Delivered on Easter, 2023, at St. Matthew’s Cathedral and St. Stephen’s, Sherman. To everyone in the Diocese and beyond who may read it, I pray a most blessed Eastertide, +GRS
A year ago Eastertide, to much clergy acclaim, our conference welcomed a renowned theologian, who is also a concert level pianist, to talk about music and faith. Jeremy Begbie made some memorable points, for example, that notes in a chord can inhabit the same space at the same time, like the persons of the one triune God. Another point was that tunes, like human hearts, create tension, and seek resolution - they, as we, are made to want to get home. Well, my sermon will not sing like his playing, but I want to follow a similar track.
The bible is a very long tale, from the dawn of time until its history’s conclusion, across all creation, in many books and centuries. Like the first bars of a symphony, the Bible sounds its melody in its first two chapters. In all the succeeding books and centuries, the melody is this: God remains the self-same creator, in no need of another. He is perfect harmony in himself. He could have remained in his own aloof tranquility. But out of love the creator makes his creature, the world. It is not a part of him. He is life triumphant over death, nothing, chaos, destruction. ‘Let there be light,’ and so by His Word it is called into being, and shines through the succeeding chapters.
In the symphony of history, we hear long stretches of dissonance, But the melody keeps recurring. (The first theologian of the early church, Irenaeus, used a word for this ‘recapitulation’, which was taken over by the musicians!) It’s the story that one hears in short form in the readings for the Easter Vigil. When the children of Israel, for their disobedience, go into exile, the prophets Ezekiel and Isaiah, compare their return to Zion to a new creation. The melody sounds again. We are promised, in key moments, that, at the end of time, the melody will fill the hall once and for all: behold, I make all things new, says John in Revelation at the conclusion of the whole bible. The Bible really has one melody, recurring when the story seems to be at its bleakest.
The resurrection of Jesus is the refrain of the great melody par excellence, at the midpoint of the symphony. It was when the dissonance has become most grating, most in need of resolution. Jesus is raised from the dead. In its most urgent, compressed, decisive way, the same melody of Genesis 1 sounds forth. God is alive, and death flees. The one God is over all, but with a love that is not aloof, but wades into the chaos, declaring ‘let there be light.’
Here is something more the theologian pianist taught me: The great themes come back, but with variations, in a new key, transposed, slowed, sped, melancholy, bold. The resurrection of Jesus is melody of Genesis 1, but with some special accents. The plot had turned dire, the evil of God’s children at fever pitch. At the crux, the flex point in the plot, the melody has been sharpened and focused, now played in the confines of one life, the chosen, the lamb slain, God’s infinite vastness in a little space. In the music of the spheres, this is the melody concentrated like the pinpoint of all creation before the big bang.
How else is the melody transposed? And what more light does this shine from the one, same God of eternity and of creation? How do we hear its tune more distinctly? It is easy for us to suppose that the God of command in Genesis, whose mere word brings all things into being is, because of his difference, far from us. But now we see that utterly different is not distant, nor does utterly powerful mean unwilling to be sacrificed. It is, we now hear, the theme song of the transcendent and intimate God, from the foundation of the world, actually sacrificed himself for us - we had not imagined there could be such. Then we heard the Word spoken into worldly nothing, now the same Word spoken into human death, calling the other back into being. We know that the first happened, and now we hear that the second happened too.
Again, how is the melody transposed, in the new creation of the world we call the resurrection of Jesus from the dead? What are the new undertones and overtones, the yet sharper harmonics, we can now hear because of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead? When we think of it, we realize that our access to God, and our knowledge of Him, is not the same as his access to us, and his knowledge of us. We naturally suppose it otherwise. But now we realize that, when it comes to God and creature, things are not reciprocal. We are limited, our time bound thoughts reaching only so far toward Him. By contrast He can think past present and future together. We cannot reach across the chasm of time, nor of death, nor of the barrier of utter purity. But he is barred by none of these. He is so much closer than we supposed, so much closer to us than we are to ourselves, as St. Augustine put it long ago. Paul’s way of saying it was that we live and move and have our being in Him, not by some power in us, but because He has drawn close to us.
In the resurrection of Jesus we are here to celebrate, we can hear that his real presence, body and spirit, suffuses us and our world. In the same pitch, Paul in Ephesians 4 says that His going up is actually His coming down to dwell with us forever. So, again, He is unimaginably close to us, though from our side, He still seems infinite miles away. The risen is not blocked by anything, doors, hell, time, our guilt, but is right here, if only we could hear the melody as clearly as we shall in heaven. That is why we can speak to Him as a son or daughter to a father, and when words fail, He prays through us (says Paul in Romans 8). It turns out that the world is not as we supposed it, though in a way which we cannot control or imagine on our own. Who God the creator is, and thus what things shall ultimately be, have intruded on your world, here and now, though we remain fearful and trembling creatures. So the contours of this broken, fading world, remain, but it is all changed, for it been flooded with a new fanfare, from above and from below.
Brothers and sisters, on this blessed Easter year of our risen Lord 2023, it is not only in the Bible, nor only in the church year, that the melody sings out as a yet clearer refrain. Also in your days, peaceful or turbulent, in the words of the great hymn about you saints, there ‘steals on the ear the distant triumph song,’ only the Risen Himself is not distant, closer to you than you are to yourself, so that you may speak or groan or sing your prayer into His ear, as a child to his or her father, all your days and beyond. Amen.