In your resurrection, O Christ, let heaven and earth rejoice. Alleluia.
These days and weeks after Easter, have you noticed? We are bathed in a different light.
As I drove South West through England on Friday, I was filled with delight at this time of the year. The colour: a riotous range of greens, yellows and white. The shimmer of moisture in the air; the soft, intense light. I was reminded again of Gerard Manley Hopkins, the poet who walked and noticed, who wrote of the thrill of a world charged with the grandeur of God; how nature is never spent; of the dearest freshness deep down things, and how the Holy Ghost broods with warm breast and bright wings.
This experience of life, abundant life – surging all around us in colour and vibrancy like a Stanley Spencer painting – shows us the Resurrection life in which heaven and earth rejoice. The life to which we are born, and in which we continue to live and move and have our being. We find ourselves in the garden in which life began, in which Mary found the risen Christ. The natural world sings the glory of God, now as then, and eternally. It shapes our desires; breaks our heart and remakes us.
It inspires poets, painters, writers. C S Lewis described it like this in The Voyage of the Dawntreader. Caspian and the children are at the end of the world.
And when the third day dawned … they saw a wonder ahead. It was as if a wall stood up between them and the sky, a greenish-grey, shimmering, trembling wall …
This was the frontier between Narnia and Aslan’s country, a potent boundary between our desire and the fulfilment of desire.
Edmund and Eustace would never talk about it afterwards. Lucy could only say, “It would break your heart.” “Why?” said I, “Was it so sad?” “Sad!! No,” said Lucy.
It would break your heart.
St Augustine, too. He knew this light too. He wrote in his Confessions:
There my soul is bathed in light that is not bound by space; when it listens to sound that never dies away; when it breathes fragrance that is not borne away on the wind; when it tastes food that is never consumed by the eating; when it clings to an embrace from which it is not severed by fulfilment of desire. That is what I love when I love my God.
This time of Easter – for of course, Easter is with us until the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost – This time of Easter is suffused with grace. It is a time of blessedness.
It is a time to think of angels, of the Holy Spirit. Of all life pulsating with God’s blessing.
It is a time, as Augustine did, to consider our desires, the dearest deep down desires, and how best to respond.
The encounter between Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch is a strange encounter, full of longing and response, of grace and blessing.
An angel visits Philip. He knows – as perhaps you have done – that angels must be obeyed. He goes immediately to the road between Jerusalem and Gaza, out into the wild country. There he finds a court official of Candace, the queen of the Ethiopians. Imagine him, sitting there, reading in his chariot as the horses are watered. The man, black, beautiful; dressed in resplendent robes. Sonorous as he sounds aloud the words of the prophet.
‘Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter,
and like a lamb silent before its shearer,
so he does not open his mouth.
It would not have been strange for the Ethiopian to read aloud the words of Isaiah. In those days the normal way to read was out aloud. The man sits there reading, with his heart aflame with unarticulated longing.
Philip asks him if he understands, and conversation begins; a time of teaching about how the prophet Isaiah anticipated Jesus, the suffering saviour. A conversation that addresses the longing desire, and leads to baptism.
The Ethiopian commands the chariot to stop, and both plunge down deep into the cool, green water. Philip declares the words: ‘I baptise you, in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit’. He is snatched away by the Spirit, and the Ethiopian continues his journey, changed for ever by this encounter, born into the grace of the Resurrection life.
Easter reminds us who follow Christ that baptism brings us to birth in grace. We live the Resurrection life, just as the Ethiopian did. We are there already; the desires of our hearts broken and made whole again and again as we hear the Word, the Logos calling to us, calling us towards the future, in God’s love. Towards, as St Augustine says, the everlasting embrace that is not severed by fulfilment, as lesser desire is.
We hear God’s call in our lives as the Ethiopian did. So often, like him, we don’t understand. All we have is this nagging, yearning for something else, something more to life. We can’t put words to it, but it’s there, prompting and urging us towards we know not what. Then someone comes, like Philip, prompted by an angel, and helps us to articulate the meaning. Often, then, our life is changed for ever. The word came alive in the Ethiopian. Baptism began the work of grace in him, filling his life with blessing. As it comes alive for us today, our baptism is at work. Just as the world is charged with the grandeur of God, the ordinary becomes extraordinary. The dearest freshness deep down things shines around. We, like the Ethiopian, live our baptism in the new life of the Resurrection.
I had a conversation this week with Maddy. She sings in a choir of twenty and thirty year olds formed out of love of the Anglican Choral Tradition. I was preaching at their church in London, and over supper afterwards, she told me she thought God was calling her. She experienced it as fullness: her life was full in a way she found hard to describe. She looked at blossom on a tree and her heart swelled with thankfulness. She felt the rain on her face, and smiled with the indescribable gentleness. She sang and breathed in more than air. She loved her job, but thought she had more to give, and that God was calling her to be a priest. For her, it meant following a desire for that fullness of life. A desire that urged her to share the abundance she felt with others. She wanted to give of herself that others might live.
Jesus says, in the Gospel for today:
If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.
To live the Resurrected life is to know ourselves surrounded by the grace of God – sight, fragrance, light, embrace. It is to hear the word of the Lord calling us to abide in him as he abides in us. Rooted and grafted into Christ, the true vine, we then bear fruit, fruit that will last.
This passage tells us it is not always easy, to follow Christ, and bear Christ’s fruit. Our desires will need to be pruned and shaped. We will live through suffering and pain. Did you notice that the passage that the Ethiopian read aloud was Isaiah speaking of Christ’s passion? We too will be like sheep led to slaughter. We too will experience humiliation. Will share in Christ’s death. We will know rejection, and grief. Baptism is through the deep waters of death.
When we abide in the vine, though, that rejection and pain is part of a greater story that gives meaning to suffering. Behind all words and experience we may endure there is God’s purpose which is life; the eternal life in which we abide. In which we are fruitful, even in our suffering and pain. The Resurrection breaks our heart that we may know the life that is stronger than death.
It may be that you hear that voice, as Maddy has done, as the Ethiopian did so many centuries ago, calling you to greater fruitfulness. A calling, a vocation to abide more deeply in God’s love, giving of yourself in service, and in prayer. Perhaps you hear it here, in this wonderful Cathedral. Or it may be, like Philip, you are prompted to say to someone else, I see this in you – is God be calling you in some way?
We live the resurrection life. There are reminders all around us – from the natural world, in the words we hear, the sounds and sights that speak of God’s grace. As the Baptised of Jesus Christ, let us live that life in all its abundance, so we abide in God every minute of every day, basking in that glorious light that calls us into greater, deeper, broader love.
For this is the Love that does not let us go. The love that breaks our heart, that we might know the abundant life of God. A love that turns us outwards, to serve others in prayer and action. To live out our baptismal calling to be the witnesses to Easter today, and for eternity.
In your resurrection, O Christ, let heaven and earth rejoice. Alleluia.