April 17, 2022

The Lost Cross: Easter Day 2022

A Sermon Preached by Canon Simon Butler Easter Sunday 2022 The Lost Cross During this service a child, Ruby, was baptised. We’ve all had this experience: you use something, and…

A Sermon Preached by Canon Simon Butler

Easter Sunday 2022

The Lost Cross

During this service a child, Ruby, was baptised.

We’ve all had this experience: you use something, and you put in back in a familiar place for safekeeping until the next time you need it; and then, when you return to use it again, it’s not there. You’ve forgotten that you’ve lent it to someone, or they’ve ‘borrowed’ it and forgotten to bring it back, or you just moved it at some point while thinking to yourself, “well I’m bound to remember where I put it when I need it again.” If this is not a familiar experience to you, welcome to my world.

It happened this week. But this time it wasn’t a set of keys, or a particular tool, or even a much-treasured book. This year it was a seven-foot tall wooden cross that we use here on Good Friday. We looked high and low, Joe and I, but we couldn’t find it anywhere. It wasn’t in any of the usual places or even those unusual ones. So, if anyone has seen a 3-metre tall, 1.5-metre-wide wooden cross, or if it’s sitting in your lounge and you had forgotten you have it, please let me know. I’d love to know where it is!

That little story of the missing cross is a sort of metaphor for a certain sort of religious sensibility. It’s the approach that focuses on the happy times, times of celebration, the pleasant occasions like Christmas and Easter. Now, don’t misunderstand me here, I’m not about to turn into the Vicar in a famous Rowan Atkinson sketch, when he berates the congregation at a special Songs of Praise service for not being there at any other point, quote: “Indeed it makes quite a change to have so many of you here, because it wasn’t quite the same story last week, was it? Last week the conversation numbered seven, for of whom had turned up a week early by mistake” …and so it goes on. No, this isn’t about regular attendance: it’s about what faith is about and what it is for, and the depths it can go to to affect our lives.

Let me try to explain. There are approaches to religion that resemble the way we make home improvements. When a piece of furniture or a room is beginning to look tired, we may decide that it’s time to strip it back, so we sand off the paint or the varnish and apply a new coat. And so it can look fresh, shiny, good as new. But it still essentially unchanged, it just has a new veneer, a new sheen. A lot of religion is like this: a nice, glossy sheen on life: a beautiful setting, a bit of lovely music, maybe a splash or two of water, a thought for the day (ideally not too long) …a happy time for everyone present, or at least we like to assume that everyone is happy because we don’t want to hang around too long to find out if they are. It’s the religious equivalent of a royal visit to a hospital where they freshly paint the corridors the Queen will use, while the hospital remains plagued with long waiting times, and nothing really has changed.

But this sort of religion – what the famous Reformer Martin Luther called a “theology of glory” – has very little to say to, let us say, the People of Ukraine, or a woman with breast cancer, or a poverty-stricken community facing a huge increase in utility bills, or a desperate boatload of asylum seekers about to be given a one-way ticket to Rwanda. All it can do is paint over the cracks, provide a temporary veneer, or act as a sort of drug to offer a temporary euphoria to help us forget the pain, what Karl Marx famously called, and rightly so, the “opiate of the people”. It is to try and have Easter without Good Friday.

But there is a different approach that religion can take. And to extend the home improvement metaphor, this is more akin to the moments when, rather than applying a veneer or a coat of paint, you decide to strip back to the central structure, or perhaps apply a stain that penetrates the material in its essence, so that it can never be the same again. Religion like this, rather than being a veneer or touch-up, is a whole-life business, something that goes deep beyond the surface of things penetrating the whole of life – starting with the very way we see the world, and touching us in the deepest places of our being, including most importantly, the bits of our lives that contain our deepest fears, our most shameful episodes, our long-standing failures and insecurities. It is a remoulding of us, that shapes our own life – the big stuff like our values and priorities – by the action of God. The action of God in this way shapes our lives to such an extent that, some might say, it is a new way of being human. Some have said that this approach is to experience a new way of living, even to the extent of being, to use a misunderstood phrase, ‘born again’.

Most importantly, you’ll notice that this second way of being religious touches the less savoury parts of life. Our friend the Reformer Martin Luther had a name for this form of religion too. He called it a “theology of the cross”. This is a way of being religious that has both Easter and Good Friday. There is an acknowledgement of the shadow side of life, the reality of the power of evil and darkness, within us as much as in the world, and the possibility that this way of being religious might be able to change us – and therefore the world – at a fundamental level. It stands a chance of saying that the God worshipped in this way of being religious does have something to say to the people of Ukraine, or the woman with a cancer diagnosis, or a community facing decades of economic neglect, or those asylum seekers in fear of their lives. Even if all it can say is that God is in the midst of all the mess of the world, including the mess that is your life and mine, that is something far more profound than a little coat of religious paint over the same old same old that we are too often familiar with and cynically resigned to.

Brothers and sisters, the reason why you are here today may be more about veneer, a theology of glory, or it may be more about something more like the staining effect, the theology of the cross. But it will come as no surprise to you by now to know that that the faith we celebrate this Easter Sunday, and the faith into which we will baptise Ruby in a few moments, is more about the stain than the veneer, more about the total make over than a lick of religious paint. We celebrate an empty tomb on Easter Day, but the Jesus who appears from the grave still carries the marks of the Cross in his hands, feet and side. These, like a stain of wood, are indelibly imprinted on his body, even if the life he now lives is one where the wounds are transformed by the power of the resurrection.

This has tremendous power for us because it tells us that the wounds we carry shape us but do not ultimately define us. In a culture where we rightly show much more concern for the victims of human cruelty than ever before, and the effects of trauma are beginning to be much more widely appreciated, Jesus Christ offers us a way of being human that honours our woundedness but offer a way of healing and hope. The wounds you carry shape you but they no longer define you. That is part of the message of Easter.

But it is only part. And for the bigger picture, let me return to the missing Cross of St Mary’s. The result of not being able to find the elusive seven-foot cross is that we have had to use the smaller Taizé Cross that is in the sanctuary behind me. When we were preparing the church yesterday, Joe and I debated whether we should simply turn the cross around so it was a plain, empty cross, rather than the side we normally see with the image of the Crucified Jesus on it. After all, the Cross is in fact empty now. But in the end, and because of this sermon, we have decided to show you the image of the Crucified Jesus decorated with a white cloth to remind you that the Crucified Jesus is also the Risen Jesus, with graveclothes discarded. He is the one who greets Mary Magdalene in the garden on Easter Day; and he is the One who invites us not just to paint our lives over with a lick of Easter Day Christian paint; and he is the One who invites not just Ruby, her parents and her godparents into a life-long journey into the great mystery that is God’s engagement with the world. The God who raised Jesus from the dead – and I do believe that the tomb was empty on Easter Day – the God who raised Jesus from the dead, is a God who knows in human flesh the cruel reality of the world in which we find ourselves, perhaps crueller and more uncertain than most of us have ever known it right now. But that God is also – precisely because Jesus bears the marks of the Cross on his eternally wounded body – that God is also the one who offers the only hope there is for a better world. That hope is born on the first Easter Day, but it is we who, fortified by the addition of Ruby to our number this morning, are called to live the new life that Jesus brings, that others might know hope in their struggle and their suffering.

Alleluia Christ is Risen!

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