What Ails You this Easter?
Easter Day: 1st April, 2018
Rev'd Dr Hugh Kempster, Vicar of St Peter's, Eastern Hill
"What is wrong with you?" How many times has someone said that to you? A parent, a teacher, a politician, a priest perhaps, or even a friend. Actually, I think I'm probably the one who says that most often to myself! "What is wrong with you Hugh! Why on earth did you do that?" It is a primal question, and one that lies at the very heart of the Easter story. Marcus Borg and Dominic Crossan, in the final chapter of their book The Last Week: A Day-by-day Account of Jesus' Final Week in Jerusalem (2006) put it like this (p. 210):
As the climax of Holy Week and the story of Jesus, Good Friday and Easter address the fundamental human question, What ails us? Most of us feel the force of this question — something is not right. So what ails us? Very compactly, egoism and injustice. And the two go together. We need personal transformation and political transformation.
So, firstly, personal transformation. Easter is about salvation; the Risen Christ saving me from my selfishness and my ego, if you like! In our first reading, from The Acts of the Apostles, we hear one of our Patron Saint's early sermons. Peter is speaking to a group gathered in Cornelius' house (10:39-41): "they put [Jesus] to death on a tree; but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses." The risen Christ had appeared to Peter and the apostles, but it didn't stop there. Cornelius, a Roman centurion, had a vision that led to his dramatic conversion to Christianity.
And it's not just limited to Biblical stories either. St Augustine in his Confessions tells of his own conversion in the fourth century (Book VIII, 12): "I was ... weeping all the while with the most bitter sorrow in my heart, when all at once I heard the sing-song voice of a child in a nearby house ... it repeated â€˜Take it and read, take it and read' ... I stemmed my flood of tears and stood up, telling myself that this could only be a divine command to open my book of Scripture and read ... I seized it and opened it, and in silence I read the first passage on which my eyes fell: not in revelling and drunkeness, not in lust and wontoness, not in quarrels and rivalries. Rather, arm yourself with the Lord Jesus Christ ... it was as though the light of confidence flooded into my heart and all the darkness of doubt dispelled."
I am sure, if we had the time, there would be conversion stories that many of you could share about your encounters with the Easter mystery. Some dramatic, perhaps, but most less mystical and more gradual I imagine, and yet equally profound and life-changing over time. In Surprised by Joy (1955) C. S. Lewis famously tells the story of his becoming a Christian while riding to a zoo in his brother's motorcycle side car: "When we set out I did not believe that Jesus is the Son of God and when we reached the zoo I did."
These religious and spiritual personal transformations heal us; they address our ailments of selfishness and a lack of meaning and purpose. But that is not the whole story. It is only one side of the coin if you like. What ails us is not only Egoism, but also Injustice. Easter is political as much as it is personal. Barbara Ehrenreich is an American author and political activist; in her book Nikel and Dimed (2001) she tells the story of attending a Christian revival meeting, attended primarily by poor people, where the preacher is going on about heaven and Jesus paying the price for our sins. She writes:
It would be nice if someone would read this sad-eyed crowd the Sermon on the Mount, accompanied by a rousing commentary on income inequality and the need for a hike in the minimum wage ... I get up to leave, timing my exit for when the preacher's metronomic head movements have him looking the other way, and walk out to search for my car, half expecting to find Jesus out there in the dark, gagged and tethered to a tent pole.
Personal salvation is all well and good, but injustice ails us too — or should ail us — just as much as our personal failings. Jesus' passion got him killed, not his ego! He wasn't called "King of the Jews" for nothing. You know the phrase, I am sure: "Do you accept Jesus as your personal Lord and Saviour?" Well, how about this for an alternative: "Do you accept Jesus as your political Lord and Saviour?" In Freedom's Battle (1921) Mahatma Ghandi wrote: "Jesus, in my humble opinion, was a prince among politicians."
Homelessness. Now there's a contemporary injustice that ails me; it ails us as a city at the moment; and it is ailing us as a parish too. We provide breakfast each day, and that's great, but there must be more we can do? Employment pathways; well, we are working on that. Perhaps we should also be getting more political about the issue. Lobbying our politicians next door. Organising a protest march or two. Kicking up a storm.
What is ailing you? What is ailing us? Well, it is both Egoism and Injustice that ails us. Borg and Crossan put it well, and I might give them the final word (p.214): "Just as there is a dangerous distortion when only the personal meaning of Good Friday and Easter is emphasized, so also when only the political meaning is emphasized. When this happens, we forget that Jesus's passion was not just the kingdom of God. It was also the kingdom of God. They go together: it is never kingdom without God, and it is never God without kingdom."