A sermon preached at St Paul’s Cathedral by the Dean of Melbourne,
the Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe, at the Easter Vigil 2023:
Alleluia, Christ is risen!
In his first letter to the Corinthians, our patron, St Paul, challenges the early Christian community: ‘If there is no resurrection from the dead, then Christ has not been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation is in vain, and your faith has been in vain’ (1 Cor 1.13-14). If Christ has not been raised from the dead, then there is no reason for us to believe, Paul confronts us. Yes, our society would be a lot fairer if we followed Jesus’ teachings to work for justice for others. Our lives would be much happier if we lived according to Jesus’ instruction to treat others in the same way in which we ourselves want to be treated. But without the resurrection, Paul tells us, there is no real purpose to our faith. ‘If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile, and you are still in your sins’ (1 Cor 15.17).
Because without resurrection the world would have stopped on Good Friday: Jesus would have remained a condemned, crucified man. Without Easter, Christ remains dead. He cannot raise humanity, let alone forgive sins. How could Christ justify us, if he had not first been justified by God? If Christ had not been raised, there is no chance for reconciliation and forgiveness. Sin and death would have the final word. Without the resurrection, ‘those who have died in Christ have perished’, Paul knows (1 Cor 15.18). We remain guilty before God, and our faith would have no real purpose. ‘We of all people would most be to be pitied’ (1 Cor 15.19), because our lives as Christians are founded on the reality of Easter, Paul tells us. Our faith is meaningless without the resurrection.
What does resurrection look like? Jesus spent much time teaching his disciples what new life in God looks like. New life in God looks like a grain of wheat that falls into the earth and dies. When it has been buried, it germinates; rising through the soil to bear much fruit. New life in God is like a light that is placed on a lampstand and gives light to a dark house. In his parables, Jesus draws on the natural cycles of death and life in the world around us to explain that death is only ever a stage of life. Yes, every seed we plant dies, but only by dying, it can bear fruit. Yes, the darkness comes every night, but remains only until we light a candle, or the sun rises again. In the end, life and light will win out, Jesus assures his disciples. The very death of nature contains the seeds of life.
But the parables from nature that Jesus tells his disciples reflect only one aspect of the resurrection: the regenerative aspect of resurrection. The rhythm of life and death that is rooted in nature. In nature we see how new life is contained in each seed we plant; how immortality is already embedded in the natural order of creation.
True resurrection, however, goes far beyond a natural cycle of death leading to renewal of life. Easter speaks of resurrection—not regeneration, nor immortality—precisely because Easter takes so seriously the effects of death. When Jesus is crucified, we are confronted with a death that is real, brutal, and unequivocal. There is no doubt that Jesus died; tortured and broken on the cross. That this terrifying death has been overcome by God’s extraordinary intervention at Easter is what makes the Christian faith so powerful.
Imagine if the Easter story had ended on Good Friday. On Good Friday, we saw the powers of the world—betrayal, denial, injustice, inaction, spite, hatred, fear, mockery and anger—fully unleashed on Jesus. As he hangs on the cross, unrecognised as a Sovereign by the Romans, denied as God by the people of his own faith, Jesus holds the suffering and pain of all humanity between his outstretched arms; experiences the full impact of the despair of abandonment and God-forsakenness.
Imagine the story of Easter had ended that Good Friday, with Jesus’ lifeless body taken from the cross. Death would have had the final word in the story of humankind. Had Jesus remained in the grave, Jesus would have died twice condemned: both by his peers and by his God. ‘Let him save himself just as he saved others’, the cries of the crowd rang on Good Friday, as Jesus hung dying on the cross (Mt 27.42). A dead Saviour can’t save others, can’t justify others. Paul puts it starkly: ‘if Christ has not been raised, then you are still in your sins’ (1 Cor 15.17). Without God’s powerful action at Easter we would have been convicted alongside the One we follow. Then we of all people would be most to be pitied.
But Easter means that God is the God of the living, and the death of death. God is alive, and so is Christ; the tomb is empty and the stone that was meant to contain the Lord of life has been rolled away. Love lives again, in spite of the cross. Easter means that God has broken the power of sin and death. That God has not given up on his world. By conquering death, God has broken the power of destruction and death once and for all. By raising his Son from the dead, ‘as the first fruits of all who died’, he has raised all humanity to life (1 Cor 15.20). All may be forgiven and restored. When we die, none will have to die in fear. Because Life has been restored by the inexpressible power of God.
Paul knows that this hope was true not only for Jesus at the first Easter. God did not just raise one man from the dead. He has raised all people from death. The transformational power of the resurrection is true for all people, for all time. ‘If for this live only we have hoped in Christ, then we of all people are most to be pitied’ (1 Cor 15.19). But Easter is true eternally, it is true forever for all who put their trust in the risen One. God is the Lord of Jesus’ death, and God is also the Lord of our deaths. Just as he raised Jesus from the dead, he will lead all people from death to life. ‘As all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ’ (1 Cor 15.22). Because of the power of Easter we, of all, are most to be blessed.
At the end of all time, the risen Lord himself will tell the story of how he had been raised from the dead. Until then, we are given signs and symbols to assure us in our faith: the empty tomb; the witness of the first apostles who saw and touched, walked, ate and talked with, the risen Lord; the giving of God’s Spirit and the impact of that Spirit on each one of us as we grow in faith and trust. Until the time when we behold him in his glory, we behold the power of the resurrection aslant, Paul suggests earlier in his epistle: ‘now we see through a glass, darkly, but then we shall we will see face to face. Now we know only in part; then we will know fully, even as we have been fully known’ (1 Cor 13.12). We will only ever be able to comprehend the full power of Easter at the end of all time, when Christ will return and we behold the true glory and power of God with all the redeemed.
Until that time, we see as if through a mirror; are granted glimpses of the resurrection to confirm our hope and strengthen our trust. We may see new life in the power of Christ to change lives—when we let our own lives be transformed by God’s love. We may see reflections of resurrection light in our world—when we carry his light to the places we live and work, the places we pray and come together to celebrate. We may see this power at work in entire nations: it is through the resurrection that we are enabled to work for reconciliation, and seek that new beginning, new heart that, for instance, a Voice for First Peoples in Australia offers, and the more just settlement for Indigenous People and Torres Strait Islanders offered by the gracious gift of the Statement from the Heart. And we see God’s life-transforming resurrection power at work this morning, in the lives of the 19 candidates for baptism, confirmation and reception met here today.
‘I am the first and the last, and the Living One. I was dead, and behold, I am alive for ever and ever’, the risen Lord speaks to us in the final book of our Scriptures (Rev 1.17). And he assures that because he has overcome death forever that first Easter, we may have hope for living today: ‘I hold the keys of Death and of hell; do not be afraid’.
Thanks be to God for giving us the victory, through our Lord, Jesus Christ.