Easter Sermons: Banal, Saccharine, and Boring

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When St. Paul preached on this hill in Athens nearly 2,000 years ago, his “Easter sermon” turned the city upside down and became one of the most influential in the history of the world. Not much danger of that happening with the trite, cliched efforts of modern pastors, clerics, and theologians.

At Easter it has become customary to hear straining-to-be-meaningful sermons that aim either to emotionally energise a congregation, or otherwise attempt to apply the resurrection of Christ to contemporary political and social issues. Some preachers are unwitting comedians, as they offer hilarious examples of what happens when orthodoxy is derailed and an ersatz Christianity is transposed over the top. The result veers between contemptible and ridiculous.

This year did not disappoint. Dutifully, newspapers reported the sermons of a motley cast of popes, bishops, princes, pastors and priests whose pronouncements from pulpits around the world, when taken together, constitute a powerful emetic.

A small sample is sufficient to give a flavour of Easter in 2018:

Pope Francis used his Easter sermon to talk about refugees, immigrants and Syrians. Last year, he used his Easter Sunday sermon to talk about tragedy, misery, and disaster in the world with very little mention of the themes that the Apostolic writers were wont to associate with Christ’s death, burial and resurrection: themes like sin, repentance, forgiveness, and spiritual regeneration.

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Pope Francis offers to the crowd the glad tidings of Easter, with sermons featuring strong messages about geopolitics, including immigrants, Syrians and refugees.

To be fair to Prince Charles, he is not a preacher by vocation but if he is ever crowned king, he will receive the appellation “Defender of the Faith” and will become the head of the Church of England, which implies the need for a minimal theological awareness.

It is with great relief to all that Prince Charles demonstrated that he would not be out of place among the muddle-headed prelates of the Church of England as he delivered a patented woolly message on Good Friday reminding everyone about the great similarities between Islam and Christianity. So great are these similarities, that it is a matter of extreme befuddlement to the Prince as to why there is no peace between them.

The Prince reminded everyone that Mary is a shared figure in both Islam and Christianity, and having thus established this striking, cosy closeness between the faiths, appealed for everyone in the middle east to lay down their shoulder-held missile launchers, and to live at peace as friends. The Prince’s message is bound to make a big difference to the geopolitical situation, with many thousands of people heeding his words. For what militant in Syria does not hang, bat-like, from every word that proceeds from the His Highness’s mouth? Just like bishops of the Church of England, the Prince has acquired the habit of public hand-wringing, virtue-signalling, vacuous lamentation, and “calls” to masses of humanity to immediately cease their evil ways because their evil ways are simply not very nice.

This year, the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby gave his sermon in the presence of an art installation made from hundreds of dangling articles of refugees’ clothing, transforming Canterbury Cathedral into something resembling a Mad Hatter’s laundry room. The Archbishop did make a heroic effort to sound like an Anglican clergyman who actually believes things in the New Testament, although his Easter sermon was richly interspersed with references to bombs and terrorism in Egypt, giving the impression that any mention of the resurrection was a somewhat irritating excursion from his real topic of interest, that being geopolitics in the Near East.

In Australia, the Anglican Archbishop Kay Goldsworthy was reported to have given a sermon imploring Anglicans “not to run away from challenges”. Following this sermon of dazzling substance, she was so swept up in the awe of the resurrection that she immediately addressed the major sporting scandal running the rounds in Australia, involving high profile cricket cheats. The Archbishop was most concerned that the cricketers should forgive themselves, which she opined was going to be one of their foremost challenges – the forgiveness of God not even rating a mention.

Perhaps one of the most preposterous articles was written by Robyn Whitaker, a theologian whose interests include “gender, sexuality and ethics”. One online profile states that she has expertise in feminism and gender equality.  Whitaker’s article asked readers to focus on the race of Jesus of Nazareth and to think about his skin colour.

Other clerics and would-be religious leaders decided that it was best to boil the texts of the scripture dry, and get down to the residue of a few basic principles. “Hope” is always a popular one, or sometimes “renewal“. Vague concepts like these are quite plastic. Even a borderline-competent public speaker can use a theme like that as a launching pad for a peppy talk to boost the morale of their listeners. The resultant sermon typically sounds like it could have been lifted from a life coaching manual.

Finally, there are those sermons that bear titles which imply that the meaning of Easter is opaque and dark. It is no longer clear in a world of modernity, colour and excitement. Titles like “Why Easter still matters” or “What should the resurrection mean to you?” arrogantly suggests that the resurrection of Christ is an impenetrable historical story, remote and alien to the listener.

This is just a small sample, mind you, of Easter sermons. The banality is endless, and it comes as a considerable relief to turn from these “clouds without water”, as St. Jude would describe them, to the fountains of living water from the scriptures. For in contrast to modern clerics, the New Testament begins from a very basic supposition.

The New Testament takes for granted that this supposition is clear to anyone.

It is quite simply this: something of tremendous consequence was accomplished when Jesus died on a crucifix outside of Jerusalem. This has shifted the invisible order of things, and this alteration of the spiritual reality in which humankind lives reached its apogee three days later when Christ rose from the dead, the true King of all the Earth.

Not one of the apostolic witnesses asks the question, “Why does the resurrection matter?“. Not one of them attempts to make the resurrection applicable to their hearer’s context. Not one tries to blend the resurrection story into a morality fable about slavery or the machinations of the Roman senate and their greedy imperial taxation schemes. Not one tries to boil it down to a string of saccharine, safe buzzwords – “it’s all about love, folks!”.

No, the inverse. The apostolic assumption is the resurrection, if truly believed by the reader, is significant in a way that will be obvious to anyone. It is quite clearly a testimony that requires no interpreter because the very fact that a man has risen from the dead is sufficient of itself to establish his primacy in the constellation of ideas and opinions. It justifies his claims; it underscores their merit; it overturns all competition; it empowers his gospel. A person who reads of the resurrection, who believes it, and who earnestly, deeply seeks for Christ in the silence and stillness, will find him.

The best kind of sermon in our times, therefore, is one that follows the apostolic example. It is the sort of sermon that invites people to believe and seek for Jesus himself. Not to seek for “hope” that Aunt Sally will get better, not to seek for “renewal” of our finances in 2018, neither to seek to mine the text for forgettable sentiments to spray upon contemporary political issues. But, rather to be made aware of the heaviness of our peril. Of our imminent approach to judgement and ruin. To be broken and contrite in our reflections upon ourselves.

And thus to seek for Jesus himself: the Lord of Life who welcomes properly penitent souls. The One who can transform a person’s inward life and give him a deep sense of the beauty of holiness; the ugliness of sin; a thirst for godliness; a hunger for God; and the unspeakable joy of tangible, deep communion with our Creator, Friend, and Redeemer.

How different Easter would be if clerics took their cues from St. Paul and preached the resurrection as the Apostle did. No mealy-mouthed sugary sweetness here. Rather St. Paul preaches the resurrection as a divine command to the human race; an urgent and non-negotiable summons to repent and believe. And he does so with the unstudied impetuosity of a man who knows of that which he speaks, is unswerving confident, and knows that he is conveying the authorised message of God to the world:

For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you…

In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.

Finding a Secure Identity in an Insecure Age

If there is one thing that has definitively occupied scholarly minds in the last decade it has been the issue of personal identity.

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If there is one thing that has definitively occupied scholarly minds in the last decade it has been the issue of personal identity. The question “how do you identify?” is now a major flash point in the culture. This was amply demonstrated by the combative interview held between the Canadian academic Jordan Peterson and Cathy Newman, a British journalist working for Channel 4.

Peterson is a rare species of social academic because he has both interesting and novel things to say and the average listener cannot help feeling edified for having heard them. This is a tremendous contrast to the majority of social academics who either have nothing interesting to say or merely repeat whatever is current and fashionable.

Nonetheless, despite having a gift on her programme, Newman opted not to tap into the rich seam of intelligent material she could have explored, but instead chose to repeatedly badger Peterson on matters of identity politics.

The popularity of this interview undoubtedly owes something to the fact that Newman’s performance was such a candid combination of pomposity and stupidity. The relative strengths of intellectual formation between two people and their respective viewpoints could hardly have been more starkly displayed. In this instance, Newman was incapable of fairly or meaningfully representing Peterson’s views. She attempted to attribute to him the worst possible motives about women and transsexuals and seemed unable to understand anything that he was saying.

The timbre of discussion powerfully captures the vicious and unreasonable mindset that has swept across our institutions of learning and communication until nothing else seems to matter. Like the insatiable red dragon in the Revelation, identity politics has consumed everything in its path. No other intellectual endeavour or philosophical framework seems able to muster enough velocity to escape its gravitation.

Identity politics is the centrepiece of student radicalism. But unlike universities in the past where student obsessions were regarded as extra-curricula activity – the byproducts, perhaps, of enlightened brains united to youthful passion – identity politics has tunnelled its way into the curriculum itself and attached itself firmly to the syllabus. Such courses at major universities are little more than indoctrination.

As people are encouraged to find meaning in belonging to victim groups – each higher or lower on the hierarchy of victimhood – we increasingly witness various identity groups engaging in rhetorical warfare with each other, competing for the spoils of being recognised as the most oppressed. Each group wants to be on top. Each wants to be preferred. Each wants to be acknowledged above any other. And so Jewish students square off against pro-Palestinian students; feminists and transsexuals collide; American patriot organisations and civil liberties groups; feminists and pro-Islamic groups; environmentalists and trade unionists.

The ultimate aim for them all is power.

Our society has become something like an unsettled hen house, with every hen fighting for place, pecking their perceived inferiors and being pecked in turn. All of this is attended by hot envy, outrage, and even violence.

The social wreckage arises from insecure identities; identities grounded in the sinful nature. Yet, cutting through this dynamic comes the opening words of St. Paul to the Philippians like a refreshing cup of water:

Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus,

To all God’s holy people in Christ Jesus at Philippi, together with the overseers and deacons:

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

St. Paul, in the inspired text, provides a simple greeting and establishes his identity. He is a servant of Christ Jesus. That’s all he is.

He’s not a white man, black man, or a Jew. He’s not a working-class stiff, a poor man, or a victim eager to obtain special regard. He does not inflate his sense of self-importance by ascribing to himself a immaculate class identity. Neither does he identify himself by race or wealth or education.

Instead, St. Paul finds his identity in simply being a servant of Christ Jesus. St. Paul pours his energies into the Lord’s kingdom, teaches the Lord’s gospel, lives out the Lord’s holy will, and labours for the expansion of the Lord’s glory. He places himself at the disposal of Jesus who now occupies the very centre of his life as Master and Ruler.

St. Paul’s own goals, dreams, aspirations, and achievements have been long forgotten and when he recalls them, they are so irrelevant that he considers them to be “manure”  in comparison to his King. He has a new identity and it is the most glorious and most wonderful identity anyone could ever covet: to be a servant of the Jesus Christ.

Later in this letter he mentions that he is a Benjamite and has been a scrupulously observant Jew. But he has discarded all of these former things. As he explains in this  letter, he counts it all as a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus his Lord.

The man who seeks this identity – and finds it – is a man who finds a truly secure identity. He will not marinade in self-pity. He will not think, “I deserve better in life but have been robbed by people with privilege and oppressive power“. He will not become paranoid, and be forever on guard for perceived sleights. He will not be always looking for fresh opportunities to be “offended”. He will not seek for political victory over other people; forcing others to speak and behave differently to slake his thirst for power and validation.

The man who becomes a servant of Christ Jesus and sees such an identity as the most privileged calling a person could ever have is filled with gratitude and brokenness. Such a man is truly content with knowing his Master and will be satisfied – indeed, will rejoice – to be a servant of Jesus. He will find satisfaction in serving to the extent that he has been granted by the Father – whether it is scrubbing toilets or running a transnational corporation. There is humility, generosity, gratitude, and sheer wonder to be had when finding a new identity in submitting to the King of kings.

It is a supreme paradox, but one taught by none other than the Lord himself. Crucifixion of the self – the purposeful and deliberate rejection of the old identities rooted in the sin nature – does not lead to being oppressed and downtrodden, but actually leads to life eternal. To a blossoming and indomitable life. “He who loses his life shall find it,” the Lord taught us, “And he who saves his life shall lose it”.

For mankind was created explicitly to be the servants and the friends of Christ. By him and for him were all things created, wrote St. Paul. In re-assuming this identity, a man can indeed find a peace and stability that passes all understanding. A peace that all the public rallies and all protests held in all the legislatures of the world could never afford. There is liberty in being a servant of Jesus. Far more than one can ever find in the soul-twisting, nature-distorting world of identity politics with its grasping for power and moral glory over others.

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