Alleluia! Christ is risen.
He is risen indeed. Alleluia!
I said Happy Easter to someone the other day and they looked at me as if I had gone completely mad! Because we’re a long way away from 27 March now, and if you can see our Easter candle up there by the high altar you will see it’s about one third of the height it was when we lit it on Easter morning. It’s been burning every day in the cathedral since then, and today is the 29th day of the Easter season. There are still 21 days of this wonderful season left to go by which time we will be in the middle of May and at least in my mind’s eye I see the West doors open and blazing sunshine pouring in to this building - though perhaps that’s just wishful thinking on my part!
One of the things about the Easter season is that it gathers up lots of these really important stories about how it is that the story of Easter went from being something that was known only to a dozen or so frightened people, to being the absolute central truth of a world religion. If there was a Christianity test, which praise God there is not because I suspect I would not be the only person who would struggle with it, and we were asked to explain what makes Christianity unique and different from any other religion then of course the answer is that Christianity is unique because of its beliefs about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The clue I suppose is in the name: Christ-ianity.
But just think about those stories we read as the day dawned on 27 March if you were here in the cathedral. Those stories contain phrases like “and the disciples said nothing to anyone for they were terrified.” When this extraordinary thing happens to start with even the disciples, the people who probably know Jesus the best, are confused, afraid, and therefore silent. Easter doesn’t actually happen with a fanfare of trumpets and the massed conversion of the multitudes, it happens with a few people bending over and looking into a grave and being completely flummoxed by what they find.
But then momentum gathers, and in the stories we hear over these few weeks in between Easter Day and the Day of Pentecost, the final day of this season, we hear some of the stories, events, and realisations that the disciples have, which frame the development of the whole religion. And of course we don’t necessarily hear them in order, which is one of the challenges of reading the Bible the way the Church of England has decided to do it, but we do get some answers to that fascinating question of how it is that, to quote one hymn writer, “100 men and women turned the known world upside down.”
And this morning’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles is one of the really crucial staging points if you like, in this development of Christianity as a really radical new enterprise. This has got to do with who belongs. The disciples in Judaea, that’s mostly the Apostles, the members of Jesus’ own original community, start hearing stories that non-Jewish people, Gentiles as they are known in the Scripture, are becoming captivated and enthralled by this story of Jesus and his resurrection from the dead, and that hearing these stories is beginning to change their lives. And this rather flummoxes them. This thing, this risen presence of Jesus, is rather bigger than they thought it was. It won’t fit inside the pre-existing boundaries and guidelines. There’s a lovely bit in the film Pirates of the Caribbean, I don’t know whether you know it, where in order to justify breaking the rules Captain Barbosa, when challenged about the fact that he is breaking the Pirates Code says, “Ah well, I likes to think of the code as more like guidelines…” What was happening here is that the guidelines are becoming more and more elastic, as the stories of what happened on Easter morning get spread further and further from Jerusalem in this centrifugal model of ministry and preaching. The story gets spread wider and wider, and more and more diverse groups of people encounter it and one by one all the expectations come crashing down. And today’s story is all about whether or not you need to be a Jew in order to be a Christian. Now that might sound completely preposterous to you and me now, but of course all of the first Christians were Jews, and therefore inheritors of the great weight of tradition of the Jewish faith, and for the first time Gentiles, people who were not Jewish, were hearing and believing the story of Jesus and wanting to be baptised and become members of the community and so the Apostles have to work out their doctrine if you like, their understanding of what on earth is going on and what Jesus is doing on the hoof. And to that end Peter is gifted with this vision of the sort of sack of animals and birds, this great sheet containing every type of beast in creation and he is told that everything within the sheet is clean. In other words the old laws about purity, what you could eat and what you couldn’t eat, no longer apply. It’s a metaphor, it’s a way of Peter learning this crucial truth that there is no distinction between Jews and non-Jews when it comes to membership of the body of Christ. “If then”, says Peter, “God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed… Who was I that I could hinder God?”
This is one of those fabulous passages which reminds us that you can try to hem in, and box in, and kind of squash down and control the Holy Spirit of God, but it’s a pretty futile thing to try to do, because like a stone laid against the front of the tomb, it just kind of bursts open anyway and escapes. And lots and lots of the story of the Acts of the Apostles, this wonderful book which is the account of the first few years of the life of this revolutionary cult which will go on to become what is still reckoned to be the faith with the most adherents in the world today. And is all about letting go of control interestingly. Every time the early Christians hit a bump, it seems to be when they are trying to keep control, and the Holy Spirit simply goes around them. It’s worth remembering in our own time.
Part of the appeal of course is the complexity and the simplicity at one of the same time, of the message. Look at the last few lines of our gospel reading this morning: “I give you a new commandment”, says Jesus to his disciples a few hours before he is arrested, “that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
Now the church of course has consistently failed to live up to the mark on this. Just imagine what it would be like if every Christian in the world genuinely loved like Jesus did. Genuinely loved with that sort of self-giving, self-denying sacrificial love that we thought about on Good Friday.
We can recognise bits of that example in some of the loving that we either give or receive. You know loving somebody is probably the most risky thing you can ever do. Because you don’t know if they’re going to love you back. You can sometimes have a pretty good guess one way or the other. If it’s a very close friend or a very serious enemy you can probably extrapolate the likely reaction. But what Jesus says is you need to love one another. This kind of commitment to taking the other person seriously, of doing the best we can to genuinely value the person you are looking at talking to, and particularly to value and respect and honour the people with whom we don’t have natural bonds of understanding or culture: that’s what will transform the world. That you take people seriously and honour them because they are people and not because they can follow the rules laid down in a book somewhere.
It’s hard to imagine now quite what it must’ve been like to hear that for the first time. It is hard to imagine the excitement and the terror in the confusion of the early apostles and disciples as this message took hold across the region.
What is not hard to identify are the places and situations where that message needs to be just as clear today in challenging a culture that instinctively wants to control its boundaries. A culture where we’re either told or even more insidiously sometimes we tell ourselves, that we don’t belong. We are reminded on this 29th day of Easter the one thing only links you and me and Christians in Japan and Palestine and Latin America and South Sudan, and that is that we recognise that the tomb was empty, and that out of the door of the tomb pours love that involves us and lifts us up and rewrites the parameters of our lives. And it is in response to that, that something of that sort of love is to be the hallmark of the life of the church: reptiles, four-footed beasts, birds of the air and all the rest of us flapping about together in the sheet.
Alleluia! Christ is risen.
He is risen indeed. Alleluia!