Catholic Contextual urban Theology, Mimetic Theory, Contemplative Prayer. And other random ramblings.

Saturday, 29 April 2017

Sermon at the Easter Vigil 2017

Genesis 1:1-2:4a; Genesis 22:1-18; Exodus 14:10-end, 15:20-21; Romans 6:3-11; Matthew 28:1-10

The Sunday programme on Radio Four this week reported a survey on beliefs about life after death. The company ComRes had polled two thousand people and found that only six out of ten people who call themselves nominal Christians said they believed in an afterlife. This apparently rises to eight out of ten for people who call themselves committed Christians. On the other hand 20% of atheists, apparently, did believe in an afterlife.
These are perplexing results. Perhaps it depends on how you put the question. What exactly do you mean by an “afterlife”? The Sunday Programme asked a random selection of people on the Clapham omnibus and got a whole range of really rather vague ideas that could probably be best described as optimism rather than faith. Those who didn’t believe either didn’t want to, imagining an afterlife must be just like this life only stretched out indefinitely, or else cited a lack of evidence of whatever they supposed an afterlife might be.
For Christians, however, our faith is not based on groundless optimism. Neither has it anything to do with ideas of something resembling this life carrying on indefinitely in some kind of spirit world. Such beliefs have more to do with folklore and paganism than they have to do with the Bible.
The heart of Christian faith is something very specific: and that is that Jesus, the Messiah, was raised from the dead. Christians cannot talk about life after death apart from Christ. What we believe in is not any old afterlife, but resurrection, and we only know what that is by looking to Christ. Resurrection is nothing less than the taking of the whole of human life, body and soul, into the life of God. It begins with Jesus, and it is as much a present reality as it is an event in time.
In Matthew’s account, that we heard this evening, the resurrection in fact has already taken place. The tomb is already empty when the angel rolls back the stone; Jesus is already elsewhere. But the women then meet him; the resurrection is a present reality, too. The resurrection is an existence utterly unconstrained by the old boundaries between life and death. We cannot think that way any more.
So, for Christians, belief in life after death cannot be separated from the resurrection of Jesus. It is true that the soul continues to exist after the death of the body, and before the general bodily resurrection of the human race in Christ that we profess in the Creed. There are ample proofs of this in scripture, for example, Jesus talks about Abraham, Isaac and Jacob being alive; he promises paradise today to the repentant thief; St Peter speaks of Jesus on Holy Saturday “preaching to the spirits” of those who had lived before him, so that they too may be saved.
Theologians have explained this by saying that the soul is the “form of the body”, that it, it is the principle whose presence makes a living body a person, and whose absence means that a dead body is merely inanimate matter. Unlike the body, the soul contains no principle of corruption within it, and therefore it continues to exist after death.
But the survival of the soul is not the main thing that Christians believe about life after death. The soul remains the form of the body, and will inform the body once again when we share in the resurrection of Christ. It is in him that we will be raised. It is with him that we will share his glorified incorruptible state in the Kingdom of God, when not only our souls, but also our bodies, will be deified by the indwelling Holy Spirit.
Jesus, as the head, and the Church, as his body, are the “whole Christ” in a wonderful phrase of St Augustine. And it is the whole Christ that is raised. The lost unity of the human race is restored in Christ. Humanity will become in truth what it was always meant to be, the image of God the Holy Trinity, many distinct persons sharing one nature. As St Paul says, as in Adam all die even so in Christ shall all be made alive. And that resurrection life, the dwelling of Christ in us and we in him, begins in this life by faith and the grace of baptism.
Our baptism both restores us in the image of Christ and imprints on us the pattern of his death and resurrection. Eternal life, life after death, begins in the font. We renew our promises tonight to stir up and renew in us the grace of baptism that we received once and for all.
The resurrection is the pillar and foundation of the Christian faith. And that remains true whatever happens in the world. There have been dark and terrible times in the history of the world, within the living memory of some of us here. Tonight the news may seem to be full of menace and anxiety. But Jesus says, “in the world you will have trouble, but take courage, I have conquered the world”.

The resurrection is that conquest, and in Christ it is a conquest that we share. Emerging from the font as a new creation, we no longer have to concern ourselves with the question “will I survive death?”. Instead, we say with St Paul, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ in me”, and we know that the resurrection life has already begun.

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