Archbishop Thabo Makgoba's sermon, preached at the Easter Vigil at St George’s Cathedral, Cape Town:
Is 55:1-11; Ps 114; Rm 6:3-11; Mk 16:1-8
Alleluia! Christ is Risen! He is risen indeed. Alleluia!
Brothers and Sisters in Christ, we meet this Easter, joining the whole Communion and faithful Christians across the world in singing this acclamation, and celebrating the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Mr Dean, Cathedral staff, clergy, the wardens, lay leaders, choristers, the unsung leaders of our church, and members of the congregation, thank you for all that you are and that you continue to do for God and God's people.
People often speak of the lowest point in something also being potentially the turning point. In my ministry I have often heard alcoholics and recovered drug addicts talk very movingly of having reached rock bottom, and then in desperation and with fear and trembling, taking the first step away from this experience of death, towards a new life and finding this to be a turning point. They talk about the importance and value of Second Chances. By Second Chances, meaning that someone is not giving up on me.
Easter in every sense is about the lowest point becoming the turning point. The hour of failure, the hour in which darkness covers the whole earth, the hour in which the disciple’s dreams of the Kingdom coming into being came crashing down. Yet that low point on that first Easter Sunday morning becomes the turning point. Those close to Jesus would experience this intimately. The disciples on the road back to Emmaus enveloped in sadness would, in the presence of the Risen One, experience their hearts burning within them, and Mary Magdalene in the garden – blinded by her tears – would slowly recognise the Lord and in utter astonishment call him “Master”.
The Resurrection invites those disciples to let go of the things they held onto, the familiar, the old patterns of relating, indeed even the old prejudices. In both instances Jesus invites them to move on, to engage in a different narrative; as indeed he urges us this evening, and to engage in a different way the truth of ourselves, our relationships and our lives together as communities and nations.
In this powerful way, Easter challenges us to look into the places that hold us back from living life abundantly, and to decide to make different choices. The great Scottish-American preacher, Peter Marshall, said: “The stone was rolled away from the entrance not to permit Jesus to come out, but to enable the disciples to enter.”
The Gospel writers make it clear. The grave clothes were folded precisely. They were undisturbed. We are left with the understanding that Jesus could have exited the tomb in a number of ways – he didn’t need to roll the stone away. So Marshall is probably correct: Jesus rolled the stone away so that the disciples, you and I, could enter and face our deepest fears, our disordered histories, our shameful pasts, all the things that hold us in bondage and which disempower us and render us dysfunctional.
When we enter our own everyday tombs, we are faced with a God who has emptied them of the power that holds us in those places. We are faced with a God who sees beyond the tomb to what we can become. The God of turning points.
This Easter, here in South Africa, the God of second chances reminds us that if Easter has taught us anything, certainly as compared to the most recent Easters past, God is not giving up on us and he’s certainly not giving up on South Africa. He has given us a second chance, giving us the opportunity to slow down, even stop, and reflect by asking anew the question: “What kind of South Africa do we want our children and grandchildren to grow up in?”
There has never been a more opportune moment for reflecting on the importance of the New Struggle. Getting a second chance in life is one thing. Using it to make a better life, that’s the trick. To use words of wisdom my father was fond of quoting: “Opportunity dances with those who are already on the dance floor.” We cannot start over. But we can begin now to write a better ending. The past administration trampled on our institutions and values, to the point where we now live in a South Africa that has the same inequality of opportunity, inequality of healthcare, inequality of social services, inequality of education and inequality of service delivery that our grandparents suffered.
Let us resolve never again to allow our government and our leaders to talk us down, to let us down or to keep us down. God can give anyone a second chance and he has given South Africa that opportunity. So my wish for this Easter is that President Ramaphosa and the ANC should see this time as a moment in history to embrace the principles and objectives of the New Struggle – a struggle to which we all should commit: a struggle for equality, a struggle about values and institutions rather than personalities, a struggle to build strong systems which cannot be undermined by one party or person’s whim.
You have often heard me preach from this pulpit at Easter and Christmas about the failings of our government and the need for the New Struggle. But tonight I want to pause and to turn our gaze inwards, and onto ourselves and our church. I cannot stand here with integrity and point to the speck in my neighbour's eye if I don't speak of the log in our own eye.
In the past few weeks, a number of individuals have spoken out, either publicly or privately, to give accounts of being abused in Anglican parishes when they were young boys in the 1970s and 1980s. I cannot pass judgement on these accounts – that can be done only in the proper tribunals, where those accused have the right to defend themselves. And if charges are brought and upheld under church law, I would have to handle any appeals, so I must not pre-judge matters. I also cannot say reliably how widespread abuse may have been in the Church. My impression is that it has involved only a tiny minority of those licensed to minister, but I am still waiting for the Bishops across the Church to notify me of cases brought to their attention.
But no matter how many cases there may have been, we should welcome and embrace the newly-found willingness by some to speak out and we must use it as an opportunity to address the issue.
In recent years we have done a great deal of work on our Canons – our church law – when it comes to disciplinary matters. We have developed comprehensive Pastoral Standards which priests, church workers and office-bearers are required to obey. The Canons make provision for people who are accused of offences – including the specifically-named offences of sexual assault and sexual harassment – to be charged in their Dioceses and, if convicted, to be suspended, deprived of their office or deposed from Holy Orders, which effectively means being expelled as a priest or deacon.
So the structures enabling us to deal with abuse exist. But this is not sufficient. Do people know enough about what the Canons provide? What do we do in cases where the alleged perpetrators have retired and no longer hold licences? What do we do if they have died? What do we do if those abused have left the Church and perhaps converted to another faith? Are the measures in place in church schools adequate and widely enough known? In the past, we have sometimes referred those alleging abuse to the police, in the belief that they have more expertise in investigating cases than we have. But in at least one case, we have learned that the police cannot investigate on the grounds that the case is too old.
Most importantly, what about the survivors of abuse? Whether or not charges are brought in Church or State courts, what is far more important to us as pastors is to address the needs of those who have been abused, to restore their dignity and to bring about holistic and sustainable healing. We don't have to wait for reports from the Dioceses or for answers to the questions I have just asked to take effective action.
To begin with, I have asked the Bishops across the Province to appoint multi-disciplinary teams at Diocesan, Archdeaconry and Parish level to help and give guidance to people alleging abuse in parishes, church schools or other institutions. They should include a psychologist, social worker or counsellor; someone who is qualified to give legal advice; a community worker from outside the Church; and the head of the affected entity within the Church.
I am also consulting widely on a more comprehensive and detailed response. This week I had a very productive meeting with the Church's legal advisers. Arising from that, our Canon Law Council will meet representatives of the Safe Church network this month to formulate clearer policy so that we have in place and can publicise a system that is both effective and is seen to be effective for both survivors and alleged perpetrators. One of the matters I have raised is to offer formal Church support for efforts to change the law to ensure that old cases can be dealt with in secular courts.
Our efforts to address abuse should not detract from the fact that the overwhelming majority of clergy and church workers in our Province is comprised of dedicated and caring pastors with a deep commitment to the welfare of all our people. But even one case of abuse is one too many. Those who allege abuse need a place where they can be heard, and those who are accused of abuse need a place where they can be heard.
Every human being deserves to have the dignity bestowed on them by God respected. Anyone who demeans this through any form of abuse demeans themselves and God. As I have said previously, I take responsibility for what has happened in the church in the past and where we have wronged or failed anyone, we beg their forgiveness.
Returning to my Easter message, James Torres, a priest who accompanies gang members in Los Angeles in an intervention programme aimed at helping those trapped in the tombs of drugs, poverty and violence, says, “We see in the homies what they don’t see in themselves until they do.” That is the heart of the Resurrection: God seeing us when we can't see ourselves, and loving us into what God knows we can become if we face who we are and name our tombs.
Greg Boyle, another priest in the same intervention programme, talks about this Resurrection life as not being about quick successes. He adds that he tries to approach “intractable problems with as tender a heart as I can locate, knowing that there is some divine ingenuity here, 'the slow work of God,' that gets done if we’re faithful.” That is the logic of the empty tomb.
Lucy Winkett, formerly a priest at St Paul's Cathedral in London and now Rector of St James in Picadilly, picks up on this transforming power of the Resurrection and sees it at work in silence and in small, often unnoticed, loving gestures. She writes: “Silence is potentially a transfiguring experience when the depths of ourselves are plumbed, when we dare to spend time alone without distraction, where we let God hear the tinnitus of fears and confusions that deafen us in our everyday interactions. Where we take off the mask we wear in front of others and let God see the light and the fire that is deep within us.”
Exploring the love that is at the heart of the Resurrection and how it gently infuses our lives, she says: “Love is potentially transfiguring when we know ourselves to be beautiful in another’s eyes, when a friend is spectacularly kind, when a lover touches us with tenderness, when our family accepts us as we are.” Then we experience Resurrection. With the God of second chances, no one is beyond the power of God's grace.
Mark makes clear in his Gospel that the Resurrection is God's doing when, talking about the stone in front of the tomb, he emphasises the passive voice and says the stone had already been rolled away. God is in charge. Mark adds the description that the stone was very big and thus we are left in no doubt that no matter how great our difficulties, how intractable our problems, how uncertain our future, the Risen Lord stands somewhere in the shadows. Like Mary Magdalene, we too will be surprised to find Him nearer than we thought.
One final thought. The Easter story is not merely a powerful proclamation of new life, it is also a mission that we must accomplish. We must take the new life to every dark place, every oppressive situation, to all exploited people and unjust structures. It is a challenge that is rooted in reading the gospels and indeed the gospel of our own lives from the perspective of the Resurrection. The mandate is to go to Galilee, to the place which is so much a part of the gospel story and to re-read the gospels and the story of our lives through the lens of Resurrection.
The gospels tell us that this new life is a threat to those who wield different types of power. The soldiers were terrified of the consequences of this challenge. The high priests were so concerned that they resorted to bribery in order to suppress the truth. A Nobel Peace laureate once said that it is not power that corrupts but the fear of losing power that often opens the powerful to corruption. We see it in the Easter story and it endures to the present. Little wonder that Clarence W Hall could ponder: “If Easter says anything to us today, it says this: you can put truth in a grave but it won’t stay there. You can nail it to a cross, wrap it up in winding sheets, and shut it up in a tomb, but it will rise!”
God bless you, God bless your family and God bless South Africa. But most importantly, God loves you… and so do I ! Alleluia.