14 April 2003

Methodist President reflects on the contradictions of Easter

The President of the Methodist Conference, the Rev Ian White, yesterday preached at Palm Sunday Evensong at Westminster Abbey. His sermon included the following Easter message:

"Easter is a time of great contradictions. If we look at the gospel of Mark, we see these contradictions in the message behind Jesus' parable of the stewards in the vineyard.

In the days of Jesus, it was not unusual for owners to be absent landlords. But in the parable there is a new element - a twist whereby the owner sends his heir rather than more slaves. In the currency of the day, slaves were expendable, but the son was not. Here the owner's act was unusual - a contradiction of normal practice. Jesus makes a link with his own story as the son of God. Imagine the minds of the leaders of the day as the point of the story begins to dawn on them.

Jesus brought three types of contradiction - those of expectation, understanding and outcome. These are challenges that become an apparent first on Palm Sunday and grow during the week leading to Easter.

First, expectation: - imagine a welcome guest who begins to raise issues that you would prefer to be left unmentioned. This is what it was like for the leaders of the day in how they saw Jesus. He did not fit what they had in mind - he turned out to be a Messiah of a different kind. He would change all and challenge all they stood for. This is the contradiction of expectation.

Next, understanding: - in the parable of the stewards, the owner acted unexpectedly in sending his son. The tenants thought they had the upper hand - now all would belong to them. Yet their understanding would be turned on its head. Scripture is full of such incidents - contradiction between the sovereignty of God and the freedom of humanity. This is the contradiction of understanding.

Finally, outcome: - the vineyard owner risks all by sending his son, but even then changes the anticipated outcome. The tenants lost their tenancy. The very concept they rejected became the basis for a new beginning - the cornerstone of the future, the new kingdom. This is the contradiction of outcome.

So Easter is the heart of the story about God's interaction with humankind. It is rife with the contradictions of expectation, understanding and outcome. Palm Sunday and the following days leading toward the arrest, trial and crucifixion of Jesus challenge us as we reflect on God's action through Christ. And then, of course, arrives the final and greatest contradiction on the morning of Easter day.

These are contradictions that are replayed even today. In the midst of a violent world, we seek signs of hope where peace and justice can emerge as speedily as possible. Out of the conflict in Iraq, especially, we must pray earnestly that new life will emerge out of death, that order will come out of chaos, that the hungry will be fed and that world leaders will exercise their responsibilities to heal and rebuild communities caught in the midst of conflict.

This rightly is our response to the Christ who comes to us. For Easter is a contradiction turning despair to hope, death to life, ending into a new beginning. This is the gospel of Christ."

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