Kippax Uniting Church

8.30 Service, Sunday 8 September 2002


Sermon – “Easter in Spring

Robert Tulip


Romans 13: 8-14


Let’s pray.  Loving God, may your transforming grace enter our hearts, that we may come to know you and do your will.  Amen


In planning for this period over the next few months leading up to Advent, one of the themes our worship group agreed on was Easter in Spring. Today, with spring well underway, here we are – Easter in Spring.  I love the Canberra seasons – the dry hot summer, the beautiful colours of autumn, even the cold frosts in winter which we are now gradually seeing less of, and of course the new life bursting forth in spring. 


Easter is traditionally identified with spring, with the resurrection theme of new life reflected in the popular symbols of eggs, bunnies, flowers, etc.  Just for this reason of celebrating new life, it’s easy to see why Easter was such an important celebration in the old European farming villages which depended entirely on their local land for food.  After the end of a long cold winter, when much of the food stored at the previous harvest had been eaten, people had given things up for Lent, partly because this was often a time of want.  It was so important to see the new life quickening in the soil, with promise of growth and renewal. 


The Easter story of the Passion of Christ, with the new life of the resurrection emerging from the tragic death of the cross, fitted directly into the natural rhythms of the seasons in old Europe.  Easter mirrored what people could see around them in the spring, with the sap rising in the trees, days getting longer and warmer, spring flowers with their colours and scents emerging, birds nesting, and a general feeling of new life and optimism after the dreary cold shut-in short days of winter. 


Our modern technology has allowed us to some extent to pretend we have escaped from the constraints of natural cycles, but of course we are ultimately still just as dependent on nature as ever, as the current drought and our broader ecological concerns are showing.  In earlier times this dependency was much more immediate. I believe that we can better understand our own faith if we consider how in earlier times the message of faith reflected the natural cycles of the year.


In reflecting now on this morning’s Bible reading from Saint Paul, I want to explore how important the Easter story of the resurrection was for Paul’s theology, and how the reflection of the great spiritual themes of Easter in the natural rhythms of the seasons can help us to understand the meaning of Easter.  In Romans 1:20, Paul says that God is revealed in the natural creation.  In this spirit I would like to explore the link between Easter and the natural year.


Easter is on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the March equinox.  I’m not quite sure why the moon is used to set the date, but it does provide the happy coincidence that there is always a full moon for the holiday.  The equinox, March 22, is the date when the day and night are equal.  For us today, we are marking our Easter in Spring a few weeks early, as the nights will still be longer than the day until September 22. 


Briefly digressing, I was interested recently to read of a link between Christmas and Easter, and why Christmas is on 25 December.  The December solstice – for us the longest day of the year and for the northern hemisphere the shortest day – is on December 22.  The reason December 22 is called solstice is apparently that the sun rises at the same point on the horizon for three days from Dec 22 to 25, so the sun ‘stands still’.  This ‘standing still’ of the sun on the shortest days of the year symbolizes the death of the old year. Christmas is the day when the days start to get longer again, and the sun begins its journey towards the long days of summer.  The birth of Jesus is celebrated at the birthday of the sun, symbolizing new life.  The three days ‘standing still’ of the sun at the solstice can also remind us of Jesus’ three days in the tomb after his death on the cross.  Similarly, the new beginning of the natural year at Christmas is like the new life of Easter marked by the resurrection.  In Australia, this point in the natural cycle, where the days begin to get longer, occurs on June 25, so maybe we should think about Christmas in June.


It can be complicated in Australia to get a sense of how our natural rhythms match our celebrations.  I myself love both Christmas and Easter, mainly because they have such special meaning in terms of Christian faith.  Perhaps I am a little unusual in putting this theological aspect before the popular festivals, but I know I am among friends here.  For me these annual events are our opportunity to reaffirm the central story of human history, that a babe born in Bethlehem was the only Son of God, whose message of love and light and life provides the path for our salvation, and whose death on the cross and rising from the grave shows the triumph of the one living God over all our limited partial views. 


In Australia the traditional symbols of the seasons are turned upside down. Christmas is at the height of summer, at the point where the days start to get shorter, and Easter is in mid autumn, at the point where the night becomes longer than the day.  It is a bit like the way for us the sun goes anti-clockwise across the sky, whereas in Europe the direction of the clock was based on the path of the sun.  When we try to match our formal celebrations here with the natural structure of the year we are back to front.


To illustrate how the seasons are an important theme in the Bible, I’d like to share with you an idea from the story of the New Jerusalem in Revelation 22.  John tells us his vision of the holy city coming down from heaven like a new bride bedecked with jewels.  At the centre of the holy city is the crystal fountain of the water of life, and the tree of life with twelve fruits, one for each month.  None of us know where or when the new Jerusalem will come, which is why Paul tells us to be alert and wakeful in the reading we heard today from his Letter to the Romans.  Anyway, I sometimes imagine the holy city as a castle in the air, like in one of the Star Wars movies.  We don’t know where the holy city will arrive, so it could be located over sea or air, in north or south.  Lets imagine just for arguments sake that the new Jerusalem will be in the southern hemisphere, for example at the exact opposite point on our planet from the old Jerusalem in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.  If this happens, then of course the twelve fruits of the tree of life, one for each month, would have to come into season according to the patterns of the southern hemisphere.  The traditional assumption is probably that the holy city will be in the northern hemisphere, but why should that be?  Perhaps a location at the most isolated point in the world - in the southern hemisphere - would link well with Jesus’ statement in Matthew 24:14 that the gospel would be preached to the ends of the earth before the end would come, and his statement that the last will be first.  Jesus talked about turning things upside down, and for me this means that building our reverse seasons into our theology can help us to understand the paradoxical elements of the Scriptures.


I would like now to turn to how our reading today from Romans 13 refers back to the risen Christ and forward to his return.


Firstly, may I say how very special Paul’s Letter to the Romans has been for me in the formation of my own faith.  In my younger days when I was studying at University I confess I went through periods when I was quite arrogant and skeptical about religion.  I have always been deeply interested in science, logic and reason, and for some time I felt these were incompatible with Christianity.  I still can’t accept beliefs that have been proven impossible by science, and I still think it is essential that our beliefs should be logical.  However, reading Romans was the thing that helped me to see that Christianity can be entirely compatible with logic, and that the arrogance of the secular scientific worldview leaves out central parts of our human story.  For example, I used to think that the resurrection was incompatible with science, but now, having thought about the way Paul presents it in Romans, I am open to the possibility that there was something unique about Jesus Christ that actually enabled him to triumph over the grave.


In Romans, Paul’s powerful and clear intellect provides a compelling explanation of why the cross of Christ and the love of God must be central to our understanding of meaning and ethics.  I first read Paul’s letter to the Romans when I was writing a philosophy essay at University on ecology and Christianity.  My initial goal was to say that the church has had a negative impact on our understanding of the environment, but I ended up with quite a different perspective.  In my research I happened to come across the saying in Romans 8:21 that the creation shall be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God.  In thinking through the implications of this claim by Paul, I came to a sense of the great truth of faith that our relationship with God is the central grounding issue for our salvation.  Any ecological perspectives, including the themes I have mentioned today about the rhythm of the natural year, need to be placed within this context of grace. As Paul says, we must worship the Creator rather than the creation, and to that I would add that our respect and love for the Creator is made real and deep by seeing how God is revealed in the creation.


Everything Paul writes is suffused by the sense that he is an instrument of the power of God made known through Christ.  This is especially so in our reading today from Romans 13, centred on the statement that love is the fulfilling of the law, and the call to walk in the light.  The risen Christ is the inspiration for these ideas.  Paul is sustained by the transformation that was worked in him by his encounter with the risen Christ on the Damascus road, when he was called to be an apostle and separated from the world to preach the gospel.  For us too, the astounding story of Jesus should be a humbling and empowering inspiration.  In Romans 5:8 Paul expresses his amazement that God has showed his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.  This central act of God in the world provides the foundation of our understanding of the meaning of life, and how we should relate to each other in love. 


Paul goes on in Romans 8 to tell us that those who are in Christ Jesus walk not after the flesh but after the spirit, which is the only source of life, peace and liberty.  It is important that we are not simplistic in our understanding of what Paul means here.  I know that historically parts of the church have had a tendency to identify ‘flesh’ rather broadly with ‘nature’, and to see salvation as requiring an escape from the world.  Against this view, as mentioned earlier Paul himself says, like the Psalmist, that God is revealed in nature.  Similarly, the great statement of John 3:17 tells us that God sent Christ not to condemn the world but to save it. 


When Paul tells us in Romans 13 to make no provision for the flesh, I think it is important to understand that this means our lives and actions should be based on a broader view of what is pleasing to God, rather than on meeting our individual selfish desires in isolation.  As I said earlier, the cross shows that God will triumph over all limited partial views.  In Jesus’ day, the Roman Empire was the prime example of how limited partial views put the creature before the creator and mocked God by worshiping idols.  I think this idolatry still happens today, especially in the way some in our society encourage us to be selfish and pleasure seeking.  When Paul says in Romans 1:16 that he is not ashamed of the gospel of Christ he sends a powerful message to us today, as we all know those who walk after the flesh are unwilling to honestly confront the humble power of God in Christ.


So once again, Romans 13.  Following the Risen Lord, Paul tells us to love our neighbour as ourself, to cast off the works of darkness and walk decently as though it were already day.  The theologian Karl Barth wrote a commentary on the Epistle to the Romans in which he describes the text we heard this morning as ‘the great positive possibility’.  I will conclude now with some of Barth’s comments.  The central theme of our text is love.  Barth says “we define love as the great positive possibility because in it there is brought to light the revolutionary aspect of all ethical behaviour, and because it is truloy concerned with the denial and breaking up of the existing order.  Love is the outpouring of the spirit, the reality by which we know God.  Love your neighbour.  Other people remind us of our own createdness, our own lost state, our own sin, and our own death.  Do we, in other people, hear the voice of the One?  In Christ, the turning point from question to answer, from death to life, I am not only one with God, but, because one with God, one also with the neighbour.  Love is always the disclosing of the one in the other.  Expecting nothing, love has reached the goal already.  Because it sets up no idol, love demolishes every idol, addressing itself without fear of contradiction to the one true God.  This relentless, impelling earnestness of the command of love is why Paul tells us love is the fulfilling of the law.  To love is to have been touched by the freedom of God.  In this great positive possibility we relate time to eternity, pointing to the victory which has occurred, does occur and will occur in Christ.”  Amen


Paul tells us that our love of neighbour and our faith in God require us to wake from sleep.  Let us now join in celebration of this call by singing the hymn from JS Bach, Sleepers Wake.