Thoughts from the Isolation Sofa V
The sermons of Hope….
For approximately the last three years, my academic work has evolved around examining sermons from the 18th and 19th century. These sermons provide a unique insight into the time they were written. From the series of Lenten sermons given in Lombard Street by the Christian Socialists in the 19th century, to the annual Sons of the Clergy sermons, each one speaks God’s word into a particular time and place and provides a snapshot of society, both its fears and aspirations .
Some sermons seem so politically motivated that they could not possibly pertain to any scriptural truth. A good example would be A sermon against the dangerous and sinful practice of inoculation. Preach’d at St. Andrew’s Holborn, on Sunday, July the 8th, 1722. By Edmund Massey (1690-1765). This sermon goes to great length to argue against the new vaccination for Smallpox. Although anti vaxxers exist now, medical orthodoxy, even in the 18th century, would promote vaccination as a benefit and encourage the take up of any vaccines offered.
However, on closer reading, Massey’s central claim is theological: “That the Salvation of the Righteous cometh of the Lord, who is also their Strength in the Time of Trouble: That the Lord shall stand by them and save them, that He shall deliver them out of the Hand of the Ungodly (and Unskilful) and shall save them, because they put their Trust in him.” For Massey it was not the vaccine that was the problem, it was the fact that in his opinion the vaccine removed people’s reliance on God in times of trouble. His text was taken from Job and admirably demonstrates the point that he was making. Now let me be clear, I am not making any claims of Covid-19 being a divine judgement or that following the strict advice of the government is not necessary. What I am illustrating is that for years there has existed a universal truth that salvation always comes from the Lord and the strength to bear it has always been His to give, even in the ravishes of an epidemic like smallpox or the pandemic of Covid-19.
With all the terrible events that are overshadowing the world now, you might be forgiven for not noticing that Sunday was Easter Day. A very strange Easter Day, one in which most Christians worldwide stayed away from their churches. The Pope delivered his Urbi et Orbi blessing and Easter message to a deserted St Peter’s Basilica and the Archbishop of Canterbury offered Holy Communion in his kitchen at Lambeth Palace. There is another reason why this Easter will stand out. Up and down the country, indeed worldwide, clergy and theologians have produced a plethora of sermons and theological writings trying to understand the place of God in our current darkness. From the well-known such as Rowan Williams, Nadia Bolz-Weber, Phillip Yancey, to priests of small parishes known only to their congregations, all fought for bandwidth to speak light into the darkness.
I am not going to attempt to summarise the sermons that I read or listened to over the last few days, but I do encourage you to go and seek some out and read or listen to them. I would, however, like to talk about the central theme of those sermons, the resurrection. This is the central core of Christianity without which there is no salvation, and potentially the hardest part of Christianity to fully understand. Even the disciples had problems! Remember doubting Thomas? “But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But he said to them, ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.’”(John 20:24-25 NRSV). It is okay not to fully understand the resurrection and to have doubt. The vast quantity of literature on the resurrection, which often contradicts itself, demonstrates that you are not alone.
But the fact that the resurrection happened, that Christ rose from the dead, even if not fully explicable or understandable, is the ultimate sign of hope. The hope that out of darkness comes new life, a new impetus, a new message. The hope that the old norm where death has the last word has been shattered in the events of the cross and resurrection. At first the disciples were frightened. Mark’s shorter ending finishes with, “So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” (Mark 16:8 NRSV). Whereas in Luke the disciples class the news of the resurrection as ‘an idle tale’ (Luke 24:11 NRSV). But fear or uncertainty should not stop us from shouting out the good news.
That good news must be spoken about and the hope that it contains needs to be spread throughout our communities, perhaps, more now than ever. Each day we mourn alongside increasing numbers of families ripped apart by Covid-19. Financial hardship takes a tighter grip. Domestic violence continues to increase. Our communities become more and more fragmented albeit the good work that is also being done in them. This is the norm that we must shatter with a message of hope. The hope in the eternal loving Father who raised his Son from the dead through the power of the Spirit. This hope must be spread with integrity and authenticity but most importantly with humility. We need humility to admit that sometimes it is difficult to see God in the darkness and to understand why the pandemic is happening. We need humility to admit that we do not have all the answers, yet sincerely convey our conviction that God is here because on Easter Day we are bold to say, ‘He is risen, He is risen indeed, Alleluia’. This is the hope that will carry us through.