Archbishop's Easter Day Sermon 2005
Sunday 27th March 2005A sermon given on Easter Sunday by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, at Canterbury Cathedral.
Death, says St Paul, is our enemy; and Christians are the most pitiable of all people if their hope is confined to this life. To many modern ears, these statements sound a bit suspect. Isn't this the kind of religion we have learned to be wary of, a religion that justifies suffering and frustration here and now by the promise of compensation somewhere else? And as for regarding death as an enemy – is this more than the childish resentment of human beings who haven't yet accepted their limitations? One of the great books of the twentieth century, by a man who had read Freud more intelligently than most, was called The Denial of Death, and it spelled out the evil consequences of this refusal to face our limits, the anxiety and unreality and psychological fragility that could distort lives lived in this state of denial.
The longing for everlasting life takes strange forms. There are people who obsessively investigate the evidence for spiritualist phenomena, people who have their bodies cryogenically frozen in the hope of resuscitation, people who claim that their diet and lifestyle is slowing down the ageing process. And of course when you think of things like this, you realise that it isn't simply certain kinds of religion that produce odd and unhealthy attitudes to ageing or limitation or death. Quite a lot of our contemporary culture is actually shot through with a resentment of limits and the passage of time, anger at what we can't do, fear or even disgust at growing old. Ernest Becker's book, referred to a moment ago, was directed not against religion as such but against a climate of fantasy encouraged by cheap psychology ('you can be anything you choose to be') and a childlike faith in technology.
Now St Paul doesn't show too many obvious signs of resenting human limitations or indeed wanting not to die – after all, he tells us in all kinds of ways in the course of his letters that we have to let our self-protective instincts 'die' as we grow into the full scope of love for God and each other; so he can hardly be recommending to us the kind of attitude that gave Freud and Nietzsche so much material for criticism. What then is he saying here? And how do we hear it now as good news?
The first thing to notice is something that has been said countless times, yet we still miss it. Paul does not say that we shall live for ever; he says that we shall die and that we shall be raised as Jesus was raised. Forget spiritualism and cryogenics; forget supposed evidence for 'survival'. Paul doesn't think we are going to survive but that we are going to live again because of God's action. Here and now, we must indeed once to terms with the reality of death, and we must put to death all in us that binds us to our narrow self-interest. Indeed, you could rightly say that Paul's teaching is really that we must put to death our refusal to die, because that refusal to die, that fearful denial of our limits, is the root of our selfish and self-paralysing habits of sin. A healthy human environment is one in which we try to make sense of our limits, of the accidents that can always befall us and the passage of time which inexorably changes us. An unhealthy environment is one in which we always look for someone to blame and someone to compensate us, and struggle to maintain fictions of our invulnerability to time and change.
Societies as well as individuals fall victim to these diseases. We react so often with panic and hostility to the presence of persons and cultures who are different and blame them for our own dysfunctions. We maintain a ludicrous confidence in technology to solve the environmental problems it has itself intensified because we can't believe that our capacity to generate wealth and comfort for ourselves is anything other than infinite. We fantasise about a state of security so complete that nothing and no-one will ever threaten us. We need to hear that all this is really the denial of death – that it is what Paul elsewhere calls 'the works of the flesh', the closing up of ourselves in the face of a reality we can't fully control.
What Paul is telling us is this. If your hope is that this life will be protected and prolonged, that your comfort zone as you understand it will never be challenged, that you will never have to face the reality of being mortal and limited, God help you. It's a recipe for illusion, terror and the killing of the soul. But that doesn't mean that your 'real' life only begins on the far side of death. Rather it means that here and now you learn to live not by self-defence but by opening up to what God gives.
Because that is the essence of belief in the resurrection. It is not a matter of natural survival, not a right we can demand from God, but a gift. God has promised to be our God, he has promised to hold us in relationship with himself whatever happens to us. Remember the end of Romans chapter 8? 'There is nothing in death or life...nothing in all creation that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord'. He has committed himself to be there for us by his own gracious decision; we face death knowing that his promise has been given – but not knowing (as St Paul goes on to say) just how the promise will be honoured. All we can guess is that our present life has the same relation to the future as the seed has to the full-grown plant. Not survival, but growth into an unimaginably greater dimension. If we now begin to live in a way that gives priority to God's promise and gift, to live in trust and generosity, we shall not be haunted and imprisoned by fear of death. We have begun to live the kind of life that can cope with death because it simply looks for God's gift at every point.
So the importance of Jesus' resurrection is not that it somehow proves there is life after death in a general sort of way. What it proves is that God keeps his promises: the commitment of God the Father to Jesus his beloved son is absolute and eternal; so the cross does not separate Father and Son, and life is restored on the far side of the cross, life that both is and isn't like the ordinary physical life Jesus had in Galilee. And the divine promise Jesus, God among us, makes to his friends, the promise of mercy and renewal, is absolute; not even the unfaithfulness of the disciples can destroy it. Jesus' life is there for them once more, the source of their joy and hope. The violent and terrible death of Jesus does not stop God from giving what he wants to give, giving consistently and steadily. If Jesus is raised, we can count on the faithfulness of God.
And perhaps we can dimly see why death can be called an enemy. Death seems to challenge the idea of an eternally faithful God; and it poses an obvious difficulty for any belief that God wants to develop with us a relationship that is always growing and developing. It looks as though death means that our relation with God comes to a halt, as if God eventually treats us as disposable. But if we see in Jesus' resurrection the confirmation that God is faithful, we can face death differently – not because it has stopped mattering or even hurting, not because we have assurance that we shall carry on as before (we shan't), but because God has not finished with us. We have more to receive from him, and he will create the conditions that will make it possible for us to receive.
Death will be the last enemy to be overcome, says Paul. At the end of everything, death will be behind us, death will be history. We shall have become what we have become because we have lived with death and learned how to love realistically and humbly, within the compass of a limited life. Death the enemy of our confidence has been a friend to us after all – an enemy we learn to love, as Christ tells us to love our enemies; and at the end of everything its work is done. What remains is only growth in love, as we stand with and in Jesus Christ looking into the inexhaustible depths of God's reality – the sea we must learn to swim in but will never cross over, as the Welsh poet Ann Griffiths put it in one of her hymns.
And here and now we are called on to challenge the denial of death that locks us into folly and fear; the pride and arrogance, the desperation and brittleness of our hopes. Easter proclaims to individuals and economic systems and governments alike that we shall not find life by refusing to let go of our precious, protected selves. Let go with Christ, die into his love; and rise with Christ, opening yourself to the eternal gift of the Father.
© Rowan Williams 2005