Easter Sermon, 2023
Acts 10: 34-43; Matthew 28: 1-10
A few weeks ago, someone I know who works as a Chaplain in higher education was invited to attend a philosophy lecture by a visiting speaker, a fairly well-known modern philosopher. It was primarily designed for those studying philosophy and religion, but a number were present. By all accounts it was a dogmatic affair making a number of assertions about the nature of reality. These were seen as incontrovertible – although from a christian perspective all were highly contestable. However, the underlying axiom was that the secular view of the world was the neutral space against which all other world views needed to be judged. In that sense, it demonstrated the imperialist nature of modern, godless secularism. It is often painted as the culmination of humankind’s intellectual journey. Those who have the temerity to hold on to faith of any sort, not just Christian faith should keep it to themselves. Faith is something that belongs squarely in the world of ideas and opinions with no basis in fact. A visit to the Hay Festival will bear this out. Last year I remember scanning the programme in vain for any substantive contribution of faith to the narrative. The great catholic divine Thomas Aquinas was convinced that nothing pertaining to faith could be discerned but for divine revelation. It is hardly surprising therefore that philosophical and logical reasoning that starts from a Godless premise will not come to correct conclusions about the world as it really is. We are in a place where faith and scientific discovery are seen as fundamentally at odds, dealing, as our secularist friends would say, with entirely different ideas. By that argument a set of concepts that don’t connect to the world we discover through empirical reason and logic can have no relevance. According to Richard Dawkins It should be regarded as delusional and dangerous.
In such an environment, it is hard to be a Christian. We may have experienced such apathy and even hostility amongst our own friends and family. This is the real experience for many of us. It isn’t simply something in the wider culture; it has a bearing on our own relationships.
But into this world view, breaks the light of Easter. And surprisingly, to a modern viewpoint God refuses to play the secular game. In the proclamation of the Gospel in the New Testament, you will find very little philosophical reasoning of any kind. Paul has a bit of a go when he debates with Athenian philosophers in Acts 17, but he really can’t help himself. His basic argument is that all these gods you are worshipping are not really gods at all, and that God has truly, finally and definitely revealed himself in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is an assertive speech.
We have a similar proclamation in Peter’s sermon we read this morning from Acts 10. This is a highly significant moment in the spread of the Christian message. It is where the message first starts to break out of its Jewish cultural captivity. Peter has been prepared that his cultural background, which asserted Jewish exceptionalism, has to be set aside. The Gospel is to be for everyone, in every culture in every time. He is preaching at the host’s invitation to the household of Cornelius, a Roman Centurion. You might describe Cornelius as spiritual but not religious. He has some familiarity with Jewish faith and even some knowledge of Jesus and the early Christian message, but he hasn’t translated that into something personal yet. This is a sermon that takes what someone knows and shows them its significance and implications.
The key is that Peter doesn’t rely on logic, or philosophical reasoning he simply appeals to eye witness testimony. It’s a summary of the facts about Jesus which they would have been familiar with. The things Jesus did were without precedent. No-one had ever healed like this man, nor taught with such authority or deep personal resonance. No-one had ever demonstrated such power over evil and psychological oppression and brought new life. No-one had ever shown such a bias to the poor and excluded, nor acted so consistently with is convictions. No-one, before or since has ever resisted political expediency, or currying favour with the powerful, or manipulating crowds for his own ends. And in the end, all this got him killed by the Roman authorities at the direct request of religious leaders who should have known better.
The key thing Peter appeals to time and time again is eye-witness testimony. Thousands witnessed what Jesus did in his earthly life. These events are recorded for us in the Gospel accounts. It was incontrovertible that he was killed and buried. The Roman’s were very good at crucifixion; it was their speciality. But the final piece de resistance was the resurrection. This too was validated by eye-witness testimony. We saw him killed, but on the third day we saw him alive again. The authorities at the time, tried to buy another story from the stupefied guards who saw it happen, and no body could ever be produced to gainsay the disciples preaching.
This is where secular philosophy and Christian faith are on common ground. Science demands proof, empirical evidence that something happened. The resurrection of Jesus says, “here you are then!” Here is the reality of eternity breaking into human experience. By reason you can’t get to it and you can’t reason it away. It stands there 2000 years ago at the turning point of history, an incontrovertible fact that has seismic implications for all of us. As Peter says, this established Jesus’ absolute authority over everything. We don’t use the concept of Lord very much, but Peter asserts that is who Jesus is, the one with authority over everything and the one to whom we owe our ultimate allegiance. But he is a good lord, unlike his contemporaries. His only goal is love and the wholeness and fulfilment of those who follow his direction.
Despite the privations and risk that ensued, the apostles could do nothing else but go around sharing this good news. It got most of them killed as well. But the message transformed a brutal empire with nothing other than love and has been the foundation of our modern society. Everything we deeply value in our culture has Christian roots. Read Tom Holland’s book, Dominion if you doubt that. The irony of the secular philosopher is that even secularism is trying to grow the kingdom of God, but without the God who inspired and animates it.
All the sermons in the New Testament, whether from Peter, Paul, Stephen, James or anyone else, always finish with a note of challenge or invitation. So, it would be remiss of me not to finish this sermon in the same way. Peter has asserted in our reading today that the resurrection of Jesus changes everything. It validates his identity as God in human form. It gives an entirely different account of human identity as created in God’s image, and therefore of infinite value, but broken and in need of forgiveness above everything else. It vindicates everything Jesus said in his earthly ministry. It validates his claim to forgive sins and restore our capacity to relate to God. It gives us a glimpse into eternity. It makes claims to truth, which if true falsify nearly all other claims philosophical or religious. And it invites us to make a response. The scriptures call it repentance. This is a word with unfortunate associations. It essentially means to turn around. It means to take ownership that you have got things wrong and give up the exhausting grind of self-justification. It means to accept that Jesus died for you and receive his gift of forgiveness. It means to put your life under new management and give your life over to Jesus’ direction. This happened to the crowd in Cornelius’ house as Peter preached and in the very next verse we would read, “While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message.” The resurrection means that God’s life: eternal life comes to those who repent and believe in the power of the Holy Spirit. That could be you today in this cathedral if you’ve never done that before.
I invite you to pray this prayer quietly to yourself, and after the service come and tell me or one of the other clergy, or the person you came with, and we will give you some pointers to help you to grow in that new found faith.
Sorry for wrong
Christ’s death, receive forgiveness
Submit to Christ’s direction
Ask for the Holy Spirit.