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4th April 2021

Easter Sunday

Passage: Matthew 28;1-8


Who wrote these words? See if you can come up with the answer by the time I have finished reading.
“It was the best of times; it was the worst of times. It was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness;… it was the season of Light, it was the season of darkness; it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way….”

Well, do you know who wrote it? Charles Dickens. If you got it right, give yourself an extra piece of chocolate. If you knew which book it came from- “The Tale of Two Cities” give yourself two extra pieces of chocolate. You will probably just eat the chocolate anyway…

Dickens’ words could describe this past year, couldn’t they? Haven’t we seen both the best and the worst of human nature?
Think of the endless random acts of kindness, strangers going out their way to help each other; the great acts of heroism as many put their lives on the line in order to save others; the generosity in giving- from gifts to the Foodbanks to the millions raised by the supporters of Captain Tom; and think with awe of the brightest, most brilliant scientific brains producing a vaccine against that deadly virus in record time. It has been a year in which we can be proud to be human.

Sadly, we have also seen the worst: the callous indifference and bluster of too many world leaders; the huge increase in online and phone scams; the cheating of vulnerable people into giving money for a vaccine which comes free; the rise in domestic abuse as victims cannot escape; the deliberate continuation of conflict when a nation is already on its knees; the political point-scoring over vaccine supply; the reluctance to admit that human action has caused the pandemic. Yes, the best of times and the worst of times.

The Easter story of the garden and the tomb that was empty is a strange story. I don’t think we shall ever know precisely what happened. But it has always carried a very clear message, summed up in the great Easter Greeting: The Lord is risen. He is risen indeed. We believe that Jesus Christ came back from death and remains alive in the world today. And what difference does that make to us, whether at our best or at our worst?

In our discussion group last Sunday evening, we asked where we found it most difficult to see God in our everyday lives. And the answer which kept coming back was “human cruelty.” When people deliberately cause unspeakable pain to others- where is God in that? Even worse, we have to admit that religion itself has brought out horrific levels of human cruelty.

Looking at what happened to Jesus- things don’t get much worse than that: when human beings honestly believe that, for legitimate political or religious reasons, they are doing the right thing in nailing a man live to a cross and leaving him to die a slow, agonising death. How bad is that?
Do you remember in the final Harry Potter book, when he sees the damage Lord Voldemort has inflicted on himself, on his immortal soul, every time he takes another person’s life? There is virtually nothing of Voldemort left. What was there left of the people who carried out crucifixion- not only of Jesus but of hundreds more? What is there left of those who inflict harm on others today? What damage is wrought in us when we cause pain or deprivation- deliberately or unthinkingly to others?

If you are a God of love watching the creatures to whom you have given life doing unspeakable things to each other and to themselves in the process, what do you do? To take away their freedom is to take away their life. The only option, then, is to get right down there among them, bear their cruelty yourself, confront the darkness which is destroying them in order to offer them hope of new life.

We have learned, when we look at the natural world, to observe its’ amazing power of renewal. Life on our planet is incredibly resilient and comes back after catastrophe over and over again.
But we have also learned that most of the really serious, long-term devastation has been caused by human action. And, that we do have the power permanently to destroy our planet.

We have seen through history how political empires and civilisations rise and fall. None are perfect but there is a dream of in us of a “Utopia;” a worldwide kingdom of justice and peace and many great leaders have sincerely tried to realise this dream. But we have also seen the long- term harm done by political oppression, colonisation, ethnic cleansing. Remember how what was called the “war to end all wars” was followed by a second in little more than twenty years?

I know that Christianity is accused of piling guilt onto people; of pushing them into a destructive self-hatred. But if we are going to save the world then we have to face up to the potential for destruction in ourselves. We cannot pretend that it does not exist. If the world is to be saved, then the human race has to be saved. And if the human race is to be saved then we have to acknowledge our capacity for evil and have some hope of salvation.

And this, I believe, is what the Easter Story offers us. It shows us the worst that humanity can do. It is a tale of men and women in whom love, compassion, justice, hope, self-esteem have been crushed. And because so much good in them has been destroyed, they are wreaking horrendous acts of cruelty on each other. At the hour of Jesus’ crucifixion, we are told, darkness covered the whole land. And there was darkness in that nation, in that empire and in so many of those people.
Yet, there was still hope. Hope of forgiveness, of healing, of renewal. Because the Lord is risen. He is risen indeed. Something greater than us can save us.

The root of human evil, I believe, is despair. You give up on life, you give up on yourself, you give up on the world, you give up on other people. And so, you set out to punish life, punish others, punish yourself. From the knife wielding gangs in deprived areas to the mansions occupied by outwardly civilised people with a hidden side-line in drug-dealing; from the lonely, bullied child to the high-achiever who cannot cope with the pressure; from the political leaders who order their opponents to be tortured to the nightmare neighbours who go out of their way to make life as difficult for you as possible- it all boils down to a loss of hope. There is nothing good to be hoped for so let’s just take life as bad.

Jesus Christ offers us hope because he offers us a God who thought us worth suffering for, despite the fact that we were the ones inflicting the suffering; he offers us a God who never gives up on us.
And this is the root of hope. Because God believes in us, we can believe in ourselves. And because we can believe in ourselves, we can believe in others. And because we can believe in ourselves and in others, we can believe in our nation and we can believe in our world.

“The Lord is risen. He is risen indeed. “
Look in the mirror and say it to yourself.
Look at the people around you and say it to them.
Look at the television news and repeat it in your mind.
Keep repeating it until the risen Lord becomes a living presence and renewing power in your life.
Keep repeating it until you find your hope restored.
Keep repeating it in the places where you live and work.
Keep repeating it as we prepare to open up the physical presence of our church again.
Keep repeating it whenever you find yourself sinking down into darkness and despair. For this is the message of hope and salvation: The Lord is risen. He is risen indeed. Amen.