The Horse Chestnut tree from the north

SERMON: If Good Friday has arrived for the tree, Easter Day has arrived for the West Front!

A sermon preached at St Mary’s Iffley
by Andrew McKearney on 10 September 2017

On Monday and Tuesday this week the magnificent Horse Chestnut tree is finally to be felled. 18 months ago it was severely pruned in the hope of a recovery, but that’s clearly not come to anything and it’s been decided to take the tree down.

That tree has presided over the entrance to this churchyard for nearly 200 years. Since hearing of the decision last week, I’ve begun to wonder what comes next. And I’ve noticed a sense of anticipation in me as to what it will now look like as you come to church.

What new things will we appreciate that we don’t see now? Will the view open up to enable us to see the church in a way that we never could before?

So before immediately replacing the tree with another I for one would like to live with the absence, have time to grieve for the old tree, and perhaps have my eyes opened to new things that I hadn’t seen before.

Remember how in the Christian story, Holy Saturday comes between Good Friday and Easter Day. Holy Saturday is a time of waiting, staying with the sense of loss, mourning, and giving space and time for something new and perhaps quite unexpected to appear.

Of course the site hut and the outside toilet will have to be removed first! But while they will be with us for a little while longer, the scaffolding won’t. Once the tree is felled the scaffolding will then come down to reveal the new face of the West Front!

Some of us may have gone up the scaffolding yesterday and got a sense of how it will look, but for most of us this will be a surprise – an Easter moment! And as with all Easter moments in our lives there may be some bewilderment, perhaps a sense of loss for the old, alongside an excitement at the new.

So coming to church with the Horse Chestnut tree no longer being by the gate; walking down the church path and viewing the newly conserved West Front; all this may feel quite different for a while. I’ll come back to this in a moment.

Our two New Testament readings this morning are the fruit of the first Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter Day.

No gospel would have ever been written, no Saul converted to Paul and no New Testament ever put together if those momentous three days had not taken place.

What was brought to birth was something quite unexpected – a new community of faith who thought of themselves as the Easter people, alive with a new type of life and pushing language to breaking point to express what they thought was going on.

Our first/second reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans was written about 20 years after the first Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter Day, probably in the mid 50s A.D. The new life that was by then being lived has a clear outline – it is committed to the primacy of love; turning your back on the works of darkness, debauchery and licentiousness; and putting on the armour of light.

Some of the language used by Saint Paul of course draws on what was available to him at the time, but otherphrases and ideas are quite new and without parallel. For instance the very last phrase used by Saint Paul: ‘Put on the Lord Jesus Christ’. It’s an extraordinary idea! What does Saint Paul mean by it? How can you put a dead person on you? This only makes sense in the context of the death and resurrection of Christ. But this language is being used just 20 years after that happened! It’s remarkable.

Saint Matthew’s Gospel was written a little later than the letter to the Romans, probably around 90 A.D. – so about 40 years after Paul’s letter and 60 or so years after the first Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter Day. Our reading from Matthew is part of a block of teaching in chapter 18 about life in the Church, and in particular it addresses relations between Christians.

Many of the ideas here too are not new. But again it’s the very last phrase used that makes the hairs on the back of my neck tingle: ‘Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.’ It’s an extraordinary thing to say; and only makes sense in the context of the death and resurrection of Christ.

In fact this is something of a theme in Matthew’s writing.

That if you want to know where the risen Christ is, Matthew locates his presence not in heaven seated at the right hand of the Father, as we say in the Creed, but very much here and with us now. Mathew’s gospel ends with the promise: ‘And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’

The little phrase about ‘two or three gathering’ does have its parallels in rabbinic teaching: ‘If two sit together and words of the Law pass between them, the divine presence abides between them.’ But notice what’s changed; the gathering is in Christ’s name and the divine presence now bears the face of Christ!

So you can see how the force of the resurrection, the new life that burst from the tomb resulted not only in a new type of life being lived out in the early Church but also in a new language being formed. The new life was marked by love and forgiveness. And it was experienced with such intensity that both Saint Paul and Saint Matthew use a new type of language to try and convey what it is all about.

‘Put on the Lord Jesus Christ’ writes Saint Paul.

‘Where two or three gather in my name, I am there among them’ writes Saint Matthew.

Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter Day, this is the fundamental Christian pattern of life – it’s sometimes referred to as the Paschal mystery.

It shaped the life of the early Church, it shapes each of our own lives and it’s even being played out in some small way in the things that are happening here this week, with both the Horse Chestnut tree and the scaffolding coming down.

If Good Friday has arrived for the tree, Easter Day has arrived for the West Front!