The Raising of Lazarus – Vincent Van Gogh


Easter Sermon

Sermon for Easter Day 12th April 2009 

Greyfriars Kirk, Edinburgh

Why did Jesus have to die? Why could he not have lived a long life and be remembered for his sweet nature, his kindly acts and his inspiring vision?

As Christ breathed his last on the Cross, he uttered several “last words”, one of which was, “it is finished!” We know that the phrase, rendered in English, does not capture the full meaning. Some translations render the phrase, “it is accomplished”.

His last word was a word of triumph, a note of victory or achievement, as though this moment of apparent defeat was what he felt his life was all about. In some way, rather perversely to his devastated and scattered disciples, this was what he had come for: a death – but a death like no other death – for it was the most life affirming of deaths. The meaning of Christ’s death – his life affirming death – is this: The only kind of life worth living, for any of us, is the life that brings life to others. Life for self, life lived for accumulating personal wealth, life lived for power or success in worldly terms is a life lived “for the hell of it”.

With aims such as these as the centre and focus of our lives, we are bound ultimately to diminish the lives of others and the life of the world. Life lived with these things as our goal will not last, we will bankrupt ourselves and plunder our planet. However, a life lived for the enhancement of the life of the world and the life of others – a life lived in sacrificial service – even unto death – is a life that gives life.

Those who exercise religious and political power always end up diminishing and controlling people and so Jesus had to die because he threatened the capacity of the religious and political powers of his day from exercising their authority. His death was inevitable.

Some of you may have heard of the American Scientist, Edward O. Wilson. Wilson has won the Pulitzer Prize, is Harvard professor of Zoology and has written of the condition of the planet and the human condition. He argues in his book, On Human Nature, that humanity must strive to evolve beyond selfish desire and short term aspiration. Our lust for power, money and selfish gain is diminishing the planet and is consequently self-destructive. He writes, “a change of heart occurs when people look beyond themselves to others and the rest of life”.

This attitude perfectly encapsulates the way of Christ. A way so utterly at odds with our prevailing attitudes that Christ had to be put to death. But, in thinking beyond ourselves, in giving life to others rather than taking things for ourselves, somehow life is gained, given, enhanced, re-enchanted and something grows.

This is what we mean when we say that Divine love is stronger than death. Looking at the way in which we have plundered the earth’s bounty, beauty and bio-diversity, Wilson asks the following devastating question that haunts our present generation as we witness the consequences of reckless human greed. “Our descendants will ask why, by needlessly extinguishing the lives of other species, did we permanently impoverish our own?” A life enhancing life. A life giving life. A life lived that others may have life – That is a life that gains life. That is the meaning of Christ’s death and resurrection.

Someone once wrote that the greatest challenge facing our world today is not terrorism and not even climate change, it is the fact that we have turned our backs on the interior life. It is the life of the Spirit, the life of depth and mediation and reflection, the life of considered spirituality that always turns us away from our selves to the glory and wonder of the people and the life around us. If we can recover some sense of spiritual poise in the life of humanity, we will recover an understanding of what really brings life in all its fullness. We will recapture the things that really enhance existence.

There is a poet that Wilson quotes, Mary Barnard Sappho;

Some say a cavalry corps,

some infantry, some, again

will maintain that the swift oars

of our fleet are the finest

sight on earth; but I say

that whatever one loves, is.

These calm and succinct phrases sum it up well. It is not might and power and wealth that conquers or gives life. The finest sight on earth is love, the love that loves even unto death, the love that brings life to light, the love that conquers death, decay and destruction. This the kind of love, the kind of human maturity, the kind of imagination our planet needs if we want life on earth to endure.

Our task is to go from here this Easter Day and proclaim the victory of love, to go from here and engage in the task of “soul retrieval” and restore human depth and spiritual imagination to the heart of life. I am not so interested in the mechanics of Easter, instead, I am interested in what Christ was trying to tell us from the Cross on that Good Friday and what he is trying to tell us today as we face so many global challenges.

For the sake of the life of the world, we should lift our lives above the humdrum, life diminishing things that occupy our thoughts every day. We should lift ourselves above selfish gain and destructive habits and begin to learn again how to live life-enhancing lives that bring life to others and to the planet. Then we will understand the meaning of Easter, why Jesus had to die and rise to newness again and the meaning of Christ’s words “it is accomplished”. Alleluia! Christ is Risen!

Life lived between extremes – Palm Sunday, the day of Triumph before the dark night of tragedy.

In a world that knows the extremes of terror and hope, celebration and tragedy, creativity and destructiveness, joy and despair as ours does, there is always a risk of our religion colluding with our desire to live in quiet unruffled equilibrium. It’s as if we shy away from the reality of the human condition.

A great man, Donald Mackinnon, described this as the “cultivated avoidance of extremes”. He wrote, “the idiom of superficial cosmic optimism is currently fashionable”. I wonder if he had in mind the sort of smug, often defiantly cheery religious certainty of those who think God’s in his heaven and all is well with the world.

What Mackinnon argued was that the world could not really be consoled by “remote metaphysical chatter”. Daily our lives are lived between extremes. It is these extremes that Jesus acknowledged and inhabited, he was accused on the one hand of being a wine bibber and carouser, but on the other, he did not avoid the terrible fate that he knew awaited him when he entered the city of Jerusalem.

Daily, our own lives are lived between extremes and however we might contrive to avoid them, tragedy will often strike us, in personal ways and also in the descent to chaos that we see in climate chaos, warfare and poverty, things that unsettle our hope for a stable, unruffled world. Jesus embraced the totality of his life and in this way he found new life.

Jacqueline Kennedy was one whose life inhabited extremes. She was the glamorous wife of one of the most charmed American presidencies, perhaps only to be surpassed by that of Barak and Michelle Obama. She was a beautiful woman who had the world at her feet until the assassin’s bullet took he husband’s life away. But like Jesus himself and Jesus’ mother Mary, she did not shy away when tragedy struck. There is a tragic heroism in her life and we will never fully know what that tragedy gave her as well as took away from her, for she never spoke to a newspaper or sold her story. But there was something moving and dignified about her response to the loss of her husband that had a profound effect on many who noticed how she coped at the time.

One who saw was the poet C. Day Lewis who wrote this moving poem following those tragic events in Dallas, in 1963.

In the triumphal car

Closely escorted through the gaze and heart of

A city, at the height of its golden heydey,

He suddenly slumps.

Cameras show her bending to shelter him

(But death has moved faster), and then a pink

Nimbus veiling the exploding skull.

No order here, no artistry, except for

The well-drilled wounds, the accomplished sacrifice.

But from that wreck

Two images are saved – the wife who

Nurses a shattered world in her lap;

And, flying the coffin home, refuses to change

Out of he yellow blood-spattered dress, with

“Let them all see what was done to him”.