Jesus is ‘always making us new': Archbishop Justin’s Easter sermon

[Lambeth Palace -- Press Release] Archbishop Justin has said in his Easter sermon that pinning hopes on individuals in politics and public life is “always a mistake”. But he said Holy Week and Easter remind us of the power of God and the fallibility of human beings – lessons which liberate us to be merciful with each other.

Speaking at Canterbury Cathedral 10 days after his inauguration, the Archbishop of Canterbury used his first Easter sermon today to warn against “hero leader culture” in our public life.

Archbishop Justin said: “Setting people or institutions up to heights where they cannot but fail is mere cruelty. A cynical abandonment of all except my own security is as bad. One is ignorant of human nature and the other of God.”

By contrast, he said, Holy Week and Easter “show us the reality of God and human beings.”

The disciples, he said, had pinned all their hopes on Jesus – and on the people of Israel to recognise Him. But “the rulers of Israel held on to what they knew, for fear of something unexpected and worse, and did what we all do: failed to see the evidence of God in front of them.”

The Archbishop continued: “It happens again and again. Familiar discomfort is often reassuring compared to the fearful consequences of change. Tenuous semblances of power are better than the apparent gamble on God’s faithfulness.”

But the reality of God and human beings emphasised over the Easter period, he said, is one “that equips us for action in the world, action that is based on hope and realism, not on cynicism or fear.”

Archbishop Justin stressed that “a joyful and celebratory church is based not in vain human optimism but in the certainty that God raised Jesus from the dead and will also raise us.

“As a result we know our fallibility and become merciful with each other, we know God’s call and never give up working for and expecting a new shape and life to the church.”

He added: “God gives us life in all fullness when we open our lives to Him. The church heals lonely brokenness with love and forgiveness of one another. We find the grasp of the risen Jesus always making us new. We are aflame with the truth that Christ is risen, and life is filled with creative hope and purpose.”

The full text of the sermon is below. Audio and video will be added soon.


Archbishop Justin’s sermon at Canterbury Cathedral, Easter Sunday, 31 March 2013

Isaiah 65:17-end, Acts 10:34-43, John 20:1-18

I wonder how many people here think that the future will be better than the past, and all problems can be solved if we put our minds to it. There is a general sense that if that is not the case then it ought to be, and someone must be doing something to stop it. Illusion is replaced by disappointment, both wrong.

The hero leader culture has the same faults. A political party gets a new leader and three months later there is comment about disappointment. An economy suffers the worst blow in generations with a debt crisis and economic downturn, and the fact that not everything is perfect within five years is seen as total failure. Complexity and humanity are ignored and we end up unreasonably disappointed with every institution, group and policy, from politicians to NHS, education to environment.

Papers reported on Friday that only 40% of churchgoers are convinced that the new Archbishop of Canterbury can resolve the problems of the Church of England. I do hope that means the other 60% thought the idea so barking mad that they did not answer the question.

Holy Week and Easter show us the reality of God and of human beings. It is a reality that equips us for action in the world, action that is based on hope and realism, not on cynicism or fear.

The disciples had expected that Israel would be delivered, and pinned all their hopes on Jesus as the deliverer, and on the people of Israel, including its leaders, recognising Him as such. That was a double mistake. As human beings we tend to live in the present, holding on to what we can. It is called sin. So the rulers of Israel held on to what they knew, for fear of something unexpected and worse, and did what we all do, failed to see the evidence of God in front of them.

It happens again and again. Familiar discomfort is often reassuring compared to the fearful consequences of change. Tenuous semblances of power are better than the apparent gamble on God’s faithfulness. The church has often fallen into the trap. In the eighteenth century the Church of England drove out the Methodists. In the sixteenth century Rome drove out the Reformers. Societies that cling to the present or some golden age in the past fall prey to fear. Groups that cling to power sink into oppression.

As well as fear a false view of people leads to hero leaders, who always fail. Put not your trust in new leaders, better systems, new organisations or regulatory reorganisation. They may well be good and necessary, but will to some degree fail. Human sin means pinning hopes on individuals is always a mistake, and assuming that any organisation is able to have such good systems that human failure will be eliminated is naïve.

We have to know God as well as human beings, or we are left with cynical despair. The disciples also had a wrong view of God. They did not understand that Jesus must die and must rise from the dead. Human disaster thus became ultimate disaster.

The accounts of the resurrection are brutally honest about the pervasive ignorance of the disciples. Key phrases are about not knowing, not understanding, believing without insight. Even Mary, the apostle to the apostles, the first witness, is able to say no more than “I have seen the Lord”, and what He said.

The reading from Acts shows the consequence of the Easter revolution. Peter has an open mind to the biggest change that could be imagined, the recognition that God has no favourites and that the Gentiles can be part of the church. He is spending his life in a state of joyful expectation because God is the one who raised Jesus from the dead. He is exploring the love and mercy of God in reaching to a lost and sinful humanity with a saving love for all.

That brings us back to our own day. Isaiah was speaking to a people in despair, and his treatment is celebration. “Be glad and rejoice for ever in what I am creating”. A right view of God sees Him as overflowing with such creative force that all our expectations of the future are radically altered and our joy leaps. Alleluia, Christ is risen.

A joyful and celebratory church is based not in vain human optimism but in the certainty that God raised Jesus from the dead and will also raise us. As a result we know our fallibility and become merciful with each other, we know God’s call and never give up working for and expecting a new shape and life to the church.

Human fallibility recognised, God’s sovereignty trusted; these are also the only stable foundation for human beings in society. Setting people or institutions up to heights where they cannot but fail is mere cruelty. A cynical abandonment of all except my own security is as bad. One is ignorant of human nature and the other of God.

This is the triumph of Easter demanding that we reach out through the awareness of our flawed humanity to the love of God who catches us, and fills our lives; RS Thomas wrote:

To look forward? Ah,
what balance is needed at
the edges of such an abyss.
I am alone on the surface
of a turning planet. What
to do but, like Michelangelo’s
Adam, put my hand
out into unknown space,
hoping for the reciprocating touch?

God gives us life in all fullness when we open our lives to Him. The church heals lonely brokenness with love and forgiveness of one another. We find the grasp of the risen Jesus always making us new. We are aflame with the truth that Christ is risen, and life is filled with creative hope and purpose.

© Justin Welby 2013

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