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A Sermon from Sherborne
Encouraged by the Resurrection
A sermon for the Parish Eucharist at Sherborne Abbey, preached on Sunday 26 May 2019 by the Reverend Christopher Huitson
Fifty years ago, at the beginning of June, I was ordained as Deacon so it is a happy chance that I am acting as Deacon in this service today. Next year it is that recalls the 50th anniversary of my ordination as Priest. These momentous events took place at Canterbury Cathedral under the benign eye of Archbishop Michael Ramsey. He took responsibility for a great many aspects of his duties rather than hiving them off onto a team of clergy and so he it was that who gave the ordination addresses, as we took several days to reflect again on the enormity of what we were doing. The one I especially remember, even after all these years, began with a quotation from the Psalms which ran “They shall grin like a dog and run about the city”. He used it, of course, to look at what is often expected of curates but ended up on a much more profound note.
Michael Ramsey seemed to collect around him amusing stories. My favourite concerns his entry into the Cathedral in procession. He seemed distracted and kept fiddling with his collar. Eventually he gave a great heave and produced from the top of his cope – a clothes hanger!
By happy coincidence today is also the feast day of Augustine of Canterbury. The Venerable Bede tells us that Pope Gregory commissioned Augustine to lead a mission to the Anglo Saxons having been inspired by the sight of fair-haired Anglo-Saxon slaves in the Roman slave market, commenting that they were not Angles but angels. Christianity had already come to this country but it was mainly confined to Western parts and differed from the mainstream church in a number of ways not least in the dating of Easter which is rather too esoteric for me to elaborate on today.
Augustine and a group of 40 set off but after a short distance they became daunted by their task and sent Augustine back to ask Gregory to let them return. He refused, and so on they went. You can see why such a journey seemed perilous. They had to make their way from Rome, through Italy over the Swiss Alps, through France, across the English Channel and then set about converting the pagan inhabitants. They commended their task to God’s blessing but they certainly had to do their part too.
What drove them to undertake hazardous journeys? Quite simply their belief in the Resurrection. This was such a powerful belief that it drove men and women to undertake great projects so that people could learn about Jesus and believe in his resurrection and, through him, our own. Had the resurrection not happened I don’t think we would even have heard of Jesus of Nazareth today. His words and deeds might have had an effect on those who witnessed them for a short while but inevitably memory of this extraordinary person would have faded as the generation of people who had seen and heard him speak passed away. His death would have been seen as another death amongst so many perpetrated by the Roman occupying forces. In this case, however, they were aided by the Jewish authorities who were concerned that such a person, with such inflammatory ideas might bring down the might of Rome on the whole people. The resurrection made all the difference. It was totally unexpected and unforeseen but, as an idea, not something which human beings had never before imagined.
Some 4000 years ago the poem the Epic of Gilgamesh dealt with the issue of immortality. The epic is found in various forms and languages which we summarise as Ancient Near Eastern texts. It is especially famous because it has a version of a great flood which has many similarities with the story of Noah’s Ark in the Bible. Its Mesopotamian origin places the action near the great rivers of Tigris and Euphrates which were prone to devastating floods so a flood story does not seem impossible and it would have seemed to the people that their whole world was being flooded. But this is only one aspect of the saga. On his travels Gilgamesh is told that eating a special plant will renew his life and make him young again. The plant can be found at the bottom of the sea so when Gilgamesh gets to the right place, he ties heavy stones to his feet. When he finds the plant, he grasps it and cuts the cords to the stones so that he ascends again from the depths. Unfortunately, he puts the plant down while he bathes in a spring and it is eaten by a serpent which sheds its skin as it leaves making it look as though it has become young again. How annoying is that? To have such a wondrous plant in your grasp after many trials and tribulations and then – a moment’s inattention – and it is gone.
Then again, the Egyptians had a belief in an afterlife and reckoned that every human being had a second self inside them which could enjoy eternal life – though only after they had passed the test of Osiris. Some 4½ thousand years ago the Pharaohs used the nation’s resources to build pyramids to help them make the transition to life after death. That great labour by so many people was judged to be worth the effort. They reckoned that the Pharaohs needed to be provided for in this future life and so all their favourite possessions were piled up in their tombs so that they had everything needful to hand. Grave robbers were delighted. To date archaeologists have only found one major tomb that has escaped robbery – the resting place of Tutankhamun.
Well Gilgamesh lost his chance of new life through carelessness and no Pharaoh was ever seen after his demise. Humanity has indeed speculated on what might happen to us after we die and has come up with all sorts of ideas. The section of the Bible we call the Apocrypha contains some ideas about life after death towards the end of the BC era. The Wisdom of Solomon, for instance, tells us that “the souls of the righteous are in the hands of God and no torment shall touch them.” But the Sadducees rejected such ideas as not in keeping with tradition.
For Jesus the resurrection was not a speculative idea but a reality. But if you had closed your mind to the possibility of resurrection as so many people have today then you will not be convinced by the stories about Jesus. In fact, the difference between him and all others down the ages before who sought life beyond the grave was that Jesus was seen again. He did not show himself to Annas and Caiaphas, the high priests to prove to them that they were wrong about Jesus for he was indeed God’s beloved son. Nor did he visit Pontius Pilate and exhibit his kingship and prove to Pilate that there was a king much more powerful than any Roman Emperor. Instead he met up with his friends and disciples – Mary Magdalen, Peter, James and John and the others; even, we are told in 1 Corinthians 15, he showed himself to 500 of his followers. Then St Paul, who initially had done so much to persecute the followers of Christ, was granted a vision of the risen Christ and authorised to take the gospel to all peoples.
So, many people who were inspired by Jesus were driven to do something – it might be a large task and really significant like Augustine of Canterbury coming to England to convert the pagans or something small and unremarked. Even during Jesus’ lifetime, he looked for some sign of faith from those he helped. In today’s gospel reading the cripple hardly has to ask for help but he does have to co-operate and do something to show his faith in Jesus – he has to pick up his bed and walk.
Today is Rogation Sunday beginning a period of a few days before Ascension Day when we ask for God’s blessing on the crops. But we have to do our part. The Farmer tends his crops, weeds them, drives away the birds and insects and nourishes the soil. The food we need to live by is provided by all sorts of people throughout the world working hard.
Our Lent project reaches its climax today as the money we have earned by our work is given to the project. Today it is distributed to the Diocesan Mothers’ Union holiday scheme and to USPG’s work in Sri Lanka. The project enables us to support others financially but they are the ones who do the work and make the money translate into action.
The resurrection of Jesus inspires us to undertake tasks large or small. But when it comes to the end of our lives and our hope of resurrection, then we can do nothing except trust God that he will bestow upon us the new life which he gave first to Jesus, his beloved Son. We, then, are to have no fear of death for the resurrection of Christ not only brought new life to him but brings it to us too.