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The Archbishop of Canterbury's Easter Sermon 1999

Posted on: April 4, 1999 10:00 AM

Canterbury Cathedral, 4 April 1999

One of the greatest works of literature in my opinion is Victor Hugo's 'Les Miserables'. Whether you have merely seen the stage play, or the film or, better still, read the book you will recall immediately the scene when Valjean, the convict on parole, goes to the bishop's house in exhaustion and desperation seeking help and shelter. Valjean is described as a hardened criminal and Hugo adds: "Hatred was his only weapon and he resolved to sharpen it in prison and carry it with him when he left."

The kindly bishop gladly gives the help the prisoner needs and Valjean eats with him. As he does so he notes the glittering silver cutlery. That night he goes to sleep in a real bed between clean sheets for the first time for many years. Early the next morning he rises very early but his avarice for the silver cutlery makes him stuff it in his knapsack and away he runs.

Later Valjean is captured and brought back by the gendarmes. The bishop is asked to identify both the silver and the criminal. He feigns surprise at the capture and says: "Yes, certainly Valjean was here as my guest last night and indeed I gave him the silver." "But", he says, turning to the convict, "Had you forgotten that I gave you the candlesticks as well? They're silver like the rest and worth a good two hundred francs. Did you forget to take them?"

And then when the gendarmes had gone, quite nonplussed, the bishop says gently to the convict: "Jean Valjean, my brother, you no longer belong to what is evil but to what is good. I have bought your soul to save it from black thoughts and the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God"

In that encounter Hugo's 'Les Miserables' offers us the finest description of 'grace' outside the New Testament. That moment of 'grace' set Valjean on his way to redemption and wholeness. Grace is the defining element in the entire story of Les Miserables with the sinister figure of Javert as the epitome of law seeking to track down the offender with all the force of justice. On his death bed, you will recall, Valjean gives to his daughter Cosette two silver candlesticks that he has treasured all his life and murmurs: "I don't know if the person who gave them to me is pleased as he looks down on me from above".

And the reader is expected to know the answer to that.

This may seem a surprising introduction to the Easter Story. It is not. Grace is central to the message of Easter because it is all about new beginnings, fresh starts and hopes for a new world. We may even see a parallel in the experience of Mary Magdalene in the Gospel tradition from whom seven devils were cast out and who was a new person through the healing of Jesus Christ. Her triumphant cry: "I have seen the Lord!" was picked up by the experience of the other disciples who entered into the story of the resurrection. It has echoed down the centuries to our day and age.

But how do we see Jesus today?

It is true that some have claimed to have seen or heard him literally. Last week I met an intelligent city person who calmly said that one night he 'heard' Christ. That is not the usual experience of people and has certainly not been my own direct experience! Nevertheless, 'seeing' Jesus in some form or other is what following Jesus Christ is all about.

So how do we enter into the Easter story? Or, to put it another way: How may Easter be for us more than an historical event? More than an echo from the past? How may it affect the way we live our lives?

The hatred that filled the heart of the unconverted convict Valjean is all too sadly evident in our world. In the Balkans, the evil of ethnic cleansing is leading to the crucifixion of Kosovo as the refugee crisis continues. Military action thus far is recognition that the civilised world cannot stand idly by and accept that evil should triumph. It must surely be right that skills and energy of similar intensity are employed in saving and protecting the lives of helpless and vulnerable people. And each of us can play our part by supporting the Appeal to be launched for them on Tuesday by Christian Aid and the other aid agencies.

But Kosovo is not an isolated incident. In Indonesia and Iraq: in Northern Ireland a year after the Good Friday agreement; in Sudan, Rwanda and Zaire the hatred continues and those whose trade is in continuing feuds and fostering violence have reaped a rich and deadly harvest. In fact in only a few days time we shall commemorate with sadness the fifth anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda. In these dying months of the second millennium the world has not been immunised from evil. One result of the extraordinary development of modern science and technology, has been a dramatic increase in our capacity to inflict even more horrifying evils upon one another and the fragile earth on which we depend.

As G K Chesterton said shortly after the first world war: "The doctrine of original sin is the only directly observable Christian doctrine". In similar vein, following the last world war, Winston Churchill said in a speech: "Man's control has extended over practically every sphere - except himself".

And how can we fail to agree when we hear of a boy of 13 being tortured in Northern Ireland. Or when something like the enquiry into the Stephen Lawrence murder exposes before our reluctant gaze the ugliness of racism in our midst? And, of course, the darkness of evil is not limited to these Islands - it extends throughout the human family and the world we inhabit.

Perhaps more than one person present will look back into his or her past and echo the words of a man in Woody Allen's film Hannah and Her Sisters who says: 'For all my education, accomplishments and so-called wisdom, I cannot fathom my own heart'.

The Easter story offers a good place to begin such an understanding. It is all about God's grace, active in forgiveness and renewing in mercy.

Yet, it is curious that voices are raised today which insist that modern people no longer need the Christian or any religious message. "We have outgrown such myths", they say. "Humankind can take care of itself; we have the capacity, the moral strength and the ability to handle our own problems without recourse to 'God'."

But reality hardly bears this out. Humankind's incapacity to handle evil within and without is compelling evidence that the Gospel is needed today more than ever. Indeed, the Easter faith with its twin stories of God's forgiveness through the Cross of Christ and the empty tomb speaks more thrillingly to our hearts than the empty assurances of those who would tell us that we no longer need a personal God.

But grace is never cheap or simple. It takes us into the love of God so central to the Easter story and into the 'death-resurrection journey' of the Christian life. "Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies" said Jesus "it remains a grain of wheat, but if it dies it produces much fruit". And the day Valjean met the word of forgiveness from the bishop and took it deeply within himself, he died. He died to the old nature; he died to the person he once was. He died to hatred and bitterness. He became - even though it took a lifetime for him to realise it - a new person.

And this experience is far more common than many realise. This is how Easter moves from being a historical event to a real experience in the lives of us all - when we are prepared to die and live by grace, with grace and through grace. That grace which tells us beyond words that we are no better than Valjean. Each of us is in need of forgiveness and renewal.

The problem is, of course, that on Monday morning, tomorrow, the world will look just about the same as it did this Easter morning. Our world will still be wracked by bloodshed and conflict. Today we sing our Easter anthems but tomorrow violence, poverty, homelessness, greed, hatred, oppression and injustice will continue to plague our world. But although we may not be able to prove that the songs sung in thousands of churches, and the candles we have lit, have penetrated the dark corners where the message is so sorely needed, there is every reason for the songs to continue and the candles to shine. The light will not be extinguished; it will not be snuffed out. Far from it. We do not give in to darkness, because God's grace so wonderfully given to us in the victory of Jesus Christ leads us forward into new lives. And each one of us has a part to play in God's fight against evil.

"Better to light a candle" someone once so splendidly said: "than to curse the darkness". And Easter, the heart of the Church's faith and worship - indeed, the entire reason for the existence of the Church - sweeps each follower of Jesus Christ into its thrilling and inspiring message.

But what about us? It is no doubt the case that our experiences of God's grace have not been remotely like Valjean's but that doesn't mean they are less important. Christians are those people who, down the ages, have said "yes" to God's moments of grace and, in many different ways, have exclaimed with Mary Magdalene: "I have seen the Lord!"