’Make this contemporary wilderness a place of everlasting love’ – Archbishop’s Easter Day Sermon
“They are the people who are made victims of insufficient provision for survival and for dignity at home; they are the people who are trapped in the cycle of injustice which is widely understood to characterize the selective distribution and withholding of wealth at home and abroad; they are the people who ask for nothing but, like us, hope for everything that is good and find that the unyielding wilderness in all of its contemporary gracelessness and Godlessness is the only place they can inhabit because the door of compassion and recognition is shut in their faces – inside and outside the very same churches. We need to make this contemporary wilderness a place of everlasting love as Jeremiah names it.”
Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, Easter Day April 5th 2015
Sermon by the Archbishop, the Most Revd Dr Michael Jackson
Jeremiah 31.2: Thus says the Lord: The people who survived the sword found grace in the wilderness; when Israel sought for rest, the Lord appeared to him from far away. I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you.
EMPTINESS AND OPENNESS
I have often felt that we need, on Easter Day, to close the gap between emptiness and openness. This gap is a very modern dilemma but, like much that is modern, not entirely new. The emptiness of the tomb in the garden and its opening through the rolling away of the stone at its entrance, are an invitation to us to enter into the new realm of resurrection where we are to look for the signs of God’s presence and God’s meeting us in the world of Easter and beyond. The openness of the Road to Emmaus is an invitation to move further, to journey beyond the garden into new relationships in our own lives and in the lives of our communities with the Risen Christ. This you might rightly describe as a Fresh Expression of The God–with–us, The Emmanuel of Christmas Day, now risen from the dead. The Come and See of St John 1 has moved through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus to be Go and Meet. The Easter Faith invites us to accompany the Risen Christ and to form a community around him wherever we gather Scripturally and wherever bread is broken and wine is shared. We witness to the body of faith as members of the body of humanity; this body remains radical in action and responsible for others.
GRACE IN THE WILDERNESS
The prophet Jeremiah, as we have heard, speaks of grace in the wilderness. God gives generously to us from within God’s very self. God gives to God’s people in the wilderness, in a place where we might expect to find only what is arid, unyielding, niggardly and brittle. God speaks of building and of music, of planting and of fruitfulness. Jeremiah is very clear in his description of God’s action as an outpouring of God’s everlasting love and continued faithfulness to his people, given in the promise and the hope of a new life. The people who receive love and faithfulness from God are invited to show the same in their response. We are told of a community of movement. We are invited to join a movement of joy and a melody of structures that will last and serve the needs of those outside and those inside. Happiness involves being there for others as God has been there for us in the wilderness. It is essential that we do not become forgetful of God’s everlasting love when we have emerged safely from the wilderness.
This movement mirrors and indeed strengthens the experience that countless Christian people worldwide have had in the Season of Lent. Whatever we have ‘given up,’ we seek to harness and to concentrate spiritual energy around the Three Guidelines of Ash Wednesday: prayer, almsgiving and fasting. We seek to pattern them on the resistance given by Jesus to the Three Temptations: setting personal capacity against the word of God; setting personal celebrity against the care of God; setting personal wealth against the service of God. All of these qualities work together within the economy of God to fulfil the glorious voices of Ash Wednesday when together we call on the God who hates nothing that God has made. Lent is not, nor should it ever have been, about self–hatred or the hatred of others in the name of God. It would be a mistake to read the wilderness as having everything to do with temptation and nothing to do with positive resolution of temptation. For this reason Jeremiah is a good bridge between Lent and Easter. We are to emerge from the wilderness empowered by the Spirit of God who has first driven us into the wilderness and who brought Jesus Christ in and out of the wilderness.
FROM EMPTINESS TO OPENNNESS
We find there is more than a thread connecting Lent and Easter. There is the gracious movement from emptiness to openness, and it comes to full and fresh expression on Easter Day – but it does not come out of nowhere. For us who live the life of the Church’s Year, the Season of Lent is packed with moments of revelation, with people of response and with shafts of reaction. There are times of compassion and of restraint when, for example, the servant tells the master to give the fruitless fig tree a stay of execution for one more year. There are times of righteous anger as in the Cleaning Down of The Temple when Jesus tells those with religious power and authority that they cannot cost out and in effect prevent access to the God of creation; and there are times of realism such as the discussion about light and darkness between Jesus and Nicodemus, an elastic tension that will never go away. It can never be said that nothing is happening in Lent, in this time of everlasting love as Jeremiah so wonderfully calls it. It is a time of receptivity when self–emptying prepares the way for being fulfilled by God and by our neighbours. The ministry that Jesus lives for us through the Scriptures of Lent reminds us that nothing stops happening in this Season. Self–emptying opens the door to self–understanding.
THE SHAPE OF SCRIPTURE
The gap between emptiness and openness is not one we can bridge in our own strength or in our own mind. The continuing reality of the gap is the reason that we have been given the opportunity to make such vigorous and positive use of Lent and Easter. The Scriptures in their very shape give us the big picture of how we hold emptiness and openness together. The Old Testament talks of the movement from exile to restoration. The New Testament takes us on a journey from hiddenness to revelation, whether it be the Messianic Secret of the Gospel of St Mark or the more widespread development of the divine Jesus as a human person or the confident emergence of the earliest churches in their context in such a way that St Paul can appeal as a citizen directly to the Emperor in Rome. And the Easter Gospel gives us perhaps the most accessible movement of all, from anonymity to recognition when, after all the trauma, people who knew one another still know one another. The words are etched in our memory: Jesus said to her, Mary! She turned and said to him in Hebrew, Rabbouni! (which means Teacher).
IN OUR DAY …
The wilderness remains, it does not go away and we need the grace of God to survive in it. The open road follows on from the open door of the empty tomb. However any of us understands these words today, the invitation to those who are disciples of Jesus Christ is that we disciple for others every bit as much as expecting others to disciple for us. The direct encounter with Judas that ushered in The Passion is mirrored by the direct encounter with Mary that ushered in The Commissioning of disciples to Go and Meet. In both we are invited to accept that God knows what God is doing. The direct encounter tells us something more, however. We have become too reliant on formal institutions, inside and outside the churches, to carry our discipleship. We have disempowered ourselves in regard to opening our own eyes and ears, hearts and hands to meet and to walk with those who form a community by virtue of their being with one another and who form our community by virtue of our being with them. They are unavoidable whether we reject them or embrace them; they are still there. They are the people who are made victims of insufficient provision for survival and for dignity at home; they are the people who are trapped in the cycle of injustice which is widely understood to characterize the selective distribution and withholding of wealth at home and abroad; they are the people who ask for nothing but, like us, hope for everything that is good and find that the unyielding wilderness in all of its contemporary gracelessness and Godlessness is the only place they can inhabit because the door of compassion and recognition is shut in their faces – inside and outside the very same churches. We need to make this contemporary wilderness a place of everlasting love as Jeremiah names it.
Colossians 3.2–4: Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on the earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.