Sunday, April 16, 2017

FOUR FACTS THAT POINT TO THE TRUTH OF THE RESURRECTION: a homily for Easter Sunday, (John 20, 1-9)

“Christos Anesti!” and “Aleithos Anesti!” are the greetings among the Greek Christians as they greet one another this morning. ‘Christ is risen!’ and ‘He is truly risen!’.   How do we greet one another?  “Happy Easter”  A bit lame, is it not?  Not exactly a proclamation of the great work of the Lord and the central belief of our Faith is it?  We have contemplated the life, sufferings and death of our Lord and now we celebrate His resurrection but for how many of us does this go much beyond a mere piece of information, something else we ‘kind of’ believe?  It is a common place to disparage the Christian faith today but that only shows the ignorance of those who do not believe.  For if one examines the evidence the solid foundations of our Faith appear. 
Let us examine the evidence.  We have John’s own account.  John tells us that he entered the tomb after Peter and while Peter could not believe that our Lord had risen from the dead he, John, saw and believed.  What did he see?  He saw that the guards were gone, the heavy stone was rolled away, the body was missing and the cloths were rolled up, left behind.
I propose to you that there are four facts that alone point to the truth of our Lord’s resurrection: His burial, the empty tomb, His post-mortem appearances and the disciples belief in His resurrection.  I don’t have the time to go into all the details but there are plenty of reliable videos and books that lay out the evidence more thoroughly than I can.  First though I must tell you about the principle of embarrassment which states that if an account includes facts embarrassing to the community if affects then it is likely to be true.  Made up stories do not have embarrassing details!
It might surprise you that I begin with the fact of our Lord’s burial.  There can be no resurrection without a burial.  How do we know He was buried?  Well even Jewish archaeologists accept, as the recent work on the Holy Sepulchre showed, that the Sepulchre in Jerusalem stood in a graveyard and is, I quote, “almost certainly the tomb of Christ.”  There are no other contenders and the Christian community in Jerusalem remembered where it was even after the Roman’s built a pagan temple on top of it.  That the Roman’s went to that trouble is itself evidence of that we have authentic tomb of our Lord.  We also have multiple independent sources attesting to Christ’s burial.  In his first letter to the Corinthians Paul quotes an early creed that is now dated to within five years of our Lord’s death.  It mentions His burial.  The embarrassing fact in all this is that the tomb was provided by Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the very Sanhedrin that had just condemned our Lord.   
Then there is the empty tomb.  Christ was buried but the body then disappeared.  The apostles, like all Jews and indeed our own selves, had a horror of touching the dead, especially someone who had bled to death.  They would not and could not have taken the body and yet no one else had it.  The embarrassing fact in the finding of the empty tomb is that the first people to discover it are women.  These women are listed as witnesses to this.  In first century Israel women were not considered reliable witnesses and some would not even accept their testimony in court.  That they are listed as witnesses is a sign that the story of the empty tomb is true.  Our Lord’s body disappeared.
Thirdly Christ appeared not just to individuals but to large groups of men and women.  The New Testament records the principle names even of the women who saw Him.  As I have just said  women were not considered reliable witnesses so why mention them?  They are mentioned because they had seen the Lord.  These appearances were not visions, for they ate and drank with Him, walked and talked with Him, and even put their hands into His wounds.  Many years later John writes in one of his letters of his amazement at the resurrection.  Paul, in listing those who had seen the risen Lord, including himself, says in passing that many of these witnesses were still alive.  Why does he mention them?  So that they could be consulted on what they had seen.
Lastly the apostles and disciples insisted from the very beginning that our Lord had risen from the dead.  It is the central point of their preaching: Christ died and is risen!  Jews at that time had no expectation of any resurrection before the Day of Judgment.  In addition their understanding of the Messiah was of one who would establish an earthly Kingdom.  The crucifixion and death of our Lord was seen as a contradiction of this.  That’s why the Jewish leaders had pushed for our Lord to be crucified!  Yet these men go out to proclaim that our Lord is the Messiah and the evidence they point to is His resurrection.  In return they were persecuted, tortured and all but one of them was martyred.  The gospel, the message of the death and resurrection of our Lord, brought them toil and suffering.  It separated them from their families and communities and sent them all over the known world and beyond.  It even cost them their lives.  It did not make them famous, nor did it make them rich or powerful.  Yet they continued to assert Christ rose from the dead.  If someone is willing to put not only his money but also his very life where his mouth is then he must be telling the truth.
So the resurrection of our Lord is well attested.  In rising from the dead He did not merely resuscitate.  He did not return to His earthly life.  Instead He no longer hid His divinity but rather He began to manifest it through His Church.  We can experience His life in us by keeping His commandments, repenting and confessing our sins, by putting the gospel into action in our lives and by receiving Him worthily in Holy Communion.  He reveals Himself to those who trust Him and do not put Him to the test.
There are other evidences that support the truth of the resurrection and of our Faith.  I could point to the extraordinarily rapid growth of the Church despite persecution.  I could point to the work of His grace in all the saints down the ages.  I could point to the Shroud of Turin and all the recent work on it that reinforces the belief that it is not only Christ’s shroud but also a witness to the resurrection.  I urge you to research these things for yourselves.  Arm yourselves with the truth of the Faith.  I will recommend just one book, written by an atheist who became a Christian, the Case for Christ by Lee Stroebel.  They’ve just made it into a movie.  That is a book that is well worth reading and study.
Perhaps the greatest evidence of the resurrection is us.  If we inform our faith, we will come to understand better what we believe.  As we believe more deeply, we will love our Lord more.  As we love our Lord more we will love our neighbour more and as we love our neighbour more they will come to see that Christ is not dead, He is risen.  Indeed He is truly risen!

Sunday, April 2, 2017

CHRIST COMMANDS THAT WE LEAVE THE TOMB: a homily for the Fifth Sunday in Lent, Year A (John 11:1–45)

You can hear the homily here.
In my time as a secondary school chaplain I buried four students, three girls and a boy.  I felt inadequate that all I could do was offer my prayers and words of condolences to their parents.  I wondered how I could have so failed to cooperate with God’s grace that there was no miracle for each of them and no restoration of them to their families.  This is probably the experience of all who minister to the dying and bereaved.  We want to make the problem go away and end the sorrow.  In this we touch on the mysteries of suffering and death.
Suffering is part of this life because our first parents refused to live in obedience to the Lord and asserted their own will.  The human race morally fell and we have been asserting our own will ever since.  Every family row, legal battle, crime, or sin is a testimony to our addiction to our own will.   Deep down in the core of our being we believe, each and every one of us, that we are the centre of everything, the hero of our own drama, the composer and singer of our own unique song.  We are not usually aware of this but if you examine any evil act there you will find at its heart the human drive to be the centre and to assert one’s own will over all others’, even God’s.  From this arises most of the suffering in our world.
Especially death.  Death is the one absolutely certain fact of our lives.  We cannot avoid it.  It takes from us our family members, friends and neighbours and eventually takes us from those that remain.  We die because our nature is fallen but our soul is immortal.   Here lies the suffering that we all experience in life, the one we dread will come to us inevitably, and the one we learn to live with: the loss of those we love.  As human beings everything we do is done in the shadow of our own mortality.  We fear death and dying and in that fear we flee away into all sorts of what addiction counselors call ‘self medications’.  We use the things of this world to numb us against the profound reality of our own limitedness.  Pretty gloomy thoughts for a Sunday evening yet there is hope.
So many Christians do not grasp the significance of this: we were made for communion with God.  We are a work of God’s goodness and humility and it was so that He could take the lowest possible place that God created us.  But through the disobedience, the self-regard of our first parents we have lost our friendship with God.  According to Genesis God saw that “it is not good for man to be alone” but this not only means that man and woman are made for one another but that we are also made for communion with God.  The ultimate loneliness is to be without God.  That is now reestablished in Christ.  More than the friendship our first parents had we are offered communion with God in the heart of the Trinity, a communion not just on the spiritual level but even on the level of our bodies; all in Christ.
In the meantime though, made as we are for eternal life with God yet subject to suffering and death, we struggle to cope with this tension.  We long for the infinite, the everlasting, the final victory of all that is good, beautiful and true and yet we are constantly facing the reality that even as new beauties and wonders arise, so many are passing away.  If you have read the Lord of the Rings you will understand what I talking about.
So we come to this Sunday’s gospel.  The Lord loves his friends, Mary, Martha and Lazarus, yet delays to visit dying Lazarus in order that His Father be glorified.  The Lord always answers us but, whether He answers with a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’, He may delay the answer for His own good reasons. Martha gives testimony to the Faith, much as Peter did elsewhere, and our Lord affirmed her.  Mary has faith but not as Martha has.  Mary sat at the feet of our Lord and He fed her with His word but Martha, labouring in the kitchen, heard the word and believed.  In Martha the word has set down roots that have flowered in her confession of faith in the Lord and the resurrection on the Last Day. 
Our Lord gave a sigh that came from the depth of His heart.  He was moved at the suffering around Him.  His Divine love comes to us through a human heart, a human heart that is to be pierced on Good Friday and from which, as John himself testifies, he saw blood and water flow; often understood as symbols of the Sacraments especially Baptism and Eucharist.  It is through the Sacraments that we are given communion with the Holy Trinity.  But He does not love us only with His heart.
Our Lord wept.  He wept but He did not mourn.  Some take the line that He wept so as to give us a model for moderation in our emotions.  We are not to keen and mourn over those who have passed away the way unbelievers do because we have the hope of the resurrection and eternal life.  The only true reason to mourn is over our sins and the sins of others.  Why did He weep over Lazarus though?  He knew that He would raise Lazarus from the dead so why did He weep?  One does not weep for someone one will see again in a few days (not if you’re a man anyway).  I would suggest that our Lord wept for the condition of man, of the human race, fallen under the power of death and sin, deprived of grace, deprived of truth, deprived of God and His light, of the possibility of the Beatific Vision, the sight of God for ever in Heaven.  He weeps for man stuck in darkness, without the friendship of God, without the Divine illumination, and without saving faith, doomed to the domination of the evil one and his minions.   He wept that at that moment He could only raise Lazarus from the dead not the whole human race from the tomb of sin and death.
Lazarus is us.  We are Lazarus.  Christ has raised us from spiritual death through His suffering, death and resurrection.  He has unbound us and brought us out of the darkness of the tomb into the daylight of grace.  By this means He has revealed that we are made for communion with God and that outside of that communion true peace cannot be ours.  By becoming man, truly human without surrendering His Divinity, He made it possible for us to become one with Him through the Sacraments in His Body the Church.  Our old self died in baptism; it is up to us to apply the death and resurrection of Christ to all aspects of our lives.   We are a new creation in Christ, members of the Body of Christ the New Adam and children of Mary, the New Eve.
            When we die we leave our bodies behind but we will get them back on the Last Day, the Day of Judgment when all mankind, everyone who has ever existed will stand before God and give an account of themselves.  On that Day we shall get our bodies back for we are made to be embodied spirits.  The just will join the Lord in Heaven and the unjust, the unrepentant will go down into Hell.  Purgatory will be no more.  
As one man who had died and came back to life said “when you are dead everything is different.  What is important to you here is not important there.”  One can be confused in this life, ignorant and subject to bad habits and pressure from others but once dead all these fall away and one sees onesefs as one, what you and I have made of our own self.  One chooses where one goes when one dies by how one lives here on Earth.  If you refuse to take Him seriously in this life how can you expect to attain to eternal life with Him in Heaven?  You can delude yourself that you will receive mercy when you die but you will only receive that mercy if you repent of your sins and confess them in this life.  We are to throw ourselves on His mercy now and not some time in the future. 

You and I are Lazarus in the tomb.  The voice of the Lord commands that we come out and join Him in the daylight.  It is up to us to repent of our sins and confess them and step out into the light of Divine grace.  It is only in the daylight of His loving mercy that we can be free to flourish and live.  The tomb has nothing to offer but darkness, dust and death.


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