Romans 6.1–11; Mark 16.1–8
a sermon at the Easter Vigil in Durham Cathedral, Easter Morning 2009
by the Bishop of Durham, Dr N. T. Wright
‘If we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him . . . so you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.’ With those words, St Paul sets out what you might call the Easter agenda, the bracing regime which all newly baptised and/or confirmed Christians have to face up to. This isn’t, to put it mildly, how people normally think about how to behave; so it’s probably worth going straight for the heart of it. Getting up early on Easter morning is itself bracing, exciting and unexpected, and we might as well carry on in the way we’ve begun.
Actually, carrying on what we’ve begun is one good way of describing what living the Christian life is all about. It’s an image Paul uses elsewhere: God has started something off in you, in your hearts and minds and lives, and God is going to carry it on until he’s finished the job. Be prepared for some surprises, and some challenges, as God does that! You’ve been baptised and confirmed into the death and resurrection of Jesus, and the power of the Spirit – so expect those events and that reality to shape your life from now on! But, equally, it’s important to see it from the other end of the telescope, to see your life now from the perspective of the end, the goal. This is a trick management consultants sometimes employ, to get executives to imagine what it’s going to be like when the firm has developed in new ways, how the product will have improved, the new office they’ll have, and so on: think, they say, how it’s going to be in (say) 2020, and then work back and tell yourself the steps by which you got there.
Actually, that management trick is a downscaled version of the ancient vision of virtue. The old philosophers suggested that you should hold in your minds a vision of the future you wanted to attain, a vision of ultimate happiness, completeness, the sort of person you’d want to become; and then they encouraged you to learn and practice the qualities of character you would need to be working on in the present to shape yourself into that sort of a person. The philosophers who taught that sort of thing got two things absolutely right which we as Christians need to sort out in a fresh way for ourselves, but there are two other things which for us are quite different, and Easter is a brilliant time to get our minds and hearts, and particularly our lives, around them all.
First, the old philosophers were right that the way to live your life is from the future backwards. If you start off where you are now, and imagine what you’d like to do, you’ll get muddled and find yourself being driven by different impulses in different directions. If you just go with the flow of what comes naturally, you will look back in ten years, or thirty, or sixty, and shake your head and realise you were going round and round in confused circles. But if you have a goal and are consciously trying to work towards it your character will develop, so that you actually start to want new things, to enjoy new things, to develop new habits. And that’s the second point they got right. Virtue isn’t about struggling to obey a whole bunch of rules. It’s about practising the habits of heart and mind and life which will form your character so that, eventually, you do naturally – though it will be a kind of second nature, one you’re not born with but which you choose to develop – the things which reveal that your character is developing into that of a whole, wise, well-rounded human being.
But the Easter message generates two other things which are quite new. Yes, we must live our lives from the coming future – but we now know much more clearly what that coming future is, and that gives particular point and direction to the people we are to choose to become, to the habits we are to choose to develop. And yes, forming habits of character is vital, even though it’s difficult, but for the Christian the all-important difference is that we don’t do it alone. We don’t develop these habits all by ourselves. We do it, basically, with the help and energy of God’s spirit; and we do it in company, all of us together. After all, the most basic Christian habit is love, and you can’t do love all by yourself.
Let’s think about these two things for a moment. The resurrection of Jesus, the great fact at the heart of the Easter faith, means that we now know, suddenly and in a blinding flash, what our ultimate future will be. Our ultimate future isn’t just that we bumble along trying to live the present life a little bit better until one day we decay and die, and end up either in the grave or in a disembodied heaven or perhaps both. Our ultimate future is that we will be raised to new life in God’s new world, not only to inhabit God’s new creation, a world full of beauty and life and justice and freedom, but actually to run it on God’s behalf. That’s a solid New Testament truth which the church usually keeps quiet about, but it’s time to get it out of the cupboard, blow the dust off it, and see what it means for today. Running God’s world won’t mean, of course, arrogantly imposing our own will on it; it will mean being God’s stewards, and ruling with his gentle, wise love. To be Easter people, we are called to anticipate, here and now, that future vocation, to look after God’s world on his behalf, and to gather up the praises of creation and present them before the creator. Stewardship and worship, the practice of being kings and priests, are the habits of heart and life that Easter people must acquire.
Stewardship and worship take a thousand different forms. Stewardship means working for God’s justice in the world, for the health and flourishing of the planet and all who live on it, for God’s wise order and exuberant freedom to come to birth in all directions. Pray, in the days to come, about the ways in which God wants you to be a steward in his creation. That’s what you’re going to be doing in the resurrection life; start practicing now. Worship means celebrating God’s powerful deeds in history, in your own history, in your community; it means summing up the praises of the whole creation and expressing them, articulately and with understanding and delight, in the presence of the God who made you, loves you and has redeemed you. Pray, in the days to come, about the ways in which God wants you to worship him, where that should be, how often you should come to the eucharist, and how to worship in private as well. Worship is what you’re going to be doing in the resurrection life; start practicing now.
The second point at which Christian virtue, resurrection living if you like, is different from the ancient pagan dream of a good life is that we don’t do all this by ourselves. One of the mysterious but essential realities at the heart of our faith is that the Holy Spirit, God’s own Spirit, Jesus’ own breath, comes to live in our lives so that we discover, bit by bit, that we have a new kind of moral energy and sense of direction. But here’s the thing. Some people, when they realise they are promised the Holy Spirit to help them live as God wants them to do, imagine that therefore all you have to do is to go into neutral and let the Spirit take you wherever he wants. They then sometimes either complain that the Holy Spirit hasn’t done what it said on the tin, or, more darkly, that this or that particular call to holiness can’t be meant for them because they tried it and it didn’t work so the Spirit can’t require it of them. This is a complete misunderstanding. As Paul makes it very clear in today’s reading and elsewhere, the struggle for holiness will remain a struggle, even when the Holy Spirit is giving you the energy, and one of the key elements in that struggle is precisely that you should learn to understand what is going on, to think it through, to be, as he says, ‘transformed by the renewal of your mind, so that you may discern in practice what God’s will is’. In fact, the early signs of the Spirit’s work are that you start to be puzzled by habits of life that you’d taken for granted, and you begin to be startled by ways of life to which God seems to be calling you but which appear difficult if not impossible. The answer then is, Think it through, Pray for wisdom and strength, and Start learning the habits. They don’t come naturally at the moment, just as when you’re learning a musical instrument or a foreign language. But eventually, when you practice them, they will come naturally. You will gradually acquire fluency in the language. That’s what resurrection living is all about.
But if it’s true that we don’t live as Christians all by ourselves in the sense that we are promised the Holy Spirit within us, it’s also true that we don’t do it all by ourselves in the sense that there is no such thing as a solitary Christian. Christianity is a team sport. The ancient pagan virtues were designed to produce great individuals, hero-figures who would lead nations in politics and war. The Christian virtues, supremely faith, hope and love, the great signs of resurrection that well up within us, are designed to produce communities in which each individual has their own unique part to play but within a much larger whole. And the point of it all is not to draw attention to ourselves, but rather to put ourselves out for everyone else, to spot what needs doing in God’s world and to get on and do it, without making a song and dance about it. Thank God that so many Christians in our society are doing just that – so many, in fact, that if they all suddenly stopped doing it our whole country would feel the draft. But you, newly baptised and confirmed Christians today, you need to pray for God’s wisdom and direction to see where you belong in this work. You are part of the family and you will have your tasks to perform, the things God wants to do in this community which we’ve been needing you to do, to make your unique contribution.
So the life into which you are baptised and confirmed is the resurrection life, the kings-and-priests life, the life lived from the future back into the present, the life of thoughtful, discerning, habit-forming faith, hope and love. You may well find that very challenging, especially at six o’clock in the morning. And it is. You may well feel like the women at the tomb, shocked and astonished by the great truth that is starting to dawn on you, the great drama into which, suddenly, you find yourself incorporated. You may well need, as the women seem to have done, to take some time to get over the shock. But Jesus Christ is risen from the dead, and we who find ourselves caught up in that great, earth-shattering event have no choice but to learn to live, right now, already, in the light both of that event itself and of the future which it unveils. Pray; think; learn the resurrection-habits of stewardship and worship, of faith, hope and love; and take your proper place in our growing family as we make Easter a reality in our world.