Imagine you were running the Cardiff half-marathon yesterday. You’ve never done it before. Your legs are chronically tired, and you’re only half-way through the course. You doubt you can make it to the finish.But there are crowds lining the route cheering you on… and you overcome your doubts. You push on… and you’ve finished your first half-marathon! Hallellujah!
If we’ve taken Lent seriously, the last six weeks have will have been something of a marathon. But now it’s Easter Day. Hallellujah! Yet at the end of this marathon, we are still left with doubts. In the gospel we’ve just read, someone is missing! We have an empty tomb and a folded linen cloth – but of Jesus himself there’s no sign.
Next Sunday, we’ll read how Jesus appeared to the group of apostles and showed himself to doubting Thomas. But for Easter Sunday, we’re left in doubt and confusion – just like the disciples on the first Easter morning. And perhaps that’s more appropriate for us. Unlike the apostles, we haven’t seen the risen Jesus. Like them, we experience a mixture of faith and doubt.
We doubt because we have intellectual questions about God – if he loves us, why is the world in such a mess?
We doubt because we have mixed feelings about God – does he really love me personally when my life is such a mess?
We doubt because we’ve heard the rumours, but we can’t see the Lord of life with our own eyes.
Yet we’re here on Easter Sunday morning because deep down, we believe. And like the crowds lining the streets yesterday, we’re here to cheer each other on.
Having faith is rather like being in love. There’s a time when lovers keep saying “I love you” through all sorts of romantic words and gestures. Then, when they have formed a family, the lovers get on with the business of sharing a life together and not often explicitly telling each other that they care – it’s understood, but not spelled out. In the same way, once we come to faith in God, God won’t always keep giving us strong signs to keep us believing.
Having faith is like being part of a family. God won’t step in to fix a broken world, just as a loving parent lets a growing teenager go out into the world and make their own mistakes. God simply asks us to honour his family values. We have to keep the faith – and it’s not easy. In fact, the whole Hebrew Bible is the story of how God’s chosen people kept breaking their promises to God despite God rescuing them from Egypt, from enemies, and from exile. The Gospels are the story of how Jesus came to say that our Heavenly Father is not angry, but will have mercy on anyone who breaks with their past sins and asks for a fresh start.
Having faith is a marathon, not a sprint. To get all the way to Heaven, Jesus asks us not to look back but to serve him more faithfully each year. We will get tired, but God promises to renew our strength.
Faith and doubt go together. It’s because we’re surrounded by doubt, that each Easter, we’re invited to renew our baptismal promises. This isn’t meant to be a mere ritual we perform because it’s Easter Sunday. In this computer age it’s all too easy to click “Yes” to the terms and conditions without thinking through what we’re doing. But what we do today needs thought. It’s meant to be a personal and deliberate choice to live our lives God’s way – your promise to me, to one another, and to God.
Promises matter. American Football Coach Bill McCartney, founder of a Christian men’s network called the Promise Keepers, once told a story about how he prepared his team for a crucial match. Each player was asked to reflect on what they were going to do. Then each player had to come, personally, and tell the coach what he intended to do on game day. At the big match, the team played better than anyone expected.* Each player kept his promise.
In a few moments, you’ll be asked to make three promises.
“I renounce Satan.” This is more than repenting of sin. To “renounce” is to say: I want nothing to do with this! I am not only sorry that I gave in to sin when I was tempted; I don’t want that sin to have any lasting hold on me. I will do everything in my power never to fall into sin again!
Don’t believe the lie that you are unforgiveable or that God doesn’t care about you. Our Father in heaven simply wants us to be set free. Will I be a victim or walk in freedom? Will I let the Enemy bully me into not being the best version of myself? Just declaring that we renounce Satan helps us overcome that fear.
Coach McCartney would ask what you’re going to do, to break any ongoing temptation and kick Satan out of your life!
“I believe in God.” To believe is more than a mental exercise of holding an idea in your head. To “believe” is literally “to put your faith in”. Like the Apostles, because we receive Holy Communion, we can declare: “We have eaten and drunk with him after his resurrection from the dead.” With the Apostles, we share in the Great Commission: he ordered us to proclaim that God has appointed Jesus to judge everyone, alive or dead. All who believe in Jesus will have their sins forgiven.
How often will we put our trust in Christ’s command to eat his flesh and drink his blood?
How often will we tell other people that Jesus will forgive anyone who turns to him, but will pass sentence on anyone who dies without asking forgiveness?
Coach McCartney would ask what you’re going to do this year, because you put your trust in Jesus, the Saviour of the world!
“I believe in the Catholic Church.” To put your faith in the Church needs a personal commitment to making this parish the very best that it can be. When most of us turn up for Church every Sunday, our parish becomes strong – we cheer each other on to the finish. When we step forward to volunteer, there will be a rich selection of church events for children and for adults. When we give generously every week, we service our parish debts and help keep our building in good order. This parish is only as strong as what we give to it week in, week out. What will your contribution be?
One more question, though not one the liturgy asks us today. “Do you believe in yourself?” The crowd is only watching you. Your coach believes in you, and wants to give you confidence you can play to win. Our Christian life is not a lonely marathon, but a team sport. If you are on the Lord’s team, you are already on the winning side. Alone you can do nothing, but together we are unstoppable.
Coach McCartney isn’t here. But your Parish Priest believes in you. During the service you will only be asked to renew your baptismal promises. But on the way out, be ready – I might ask you personally what you’re going to do for the team!
* Story taken from page 94 of Unbound by Neil Lozano.