Easter Sunday sermon from our Vicar Paul:-
Last Sunday we began Holy Week by introducing the idea that the final week of Jesus’ pre-resurrection life was marked by three stages:
Orientation – Jesus the teacher, healer and Messiah, whom many of the people expected to lead a revolt against the Romans and return the land back to the Jews, perhaps in the same way that the Maccabees had done to the Seleucid Empire.
Disorientation – Jesus didn’t do what so many of the people expected. He didn’t start a revolt. Instead he preached in the Temple grounds, he drove out the moneychangers, he repeatedly defeated the religious experts in theological debate, he continued to love and serve the poor, he predicted the destruction of the Temple – which was a real concern to the politically minded,...
...he was anointed by a woman, which was an outrage to the middle classes, betrayed by one of his own disciples, arrested, tried on trumped up charges, and executed as a political prisoner. It doesn’t get much more disorientating than that for the people who followed him.
Even before we start thinking about the events we celebrate today, there is a lesson for us all in here: God does the unexpected. As I shared with you on Wednesday night, that has been my repeated experience throughout my life. The events of Holy Week and Easter are perhaps the ultimate example of God doing the unexpected.
But now, finally, on Easter Sunday, comes the beginning of the reorientation.
And it starts with quite a profound statement of intent about what this new creation, initiated in the resurrection, is going to look like. The very first person Jesus appears to is Mary Magdalene, a woman. This is important because in the Jewish legal system of that time women were not permitted to be legal witnesses. Their testimony was not counted as valid.
Jesus lays down a marker right from the beginning: Everyone is to be counted as equal. Everyone is to be valued in this new kingdom. And so the fledgling church to which the Holy Spirit gives birth at Pentecost soon has women in positions of responsibility and leadership. Mary Magdalene herself becomes known as the Apostle to the Apostles. This is a part of the reorientation.
Yet even this is only an outward expression. The real reorientation is in the disciples understanding of who Jesus actually is. The phrase ‘Son of God’ was used a lot more often in Judaism of that and the earlier period than we think. It was an honorific, expressing that someone was deeply a part of God’s family, It was often used in earlier times as a title for a king.
However, in this reorientation the disciples begin to realise and take seriously that Jesus is not just a son of God; he is The Son of God, and so we have that most incredible piece of early theology at the beginning of John’s Gospel where the writer makes it clear that the divine part of Jesus has always been a part of God.
We often miss just how huge a step this was to take, remembering that Jews of Jesus’ time were ardent monotheists, and yet now their experience of Jesus meant that they were having to recognise he was also fully divine as well as fully human.
As people brought up in a country where Christianity is still the state religion it is hard for us to appreciate just how much of a reorientation this was.
It was a radical departure from accepted doctrine. The Jewish teachings of the Torah were founded on something called the Shema, with the words, ‘Hear O Israel, Yahweh is your God, Yahweh is One’. Somehow they were going to have to understand that oneness in a new way.
But there was more. Jesus was alive again, but clearly in a new sense of the word alive. The disciples had to begin to appreciate that this was resurrection, not reanimation. When Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, it was clear he was simply alive again; he’d been returned to his old self. But Jesus was more alive now than he had ever been.
That reorientation process grew into an understanding that the resurrection that Jesus had undergone was not just the defeating of death, but also the first fruit of what all of his followers could hope for and expect. This was why they stopped fearing death. They’d seen it with their own eyes. They’d eaten with the man who could appear inside a locked room.
This total reorientation, this new understanding of what the kingdom of God is actually like, laid the groundwork for them to be ready to receive the Holy Spirit and be sent out into all the world, turning it upside down with this new understanding of the forgiving, accepting, love of God that reaches out to everyone and treats everyone as being of equal value, regardless of who they are and what they’ve done.
And that brings us to today and where we are in our current situation. One of the things that really stood out for me and attracted me about this church was a statement in the parish profile, that you wanted to go from being a welcoming church to being an inviting church. I find that really exciting. So let’s turn back to our three stage motif of orientation, disorientation and reorientation and apply it to now.
Back in 2019 no one imagined what would happen over the next couple of years. Some of us watched with a growing sense of unease at Christmas that year as reports began to grow of a new coronavirus spreading across the world. We were in one orientation, but many of us began to see a disorientation coming.
The last year and a bit has been awful for so many. For those of us used to visiting the distressed, the sense of hopelessness has been difficult to dispel. It has been heartbreaking to take funerals where loved ones were separated from each other, and even on one occasion at the height of the lockdown where it was just me, a Reader and the funeral director.
This has been a disorientation like no other, and we are going to be holding the pain felt by so many for years to come. But there are signs of a reorientation coming, and the question we must ask ourselves as a church is, how are we going to respond to what is going to be a different world? How can we be inviting in this new culture?
It’s clear that online church cannot be a sticking plaster to get us through the disorientation. It must be a part of the reorientation as well. When we get back to meeting properly in church, and I yearn for that day, we must not hang up our computers like winter coats when the summer comes.
One of the lessons I quickly learned in my last parish was that if we made our services available, people would attend, either live or, quite often, later on. We livestreamed directly to Facebook because it was open and accessible to anyone, and I had people tune in who I hadn’t seen since their weddings.
I saw baptism families. I saw names I’d never seen before. I saw people from other countries! Virtual church attendance went through the roof in early lockdown. Ever wondered why?
Think of it like this. The first time I went shopping in Argos I stood around for ages trying to figure out what to do. Everyone else seemed to know what they were doing but I was clueless. That is how most people feel the first time they try and attend church. Clergy see this a lot at weddings and baptisms. Everyone stands around outside because no one knows what to do.
But when we make our services available online we take out that fear-factor. No one can see that you don’t know what you’re doing. Online worship and teaching needs to be a part of the reorientation. And there is no time to lose in this. Sociologists have been looking back at what happened after the 1918 flu pandemic. Have you heard the phrase, ‘The roaring twenties?’
We partied like we’ve never partied before because we’d survived. The suggestion is that the same thing is likely to happen. So there is a window of opportunity now. People are still looking for hope, and we have the greatest hope there is, eternal life which starts here, and now; not ‘pie-in-the-sky-when-you-die.’
This life in Christ, this reorientation is what we need to invite people to. So over the next weeks and months let us look at who we are and how we offer this amazing gift, at how we invite others to share in the blessing we have received. Let’s look at how we can make our online worship even more accessible, and let’s make plans for new styles that we can offer to serve the culture of which we are a part.
God is always in the business of resurrection and reorientation. Let us make sure we are walking hand in hand with the Spirit as we look for how we can serve the people who have yet to be invited. Amen
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