Easter Day

Sermon preached at a Parish Eucharist, Baptism and Confirmation at Temple Balsall by
The Rt. Revd Mark Santer
Sunday 8th April 2007

Two short phrases to remember this morning:

He descended to the dead,
He ascended into heaven.

Two short phrases from the Creed, that summary of the faith we share with all those baptised, all down the ages, all over the world. We’ll be saying those words together in a few minutes time.

He descended to the dead,
He ascended into heaven.

Jesus, the Son of God, has descended: he has come down to the lowest depths.  And he has ascended: he has returned to his Father in heaven.  And Easter night, this night that had just passed, is the moment of his turning, the moment when descent turns to ascent.

Of course, we use words like “descended” and “ascended”, not because God is literally “up there” and we are “down here”; but because it’s the only way we have of talking about things we can’t describe in merely human language.

The descent of Jesus, his coming down – that began when he took flesh of the body of Mary his mother.  That’s when he began to live the life of God on earth.  He set out on the journey of a human life, sharing our human joys and sorrows, and feeling in this own body, in his own heart.  The resistance of human sin and alienation to the love of God that was in him.  He felt with utter clarity the distance that human pride and anger and lust for power put between us and God. This whole life was a coming down from heaven to earth.

The last stretch of his journey began with that literal descent – we remembered it last week, on Palm Sunday – his descent, riding on the donkey, from the Mount of Olives to the city of Jerusalem.  If you have ever been to Jerusalem as a tourist or a pilgrim you’ll know what I mean: it’s a real descent, a real coming down.  On Palm Sunday Jesus came down into Jerusalem – Gods’ holy city made unholy by human violence and wickedness.  And there he is rejected, once and for all. “He came to his own, and his own received him not.”

This journey ended, you might think, on the cross, when he shared out human dying.  But the words of the creed take us further:

He was crucified, died, and was buried;
He descended to the dead.

That was the end of his journey.  He went down into the pit, into the dark world of the dead, into the land (as one of the psalms says) where all things are forgotten. He shared not only out dying, but also our death.

And then comes the turning in that space between the burial on Friday, late in the afternoon, and the moment, very early on the first day of the week, when the two women came to the tomb and found the stone already rolled away.  Jesus was already risen.  They got up early, but Jesus was up before them.  He had gone down, and now he was up.

There is one great difference between the descent and the ascent.  Jesus Christ came down alone.  When he hung on the cross, he was alone, and naked – betrayed, rejected, abandoned – even the women were standing at a distance.  And when he died, he died alone.  He took no one with him.  But when he rises from the dead, when he returns to his Father, he doesn’t travel alone.  He takes us with him. He has shared our life so that we may share his.

People have tried to paint pictures of Christ’s resurrection.  Of course, it can’t really be done.  How does one imagine or depict the unimaginable?  Nevertheless, there are pictures.

Broadly speaking, there are two kinds of picture.  One is more familiar to us because it is more characteristic of Western Europe.  This kind of picture shows a victorious Christ stepping out of the tomb with the soldiers still sleeping at his feet.  This kind of picture shows Jesus rising alone.

But there is another kind of picture, more typical of the Christianity of Eastern Europe.  Last year I saw a wonderful example in a former church in Istanbul.  What I saw was Christ clothed in light and breaking with great vigour into the world of the dead, smashing the bars and the locks and seizing Adam and Eve – which means the whole human race – seizing them by the wrist, one in each hand, and pulling them out of the pit.

In this kind of picture Jesus isn’t just rising alone.  He is taking Adam and eve and all their children with him, out of darkness and into freedom in the light of his new day.

Why does he take them by the wrist and not, as you might expect, by the hand?  This is to show that he and he alone is doing the deed.  We don’t take hold of him to give him a hand in pulling us out.  He does it all.  He takes hold of us so as to lead us into the presence of his Father.

Remember how Adam and Eve hid from God in a corner of the garden?  They couldn’t bear the prospect of God seeing their nakedness. Well now, Jesus covers our nakedness and gives us confidence to stand unashamed in the presence of God.

Over that picture of Christ pulling Adam and Eve out of their prison I saw the words in Greek – “The Resurrection”.  Not only this resurrection of Jesus, but our resurrection with him.  Not only new life for him, but new life for us.

In a few minutes time one of you, George, will come to the font and ask for baptism.  I’ll ask him “Do you believe that Jesus Christ came down and died and rose for you?”  When I do that, I’ll b e asking him to take his place with Adam and Eve and all their children, so that the Lord himself can come and pull him out of the prison with them – out of the prison and into the light.

I’ll put the same question to those who have come to be confirmed.  I’ll put tit to you all, to put us all in mind of what happened to us when we were baptised.

At the very end of this service, I’ll be giving a lighted candle to all the newly baptised and confirmed.  Those candles stand for the light of Christ.  The burning of his spirit and his presence which he puts into the hearts f those who are his.  You are to carry that light in your hands and in your hearts for the rest of your journey on earth.  Keep it burning in your hearts, so that when he calls you home at the end of your journey on earth, you will be able to give it back to him, still burning, still alight.

The Son of God has shared our life on earth so that we can share his life with his Father.  That is the wonder of this day.

The Rt Revd Mark Santer

Arms of Lady Katherine Leveson

The Foundation of Lady Katherine Leveson
Registered Charity no. 213618
Temple Balsall, Knowle, Solihull, West Midlands B93 0AN

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