This is a bit of a ‘chicken and egg’ kind of sermon. here’s the Easter chicken – (a duckling actually) and here’s the Easter egg. Now which one came first? ……
Did we human beings invent the story of Jesus rising again, because we like to believe in life after death,
or did God invent the whole story of human beings, because God wanted to try out life before death.
It’s not by chance – you see – that the Egg is the traditional Christian symbol of Easter – faith is believing that there is a chicken inside the egg.
But of course it’s not all that easy to tell, is it. When the chicken farmer picks up an egg – she or he doesn’t know what’s inside. She can either fry the egg for breakfast, and say that was very nice – or she can put it back under the hen as an act of faith and waits to see what happens next.
The egg in her hand gives no clues. The shell is hard and sealed. She can’t take a sneaky peak inside just to see if a chick is going to grow – the egg is silent – she can’t put it up to her ear and shake it to see if the chick is making a noise. The only way to know if the egg is fertilised and going to grow into a chick is to break it open and have a look – but then it will never grow into a chick .
And life after death is a bit like the egg. The only way we’re going to find out if it exists and what it’s like is by breaking the shell – as it were. But then it will be too late to come back and try something different. So the Easter mystery is a bit like the egg – it’s there, we can read about it and hear about it, but until it’s time for the egg to hatch we won’t really know for certain what’s next.
But to make it worse for us – we’re more like the chick inside the egg than the farmer outside. We are snug and cozy, if a little cramped in our world, inside the egg. … growing nicely, developing our wings and our beak, eyes and feet – and no amount of clucking from the mother hen, or shouting from the farmer, or even cheep cheeping from the other chicks will be able to explain the big wide world on the other side of the egg shell. From where we are – as growing chicks inside the egg – this is the whole world: small, dark, warm and a bit wet. Who could explain to us that one day we would be grown hens scrubbing around on the farm floor.
And so, when our 3 to 5 year old child, asks us the question : What happens to people when they die? What do we say? They go to another place? They go to be with God and it’s very nice there?
and as we grow up, and continue to ask the same question – because of course the child’s question was very good – how do those answers seem to us now : another place? but where? to be with God ? but who is God, and what is being with God like ?
When the electricity in the neurons of our brain is finally turned off and our hard drive stops working, what then happens to our memories and thoughts, our ideas and experiences, our consciousness of who we are. And what would immortality look like anyway – just more of the same, eternally, endlessly, for ever ? Do we just crack through one egg shell to find ourselves inside another egg – but just a little bit bigger this time?
Well the only answer is, of course, that we do not know. The baby chick has no idea what the farmyard smells, the sunlight and the rain will mean – and neither do we. There is just an inevitable course of nature, and act of faith.
But faith is not entirely guess work. And actually most of our lives are built on faith. We have faith that the water will come out of our taps each day and that it will be clean and will not poison us. We do not know that for certain – as the people of Flint discovered. But we have faith, here in Montreal, that it will be OK. We have faith that the light switch will turn the light on and the electrics will work. We have faith that the car will start, or that the bus driver or metro driver will have turned up for work and the bus or train will come near enough on time. We have faith that the Royal Bank of Canada will not go bust tomorrow and empty our accounts. We have faith that the government will do a reasonable job, even if we don’t agree with everything. In fact we live our whole life not by knowledge but by faith. If we didn’t we’d be a nervous wreck. Now most of our faith – is from our own experience – we did it yesterday and the day before, so we think it will probably be the same today.
But not all faith is like that. When a surgeon operates on us, we put our faith in the medical team, not because we have been through that experience before, but because they have…we trust their experience.
And sometimes we just take risks – we don’t really know what will happen, but we think and hope that we will be OK.
When it comes to God, and to belief in the after-life, then it comes down to faith in the same way. St Polycarp was taken to his execution he said : “Fourscore and six years have I served Jesus, and he has never done me injury; how then can I now blaspheme my King and savior?”.
For many of us faith is not something we just got one day – like a collection of 24 volumes of an Encyclopedia. It is something which grew slowly in us. It is as if we began by tentatively turning on the tap to see if water would come out – and we end up taking a shower. We pray for things, and we discover strangely that prayers are answered – not in an easy or simplistic kind of way, not in a way where we control God or events, but in a different kind of way – a way that when we look back at our lives we can see that God was always our friend. It’s a hard-one to try to explain to others, a gradual growth in experience that God is faithful to us and with us. How does the chick know that the hen is sitting on the egg? And sometimes it is only by being very very still – by being aware of things deep within us which many other people miss. Christianity is usually judged by big services like this one – but for two thousand years this kind of service, glorious though it is, is only a small part of the Christian life. Christians have been sitting still and silently in their own spaces listening intently to the inner voice of God. We still do it – we do it in this cathedral and in every church – and members of our congregation here and in every church still do it. Michael Ramsay, the archbishop of Canterbury in the 60’S was once asked how long he prayed each day : he famously answered, two minutes a day : but it takes me 28 minutes to get there. For me, those two minutes feel like a timeless experience of being lost in a nothing that is everything. That is my personal experience of what I think the after-life will be like – it is nothing like this life, but it is somehow bigger and freer and very very good.
Secondly faith is something we learn from others: from their experience. We are richly blessed in the Christian Church for we have many writers and holy people who share their faith. And today we hear of Mary Magdalene, the women, the apostles, the disciples – : all who experienced Jesus risen again and tell us about it. They are like the surgeon. They have seen it and they want us to believe. I think we have to make our own mind up about whether or not we think they were telling the truth. It is possible that just one person made it up and that everyone else just kept silence, but I don’t think so. It is possible, I suppose, that they all agreed on making the whole thing up – but I don’t think so. It is possible that they were group hallucinating – not on one but on many occasions – and that no-one – not one person amongst them, said that it was all a load of baloney – but I don’t think so. In the end I think they were telling the truth. They had been with Jesus, who was a very extraordinary man, and they watched him die on the cross, and then on the third day – and in the days following – they saw him again and again, differently, confusingly, fleetingly, bodily, strangely, familiarly – in fact their confusing stories are for me some kind of proof that they were trying to tell the truth, trying to put things down in story and on paper, even though it didn’t all hang together and make sense. because of course stretching your wings and flying off can’t make sense if you’re still a chick inside an egg.
And then there is Jesus himself. He was in the end either self-deceived or simply a deceiving fraud or he was the Truth. I am not quite convinced that he was so clear in his theology as St John’s Gospel would have us believe, but I am absolutely convinced that Jesus trusted his Father, that Jesus believed in himself, and that Jesus believed that even if he were to die, that he would live again. I am absolutely convinced that Jesus believed these words which St Mark puts into his mouth.
Jesus said to them, ‘Is not this the reason you are wrong, that you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God? For when they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven. And as for the dead being raised, have you not read in the book of Moses, in the story about the bush, how God said to him, “I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob”? He is God not of the dead, but of the living; you are quite wrong.’
I trust my doctor and my dentist. I trust my country and the inherent good of most people, but more than all of these I trust Jesus – wholly, fully and without reserve, for this is Good News.