Easter Sermon

This Easter sermon may be a little more demanding than usual. It is written in the belief that you will have a lot more time than usual to chew over it. But first, here’s an old joke for you all. I mean, a really, really old joke, one of the first ever written in the UK. And just in case you happen to speak old Irish (Goidelic), I’ve included the text on the website and on the blog.

Tríar manach do·rat díultad dont saegul.
Tíagait i fásach do aithrigi a peccad fri día.
Bátar cen labrad fri araile co cenn blíadnae.
Is and as·bert fer diib fri araile dia blíadnae, "Maith at·taam," olse.
Amein co cenn blíadnae.
"Is maith ón," ol in indara fer.
Bátar and íar suidiu co cenn blíadnae.
"Toingim fom aibit," ol in tres fer, "mani·léicthe ciúnas dom co n-imgéb in fásach uile dúib." 

Three holy men once turned their back on the world.
They went into the wilderness to atone for their sins before God.
They did not speak to one another for a whole year.
And at the end of that year, one of them spoke up and said, "Aren’t we doing well?"
Another year went by the same way.
"Amen, yes, we are," said the next hermit.
And so another year went by.
"I swear by my smock," said the third man, 
"if you two won't be still I'm going to leave you both here in the wilderness! 

We’re all hermits at the moment, in a way. Although we do not live in the desert, our interaction with other people is curtailed significantly. Many among us suffer because of this. Isolation is not an easy thing. It is, after all, a form of punishment in its extreme forms. Solitary confinement for more than a fortnight is considered a form of torture by the United Nations. It has measurable physiological and psychological consequences and you can be brought to trial for inflicting it unlawfully. 

We’re isolating ourselves for a time because we are trying to contain a pandemic, as we all know. Quite a few have raised their voices to criticise the churches at this time but, to a point I think we should try to understand and forgive. Everyone can be forgiven for not having a handle on this, governments, medics, researchers, churches too. Nothing like this has ever happened before. We've had killer viruses before, to be sure, but not in this age of mass travel and easy mobility.

So we stay put.
It’s difficult.
It’s boring.
It’s unpleasant in so many ways.
But it’s also a great spiritual opportunity.

Christians throughout the ages have longed for this. Some went to extremes to isolate themselves and seek after God. Monks, nuns and hermits or course, but not only them. Our Lord frequently withdrew to pray, he even used to go into hiding to do so. He did this often too if Luke’s gospel (5.16) is to be believed. The very first chapter of Mark says that ‘in the morning, while it was still very dark, he used to go up to deserted places by himself, and there he prayed.’ So well hidden could he be that Simon and his companions had to ‘hunt’ for him. The word in the Greek is really ‘hunt’ (katadioko, katedioxan). They had to ‘trail’ him, as you would a fox or a deer. 

So self-isolation has divine precedents and should not be all bad for those who try to follow Christ. Hermits are not just loners or people whose vices or foibles are less sociable than most. There is great strength in solitude because you cannot find Christ as you would a long lost possession,  or a misplaced set of keys. You cannot find Christ as you would ‘find’ the solution to a problem, even a very difficult problem, or yet discover something you never knew existed in the first place. Christ cannot be found outside. Any objective idea of him is false, that is to say any concept of him as an object, as something out there that can be described. Some people claim to have visions of him but –and I’ll say it brutally—not two of their visions are alike and they cannot therefore be true.

I’m with Bishop Butler and traditional Anglican doctrine on this matter. When John Wesley was field preaching in his diocese, he took him to task, famously telling him: ‘Sir, the pretending to extraordinary revelations or gifts of the Holy Ghost is a horrid thing, a very horrid thing.’

Saint Paul famously had a vision of Christ, but the experience left him very puzzled indeed, and blind to boot. Pondering his experience some fourteen years afterwards he wrote: ‘I know a man in Christ who was caught up to the third heaven –whether in the body or out of the body I still do not know, God knows; and I know that such a man, again whether in the body or not I cannot tell, was caught up into paradise and heard things that cannot be uttered, that no mortal is able to repeat.’ So there we have it, from the mouth of an apostle: he only got caught up to the third heaven (and there were supposed to be seven) and he was left unable to speak about it. He even added that to keep him from being too proud of this,  a thorn was given to him in the flesh. Three times he begged the Lord be rid of it but the Lord said to him: ‘Paul, my grace is sufficient for you for power is made perfect in weakness.’ So like him let us boast all the more gladly in our weaknesses that the power of Christ may dwell in us.’ (2 Corinthians 12.10)

Christ cannot be found outside. His kingdom cannot be found outside. The Kingdom of God is within. It’s a bit like the error pages on failed Google searches, they tend to display messages that say, ‘Oops, sorry, there’s nothing here.’ Well, no: there is something there, an error page with all sorts of links to other things and a message saying that there’s nothing there, and by that they mean not the thing you were looking for. Just so, God will not conform to what we are looking for. If we search for him with preconceived ideas, pictures or notions, we will hit the error page.

Again, when we read the stories of those who saw the risen Christ, we inescapably come to the conclusion that all of them were surprised. The pilgrims of Emmaus were utterly oblivious to his presence till the Christ himself opened their eyes as they broke bread together. Mary Magdalene thought he was the gardener as we all know. Thomas famously refused to believe the other ten…. All were mistaken and besides this, their direct experience of someone they had known in real life is not available to us. And if they were surprised, we cannot expect our preconceived notions of someone we never knew in the flesh to come true. Words and concepts cannot guide us. 

This is the wisdom of the hermits: you can find Christ right where you are, but you have to become Christ-like yourself to do so. You must allow him to be born in you. Any other idea of him is to a large extent false: it is a creation of your own mind, something that needs to die so that Christ can reveal himself. As Paul once gain wrote: you must die with him, so that it is no longer ‘You who lives, but Christ in you (Gal 2.19).’ 

Silence is your ally in this endeavour, and isolation. Physical silence of course, but also silence of the heart and mind, silence that does away with fears of solitude. Again, there’s a little Monty Python sketch about Frank the hermit who happens across another monk:

Hermit: "Oh Hello: are you a hermit by any chance?"
Frank the Hermit: "Yes that's right. Are you a hermit?"
Second Hermit: "Yes, I certainly am."
Frank the Hermit: "Well, I never! What are you getting away from?"
Hermit: "Oh, the usual—people, chat, gossip, you know."
Frank the Hermit: "Oh, I certainly do—it was the same with me. I mean there comes a time when you realize there's no good frittering your life away in idleness and trivial chit-chat. Now, where's your cave?"
Second Hermit: Oh, up the goat track, first on the left.
Frank the Hermit: Oh they're very nice up there, aren't they?
Second Hermit: Yes they are, I've got a beauty.
Frank the Hermit: A bit drafty though, aren't they?

And on they go exchanging trivia for hours (check the link on the site)

One of the desert mothers (Syncletica of Alexandria if you must know) put it very well: you can be a hermit in a huge crowd and you can be a world-ling in the desert, lost in the crowd of your own thoughts. She had been a real beauty in her youth, apparently, and had taken over the family business once her parents had died, one of the very few rich business-women who had it all of late-antiquity known to us. Then she sold everything and lived in the Egyptian desert for decades: you can be a hermit in the busy city of Alexandria, she wrote, and you can be worldly in the desert but lost in your own chit chat, dreams and delusions. 

So here’s my little advice for these unpleasant times: embrace isolation for a while and pay attention to a whole world you may otherwise never notice. The risen Christ will meet you in seclusion, as he met the disciples in the upper room when all the doors were shut. He can meet you in the garden, as he met Mary there, on her own. He will meet you at table, as he met the pilgrims of Emmaus who journeyed away from the hustle and bustle of the city. He will meet you wherever you may be. It does not have to be in church.


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