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Sermon for the Octave Day of Easter

“This is the victory that overcometh the world; even our faith”

There is such a thing as being dead before you are dead. It happens when we give up on what defines us, sing the poor-me’s and succumb to despair. But it is really all about us. That has been the situation it seems to be for quite some time in our churches and our culture. “O ye of little faith,” Jesus upbraids us. One of the homilies in the sixteenth century Book of Homilies is about “liveliness of faith” which is only possible where one confronts a certain deadness of faith. I sense this problem in varying ways when people start talking about things like the Church and Parish dying though without distinguishing between the institutional church and the mystical Church universal, a distinction without which I certainly could not even begin to function. But that kind of talk about death and dying is a self-fulfilling prophecy. We are dead before we are really dead because we have given up on the life of faith. We are dead because we have accepted what is really the world’s way of looking at things.

Numbers matter but they are not everything. And in fact they can become a kind of idolatry; measuring the truth of things quantitatively is an extremely limited and limiting way of thinking and living. It is a problem the Scriptures frequently address. There is even “the sin of David” in taking a census of the Israelites, as if to say that our strength and the truth of our being lies in our numbers. As such it is a denial of God and the truth and power of his life in us. Elijah the Prophet, too, laments in a kind of despair about the condition of Israel, thinking that he is the only one left! God rather drily and strongly reminds him that no, there are far more than he realizes who are faithful, indeed, “seven thousand who have not bowed the knee to Baal” a passage from 1 Kings that Paul recalls in Romans 11.4. The problem, it seems, is perennial. We forget that where two or three are gathered there is Christ also. Our life and our joy are found in the gathering.

To my mind, the Gospel of the Resurrection speaks profoundly to the great question of our age which is about our common humanity. Because of the Resurrection, it is not an exaggeration to say, you are not and do not have to be a robot. You are already a robot, however, if you have succumbed to a kind of technocratic determinism and think that machines can think. In other words, you become a machine precisely because you have given yourself over to a certain kind of reasoning which is limited and limiting. It was interesting to see an article in the Chronicle Herald [1] about a Professor from St. Mary’s talking exactly about the problem of big data and Artificial Intelligence which can only replicate human patterns of behavior but are incapable of mind and therefore ethical reasoning.

In a way, this is not new. In 1749, the year Halifax was founded, Julien Offray de la Mettrie wrote L’homme machine, ‘Man a Machine’, a completely materialist and atheist account of our humanity. Romanticism and Existentialism both would react against the reductive assertions of a narrow and empty rationalism which looks at the world and our humanity in mechanistic terms. That is part of the importance of Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein, where the monster is not the thing that is made but the one who makes it. We are the monsters of our own nightmares and the makers of our own destruction.

Albert Camus’ novel, The Outsider, published in 1942 offers a critique of technocratic society, a society governed and ordered by a kind of mechanistic reasoning. That society is wonderfully illustrated in the figure of the robot-woman; the point being that a technocratic society, one in which technology is allowed to reign and rule, is a society which crushes and destroys our humanity. We become robots. We are dead. The novel ends with the protagonist going to his death which has been wrongfully determined on the basis of the absurdities of reason. He goes, tellingly, to the guillotine. The machine which itself is mindless is the machine that takes off your head. And that is the point. It is about how we lose sight of what truly and completely defines us and gives us life. We live from the Life of God. That is the point of the Resurrection. It is the overcoming of the world. Such is our faith, a faith which is meant to be a lively faith for if not, then as the Homily says, it is a dead faith.

The only real question for our institutions, be they schools or churches, is whether they are factories for producing robots, automatons that have lost any sense of individuality or sense of self, or breeding grounds for jihadis, intent on blowing everything up including oneself out of a kind of nihilistic despair at the utter meaninglessness of everything, especially if the only kind of thinking is mechanistic and deterministic. The Resurrection is the precise counter to such a dehumanizing world. We live when we live in and to, for and with God. Such is resurrection.

And that is the wonderful point of our lessons on The Octave Day of Easter. We are freed from the limits of a purely linear way of thinking. We are freed from the mechanics of a naïve kind of cause and effect reasoning. We are opened out to what comes and can only come to us from God and what comes and can only come to us from God out of the Passion and the Resurrection. It is an entirely different, greater, and more comprehensive way of thinking and living. That way of thinking and living is concentrated for us today in the idea of peace and forgiveness. They are the first-fruits of his Resurrection in us, at least from the logic of John’s accounts of the Resurrection.

Jesus appears behind closed doors where the disciples are huddled in fear. He proclaims peace and forgiveness. He institutes the means by which his peace and his forgiveness continue with us – through the Holy Spirit breathed upon the disciples who will be the apostles of his church, sent forth to bestow the peace and the forgiveness of God to a fearful and an uncertain world. “Whosoever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whosoever sins ye retain, they are retained”.

This is bestowed behind closed doors, behind the closed doors of our limited and limiting, dead and deadly forms of thinking. Christ encounters us in our fears and anxieties, in our deaths really, to open us out to new life now through the sacraments. The sacraments flow out of the passion and resurrection of Christ. We participate now sacramentally and liturgically in the redeeming work of Christ who gathers us back to himself. At every service, Christ appears, as it were, behind closed doors to speak peace and forgiveness to us all. Such is resurrection and life.

For “this is the victory that overcomes the world, even our faith”. We participate in what Christ has done for us. His death and resurrection, as the Collect makes clear, are our justification, thereby making us right with God, with ourselves and with one another. What Christ has done is attributed to us, placed upon us, imputed or extended to us. We have only to live it. The Father looks down upon our sinful and sorry humanity and sees his Son, Jesus Christ. His victory over our sins means our victory over the world that stands opposed to God. This is our faith. But it means our acceptance of what has been accomplished for us; only then does the grace of his life live in us.

The closed doors of our minds have to be opened to the presence of Christ within through what is proclaimed and made visible in the liturgy of the Church. That opening of our minds is the life of Christ’s resurrection in us, banishing our fears and bestowing his peace, vanquishing our sins and bestowing his forgiveness.

This gospel stands between the story of Mary Magdalene coming to the tomb in her early morning grief and the story of Christ appearing in the same room proclaiming the peace of his resurrection to Thomas who was not present “that same day at evening”. Both stories bear eloquent testimony to the resurrection and its meaning for us in our lives. Both Mary and Thomas undergo a change, a resurrection of their understanding, if you will; the griefs of the one and the doubts of the other are transformed into cries of faith and witness. They are raised up out of their sorrow and uncertainty. “If we receive the witness of men, the witness of God is greater”. Such is the witness which Mary and Thomas receive and pass on to us.

The testimony of the resurrection is no story of human fancy and invention. The resurrection is the great re-creative work of God. We can only enter into the mystery which God has made known to us by “the Spirit and the water and the blood”. In so doing we are raised up out of the tombs of our souls; the closed doors of our minds are opened by the presence of Christ within. Such is his victory for us and in us, if only we will live it.

“This is the victory that overcometh the world; even our faith”

Fr.David Curry
Christ Church
Octave Day of Easter, 2017