Three Words from the Heart
By The Rev. Dr. Andrew Stirling
Easter Sunday, April 12 2020
Readings: Luke 24:1-12; 1 Peter 1:3-9
I would never have dreamt that I would begin a service with these three words, “I miss you.” We miss you. Our hearts are broken to deliver a message of Easter in an empty sanctuary, when our hearts are full of so many recollections and moments we have celebrated here.
I remember going back to the events of 9/11, the great sadness that we all had about what had transpired in New York City. I remember driving back across the border from the United States, to be with you in this sanctuary, as we sought comfort and strength and we prayed for our world. They were frightening times, but we could be together and we can’t today. I miss you. We miss you.
We have gathered here to remember loved ones, some of whom are memorialised in these flowers. We have eulogised the lives of those we’ve lost, we have mourned and grieved and lamented. But then we did it together, now we can't. I miss you. We miss you.
This has been a place where we have celebrated weddings, where we have had glorious music. We have had baptisms and babies who we have blessed. We have had confirmations and young people dedicating their lives to God in this place. We have had the greatest moments of joy. We have celebrated new love, new life, new faith, but not today on an Easter Sunday. I miss you. We miss you. Be under no illusion, this is breaking our hearts.
Yet there is something, is there not, in the very Word of God, that regardless of whether we’re able to gather together today, speaks with a power and a clarity that should raise our souls. Wherever you're listening or watching today, these are the words I want you to take with you, because I miss you, is merely personal.
Biblically, there are three words that transform our lives. One of them is in the passage that I read from 1 Peter. In it he uses the phrase, “a living hope.” Not “I miss you,” but a living hope. He wrote it at a time of immense personal struggle. He was in Rome and writing to Christians who lived in Bithynia, in Galatia, in Asia and beyond. It was a letter that went to the Church, many of whom were facing persecution. It was the last years of Nero’s rule as the emperor, around AD63.
Many of these Christians were wondering whether their faith was legitimate, and there was a falling away in the midst of the persecution and difficulty. Should we continue to believe in Jesus Christ in a time of persecution and difficulty and struggle? Peter, in responding to this, was magnificent. “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,” he said to them, “who has borne us to a new life by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, into an inheritance imperishable and unfailing, kept in heaven for us.”
Peter was a strange one to deliver the message. Thirty years before this, before Good Friday, Peter had denied Jesus. As our reading from the Gospel of Luke illustrates, when the women came to say that the tomb was empty and that Jesus was no longer dead, he was frightened, he didn’t know what to do, he was unsure of himself. For all his bravado, Peter was someone who had had his doubts. But Peter was changed by the presence of the Living Christ. He knew the resurrection was real. He had witnessed the resurrected body of Jesus, who had come to the disciples. Thirty years later, he is writing to people who have the same doubts, the same fears, the same questions he had, and he gave them the assurance of a living hope.
What makes Peter so astounding when you think about it, is that there are three levels of people who encountered Christ: The apostles, who were the eye witnesses, like Peter himself, who did not witness, of course, the actual resurrection, but witnessed the empty tomb, and of course, was encountered by the risen Jesus later on. We have the apostles and their teaching, and Peter is one of those voices.
We have those who have had a beatific vision, or who were encountered by Christ as a risen Person. Paul, on the road to Damascus, was a classic example. But for generations, it is those of us who share this living hope through faith, and as Jesus said to Thomas, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believed.” There is a living hope in belief. There is an affirmation in believing and in recognising that belief can sustain us. That means you, and that means me, and that means us. We have a living hope this day. While it might appear on the surface that there is much in our world that is both sad and sorrowful, and destructive and evil.
When we count the number of deaths as statistics and do not know the faces and the names of those who have died, we know that You do, oh Lord, you know those names and those faces. Even though we are unsure about our own futures, and we are frightened to make contact with one another, and must maintain our distance, we must not lose our conviction. As Peter said to those Romans who were facing persecution, we have a living hope. That living hope was based on three other words: “He has risen.”
When those women went to the tomb, the angel greeted them with words that were revolutionary, with words that had changed history, words that bring us here today: “He has risen.” He was raised bodily. There was no body present. He was raised from the dead. Jesus was raised, he has risen. This has been one of the creeds of the Church from the very beginning. It is why Peter said to those he was writing to that their living hope is based on the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and that is their inheritance.
This Easter we say, again, and affirm with all of those that have gone before us, “He has risen.”
I read an interesting piece in the Toronto Star this week that asked the question, “Should we cancel Easter?” Then someone was giving instructions about what you can do when you cancel Easter. Of course, Easter was assumed to be a dinner with family, some ham, some chocolate bunnies. I think it’s fair enough to say though, that having Easter with family is the big deal, and that most of us are missing it, but the notion that you can cancel Easter tells me that Easter is not about any of those things. Easter is a celebration of the thing; “He has risen.”
The great philosopher Teilhard de Chardin once talked about the problems of not having churches to go to, and I think it would be helpful to us right now. “Lord, I have neither bread nor wine, nor altar, I will raise myself beyond these symbols, up to the pure majesty of the real itself. I, your priest, will make the whole earth my altar and on it will offer You all the labourers and suffering of the world.”
We make our life, do we not, an altar to God, and while we cannot be here as a family of faith, and greet one another with a handshake, we can nevertheless celebrate the truth of the resurrection. No era, no time, no despot, no monarch, no virus can remove that truth that He has risen. This is our hope.
There is another phrase that Peter uses, and I think it goes right to the heart this day. He says, “We love Him.” He is referring, of course, to Jesus and he is saying that even when persecuted, we still love Him.
You know, we talk a lot about how God loves us, and rightly so. The texts that deal with the love of God for us, are numerous. At a time like this, you probably need to know more than any other time in recent years, that God loves you and that God loves us. Peter asks them a question, or makes a statement, wanting a response. “You love Him.” This is a moment in our lives and a moment in history where we need to maintain our fidelity to God and to Christ. We need to show that we love Him. But how do we do that? We are confined to our homes, rooms, and hospital beds. We cannot meet with families. We cannot even come and worship here. How do we say, we love you, and how do we maintain that?
Well, He is a risen Christ. We are not alone. You can call on him, you can say, “I love you,” and make that a part of your daily life. Maybe the first thing you do when you get up in the morning and you thank God for the gift of another day, as challenging as it is, you say to the risen Christ, “I love you. I love you because I know you first loved me.” You can also continue to serve your neighbour, because in serving we love. In fact, that has been part of the Christian creed from the very beginning; our service of others is born out of Christ’s service to us. Our love of our neighbour is born out of Christ’s love for us. This is what we do.
I was reading another piece by Booker T Washington, who I know is a controversial writer in some circles. He wrote, Up from Slavery. In it, he said that for him, his brother was a Christ-like figure for him. What happened was that young Booker T and his brother had to work in the fields, picking cotton. Often it was very hot, and they worked long hours. Their masters would give them shirts that they would put on. These shirts were made from flax and were rough; they would burn and tear at young Booker’s skin.
His brother decided what he would do for a few days, was to wear Booker’s shirt, to wear down the flax, so it was smooth. When Booker put on the shirt, it did not hurt him. His brother bore the pain, he bore the suffering. It was an incredible gift that he received, and he likened it to what Christ has done for us, it to what God does for us.
Finally, I believe that all of this gives us peace. There was a moment not long ago, when I was reading of a message on Easter Sunday, that none other than Nelson Mandela delivered in 1992 in a township where there was a great deal of violence and uncertainty. In it he said these words:
I bring you and this gathering heartfelt greetings from all of my friends. May peace be with you. We have joined you this Easter in a solidarity, an act of worship. We have come like all the other pilgrims to join in an act of renewal and rededication. The festival of Easter, which is so closely linked with the festival of Passover, marks the rebirth of the resurrected Messiah, who, without arms, without soldiers, without police or forces, was able to conquer a mighty empire. This great festival of rejoicing marks the victory of the forces of God over death, and hope and life above despair.
This Easter my hope, my prayer for you is that this peace, this love, this courage, will be based not on, “I miss you,” but on, “He has risen.” Amen.