed, and who
sometimes get nervous when they see how excited we are. Our job is to get
them to see that something has changed, to get them to support the
resistance movement a little bit more than they have. As in all good
propaganda, there’s some truth in what they’re being told: it’s true that
nothing has changed yet, people go on dying after Christ’s resurrection as
they did before, but if He is raised from the dead, death is ultimately
doomed, and even now we can look forward to our own resurrection. As Paul
put it when writing to a resistance group in Rome, as Christ was raised from
the dead… we too may live a new life. If we have been united with him like
this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his
resurrection. ‘We too’, ‘certainly’ will share in His victory in the end!
Our lives will not end in death. The lives of our friends and neighbors do
not have to end in death. Resurrection, life after death, is possible, and
the more people know about it, the sooner death will be destroyed as well as

Sometimes when I mention the Easter victory to someone, they’re not
interested. They may be polite, but you can tell by the expression on their
faces what they’re thinking— ‘you’re nuts for believing that and you want me
to be as nutty as you. No thanks.’ When this happens as you spread the word
about this great victory, I have what is sometimes called a ‘talking point’
for you, something you can say to counteract the defeatism. There was a
Frenchman called Pascal who decided he was going to put his faith in Christ
and live for ever, and he explained it like this. I know it’s a gamble, he
said. I don’t have any irrefutable evidence that I can live for ever. I only
have Jesus’s word for it, and there’s no way I can prove that it’s true or
false. But if I look at it like a gamble, I’d be crazy not to make the bet.
It’s all a question of what I lose if I’m wrong, and what I gain if I’m
right. If Jesus is wrong, and I lose my bet, here’s what I’ve lost: a few
years trying to live by standards different from those around me, after
which I’ll be gone and it nothing will matter anyway. If Jesus is right, and
I win my bet, here’s what I win: I get to live for ever and ever in
Paradise, which means the happiest, most desirable life anyone could ever
have, and I’ll never have to leave it behind, ever. A choice like that is
what they call a no-brainer: to bet something not too bad but which you
cannot keep for long anyway against something absolutely spectacular that
you can keep for ever. I know there’s a lot of debate over the logic of this
argument, but for me it comes down to this: if someone gave you a cheque for
a million dollars, would you take it to the bank? I would; if it’s a dud, I
look stupid, but if it’s not… As a bet, it’s a no-brainer.

So don’t be afraid to look stupid. It’s worth the risk, because every person
that takes courage from the news of this defeat brings the ultimate
destruction of our enemy a little closer. During the war, even if good news
didn’t make someone join the resistance, it helped them decide against
informing on the next door neighbour who had. Even that advanced the cause a
little bit, especially when it was multiplied by the thousands of times it
happened. If all the Christians celebrating in church today say just one
thing about Christ’s victory to someone who isn’t celebrating, it would be
another victory.

The Bible tells us that death will be destroyed after Christ’s second
coming; Easter proves that it’s true. Even those not ready to join the
resistance can cheer a bit more for those who have, and can co-operate a
little bit less with the occupying power. So don’t be afraid. Say something.
Send someone an e-mail. Not just ‘happy Easter’, but ‘victory over death,
resurrection’. Make your belief in eternal life known to someone today.
There’s nothing to be shy about; we’re the winning side! The song of triumph
has begun—Alleluia!

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