If you have been following the news on TV or in the papers this past week or two, there have been a number of stories to make us doubt the joy of the Easter season. Explosions at Charlottetown and in Oklahoma City. Poison gas in the Tokyo subway. Racial warfare and extermination in Rwanda. And the fiftieth anniversary of the end of World War II, when it was routine for thousands of bombs of the size that blew up an office building in Oklahoma, to be dropped night after night on different European cities.
Where is the God of Love in all of this? It’s much easier to think of the God of the writer of Ecclesiastes in the Old Testament—“Vanity of vanities—all is vanity.” The rich, the powerful, the famous—all come to the very same end as the poorest sinner. So what’s the use of life? What’s the use of anything?
Perhaps to our surprise, the New Testament message doesn’t help us very much. Jesus talks about the rich man who had everything in this world—and he ended up in hell fire. He talks about a tragedy of his day—eighteen people killed in a building collapse in Jerusalem—and all he comments is that “except you repent, you will all likewise perish.” He talks about people saving their lives, and losing them—and losing their lives and finding them. He himself lays down his life on the Cross—indeed, he so confronts the leaders of his time in such a way as to make it almost impossible for them not to kill him. St. Paul recounts all the religious advantages he has had in his life, and then says that he counts them all as so much garbage.
So, in our confusion, perhaps it is good to turn to the passage from the Book of Revelation that we had as our second lesson. Revelation dates from a very difficult time in the history of the early church. Christians were looked on as subversives: they would not burn incense to the Emperor, and claimed that Jesus was their King. Many of those to whom John was writing would have lost friends to persecution, and perhaps faced death themselves. The promised return of Jesus Christ hadn’t occurred. And, as so often happens in the church, it was just in such a time of discouragement, when the hardships of the present life were at their worst, that a great mystic writer appeared to show the reality of the life beyond.
As we heard last week—“If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most to be pitied.” If our idea of what life is, is just to be born, to grow old, and to die, then indeed it is all ‘vanity’ and emptiness. But there’s more to life than that.
Indeed it is true that in this life, we start to die the moment we are born, and none of us are going to escape from the death of our bodies. But that’s not the whole story. A tree grows, and a tree dies—but during its lifetime, a tree also bears fruit. That fruit nourishes others, and gives life to them. More than that, that fruit also contains seeds—even a few of which, if planted, will continue the life of that tree for another generation. Life, in fact, is not a one shot deal. It is a cycle between seed and organism, from organism to seed, generation after generation.
Moreover, when we look at the teachings of Jesus, he may well take a limited view of our bodily lives—but when it comes to fruit, the story is entirely different. Fruit is important. “I am the vine, you are the branches” he says. “If you fail to bear fruit, you will be burned. Even if you bear fruit, you are going to be pruned so that you may bear even more.” As with the fruit, so with the seed. The seed of the “word of God” is what the Sower sows, and the way that it comes up is of immense importance to the spread of the Kingdom of God. Yes, our earthly bodies are subject to death, are wasting away—and as we get older, we all begin to feel it. But if we bear fruit and seed during our lives—‘fruit’ of good works, ‘seed’ of Christian character and example, then the cycle is continued, and our lives have not been wasted.
This is not just the maintenance of physical life in the world over the generations—though this is true, as we have families, and bear and bring up children “in the knowledge and fear of the Lord.” It is that the character we develop in this world, as we learn (regardless of pain and suffering) to value the good and resist the evil, is the seed that will ripen into a new and spiritual life in an age to come. Oscar Wilde said that “a chicken is an egg’s way of creating another egg.” Is it too much to say that “the Universe is Christ’s way of creating brothers and sisters who will share his nature”—where in the life of the world to come, we will have the character that will enable us to share with Him the responsibility of the government of a new heaven and a new earth.
So, in our reading from Revelation today, John talks of Jesus as being the king of the world, and we church people being “kings and priests.” Not priests in the New Testament sense of the ‘presbyters’ or elders of the church, but priests in the Old Testament sense, of those who made sacrifices to God on behalf of the people—and particularly, Christ himself, who made the perfect sacrifice of himself on behalf of mankind. It is by adopting the way of Christ by the sacrifice of ourselves that we, too, whether ordained or lay, follow in his Priesthood.
I hope that this will give you courage to look on life from a new perspective—the perspective of Easter. From that perspective, all we strive for in this world is temporary and will not last. What is all important is the fruit we bear, and the seed we sow of character for our lives in the world to come. “It is sown an earthly body. It will be raised a heavenly body.”
The Easter hymn says it very well:
“My flesh in hope shall rest
And for a season slumber
Till trump from East to West
Shall wake the dead in number.
Had Christ that once was slain
Ne’er burst his three day prison
Our faith had been in vain
But now has Christ arisen, arisen, arisen.”
Or, as in the funeral service:
“Weeping o’er the grave, we make our song
Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.”
May this be the song in our hearts, as we face—and conquer—the troubles of this world this Eastertide.