Sunday May 5, 2019
11:00 am - Saint Thomas Church
Preacher: The Very Rev’d Jonathan Greener
A Sermon for the Third Sunday of Easter
Alleluia! Christ is risen. He is risen indeed. Alleluia!
May the words of my mouth and the thoughts of all our hearts give glory to the living God, who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
My Holy Week and Easter this year have been dominated by those heartbreaking images from Paris of Notre Dame burning. I'm sure that will be true for many of you too. It's astounding to think that more visitors go to Notre Dame each year than to Westminster Abbey, St Paul's Cathedral, our Cathedral in Exeter and the Tower of London combined.
This is a place that has touched the world's soul. I first went 49 years ago, when I was 9, in case you're wondering; and when I lived in Paris for a short while before university I was a regular there. So for me, as for so many round the world, a little something of my life was going up in flames. The collapse of Viollet-le-Duc's 19th century spire was a breath-catching moment, but it was watching the roof burn that caused me real distress. It made me particularly conscious of the blessings of our medieval cathedral in Exeter,
with its spectacular vaulted ceiling - the longest Gothic vault in the world; and also of the burden of responsibility we bear in caring for this remarkable building, much of which predates Notre Dame. If you haven't ever visited, please consider doing so. It's a wonderful space where the ceiling lifts my heart daily to heaven. I'm sure when you see it for yourself, you'll understand why I believe it might soon become America's favorite cathedral. It is already, I'm assured, His Royal Highness Prince Charles' favorite. And just to allay your concerns, we're very well protected, having invested considerable sums in fire protection over the past few years.
Medieval cathedrals suffered pretty often from fire damage, so, for instance, Canterbury lost the whole of its quire in 1174. Small wonder stone ceilings were introduced, since wooden vaults were particularly vulnerable to excessive heat when the roof was repaired with boiling molten lead. Amazingly, praise God, we've never had a fire in Exeter Cathedral, throughout its long history, though just two years ago, the inflagration at the ancient Royal Clarence Hotel directly opposite came uncomfortably close.
No one can fail to have been touched by the outpouring of emotion at the burning of Notre Dame. Sadly, these buildings are taken pretty much for granted while all is seemingly well; people tend only to express their appreciation when tragedy strikes. Nevertheless, as Notre Dame illustrates, while regular church attendance may have gone out of fashion in much of the western world, church buildings great and small continue to touch people's lives profoundly. There was a fascinating survey undertaken in Britain some 18 months ago, which shows how young people are more likely to come to faith because of buildings than because of people. So a cathedral of course, and many parish churches as well, speak confidently of the glory of God, but they can be much less intrusive and therefore less threatening than some well-meaning Christian bursting to share the Good News with a tentative newcomer.
Nor must we understate the converting power of beauty in our world. Nearly two and a half thousand years ago, Plato was talking about a vital trio: truth, goodness, beauty. For centuries, the Christian Church has focused on the fact that Christian faith is true and good; but we've tended to downplay the beauty of God. And yet in many cases, it is precisely the beauty of God that will attract people - a beauty reflected not just in our buildings, but also in our worship, our art, our music. As you all know so well here at Saint Thomas.
I recently heard someone describe choral Evensong as a celebration of the profligate beauty of God. We offer our best from earth to heaven. Now, having meandered from Notre Dame to Exeter Cathedral and church buildings more generally what might this have to say to us all this Eastertide, as we celebrate Christ's resurrection, and the new life he promises to the world? I want to tread carefully here. Because I am very aware that the human rebuilding of Notre Dame will not be at all the same thing as Jesus Christ's resurrection. Yet on the third day, Christ rose again, so that we too might live with him. There must be a link.
In England, we built an amazing new Coventry Cathedral in the aftermath of the war, the city having been targeted by the Luftwaffe in 1940. Two years later, they set their sights on us in Exeter, as part of the so-called Baedeker Raids. In retaliation for our bombing of Lübeck, the Third Reich undertook to bomb all the buildings in Britain listed with 3 stars in the Baedeker Guide Book. They focused on York, Norwich, Bath, Canterbury and Exeter. In May 1942, a bomb fell on our cathedral, but mercifully it wiped out just one side chapel, dedicated to St James. It was promptly rebuilt. In both cases, Coventry and Exeter, reconstruction was a sign of defiance: violence and aggression will not win ultimately. It was a sign of hope: life is stronger than death. It was a sign of the power of humanity to unite and work together for a better world even if at first sight that world seems torn in two.
Similar motivations, all of them, to the promised re-building of Notre Dame. And what all this points to is that resurrection is not just about the hereafter and the Pearly Gates. It can be part of our living reality here and now. Jesus speaks a lot about the Kingdom of God, and I try to do the same. For experience tells me that when we start to live as citizens of God's Kingdom,
it becomes a reality all around us. There is no better proof of this than St Paul, following his conversion. He sets off across the Roman Empire, and establishes countless outposts of God's Kingdom. But it's just as true for us: when we forgive those we find hard to forgive, love abounds, new relationships flourish. When we start to include those we prefer to blot out,
true Christian community is born, in all its glorious diversity.
What is it St Paul says? “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.” Yes, when we live as children of God, his Kingdom starts to appear. So why be surprised if the same is true of the resurrection? When we live as those who've risen with Christ, we experience new life, and it rubs off on those around us. Take a moment to consider St Peter. The broken man, who denies Jesus three times, encounters the risen Christ on the beach. We've just heard again those three beautiful declarations of love. And it's on this frail Peter, now risen with Christ, that Our Lord is able to build his Church. The poet Albert Laighton points to what's going on, and it can change the way we live: “Where man sees but withered leaves,” says Laighton, “God sees sweet flowers growing.” It would have been so easy to write Peter off on the Friday as an abject failure. He wrote himself off, of course; we're told that after he denied Jesus the third time, he went out and wept. But Jesus didn't write him off. For “where man sees but withered leaves, God sees sweet flowers growing.”
Seeking the best in others, nurturing potential, praying for the flourishing of those we find most difficult to live with. If Easter is the season of new life and fresh starts, let that be true not just for ourselves, but for our family and friends, and the people we interact with day by day. Easter: the season to look beyond the withered leaf, to open our hearts and minds to the possibility of resurrection in all God's children. Every time that happens, Peter's experience on the beach becomes our experience, Christ lives again, and people begin to discover afresh his Easter truth and resurrection life. Of course, we all know that resurrection is not a human action: it is God at work. But once we start to live as an Easter people, we shall see resurrection taking place all around us.
I hope and pray that Notre Dame will soon rise from the ashes. But also that its glorious reconstruction will be an encouragement to each one of us. There's a great commitment in the Church to keeping Lent seriously. Why not commit ourselves this year to celebrate Easter with equal intent? So we pray that we may each live as Christ's risen brothers and sisters, in order that his resurrection may become real for our world.
Alleluia! Christ is risen. He is risen indeed. Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!