There was a succinct and brilliant affirmation of the heart of the Christian faith in a leader article in The Guardian on Wednesday. It was a thoughtful piece on the fire at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. I have become so used to seeing swipes at faith that it took me by surprise, so much so that I found myself reading the first sentence over and over again, not quite sure if I’d read it correctly. It said,
“To be a Christian is to be attentive to signs of God’s action in the world, and this is especially true in Holy Week and at Easter, when – the faithful believe – Jesus by his death and resurrection revealed the nature of God’s relationship with humanity.”
It went on a little further down to refer to cathedrals and churches pointing to truths that “are larger and more important than anything that can be fitted into a political struggle”. Wow, amen to all of that. Signs of God’s action in the world, Jesus’ death and resurrection revealing the nature of God’s relationship with humanity, churches pointing to values and truths far bigger than our parochial and political concerns. Welcome to Easter Day!
Today is the most important day of the Christian year. It is the day on which our hope and aspirations pivot on a scale and stage far bigger than anything else. We are put in our place and that place is within the heart of God. God relates to us his people with love. Passion and pain become hope and glory. What has been lost is found, what has been destroyed is collected together and restored in grace. God brings life into being and the end of that life is life beyond measure. Death has no dominion here; it does not have the final word. In Easter God reveals the purpose of his love as the gift of life.
When we look for signs of God’s love and those bigger values and concerns we need to find places where they become apparent to us. And we see them when we see them being lived out.
As that leader article pointed out, these structures, our buildings, with their soaring pillars of stone, provide one of the places where our vision can be helped to see, to reflect on those higher values and that love. They are not the only places but it is one of the gifts they bring, standing as representations, sermons in stone. They are built on a scale to lift our imaginations to begin to wonder and in that wondering to ask what response we are to make. As we sit here we connect with values that transcend our daily concerns and preoccupations, which undergird everything about us but also confront us with the inconsistencies and places where we fall short. A number of people have pointed out the inconsistency of being able to raise a billion Euros in a matter of days to restore a building when we can’t raise the same money or effort to end poverty, build peace and relieve those in need, even tackle climate change. And so what can point to God, point to higher values can also be a massive distraction, even displacement activity from the heart of who we are and what we are called to be, from what the building is meant to confront us with. At their best, though, these building stand as reminders of the soul of life, of the hope we have in Christ and of the values that stand above us and before us, calling us on and challenging us with the awkward questions. What is money for? Who is our neighbour? What do we really own and therefore how are we relate to our planet which we are damaging on an insane scale? The young who protest are being prophetic.
The burning of a cathedral in Paris could be seen as a sign and symbol of what we are doing to our planet. We are burning the very place where hope should abound and we see in it our vulnerability reflected back at us. This planet is burning in rising temperatures from carbon emissions and deforestation, and the climate is changing leading to the loss of species. If Notre Dame is a sign of the higher values, then these are on fire if we don’t adhere to them. I had to look up what Extinction Rebellion, the group behind the protesters in London and other cities, actually want because this wasn’t coming over in the press reports. Whatever you think of their methods, they are raising important challenges.
Their first and major ‘demand’ is for the truth to be told about the climate crisis, the ecological emergency that we face. So many people over so many years have been saying this, and it has to be faced. Concern for the integrity of creation is one of the Five Marks of Mission in the Anglican Church. So this is not just the preserve of a wacky group of eccentrics, it is the concern of all of us who proclaim Easter as the foundation of our faith. God gives us life and we are very ungrateful if we abuse it and treat it with the cynical contempt that we are doing as a species or are allowing to be done. Few of us can claim to be squeaky clean here – we all use and benefit from technology and other developments that pollute or use up non-renewable resources, so are by definition finite and will therefore run out one day. There are challenges for us all to face on the small scale and on the larger scale.
The second demand is about how quickly we can effect change. This one is less clear. Extinction Rebellion want it done by 2025 – within 6 years. Some working in this area think 2050 is more likely. Others have said we may well be beyond the tipping point now. Whatever timescale is picked, time is tight and the urgency critical.
Their third demand is for a political consensus which can transcend short-term party political interests. They express this in terms of a Citizens’ Assembly. The method may well be open to debate, but the need to make this a political issue beyond the short-termism of party popularity is equally urgent if it is going to stand a chance of being taken seriously and enacted.
So one burning issue, which reflecting on the higher values of God who gives life and treasures life, is the ecological emergency we face. As we sit in these buildings and reflect on creation, on redemption, on the hope of God, a challenge comes back to live the risen life in ways that are thankful. We don’t live thankfully in squandering what we have been given and in damaging it for short-term gain. Easter faith means that the values of heaven have touched earth. So it would be a mistake to think this new life is only about what happens when we die. The whole of our existence is under the lordship of Christ. So when St Paul says that ‘if it is only for this life that we hope in Christ then we are of all most to be pitied’ he doesn’t mean that the world is of no concern (1 Corinthians 15:19). For Paul Christ brought about a new world order, where the values of eternity join with the values of the earth, change the values of earth. We have been raised up and blessing comes to us for we have been redeemed.
On this Easter Sunday, when we celebrate the heart of our faith in Christ rising from the dead, when ‘Alleluia’ is our song, our imagination is to be lifted and with it the challenge to live in tune with the hope of heaven. Easter reveals to us how God relates to humanity: created, loved and brought into the embrace of his kingdom. He gives life and treasures life. Among the many practical and direct ways this can be seen is in confronting the ecological emergency we face, which is a spiritual challenge in how we honour the gift that is life. Easter celebrates the life at the heart and purposes of God and calls on us to show that celebration in every area of our living. Then we can join together in the Easter acclamation in word and deed, for Christ is risen. He is risen indeed. Alleluia!
Sermon for Easter Day, Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 21st April 2019