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Presiding Bishop preaches at Southwark Cathedral

4/24/2006

The exterior of Southwark Cathedral in London, England.  

 
[Episcopal News Service] 

Southwark Cathedral
April 23, 2006
Second Sunday of Easter
The Most Rev. Frank T. Griswold
Presiding Bishop and Primate
The Episcopal Church, USA

Acts 4:32-35
1 John 1:1-2:2
John 20:19-31

I am very grateful to the Dean, Colin Slee, for the invitation to preside and preach at this morning's eucharist.  It is a particular joy to do so during the Great Fifty Days of Easter because it was the celebration of the Easter Triduum – the liturgies of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and the Easter Vigil – that occasioned my first visit to this cathedral.  That was 44 years ago and I was then an ordinand reading theology.

The presider and preacher for each of the three days was the then Bishop of Woolwich, J.A.T. Robinson, whose book, Honest to God, had yet to appear.  The continuity of his liturgical presence and his engaging sermons, along with the intelligent and careful recovery of rites and ceremonies which had been set aside at the time of the Reformation, made a profound impact upon me.  So, it was here in this Cathedral, over the course of that memorable Triduum, that I found myself drawn into the paschal mystery of the Lord's death and resurrection in a way that was life-changing and has continued to inform me both as a Christian and as a bishop.  This past Holy Week I presided and preached at the Easter Triduum at the Washington National Cathedral mindful of and grateful for my experience in this Cathedral church many years ago.

At some point during that memorable Holy Week I came upon the tomb of Lancelot Andrewes, the Bishop of Winchester, which is just to the right of the high altar.  In the early 16th century Andrewes played a prominent role in the life of the church as a translator of the Bible, preacher and theologian.  His broad view and appreciative familiarity with the Fathers of the early church made him a counter balance to the Calvinism that was so much present at the time.  Perhaps the best expression of his life and spirit is the small book of private prayers he compiled for his own use: a book which continues to enrich the prayer of men and women in our own day.  Andrewes's capacity to transcend through his prayer many of the theological conflicts and prejudices of his day is a grace we might well ask for in this present season in the life of our Anglican Communion.

In preparing for this morning, I reread one of Andrewes's Easter sermons which was based upon the opening verses of the Gospel we have just heard proclaimed.  In this passage from John we find ourselves, once again, back at that first Easter Day only now it is evening.   The disciples, who have yet to encounter the Risen Christ, are behind locked doors out of fear of what those responsible for Jesus' crucifixion might now do to them.   As Andrewes observes: "…they were shut up, as men environed  and beleaguered with their enemies: shutup and forsaken.  The house was to them as their grave; and the door as the gravestone: and they buried in fear…" 

Now, this was not simply ordinary fear, but what Andrewes names as "night-fear," the kind of overwhelming fear that takes hold of us in the hours of darkness, bringing with it a sense of utter despair and hopelessness.

But it is not only fear that has overtaken the disciples.  They also experience a profound sense of loss, not only of their master and friend, but of themselves. 

There is a sentence in a short story by the contemporary author V.S. Naipaul that makes plain how much of our own identity we derive from that of those we serve.  One of Naipaul's characters, a servant, declares: "The respect and security I enjoyed were due to the importance of my employer."  The same could be said of any of the disciples locked away and forsaken.  Their sense of themselves and their self worth were derived from their association with Jesus.  Now he was gone: dead and buried in ignominy. 

And, making it even worse, they had fled and denied any association with him.  Shame, guilt, self pity, blame made common cause with the "night-fear" that was so palpably present among them.  "Why did we ever listen to him, let alone follow him?" they must have asked themselves.  "Why did we leave our nets?  We would be better off if we had never left home."  The house in which they were shut up was truly to them "as their grave."

All this puts me in mind of an icon, a form of pictorial scripture that is part of the celebration of the resurrection in the Eastern Church.  In it the risen Christ is shown standing victorious upon the trampled down gates of Hell. Below him we see a black abyss containing an assortment of locks and keys and lengths of chain – all symbols of bondage and imprisonment.  To the right and left of the abyss are stone tombs, and from them, being raised by Christ's firm grasp upon their wrists, are Adam and Eve, our symbolic progenitors who represent us and the whole human race.  Christ's handshake is not simply a friendly greeting.  Rather, with an insistent and uncompromising tug he appears to be pulling – indeed yanking – Adam and Even out of their narrow and constricting space – their tombs – in which they have been held fast in darkness and death.  Their iconic expressions leave much to our imagination.  To my eyes Adam and Eve appear startled and unsure.  Is this open space, this freedom, this new reality of resurrection to their liking?  To be sure, their confining tombs offered little hope or joy, but at least they were familiar.  They afforded the security of their self-confining guilt and shame, and the dark comfort of old sorrows and sadness at the loss of Paradise. 

The icon puts me in mind of a poem by the 17the century priest-poet George Herbert.  In this poem entitled The Dawning the tension between remaining in the tomb of our own sadness and self-preoccupation, and being pulled into the force field of resurrection is wonderfully and succinctly set forth:

 Arise sad heart; if thou dost not withstand (resist)
 Christ's resurrection thine may be:
 Do not by hanging down (holding back/preferring sadness)
 break
 from the hand,
 Which as it riseth, raiseth thee...

Here it is again.  The sure insistent grasp: the grasp of a fierce, unrelenting and death-defying love – the love of the risen Christ – which will not settle for less-than-life, which will not be satisfied with the tomb-life, in which bondage to old ways, old wounds, old fears, old judgments of ourselves and others, provides us with its own dark comfort.

"Peace be with you," declares the risen Christ: not once, not twice but three times in the course of our Gospel reading. And as he does so, the Lion of the tribe of Judah – as Christ is named in the Revelation to John – bounds through the locked doors and leaps into the midst of the disciples, breaking in upon their sorrow and sadness, their guilt and their shame, their fear and their blame. 

And, as he does so he creates chaos.  Everything the disciples have known and come to accept about life and death, and indeed order itself, is turned upside down and inside out.  The familiar greeting "shalom" becomes an assault upon all that they are thinking and feeling about themselves: their present and their future.

The previous Thursday, at their last meal together, Jesus had said to them "Peace I leave with you; my own peace I give you.  I do not give [it] to you as the world gives."  The world's peace is often little more than some mutually agreed to containment of hostility.  Christ's peace, however, is the outworking of the resurrection.  It breaks through locked doors.  It pulls down walls of hostility and separation.  It renews minds.  It transforms hearts of stone and judgment into hearts of flesh – overflowing with mercy and compassion.  Christ's peace works in us a quiet confidence and courage that takes the form of boldness.  Boldness: that is a capacity to receive, speak and do the truth – as the risen Christ – through the agency of the Spirit of truth, works in us Christ's own consciousness.

As this happens within us we are drawn forward beyond the familiar safety of our self-constructions into an open space where Christ's peace, which passes all understanding and expectation and desire, can have its way with us, conforming us to the image of Christ.

Here we need to be mindful of the fact that the One who used mud and spittle, bread and wine, word and touch can use anyone or anything or any circumstance to grasp us by the wrist and draw us out of ourselves into the realm of resurrection.  This at times is neither easy nor pleasant, and there are moments when we would rather remain in the safety and security of our tombs or behind locked doors. 

Christ's peace is not always gentle and consoling.  It can seem more like a threat. It can unsettle us and make demands of us that stretch us to the breaking point.  It calls all of our certitudes and pieties into question.  It may oblige us – not once but over and over again – to lose ourselves in order to find ourselves.  It may force us to die to old patterns and perceptions in order to enter in upon what is new, what is unbounded and what may appear, in the words of St. John of the Cross, as "strange islands" where we have never been before.   This is true of us personally and as communities of faith as well.  Resurrection is costly and all-demanding, but it is the only way to maturity in Christ.

In a gesture reminiscent of God's action in creation, Christ breaths upon his disciples liberating them from their fear and shame, making them free with his own freedom and sending them forth to embody in all that they are and have yet to become his deathless, reckless and reconciling love.

And Christ does the same with us.  Christ grasps us by our wrists and holds us in his peace.  And, as he gives us his peace he gives us as well the ability to live out its demands.  He says to us, in the words of an ancient Easter homily, "I am in you and you are in me and together we form one person."

Resurrection therefore is not just about Jesus.  It is about us as well.  Christ's resurrection is our own entry into new life.  Christ "Easters in us" in every aspect of us: wounds and shame, denials and desertions, the dark pleasure of our self-judgments are all caught up and overruled by the One who breaks through and breaks in and utters a single yet life-changing word: "shalom."  "My own peace I give to you."

"What we shall be has yet to be revealed," we are told in the first letter of John, and it is the radically reordering and renewing force of resurrection unleashed upon the world that first Easter Day that continually draws us beyond ourselves into ever deepening union with the One who not only bestows peace but is our peace. 

What was it that inspired a 4th century Palestinian soldier by the name of George to give heart room to the risen Christ and to remain firmly in his grasp?  It is difficult at this remove for us to determine.  What is clear, however, is that the bond between George and the risen Christ was so strong that George was able to embrace even a martyr's death.  His tomb in Lydda is a place of pilgrimage even to the present time.  As we call St. George to mind on his feast day, may his fearless embrace of the resurrection in his own life, even to the point of death, strengthen and encourage us to do the same – that is, to embrace resurrection whatever it may demand of us, or wherever it may take us in union with him who is the Way the Truth and our Life in all of its fullness and unrealized possibility.

Amen.  Alleluia.