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Sermon for The Octave Day of Easter

“Jesus came and stood in the midst”

The uniqueness and the centrality of Christ is an undeniable and non-negotiable feature of orthodox Christianity. For Anglicans, not only is the uniqueness and the centrality of Christ constantly visible in the Liturgy, particularly, in the Lectionary, the traditional pattern of readings that shape the praying life of the Church, but it is also expressed formally and officially in the foundational and formative documents that define and describe the Anglican understanding of the Christian Faith. The only anathema in the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion has precisely to do with denying the uniqueness and the centrality of Christ with respect to salvation (Art. XVIII [1]).

What does this mean?  It means that for orthodox Christianity, Christ is the Lord and Saviour of our humanity. It means that the wholeness of our humanity cannot be achieved and accomplished apart from our life in Christ. Are there not other ways to God? So ask the religious pluralists of our day. How to answer that question? By pointing out that a proper and principled dialogue with other religions has to begin and end with a respect for the differences between the religions of the world. What kind of dialogue can Christians have with Muslims or with Jews or with atheists if it means being silent about the centrality of Christ? Do we expect Islam to remove from the Qu’ran the passages that deny that God has a son? As the Archbishop of York, John Sentamu wonderfully put it, in addressing a Muslim audience, “I greet you in the name of Jesus Christ, whom you honour as a prophet and we as the Son of God.” I call that honesty, intellectual and spiritual honesty, and the proper way of engaging religious viewpoints. You don’t do it by denial or by woeful ignorance of the principle of your own position.

Today’s Collect [2] makes an important theological statement about Christ as the only Son of the Father who was given “to die for our sins, and to rise again for our justification.” Justification is about what makes us right with God. There is a wonderful clarity about that statement and one which captures precisely the Scriptural witness to the Crucifixion and the Resurrection of Christ as that which overcomes the breach within ourselves and with God, the very point which this morning’s epistle emphasizes. “Who is he that overcometh the world, but he that believeth that Jesus is the Son of God?” Just as wonderfully, the Collect makes clear that this doctrine or teaching is the moving principle in the resurrection change in our lives, “put[ting] away the leaven of malice and wickedness” and “serv[ing God] in pureness of living and truth”. Pureness of living means holiness or sanctification. In other words, Christ is more than an example of how to live “a goody two-shoes” kind of life; he is the principle of all and any good in us. The interplay of justification, Christ for us, and sanctification, Christ in us, is a distinctive feature of Anglican doctrine and devotion. It belongs to the nature of our participation in the proclamation of the crucified and risen Christ.

And far from being an exclusivist view, it actually belongs to the comprehensiveness of Christianity. Inclusivity is the much vaunted (and largely bankrupt) term of our contemporary secular discourse. What is not always noticed is that inclusivity is open-ended in an indeterminate way and that it is exclusive of the primacy of the biblical and theological categories (or any categories actually) through which we understand our humanity. Most tellingly, it is exclusive of God who cannot be, from any principled theological understanding, whether it be Jewish, Christian or Islamic, merely one thing in a long list of things. God is not an item in a shopping list. God is not a commodity. Neither are we.

Yet, this failure of the understanding results in treating ourselves and God as commodities. It is, ultimately, alienating, untenable and unlivable. This is, I think, the spiritual poverty of the market-state. In a way, it lacks a coherent centre; both ourselves and God are merely consumer products, but for whom?

For Christians, Christ is and must be the centre of our lives. It is as simple as that. At the Crucifixion, Christ is in the midst, nailed to the Cross with two thieves on either side. And now, on “the same day at evening,” Christ comes and stands in the midst of the disciples. They are behind “closed doors.” They are in great fear and anxiety, in grief and sorrow and perplexity. All their expectations have been dashed and destroyed. What next, they wonder fearfully?

Christ comes into their midst on “the same day at evening.” That same day is Easter. It is as if time has stopped in the eternal moment of our justification in Christ, made known in time and in the paradoxes of the Octave, where the first day and the eighth day are the same, just like the musical notes of the octave.  Jesus speaks four simple words which are actually repeated three times. “What I tell you three times is true,” Lewis Carroll puts in The Hunting of the Snark. What Christ says three times in the 20th Chapter of John’s Gospel is “peace be unto you.”

This is the peace of Christ. This peace is not the passing, ephemeral, momentary and illusory peace of the world. This peace is the unique peace of God accomplished and achieved on the Cross in the ultimate and unique act of Christ’s sacrifice, his act of reconciling love. Christ’s Crucifixion, Death, Burial and Resurrection reveal nothing less than the fullest possible extent of God’s will to be reconciled with the whole of our sinful humanity. Such is the creedal doctrine of The Descent into Hell. Such, too, is the deeper meaning of Christ’s Resurrection. “Christ being raised from the dead dieth no more; death hath no more dominion over him.” And there is a change for us and in us. There is a resurrection of the understanding when we enter into the radical meaning of Christ’s being in the midst of our lives. Our minds, after all, can be like closed tombs; we can be locked in our own assumptions, biases, fears and anxieties. Christ opens our minds so that we can see everything in a new and joyous way.

There is a change in us because of the change that is Christ’s Resurrection. It belongs to the Church to proclaim this doctrine and teaching and to make it visible in our lives and in our world. That is our challenge. In the Word proclaimed and in the Sacraments celebrated, Christ is in our midst.

“Jesus came and stood in the midst”

Fr. David Curry, Octave Day of Easter, ‘09