28th April 2024

The Easter Life Sermon

A sermon given by Bishop Richard Chartres, Assistant Bishop in the Diocese of Salisbury, at our Easter Carol Service.

29 May 2024

“Jesus stood among them and said, Peace be with you”.The doors were locked where the disciples were gathered. They were immobilised by fear.

The Resurrection was an event but it was not like the resuscitation of a corpse. St John describes the raising of Lazarus in chapter X as the resuscitation of a body still “bound hand and foot with graveclothes”. By contrast St Paul describes the resurrection [1 Cor.XV:42-44] as being “sown a physical body and being raised a spiritual body”.

Resurrection brings a new reality into being and is not some restoration of the old life. It is an earthquake, a new creation.
It is the gift of the Spirit that makes the Resurrection more than an uncanny event. With the gift of the Spirit, the Resurrection becomes a transforming reality. With the entry of Jesus into that locked room, their fear was overcome by joy.

The immobilising fear in that locked room is something very real to our generation.

“The Anxious Generation” is the title of the latest book by John Haidt, the prophetic American commentator on our times. While there are millions in our world understandably fearful of the prospect of famine and conflict, the young people Haidt describes in the Anglo-American world, enjoy a level of opulence and security hard to parallel, except for the very rich, in all of human history. Yet they are fearful and demand protection even from challenging ideas.

As Haidt demonstrates, these young people cannot be held entirely responsible for their plight. They are part of an increasingly fearful Western world. The threat of climate change and the fading of unchallengeable Western hegemony conjures up a more dangerous and unpredictable future. Popular faith in the inevitability of progress, sustained by advances in technology, seems to have taken a knock. The advance of superintelligent machines makes it likely that the great question for our century will centre on the meaning and the value of human life.

B.F.Skinner, the influential Harvard Professor who was associated with the development of the behaviourist school in psychology celebrated the abolition of “the man defended by the literature of freedom and dignity”. In his book “Beyond Freedom and Dignity” he declared “to man qua man we readily say good riddance. Only by dispossessing him can we turn to the real cause of human behaviour. Only then can we turn from the inaccessible to the manipulable.”

The risen Jesus Christ entered the locked room and said to the disciples “Peace be with you”. Then he showed them his hands and his side and said again “Peace be with you”. He breathed on them and said “Receive the Holy Spirit”.

The breathing recalls the moment in Genesis when God formed man from the dust of the ground and “breathed into his nostrils the breath of life and man became a living soul”.

The main business of the Easter life in this Age of Anxiety is to receive the Holy Spirit and live and grow in the Spirit. The gift of the Holy Spirit opens up the community to a new future centred on a new intimacy with Jesus the human face of God and a new vocation to go out into all the world with his life-giving love.

This involves being realistic about where we have come from and the Holy Spirit also opens up a new relationship with the past. “If you forgive the sins of any they are forgiven.” Sin means being locked up in ourselves and the work of Jesus Christ in the Spirit is to prise open the locked room of our self-centredness.

It is the Holy Spirit that enables us to be witnesses of the Resurrection that should not be seen as the crown of the development of humanity through the millennia but the first fruit of a new creation.

That’s the theory. But when did you last hear of a PCC meeting still less a session of the General Synod suspended for want of the gift of the Spirit? We should acknowledge the force of Nietzsche’s gibe “for me to have faith in their redeemer, his disciples would have to look more redeemed.”

The church as we know it, is often disappointing but Jesus comes when they were together behind locked doors facing their confusion, their fear and the memory of their betrayal. In a similar way the Holy Spirit at Pentecost came when they were altogether in one place. The Spirit is given to a community able to face their confusion and disappointment and to forgive one another. It is then that it is possible to be aware of the presence and activity of the Spirit.

Jesus had promised that the Spirit will lead us into all truth but what kind of truth? It is not fresh information about the historical Jesus, it is awareness of the truth of Jesus, the man who lived every moment in the presence of the Father through the Holy Spirit. It is like seeing with new eyes, face to face with the truth of Jesus Christ not just the truth about him.

This vital distinction between the truth of someone in the Spirit and the truth about someone was brought home to me in an unexpected place. I was visiting a rehabilitation centre for people who had been convicted of drug related offences. I was nervous as I approached the plate glass doors. A bishop’s visit can have an unpredictable effect on people, often hostile or derisive. The Warden who was with me at the entrance pointed out a giant of a man and said jestingly “that man has had more convictions than even you have got”. I did not find that encouraging but it was that man who asked me to sit down and talk with him. The defences were down and there began a conversation in which no one was playing a game or wearing a mask, in which we were not observing one another a subjects observing objects but aware of one another subject to subject, aware of the truth of one another not just some of the facts about each other.

This is one of the signs of the presence of the Spirit who brings a lively awareness and claims our attention. As the Welsh poet Ann Griffiths says of the figure of the risen Jesus, “How he compels beyond all things”.

Where the authentic Holy Spirit is present there is a claim for attention and a call to make personal and responsible decisions. The opening up of the locked room is enlarged still further as the Lord sends his disciples out with a vocation of life-giving love for the world.

This involves things that we see Jesus doing, meditating on the scriptures, understanding the symphony in which we are involved, forming a learning and loving community, serving and praying. The vocation is not to some precise copy of what Jesus did but “as the Father sent him”, we are invited to discern afresh and improvise in new situations. But as David Ford says in his inspired commentary on St John’s gospel “without deepening appreciation of who Jesus is and of what he said and did, the newness risks being shallow, inappropriate, unfruitful or unfaithful”. To ring true our vocation must be inspired as Jesus was by the Holy Spirit.

The disciples Jesus whom wants are not so much men and women drawn by a personal devotion to him and a concern for their own salvation but those who willing to participate in his own devotion to finding and doing the Father’s will. It was the prayer he taught them – Thy kingdom come; thy will be done. It was Jesus’s continuous and total possession by the Spirit of God that convinced the apostles that he was not only the Messiah but the Son of God.

The gift of the Spirit does not grant superhuman power and guidance so much as free individuals to form a community both caught up into the risen life of Christ and a new awareness of one another which breaks out into praise, as it did for George and Mary Herbert. Then the world comes running for an explanation.

The Spirit reveals the truth of Jesus not about him. The Spirit demands that a choice is made. This Easter-tide the demand comes to us afresh in this Cathedral – Choose ye this day whom ye will serve, the new humanity or the functional atheism of this age of anxiety.