Sunday, March 29th @ St Barnabas
A couple of days after writing this sermon, I attended an assembly for early years at the local primary school. Lots about bunnies and chickens, and there was even an Easter bonnet parade – but only one passing and unconnected reference to Jesus. The children did however sing a song thanking the Easter bunny for their eggs …
The problem of explaining Easter
How do you explain what Easter is really all about? That’s a question I often find myself asking as I prepare to take school assemblies at this time of year. After all, if you actually stop and read the Easter story, it is on one level a most brutal tale of injustice, inhumanity and torture. You have the chief priests, with the elders, the teachers of the law and the whole Sanhedrin who convene a kangaroo court in the middle of the night in order to find Jesus guilty. You have Pontius Pilate who, as Mark tells us, knew it was out of envy that the chief priests had handed Jesus over to him but prefers to satisfy the crowd rather than the interests of justice. You have the soldiers who think nothing of making a crown of thorns and pressing it on Jesus’ head, before mocking and hitting Him, and spitting at Him. And that’s before you even get to the details of the crucifixion. Maybe it’s little wonder, then, most school assemblies prefer to concentrate on something else – like spring chickens, and chocolate, and Easter bunnies. But that still leaves the question – how do you introduce the name of Jesus and give these children probably one of the very few opportunities they will ever have to hear the good news of His love for them?
And it’s not just an issue with the children. Look at the massed ranks of Easter eggs on the supermarket shelves, look at the TV schedules for the Easter weekend, look at the events organised over the holiday period. Where is Jesus amongst all this? But then again, the story of Easter is not a story you can turn into a nice comfortable package like Christmas. The story of Easter is too raw, too painful, too emotional for that, and it is perhaps not surprising most people would rather think about something else.
The wrong approach and the right approach
So how then do you explain what Easter is really all about? One approach of course – the Mel Gibson approach – is to simply confront people with the violence and the horror head on, and make them sit up and take notice. However I’m not sure such a brutal retelling of the story is necessarily that productive. It may produce a response of some kind, and it may make people think a little bit more about Jesus. But if you look at the way the Bible tells the story of the first Easter, you will find it is remarkably restrained in its description of Jesus’ sufferings, and it deliberately avoids lingering on the pain and the agony which Jesus must have undoubtedly endured.
All this suggests to me that if we are to be faithful to the Easter story, as Mark and the others first wrote it, we ought to focus not just on what happened, but why. After all, the reason Mark wrote his gospel was not to give us a gruesome story to tell once a year, but to explain just why Jesus of Nazareth had to be crucified, and what His death means to us today. And so he has spent the first 14 chapters carefully building up to this point, by showing how Jesus has predicted all that was going to happen, by taking up Old Testament references that foreshadow this event, and by, above all else, revealing that the events of the first Easter were nothing other than the unfolding of God’s plan of salvation for all mankind.
And the writers of the rest of the New Testament follow this same approach. Although Paul, for example, obviously knew all about the details of Jesus’ death, His letter to the Romans contains very little, if any, description of the actual crucifixion. Rather, Paul’s main concern is to help his hearers understand why these events happened as they did and to show the response they should make. And I believe it’s that practical, down-to-earth application of the Easter story that should be our focus today. So while we are not going to leave our reading from Mark behind, we are going to spend the rest of this sermon looking mainly at our reading from Romans so that we too might become clear what Easter is really all about.
Now I accept that some of Paul’s argument can sound rather obscure and difficult to understand, so I’ve brought along a visual aid to illustrate his three main points – an EASTER EGG.
EAS – Everyone’s A Sinner
Because the first point, and the starting point to explain why we need Easter, is that EAS – Everyone’s a Sinner. In our GIFT groups on Thursdays we’ve been looking at the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, and I think everyone who’s been there will agree they haven’t been the easiest of sessions. We’ve looked at God’s plan for His creation and we have seen how this beautiful and wonderful creation has been spoilt. We have seen how work has turned from something productive and pleasurable into drudgery and toil. We have considered the problem of loneliness, and the difficulties and pain caused by broken relationships. We have thought about marriage as God’s ideal for men and women, and how much we all struggle one way or another with that ideal. And we have asked the very basic and very difficult question: where has it all gone wrong?
And as we have seen in our Thursday sessions, the simple answer, the one we don’t like to think about very much, is sin. So when in Romans 5:12 Paul says, sin entered the world through one man he is not talking just about the way Adam gave into temptation but how all of us, as children of Adam, are equally infected by this pernicious tendency to break God’s commands. It’s as if our moral hardware for deciding what is right and wrong has been invaded by a virus that keeps on spreading, and has taken over our entire operating system. And we need to recognise sin for what it is, and realise the problems it causes, if we are to fully appreciate the reason why all of us need Easter. It is not a question that sometimes we do things we shouldn’t do, or that some people commit acts of unspeakable evil (which is indeed true), but that at the deepest level of our being all of us are in rebellion against God. God has made us. God has shown us how to live. And we have rejected His ways and refused to worship Him. You, me, them out there – it makes no difference. Not a single one of us is innocent.
So while it is tempting to say, when we read the Easter story, that we would never act like the chief priests or Pontius Pilate, or the soldiers, there is a very real sense that none of us are any better than the characters we find portrayed in this chapter. After all, who can say that we have never used people for our own ends? That we have never tried to take the easy route out of the situation? That we have never taken advantage of someone weaker than ourselves? Paul was surely right when he said in Romans 3:23, all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. And unless you understand the problem sin causes, unless you understand the problem your sin causes you, you will never get anywhere near to understanding the reason for the cross.
TER – The End Result – death
Why? Because TER- the end result of sin is as Paul says here is death. Not simply death in the physical sense, but death in the fullest sense of total, permanent separation from God. There surely no more poignant passage in Scripture than the account of man being banished from the garden of Eden, and cherubim being stationed there to prevent his return. It’s a haunting, powerful picture of what life has become for us as a children of Adam, a brief, shadowy existence lived out of relationship with our Creator, and yet with a longing for God that seemingly we can never satisfy. No wonder the poet Dylan Thomas urged his dying father to “rage, rage against the dying of the light”. Rage, despair, frustration have become our lot as we are confronted with the finality and futility of our existence.
And yet, and yet, it was into just such an existence that just over 2000 years ago someone was born who would challenge that reign of death Paul talks about here in our passage of Romans. And the way He would challenge it would be in the most surprising, most unexpected way anyone could imagine – by actually taking death on head, letting it do its worst, and then showing once and for all that it had been defeated. I am, of course, talking about Jesus. And although in our reading from Mark’s gospel this morning Jesus seems just a passive, silent victim, actually He is the willing sacrifice who is going on to take on His shoulders our sin, our rebellion against God, and paying the penalty of death that we ourselves should have borne.
With what result? That if we believe in trust in Him as our Lord and Saviour we are no longer in Adam, out of relationship with God and under His condemnation, but in Christ, in relationship with God and freed from the punishment that should have been ours. Not that, by believing in Jesus, we somehow become better persons ourselves, or more worthy of God’s love, but that from that moment on, when God looks at us, He sees our every sin covered by the precious blood of His Son, Jesus Christ. So that terrible secret you have been hiding from every one else – it is covered. That little sin you are too embarrassed to admit – it is covered. That sin you keep on repeating, despite your best efforts – it is covered.
And I guess one of the biggest challenges the Easter story presents us is to realise just how much we have forgiven. So many Christians, it seems to me, believe that some of their sins have been forgiven, but not that one – God couldn’t really have forgiven me that, could He? Or they half-believe that their sins have been forgiven, but still spend all their lives trying to earn God’s favour, as if it was their works that really counted. And the Easter story says a big resounding “No” to all of that. For on the cross not just some or most, but every sin of mine was laid on Jesus and it is thanks to the gift of God that I am saved, by that outrageous, extravagant grace I could never earn or deserve.
Paul writes in Romans 5:16, The judgement followed one sin and brought condemnation, but the gift followed many trespasses and brought justification. That, my friends, is the difference between being in Adam and being in Christ. No longer under sin and under condemnation, but beneath the cross, counted free and just through the gift of Christ to us. And that’s got to be the most amazing, most stupendously good news ever, hasn’t it!?
EGG – Experience God’s Grace
So finally, the challenge for us as a church is to EGG – Experience God’s Grace. What do I mean by this?
Well, firstly, if you have any responsibility at all for the care of children – whether as a parent, grandparent, godparent, or in any other capacity, teach them the riches of God’s grace. It seems to me that in order to make the Christian faith more accessible we often reduce its message to something like, “Jesus loves you, whoever you are, whatever you have done”. Which, as far it goes, is perfectly true, and if there’s anybody here who doesn’t yet know the love of Christ, then there’s something you need to do this morning. But the Christian faith isn’t just about experiencing the love of Jesus as a fact we have been taught or as an emotion we have felt deep down in our heart. The Christian faith is about the wonder and the beauty and the mystery of the wonderful grace shown on the cross to us by Jesus Christ. And to teach a Christian faith without the cross is to give the next generation a faith which is weak, which is unable ultimately to lead to a saving, personal relationship with Jesus.
Secondly, when we share our faith with those who are not yet believers, the grace of God has to be our theme. Most people outside the church think of it as a cold, place full of obscure regulations and incomprehensible sermons, or a kind of club for the like-minded. We can argue where they get this idea from, and we might wish they had a more accurate picture of the church to begin with. But the only way we are going to change people’s perceptions, is by ourselves by so radically modelled and shaped by the grace of God that people see in us something revolutionary, something different.
And that leads to the third point, and one that is perhaps particularly relevant as we come to our annual church meeting, grace should be the mark of our life as a church together. Now if you were here last week, you will recall that our memory verse was Romans 5:8 – God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. And if that’s the standard of love that God shows us, if he loved us even when according to Paul we were still His enemies, what right have we to do other than show our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ that same enormous, generous, compassionate love? But please note – grace is not simply about being nice to people, or about ignoring their faults. Grace is about being open to the transforming power of Jesus to release us from sin, to bring us forgiveness where we need to be forgiven, reconciliation where we need to be reconciled. Because the point of grace is to change us and to make us more like Jesus. And the one sure sign of a church living in grace is that the power of the Holy Spirit is at work changing lives and showing God to be at work.
So are we living as a community of grace? Maybe that sounds a rather, abstract difficult question, but in reality it is so important. Because it is as the grace of God works in us and through us that we can show what Easter really about it. Of course we all know it’s not about things like spring chickens, and chocolate, and Easter bunnies. But neither is it the story simply of someone who died 2000 years ago in an obscure part of the Roman empire. It’s about the real story of someone who really is a king, who because of His death on a cross, has the power to change lives, even today. Yes, everyone’s a sinner. Yes, the end result of our sin is death. But there is a hope and future for us because thanks to Jesus we can experience God’s grace. And that is the real Easter message that we need to live by and we need to share – not just as Easter but every week and every moment of the day. And how do we do this? By coming back to the cross again and again, and learning ever deeper thanks and praise for the one who has covered all our sin, and paid the penalty of death we ourselves should have borne.
Let us pray…