This is the sermon which would have been given by Rev’d Bob Ellis on Easter Sunday
EASTER: IN THE PRESENT TENSE
“Why do you seek the living among the dead?”
Some years ago I read a sermon by a Canadian preacher, Rev K S Barker, to which he gave the intriguing title: PRANCING WITH BELIEF. His opening sentences are an explanation of why he chose the title.
“G K Chesterton is known to many people as the author of the Father Brown detective stories. But Chesterton was also one of several very articulate lay theologians. Like Dorothy Sayers and C S Lewis, he had the happy knack of writing about religious belief in a style which caught the interest and stirred the imagination. When Chesterton was once chided by a friend, ‘Surely you can’t hold to that kind of belief in this contemporary scientific world?
‘He replied, My good sir, far from disbelieving, I’m actually prancing with belief!‘ “
PRANCING! What a marvellous word to use to express one’s faith! According to my thesaurus, to prance is to: strut, swagger, flaunt, stride, hop, skip, bob, bounce, bound, jump, leap, lope, spring, frolic, caper, cavort, frisk, gambol, play, rollick, romp, skip, flutter, dance, oscillate, sparkle, twinkle!
To prance with belief is to believe with enthusiasm, energy, joy and excitement.
I can hear Ken Dodd posing the question, “Are you prancing with belief, Madam? “
Do you have a belief that makes you bound out of bed each day with a GOOD MORNING, LORD! rather than a GOOD LORD, MORNING!
I have to admit that as I have grown in the faith, I now challenge and question, even sometimes to the point of discarding, many traditional ways of looking at God and theology, and I can often concur with the question put to Chesterton, ‘Surely you can’t hold to that kind of belief in this contemporary scientific world?’
But when it comes to Easter, I have no problem in prancing with belief at the thought of RESURRECTION. RESURRECTION turns me on, tickles my taste buds, makes my heart beat like a drum, sends shivers down my spine! But it is Easter IN THE PRESENT TENSE that does this for me. Let me explain.
It is possible to speak of Easter in what might be called THE PAST TENSE,
when you look at the events of the first Easter Day and examine them critically in an attempt to prove the authenticity of what actually happened. Many alternative explanations for the disappearance of the body of Jesus have been given. Several theories have been put forward over the years. For example, the swoon theory that suggests that Jesus didn’t actually die in the first place, he only seemed to have died and in the coolness of the tomb he gained consciousness and somehow escaped from the tomb. No, no – Roman soldiers didn’t make mistakes like that – if they said Jesus was dead, believe you me he was dead!
Then there were the conspiracy theories, one of which argued that the reason why the tomb was empty was because the disciples were shrewd conspirators who stole and hid the body as a way to jump-start their new religion after the awful events of Good Friday. In other words, the story of the Easter event is nothing more than the record of a complicated and fraudulent hoax perpetrated by desperate and dishonest disciples!
Under examination of the subsequent facts I think this idea of a complicated cover-up fails miserably. I don’t want to go into this in any detail this morning, but is it really credible to believe that these men, broken and demoralised by what they had seen at the crucifixion, in the space of a few hours could have hatched a plot around a claim that was intrinsically unbelievable, and pull it off with such passionate courage? I don’t think so!
The Gospels portray the disciples cringing in a locked room, terrified that the same thing that happened to Jesus might happen to them. They are in deep shock and in the depths of despair, gutted by the way their hopes and expectations had come to such an unexpected and tragic end. Hardly the sort of people with the clear minds and strong constitutions necessary to perpetrate the hoax to end all hoaxes!
Nor do people die in gladiatorial battles or face being ripped apart by wild animals or undergo the most gruesome and cruel torture, for the sake of a hoax.
No, whatever it was, something happened on that first Easter Morning to make this enormous difference in the consequent life of the disciples and the early church.
This is Easter in the PAST TENSE.
It is also possible to speak of Easter in THE FUTURE TENSE, in the sense that the resurrection of Jesus has future consequences for us when we die. Many of the Easter hymns home in on this future tense:
Jesus lives! thy terrors now
can, O Death, no more appal us.
Jesus lives! by this we know
thou, O grave, canst not enthral us.
Soar we now where Christ has led,
following our exalted Head;
made like him, like Him we rise;
ours the cross, the grave, the skies.
Paul intimates the same when he writes to the Christians in the Greek city of Corinth:
“But the truth is that Christ has been raised from death, as the guarantee that those who sleep in death will also be raised…for just as all people die because of their union with Adam, in the same way all will be raised to life because of their union with Christ. “
This is what I mean by looking at the resurrection in the future tense – rejoicing in the fact that by the resurrection Jesus overcame the power of death, not only for himself, but for us! As you can imagine this aspect of the traditional Easter message is naturally the one that brings tremendous comfort and hope to so many, especially if someone is nearing death or has experienced the loss of bereavement.
THIS IS EASTER IN THE FUTURE TENSE
But this morning I want to home in on what for me has become the most helpful and relevant and meaningful way to speak of Easter, and that is to speak of it:
IN THE PRESENT TENSE
Hymnwriter, Sydney Carter, who died last year, well known for his hymns ‘Lord of the Dance’ and ‘One more Step along the World I go’, also wrote a poem entitled The Present Tense. A would-be believer is not convinced by the argument ‘The Bible Says’ :
Your holy hearsay is not evidence;
give me the good news in the present tense.
What happened nineteen hundred years ago
may not have happened – how am I to know?
The living truth is what I long to see;
I cannot lean on what used to be.
So shut the Bible up and show me how
the Christ you talk about is living NOW!
This Easter morning I want us to celebrate not simply the belief that by his resurrection Christ overcame death – that is the past tense – nor simply the belief that, at the end of earthly living, human life continues in some way beyond death – that is the future tense – but the belief that Christ lives today in his followers, in the church and in the world – that is THE PRESENT TENSE!
I believe that the most significant of Easter’s messages for you and for me is not ‘Jesus was raised form the dead ‘, nor even ‘that those who believe will not die but have everlasting life‘, but
“Christ is alive!
No longer bound to distant years in Palestine, but saving, healing, here and now
and touching every place and time“
Near the end of John Masefield’s poetic drama, THE TRIAL OF JESUS, Procula, the wife of the Roman Governor Pilate, is represented as someone who is deeply disturbed over the crucifixion and death of Jesus. When a Roman officer brings news that the stone sealing the tomb has been rolled away and the body gone, she is perplexed but excited as to what it could mean. She asks the soldier, “Where do you think he is?“ & he replies, “Let loose in the world, lady, where neither Roman nor Jew can stop his truth!”
Let loose in the world! That is resurrection in the present tense!
Loose in our world today! The Easter message is not only about a life that was and then, nor simply about the life that will be and to come, but about life here and now and today!
Many years ago in Birmingham there was a very popular minister at the Carrs Lane Congregational Church by the name of Dr R W Dale. One of the things remembered about his ministry was that at every Sunday Morning service during the year, even at Christmas, his opening hymn would be an Easter Hymn! It was his way of reminding his congregation that Christ was not risen somewhere between the first of March and the end of April each year, but right through the year, and that he expected them as Christ’s followers to live the resurrection life every day of every month.
Celebrating Easter in THE PRESENT TENSE means celebrating that Christ can bring resurrection and renewal into OUR lives, and through OUR lives to others.
I believe in the Resurrection.
I believe in the Resurrection, not because I am convinced by arguments about an empty tomb, but because I believe that Christ can be encountered today.
I believe in the Resurrection, not because I am completely certain about the literal reality of the events of the first Easter morning, but because I know that my Redeemer liveth!
I believe in the Resurrection because I have experienced the power and presence of Jesus in my own life and seen it transforming and sustaining the lives of countless others.
And because I believe in the Resurrection, I also believe that resurrection is a principle of God’s purpose. I believe that resurrection life is not so much about being transported out of this painful, precarious world, but being enabled to live hopefully, trustfully and victoriously within it!
I believe that God can still, and does still, bring light out of darkness, hope out of despair and life out of death, and that he often enlists us and enjoins us, in the spirit of Christ, to accomplish these transforming events with him.
So today, let us celebrate that:
in times of bereavement, in moments of disappointment, in episodes of depression,
in hours of anxiety, in periods of illness, when love is fading and life passing us by –
Christ is alive! Alleluiah!
Today, let us celebrate that:
in times of temptation, in moments of weakness, in episodes of sorrow, in hours of struggle, in periods of conflict, when circumstances stress and difficulties threaten – Christ is alive! Alleluiah!
Today, let us celebrate that:
in times of failure, in moments of heartbreak, in episodes of challenge, in hours of loneliness, in periods of confusion, when coping is hard and resources are few – Christ is alive! Alleluiah!
Today, let us celebrate that: lives can be changed and situations can be transformed, hope can be restored, peace can return, and justice can be offered, because:
Christ is alive and resurrection is real! Resurrection was and resurrection IS! We are no longer spectators of resurrection, we are participators in an eternal drama. Alleluiah!
Doesn’t that want to make you PRANCE with belief!!
With every good wish. Keep safe! Bob