Sermon preached at Mattins on the Fifth Sunday of Easter (29 April 2018) by the Revd Helen O'Sullivan, Chaplain

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12:00pm Doors open for sightseeing
12:30pm Eucharist
4:00pm Last entry for sightseeing
5:00pm Evening Prayer
5:30pm Cathedral closes

Sermon preached at Mattins on the Fifth Sunday of Easter (29 April 2018) by the Revd Helen O'Sullivan, Chaplain

The Chaplain reflects on the message of Eastertide, so often described in terms of victory, and encourages us to focus on the message that "Christ has overcome and therefore so can we in him".

I suspect that I’m not alone in feeling rather overwhelmed by the steadfast faith of our forebears whose example is set before us in our hymns and readings this morning.

We sing for all the unsung saints and their virtues;
steadfast and strong
not looking for glory for glorifying their Lord

In our first reading (Daniel 3:16-28) we hear about Shadrach, Meshach and Abendnego willing and ready to face certain death in the furnace of fire rather than deny their Lord. In another account in scripture we have the three of them singing praises to God from within the midst of the fire. Their faith is presented to us as that which is able to overcome suffering and persecution and opposition - and so, I for one, am left feeling rather wanting alongside them.

The Te Deum (as glorious as it is, a hymn of tremendous beauty) celebrates the glorious company of the apostles, the goodly fellowship of the prophets, the noble army of martyrs. Now, I am glad that we are of that company, but I consider myself to be a hanger on rather than a player here.

Then we have the writer of Hebrews (Hebrews 11:32- 12:2) having early in chapter 11 trumpeted the accomplishments of Able, Enoch and Noah, Abraham and Moses and amazingly including a woman, Rahab. He is running out of puff by the time he gets to Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephtah, David, Samuel and the prophets but he lists their achievements nevertheless and suggests that they had less of a reason than us for their faith because they did not know Christ. How much more then is expected of us!

And at the end of a week when we have commemorated the inspirational figures of St George, Bishop Mellitus, first Bishop at St Paul’s, and the Gospeller Mark… we hear words that I have always found comforting and encouraging from that second reading.

Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses - these words, laid out as it were side by side with the gallery of heroes, leaves me feeling rather defeated.

In the Easter season there is a strong element of triumphalism, which of course is natural as Christ has conquered sin and death. And the foundational stories of our faith, and the lives of the saints which we hear in this context, are supposed to provide inspiration, but I find myself much more under the cloud of the palmist today (psalm 44:16-end) who says; My confusion is daily before me, rather than in the glow of the saints on almost every other page.

And that where the problem lies, in the all too human activity of comparing ourselves, we look to understand our place in all this, and try to figure out where I belong in relation to it all. Because when we do this we inevitably get into difficulty either judging ourselves too harshly and left feeling hopeless, or judging others too harshly and being smug or proud. 

That whole language of conquering (which we hear a great deal in Eastertide, and when we talk about the saints) whilst often leaving us in a rosy glow, can be really unhelpful, because to conquer is to make something else subject. 

And so I find it much more helpful to use the language of overcoming rather than that of conquering. It is no less definitive, it has no less strength or meaning and it avoids the triumphalism or defeatism which can be so unhelpful. 

And I look to our Easter anthems and find in them an example of this gentle and encouraging certainty that Christ has overcome and therefore so can we in him.

Paul our patron calls us, in the extracts from his writing in the Easter Anthems (see below), to celebrate the overcoming of sin and death by setting aside all malice and wickedness and acting with sincerity and truth: such a straightforward call to simplicity of purpose.

And reminds us that, as Christ died to sin and is alive in God, so we can reckon ourselves, understand ourselves, as also being dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. We have been set free, set free to live free from fear, but how easy it is for us to fall back into old habits, bound by our judgements of ourselves and others and allow that freedom to be eroded by fear.

Paul tells us that we can be assured that as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive. 

In these wonderful sentences we are reminded that God has done what God does, reconciles, restores, renews and revives. 

God does this for us in Christ. God’s love for us, for each one of us, just is. Not deserved, not earned, we haven’t and we never could earn unconditional love, that’s clearly not what unconditional means. It is just God’s gift to love in this way, perfectly. And to be holy is to be the object of that love, we are blessed and sanctified by God’s love and so we are truly on holy ground every day in our interactions with one another, each and every one of us the objects of God’s perfect love.

And we need to hear this reminder again and again as we fragile human beings find it all too easy to be overwhelmed by the complexity of our lives rather than rejoicing in the simplicity of God’s love for us. Trusting in that love is the route to contentment rather than judgement, because understanding myself and those around me as the objects of God’s love makes me more mindful of trying to be more loving, gentler towards myself and others.

And so perhaps if we could focus a little more on the simplicity of Gods unconditional gift of love for us perhaps we might find ourselves delighting in the company of the saints rather than feeling outshone by them.

Christ our passover has been sacrificed for us:  
so let us celebrate the feast,
not with the old leaven of corruption and wickedness:  
but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.

Corinthians 5.7b, 8
Christ once raised from the dead dies no more:  
death has no more dominion over him.
In dying he died to sin once for all:  
in living he lives to God.
See yourselves therefore as dead to sin:  
and alive to God in Jesus Christ our Lord.

Romans 6.9–11

Christ has been raised from the dead:  
the first fruits of those who sleep.
For as by man came death:  
by man has come also the resurrection of the dead;
for as in Adam all die:  
even so in Christ shall all be made alive.

1 Corinthians 15.20–22