The Lord is Risen !
I first encountered that sublimely inspirational anthem "Rise heart: thy Lord is risen!" when I was a young, wet-behind-the-ears Assistant Minister at St Giles' Cathedral in the 1960s. With words by George Herbert and set to glorious music by Vaughan Williams, it was, without doubt, my boss's favourite choral piece. Writing in his book "Laughter in Heaven", Dr Harry Whitley said, 'If I had over these St Giles' years a theme song, it was "Rise heart: thy Lord is risen!" "Rise heart" was sung at his final farewell service in St Giles' and it will be sung today at this, my final farewell service in St Cuthbert's. In fact I want to take these opening words "Rise heart: thy Lord is risen" and make them the building blocks of this Easter sermon. "Rise heart: thy Lord is risen!" - "Rise church: thy Lord is risen!" - "Rise world: thy Lord is risen!"
Today we celebrate a seismic eruption of divine power when God raised Jesus from the dead. Something on an epic and cosmic scale happened in that Jerusalem graveyard on that strange, confused morning - something that challenged the grim finality of things - something that made mincemeat of the doom-laden processes of inevitability - something which, until that moment, had held humanity helplessly captive. It was, in effect, an explosion of divine love that empowered Christ to stand tall in his risen glory. Indeed it was divine love in all its glorious absurdity that rendered impotent the powers of hell, evil and death as they sought in vain to neutralize once and for all a Christ spreadeagled in grotesque fashion on Calvary's gibbet. Easter declares that the last word lies with love so amazing, so divine, and not with the malevolent machinations of the hellish legions.
Praise be, you and I can benefit even today from the benign fall-out from that seismic explosion of divine love at the first Easter. So often we find ourselves languishing in the tombs of fear, prejudice, twisted relationships, grief, bitterness, loneliness, self-hatred, despair. But to know we are loved, valued, cherished - to know we are loved - the unlovable bits as well as the lovable bits - to know that God loved us with such an absurd, irrepressible love that he sent his Son to bleed and die for us, to plumb the lowest depths for us, to soar heavenwards for us, empowers our hearts to rise, empowers us to push back the stone and walk out of our various tombs. Christ rose from the dead to strip these tombs of their occupants. The last word lies not with the imprisoning power of the tomb but with the liberating power of love. So rise heart: thy Lord is risen! Rise heart and enter into your destiny to be gloriously free - free as a bird on the wing soaring heavenwards.
Another consequence of the benign fall-out from the Easter explosion is that all the broken, fragmented things of life will ultimately find healing and wholeness. Not one drop of blood, not one pang of sorrow or regret will be lost. Neither the great tragedies of man nor the small sorrows of a child will go to waste. Everything will find its fulfilment. Christ's rising is a sign that the brute facts of life do not have the last word: the last word lies with the mysterious, grace-filled purposes of God. So rise heart: thy Lord is risen! Rise heart, for you no longer feature in a tale, told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Rise heart for you star in a tale, written by a wise author, that will climax in the fulfilment of your God-given destiny.
Rise church: thy Lord is risen! Who's kidding who?! It appears to be in headlong retreat in the West, weakened by dwindling numbers, held up to ridicule by the chattering classes and the exponents of atheistic fundamentalism, under threat from a militant Islam, tolerated with benign indifferent by those who prefer to worship at the altar of secular materialism where on Sundays the thronged aisles of supermarkets have replaced the thronged aisles of churches. Moreover, the church has become an enfeebled church that lacks the courage of its convictions, fearful of taking bold risks, fearful of striking out into the unknown and the uncharted with nothing but a naked faith in the faithfulness of God. And yet, notwithstanding all this depressing negativity, we do well to remind ourselves what Jesus promised his Church, namely, its indestructibility - 'Upon this rock I will build my Church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.' Countless are the times these words have provoked a cynical riposte on the part of the Church's critics.
In fact one doesn't need an honours degree in ecclesiastical history to call to mind five periods when the Church has, to all intents and purposes died, or at least great areas of its tissue have atrophied, leaving a husk, inwardly decaying though outwardly still resplendent. And then the community of faith has sprung to new life because it has a Lord who is a pastmaster at finding his way out of the grave. The Church may well die in one guise, only to rise like its Lord in a yet more glorious guise. And even when the Church is reduced to tiny pockets of the faithful keeping the altar flame burning, Christ's promise still remains valid. Such extraordinary resilience reminds me of these words - "The Church is an anvil that has worn out many a hammer". And so the Church's story is one of sudden ends and strange new beginnings, decay and renewal, humiliation and vindication, and above all death and resurrection. The last word lies not with the powers that threaten the Church's extinction - the last word lies with the power that guarantees the Church's renewal. Rise church: thy Lord is risen!
Finally, rise world: thy Lord is risen! I put it to you that Christ's rising is a first-fruits of what God has in store for a creation groaning in travail, a creation that bears too may wounds and scars and death-throes of a Good Friday world. Christ's rising is God's supreme riposte to the malevolent powers of evil, sin, darkness and death which hold the world in chains.
The cynic will no doubt retort - 'Get real' - 'your happy Easter Alleluias are drowned out by the sighing and groaning, the weeping and screaming of countless people who co-exist daily with injustice, oppression, hunger, poverty, violence and conflict. Your so-called new heaven and new earth will always remain a pious pipe-dream'.
Now I readily acknowledge that countless millions are condemned to live in the prison-house of a Good Friday world. Indeed there are too many overcrowded prison-houses in the world today where captives stare through bars, the victims of poverty, hunger, inhumanity, oppression and injustice. I happen to believe that the plight, problems and pains of this present world matter hugely to God. I also happen to believe it to be the will of God to do for the whole world what he did for Jesus at the first Easter. Our Easter assignment, then, from the risen Christ is to be subversive agents of resurrection, to engage in prison-busting and thus help captive men, women and children break out of whatever prison-house they may find themselves in. The more prisons that are busted, the more resurrection will become a reality in the lives of people and nations. What a magnificent assignment! - to demolish a Good Friday world and build instead an Easter world, a world risen from the dead.
If all this seems a bit strenuous, then there are other ways in which we can be agents of resurrection - by living, with flair and panache, the Christlike values of the Kingdom such as love, gentleness, goodness, truthfulness, peace-making, forgiveness, compassion and healing - thereby creating hope in the midst of despair, justice in the midst of tyranny, joy in the midst of sorrow, and life in the midst of death. The last word lies not with the evils, the injustices and the tears of this present world. The last word lies with the things of justice, healing and love. And so - rise world and claim the destiny for which you were created - the destiny that has been redeemed by Christ's glorious dying and his equally glorious rising. Rise world: thy Lord is risen!
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