Sermon preached by the Most Rev. Barry Morgan at Llandaff Cathedral on 27 March 2016
Our world seems to be gripped by fear – to begin with there are constant threats of terrorist attacks on virtually every major city across the world. This country and London especially, is on high alert against such a possibility because it is regarded as a prime target. The tragic events in Brussels this week have simply reinforced the terror.
At the same time, many countries in Europe are fearful of being inundated by refugees and there are plenty of people willing to fuel such fears. And the debate whether to remain or leave the European Union, as far as Britain is concerned, often feeds on people’s fears – fears about sovereignty and not being able to decide Britain’s future and again the financial implications of having to accept more refugees than we can afford.
And all of that without the normal fears that the NHS might be unable to do all that is expected of it; pensions that may be totally inadequate if you live into great old age; young people unable to afford ever to buy their own homes, whilst at the other end of the spectrum, old people being unable to afford care at the end of their lives.
It is worth remembering that the Roman Empire at the time of Jesus was also a place where people had cause to be fearful. Willing as the Empire was to allow the people it had conquered to follow their own customs and religion, there was no doubt about who was in charge, especially if there was unrest. Rebellions and insurrections were quashed ruthlessly – the Jews were, after all, a subject people.
And when a Galilean peasant began to preach about the Kingdom of God, there was danger both from the Jewish religious hierarchy, threatened by a man who seemed to be undermining all that they stood for, by preaching that the kingdom was open to all-comers, without the need for temple or priest and from the Roman State, fearful of anyone seen to be fermenting unrest. And of course we know how that life ended – on a gibbet on a hill outside Jerusalem.
So one can imagine the fear and terror of those who had been the followers of Jesus. During his arrest and trial, they had all run away, afraid of being found guilty by association, so that no one stood by him in his hour of greatest need. Worse still, Peter had denied that he had had anything at all to do with him, simply because he was afraid. And then after the crucifixion, the disciples huddled together “for fear of the Jews” according to one gospel, that is for fear of also being accused of blasphemy and undermining the faith of their fathers. All that, in addition to their probable feelings of guilt for having let Jesus down, and their natural grief for someone they had loved and who had loved them having been his constant companions for three years.
And then Jesus appears in their midst. That too could have caused them great trauma and pain – suddenly to encounter somebody they never expected to see again, whom they had deserted. Yet Jesus’ constant refrain, echoing the words of God through His messengers from Genesis to Revelation is “Do not be afraid”.
That probably did nothing to diminish their terror for they initially mistook Jesus for a ghost. Yet his words to them are, in spite of all that he had gone through and all that they had done, “Do not be afraid”, echoing his words at the stilling of the storm or when faced with ill or dying people during His ministry, “You have nothing to fear.” Nothing to fear, when if they took up his cause, they could be flogged, tortured, persecuted, and crucified, as indeed some of them were eventually.
What did Jesus mean by these words “Do not be afraid”? One thing is certain, they did not mean do not worry, nothing bad will happen to you – you will be safe and immune from every danger because that did not happen. What they did mean however is that whatever happens to you, I will be with you – God will be with you and God is stronger than anything that can be arraigned against you, even death itself. And that goes to the heart of the meaning of Easter for us as well.
The message of the Risen Jesus to individuals who are facing incurable illnesses and inevitable death, and to relatives totally bereft after the loss of someone they love deeply, hard though it is at times to believe is that God is there too. It is a much more profound message than “I will make you feel better” or “I will take away your pain or your grief” because actually that does not happen. What is true is, that in the midst of all the pain and angst of terminal illness and bereavement, God says I will be there too, sustaining, supporting, weeping with you, however terrible you feel and however bleak you feel the outcome may be.
That is why a group of terrified disciples were willing to risk everything, their lives included, to go out to all the corners of the known world because they believed that whatever the difficulties and whatever befell them, the same God who had been present to Jesus was now present to them, and alongside them.
“Where is God?” said somebody at Auschwitz when a young boy was hanged and left to dangle in the wind in the most terrible agony because he was too light for the weight of the rope to break his neck, and therefore could not have a swift death. “On that gallows” came the reply. “That’s where God is.” That is what true faith means.
And we know that God suffers with those who suffer, because suffering and agony are also part of the experience of God in Jesus Christ. “God has answered us with an image of himself” to quote R S Thomas
“On a hewn tree, suffering
injustice, pardoning it.”
God through Jesus Christ has been there before us and knows from the inside what it is to suffer. As my predecessor as bishop of Llandaff in the 1930’s, Timothy Rees puts it in one of his wonderful hymns
“And when human hearts are breaking, under sorrow’s iron rod, then they find that self-same aching, deep within the heart of God”.
It is what St Paul means when he says “That neither death nor life, nor principalities nor power, nor things present nor things to come, nor heights nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
And that is true not just for individuals but for the whole human race and for our world as well. However hard the going, and however tough the situation people face – poverty, climate change, famine, torture, persecution, death – God is there too. Again, as R S Thomas puts it
“You are there also
at the foot of the precipice
of water that was too steep
for the drowned: their breath broke
and they fell. You have made an altar
out of the deck of the lost
trawler whose spars
are your cross”.
Do not be afraid. I am with you. Yet surely the Easter message has to be more than that. And we are given in fact the assurance that there is more because the words “Do not be afraid” come from someone whom God has raised from the dead to God’s eternal presence. That does not mean, as one poster I saw last week said, “You can live forever because of Easter” as if death could be bypassed and we simply carried on as if we were immortal but rather that we will all die but the God of Jesus is greater even than death and He will raise us to new life in His presence. He can and does make all things new for us humans and for our world as well. That too is the message of the Gospel.
“It is the assurance” as somebody put it “that in the end love will win over hate, life over death and God will triumph over everything” and this involves the whole of humanity and indeed the whole of creation. At the end, God will gather up all of us and all creation into himself because He is the God who in Jesus Christ shows us that His nature and His name is love. Raising Jesus from the dead indicates the values Jesus stood for.
If that is so, then we really do not have to be afraid. And if that is the kind of God, God is and that is the kind of future He has in store for us, then we need to try and begin to live that kind of future now. That is what it means to say the Lord’s Prayer “your will will be done on earth as it is in heaven”.
In other words, since God has given a resounding yes to Jesus’ way of living and dying – the way of forgiveness, compassion, mercy and grace, of not returning violence with violence, of turning the other cheek, of valuing those who are least valued in society because every single human being is made in the image of God and because that is God’s future, we are bidden to begin that kind of life now. Not being afraid means resisting all that enslaves, degrades and dehumanises another human being and doing so non-violently.
Not being afraid is realising that the God who brought us into being is the God who offers us His future for He is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.