Br Samuel preached at Evensong on Easter Sunday speaking on 1 Corinthians 15 1-11.
Over the course of Lent the Evensong sermons have focused on the five Anglican marks of Mission. They cover what mission should look like but none of them explain why we should bother with it. Well here we are at Easter and the reason why we should bother. As St Paul writes in this evening’s New Testament reading ‘For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received’. The Gospel, the events we have been celebrating for the last week, is Good News, the word literally translates as such. And I can guarantee that the only reason we know about it and believe it is because someone told us about it. Just as someone told Paul about it. In fact all of the resurrection stories end with someone running off to tell someone else what they’ve just seen. Mary at the tomb, the disciples on the road to Emmaus, the apostles in the upper room: they all end with those who have met the risen Christ going and telling someone what they’ve just seen.
But it’s been 2000 years since then, and probably rather a long time since each of us first believed the Gospel, and there is a danger that it can stop feeling like such Good News, it just becomes sort of good. There’s no point in sharing it because it’s been around for so long that everyone is used to it. We get all too comfy with the message we proclaim.
In those first few centuries of Christianity the Gospel was truly known to be radical and world changing. For a start it says that God is personal. He’s not just out there doing His own thing ignoring us, and we aren’t just pawns on some giant chess board; God cares for each one of us personally. Just take a moment to consider that. And what’s more He cares for the person sitting next to you, the person who you live next door to and the person behind the checkouts in Aldi in the exact same way. 2000 years ago that was radical, indeed even today many faiths don’t believe that God is personal.
Then there’s the incarnation. On top of being personal, He came down His throne in Heaven and became man, fully God and fully human walking down the high street of Jerusalem. Doing normal human things and helping everyone He could, telling everyone He could that God cared about them. He doesn’t just care about us personally, He came to earth and went around telling people that to their faces. To most religions that’s heresy, it simply cannot happen, that’s not how God works. But we know that it is.
Now surely at this point Christianity is world changing enough; God loves each of us individually and He even came down to earth to tell us as such, to help us, to show us how to live our lives better. He fully knows what it is to be human and taught us how to do it perfectly. Job done, Christianity is all set, that’s surely sufficient for us to love Him back. But no, you see God knows that even though He’s told us how best to live our lives that we won’t be able to do it. And so He decides rather than us having to deal with it, He decides to deal with it. He is humiliated, He is beaten, and hung on a cross and dies. Why? Because He sees that sin needs dealing with so He decides to deal with it. He takes the blame for it all on himself and pays the price for it all.
That’s amazing, the God who created the universe, who spoke and stars ignited, planets formed and the ground sprouted with life, cares about us, came to be one of us and live a life on this planet and then dies because He sees the mess we make of our lives and decides to plunge up to His neck in it and haul us out. And if that doesn’t excite you, if that doesn’t fill you with wonder and awe and gratitude, then have you really thought about it? Have you truly considered the magnitude of what that means.
If we get too comfy with all of this, if it becomes run of the mill we are in danger of looking for ‘the next bit’ we start looking for something more. On Good Friday I was in Newport, I went up in the morning to help with their kids club and then for a few hours I had nothing to do, I was at a bit of a loose end. So I walked from the church to Tesco, which is about a 10-15 min walk. And as I walked to Tesco I came up behind some people who were joyfully walking down the street in colourful masks and blowing party whistles. And as I came across the person at the back he turned to me and started chatting, and very quickly he asked if I was a Christian, now whenever people ask me this and I’m in uniform I’m always slightly tempted to tell them that no, I’m a rapper. But I didn’t, I behaved myself and told Him that yes I was and that I was working with the church at the top of the street, he then handed me a fairly thick booklet. He told me it was a daily devotional and that I should have a read each day and that through it God would transform my life, He would bless me through it and He would make clear to me His plan each day. I thanked him and walked on to the front of the procession where another guy who had been flown in from Cardiff to help with their procession started talking to me in a very sales pitch type way. How God would bless me through this and that, despite being already part of a church I should come and join them, although He couldn’t tell me where their meeting hall was as He didn’t know.
Having escaped the group, got myself some lunch and returned to the relative safety of the church I opened the booklet. And I immediately knew why the alarm bells had been going off in my head during those conversations. The denomination is called Believers Love World, I came across them whilst at Reading. Their concept of the Gospel is that whilst my description of the Gospel earlier is good, on top of that if we read our Bibles and read these devotions and pray these prayers God will bless us with financial wealth, good health, success in everything we do etc. It’s incredibly appealing, but it’s not the Gospel, it’s the prosperity gospel, Christianity plus the American dream. It isn’t what the Bible says. The Gospel speaks right into the heart of the human story. Try telling the prosperity Gospel to our brother and sister Christians who are persecuted, or the Christian who has lost their job due to illness. It isn’t the fullness that God offers; it’s hollow and leaves us empty. You only need look at the book of Acts to see what happened to the Apostles or the book of Job to see that that isn’t what God is offering. Why would we ask for more from a God who has already given us so much, He cares for us and He loves us but that doesn’t translate to a large bank balance and endless promotions.
But just as we can’t add anything to the Gospel to make it more appealing, we can’t take anything away either. There is a habit in our modern culture to say that God is all about love, that He loves us however we are and we don’t need to change because why would He ask us to, if we are happy God is happy. And it appeals, it feeds into our individualist culture, we can do what we like. But it means that in that paradigm God loves IS, He loves Kim Jong-un and Mugabe and He doesn’t ask them to change. That gospel has no power. The true Gospel declares that God loves all these people as much as any other, but that He loves them too much to allow them to stay the way they are, just like the rest of us. But, society yells, as long as you don’t hurt anyone else it’s fine, do as you please. But just like the baby crawling towards the plug socket with a fork or the man eating a bowl of wild mushrooms he gathered in the forest which unbeknownst to him are poisonous, sometimes we don’t truly know what is best for us, sometimes we don’t know until it’s too late. The first time we decided we knew better than God and ate the apple then sin and death entered the world. Only God knows what is truly good for us, if we read His word we will know what is truly good for us.
Today we celebrate that Christ, having died to take our punishment, threw off the grave sheets, flung aside the stone blocking the tomb and walked out, having been fully dead He is now very much alive. And because of that we can be truly alive in this life, if we follow Him, and then very much alive in the next where He invites us to be with Him in the new creation when He makes all things new; a new Heaven and a new Earth, perfect just as it was always meant to be.
So this Easter, go out and share the Good News, for it is the best news this world has ever heard. And don’t be tempted to add anything to try and make it better or miss out bits that you worry will make others uncomfortable, the Gospel has the power to change the world, but only when it is spoken in its fullness, uncompromising and unapologetic. It may be a bitter pill to swallow for some, but oh how it will change the lives of those who choose to swallow it whole.