Skip to comments.Archbishop Rowan Williams: Sermon for Easter Day
Posted on 04/16/2006 8:54:06 AM PDT by sionnsar
One of the ways in which we now celebrate the great Christian festivals in our society is by a little flurry of newspaper articles and television programmes raking over the coals of controversies about the historical basis of faith. So it was no huge surprise to see a fair bit of coverage given a couple of weeks ago to the discovery of a Gospel of Judas, which was (naturally) going to shake the foundations of traditional belief by giving an alternative version of the story of the passion and resurrection. Never mind that this is a demonstrably late text which simply parallels a large number of quite well-known works from the more eccentric fringes of the early century Church; this is a scoop, the real, now it can be told version of the origins of Christian faith.
Youll recognise the style, of course, from the saturation coverage of the Da Vinci Code literature. We are instantly fascinated by the suggestion of conspiracies and cover-ups; this has become so much the stuff of our imagination these days that it is only natural, it seems, to expect it when we turn to ancient texts, especially biblical texts. We treat them as if they were unconvincing press releases from some official source, whose intention is to conceal the real story; and that real story waits for the intrepid investigator to uncover it and share it with the waiting world. Anything that looks like the official version is automatically suspect. Someone is trying to stop you finding out what really happened, because what really happened could upset or challenge the power of officialdom.
It all makes a good and characteristically modern story about resisting authority, bringing secrets to light, exposing corruption and deception; it evokes Watergate and All the Presidents Men. As someone remarked after a television programme about the Da Vinci Code, its almost that wed prefer to believe something like this instead of the prosaic reality. We have become so suspicious of the power of words and the way that power is exercised to defend those who fear to be criticised. The first assumption we make is that were faced with spin of some kind, with an agenda being forced on us like a magician forcing a card on the audience. So that the modern response to the proclamation, Christ is risen! is likely to be, Ah, but you would say that, wouldnt you? Now, whats the real agenda?
We dont trust power; and because the Church has historically been part of one or another sort of establishment and has often stood very close to political power, perhaps we can hardly expect to be exempt from this general suspicion. But what it doesnt help us with is understanding what the New Testament writers are actually saying and why. We have, every Easter, to strip away the accumulated lumber of two thousand years of rather uneven Christian witness and try to let the event be present in its first, disturbing, immediacy.
For the Church does not exist just to transmit a message across the centuries through a duly constituted hierarchy that arbitrarily lays down what people must believe; it exists so that people in this and every century may encounter Jesus of Nazareth as a living contemporary. This sacrament of Holy Communion that we gather to perform here is not the memorial of a dead leader, conducted by one of his duly authorised successors who controls access to his legacy; it is an event where we are invited to meet the living Jesus as surely as did his disciples on the first Easter Day. And the Bible is not the authorised code of a society managed by priests and preachers for their private purposes, but the set of human words through which the call of God is still uniquely immediate to human beings today, human words with divine energy behind them. Easter should be the moment to recover each year that sense of being contemporary with Gods action in Jesus. Everything the church does celebrating Holy Communion, reading the Bible, ordaining priests or archbishops is meant to be in the service of this contemporary encounter. It all ought to be transparent to Jesus, not holding back or veiling his presence.
Yes, the sceptic will say, all very well, but why on earth should I believe that? Especially when it comes from the mouth of a figure who clearly has a bit of a vested interest in getting me to believe it, or from an institution that doesnt always look like a model of transparency? Well, all any preacher can do is point to how the text of the New Testament actually works. Two points at least are worth bearing in mind. First, it was written by people who, by writing what they did and believing what they did, were making themselves, in the worlds terms, less powerful, not more. They were walking out into an unmapped territory, away from the safe places of political and religious influence, away from traditional Jewish religion and from Roman society and law. As the gospels and Pauls letters and the difficult, enigmatic letter to the Hebrews all agree, they were putting themselves in a place where they shred the humiliation experienced by condemned criminals going naked in public procession to their execution.
Second, the New Testament was written by people who were still trying to find a language that would catch up with a reality bigger than they had expected. The stories of the resurrection especially have all the characteristics of stories told by people who are struggling to find the right words for an unfamiliar experience like the paradoxes and strained language of some of the mystics. The disciples really meet Jesus, as he always was, flesh and blood yet at first they dont recognise him, and hes something more than just flesh and blood. At the moment of recognition, when bread is broken, when the wounds of crucifixion are displayed, he withdraws again, leaving us floundering for words. He gives authority and power to the disciples to proclaim his victory and to forgive sins in his name, yet he tells Peter that his future is one in which he will be trussed up and imprisoned and hustled away to death.
So the New Testament is not a collection of books with a single tight agenda that works on behalf of a powerful elite; it is the product of a community of people living at great risk and doing so because they sense themselves compelled by a mystery and presence that is completely authoritative for them the presence of Jesus. They have been convinced that being in the company of Jesus is the way to become fully and effectively human. They are discovering how to live together without greed, fear and suspicion because of his company. They believe that theyve been given the gift of showing the world what justice and mutual service and gratitude might look like in a world that is a very dangerous place because of our incapacity for these things. They take the risks because they believe they have been entrusted with a promise.
Whatever this is, it is not about cover-ups, not about the secret agenda of power; it may be nonsense to you, it may be unreal to you, but dont be deceived about the nature of the message and those who lived it out in the days when the New Testament was being written. And thats why if we want to know what it is about today, we need to turn to the people who are taking the same risks, struggling with the same mystery. We need to look at the martyrs and the mystics. There are still those who tell us about God in Jesus Christ by lives of intense and mostly wordless prayer; how very powerfully God was to be seen in last years extraordinary television series, The Monastery, where we saw some very ordinary human beings faced with the demands of a life in which you had to be truthful, where you had to be silent, where you had to search for reconciliation at all costs. But still more important, there are those who tell us about God in Jesus Christ by putting their lives at risk. There are places in our world where conversion to Christianity is literally a matter of putting your life on the line; we have all been following with agonised attention the story of Abdul Rahman in Afghanistan, and we know that his story is not unique. We can say there with absolute certainty that whatever the gospel means in circumstances like that, it isnt a cover-up for the sake of the powerful.
But there are also places where what brings down the violence and the murderousness is simply a willingness to make reconciliation real. Nearly three years ago, during the bloody civil war in the Solomon Islands, a major part was played in peacemaking by the local Anglican religious order known as the Melanesian Brotherhood, a community of local men committed to a common discipline of praying and teaching and spreading the gospel as they travel round the villages by drama and song and preaching. Seven of them were held hostage and killed in cold blood by a rebel group. The shock of that act of gratuitous butchery jolted almost everyone involved into beginning a peace process; the brothers continue to be involved at every level in that work.
Last summer, a number of the brothers visited England, taking their songs and their drama into churches and schools in a number of areas. Everyone who has seen them at work will remember it all their lives. One of the things they did was to perform a passion play; and this is what one of them wrote about it.
This passion was our own testimony to our seven brothers who were murdered in 2003. For Christ-like they became the innocent victims of the violence they had worked so hard to stop. They were beaten and mocked and tortured and recorded on tape recorders in the sickening mockery of a trial before their murderers They were put to death for the sins of the people. And they live on. I wish I could show you these men and their goodness and their innocence. And when we see real evil we must recognise it too: the opposition, the true sin of our world where brutality of this nature becomes a cause to be justified.
Our story of the Passion of Christ took place 2,000 years ago but it is still taking place throughout our world today. But we have been changed. We did not travel from the other side of the world to preach a death but to preach a resurrection. For we know where we stand and we know who we belong to. And we believe there is a choice in all this, a choice to belong to the life giver.
We know where we stand and we know who we belong to. Beyond all the history of confusion and betrayal that surrounds a lot of the Churchs history, beyond the power games that we still play in the churches, this one rocklike conviction remains, the conviction that drove the writing of every word of the New Testament. Nothing to do with conspiracies, with the agenda of the powerful; everything to do with how the powerless, praying , risking their lives for the sake of Christ and his peace, are the ones who understand the Word of God. And to accept that is not to sign up to the agenda of a troubled, fussy human society of worried prelates and squabbling factions. It is to choose life, to choose to belong to the life-giver.
>> sceptic <<
I like this spelling. It looks like it should be pronounced, "septic."
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