Sunday April 12 2020

Homily for Easter Sunday 2020

The seventeenth century French philosopher Blaise Pascal solved for himself some of the major questions of faith by a means which has come to be known as Pascal’s Wager.

For example: is it better to believe in God, or not? Pascal’s Wager contends that it is better to believe, because if we believe and are proved right, then we have everything to gain, but if we do not believe and are proved wrong, we have everything to lose.

Pascal might have employed the same approach to the issue of the resurrection. Easter Sunday is about this one thing only: do we believe in the resurrection of Jesus? If we do not believe it (and I know many Unitarians find it hard to believe) then Pascal would say: At least learn your inability to believe.”

Here in our Easter Sunday service we are inescapably saying something about the resurrection. We realise that we are affirming the resurrection of new life and growth with the coming of Springtime. We also know that we are reaffirming the resurrection of new life and energy within ourselves. But these two affirmations do not go far enough.

Resurrection theology seems to demand that we actually decide whether or not we believe: believe that the founder of the religion out of which we have grown, whose teaching and example we adopt as the basis of our own belief and morality, was somehow brought back to life again after he had been killed.

This issue is so central to us because of what depends upon it. To put it in the form of a question: do we have to believe that Jesus was resurrected if we want to go on to believe that we too may have some hope of immortality? In other words, does our hope of immortality rest on a belief in the resurrection of Jesus?

May I read to you from a poem entitled “Friends Departed” by Henry Vaughan? Vaughan was a Welsh metaphysical poet, born in 1621, educated at Jesus College Oxford, a translator and a physician, who died in 1695.

They are all gone into the world of light!
And I alone sit ling’ring here;
Their very memory is fair and bright,
And my sad thoughts doth clear.

It glows and glitters in my cloudy breast,
Like stars upon some gloomy grove,
Or those faint beams in which this hill is drest,
After the sun’s remove.

I see them walking in an air of glory,
Whose light doth trample on my days:
My days, which are at best but dull and hoary,
Mere glimmering and decays.

O holy Hope! and high Humility,
High as the heavens above!
These are your walks, and you have show’d them me
To kindle my cold love.

……

O Father of eternal life, and all
Created glories under thee!
Resume thy spirit from this world of thrall
Into true liberty.

There can be little doubt about the author’s belief in spiritual immortality.

Vaughan is sitting on a hill in the evening, looking out over the countryside, lingering (as he says), and thinking of those whom he has loved and who have gone before. Their memory cheers him and chases away gloomy thoughts: “I see them walking in an air of glory…”

Vaughan refers to his thoughts of immortality as a “holy hope”, and asks what mysteries lie beyond death if only people could see that far. But it is all unknown, yet in our dreams and contemplation it is almost as though we can gain a glimpse of glory.

And the poem ends with his prayer to the “Father of eternal life” to admit him finally “Into true liberty.”

In the end, as with so much in our Unitarian theology, it comes down to what we individually believe about the issues before us. I cannot answer honestly that I believe in these ideas or do not believe. If I have the choice, then I choose to believe, not because of Pascal’s Wager, but because I prefer to believe, rather than not.

EASTER PRAYER by A Powell Davies.
As the earth, O God, is resurrected into life, and we see once more its beauty, so may it be with our souls. Let the wintertime of doubt dissolve, and all the frozenness of our refusals melt within us. Deepen our faith that evil shall be vanquished, that good at last shall be triumphant…

We thank thee, O God, for all the stirring of life renewed, for the warm winds and the whispering of leaves on trees, for the sweet new fragrance, for the brave colours of life’s streaming banners, carried once to victory over death; and for the soul’s triumph, and the transmuting of tragedy, and for the true and the good which are crucified, but never die. Amen.

.