Preacher Revd Neil Summers
On the third day he rose again: a familiar phrase from our creeds. The question many a sceptic might ask in a more rationalist and secular age is: did it actually happen? Are the records reliable, especially since some of the details of Jesus’ resurrection in the Gospel accounts appear to contradict one another? Christianity was born in whatever the experience of that Easter moment was. The teaching of Jesus would never have spread, the church would never have existed, the Bible would never have been compiled, and we would not be where we are this Easter morning, were it not for the fact that, somehow, Jesus rose again on the third day. If there was no ultimate reality in that experience, then, as St. Paul asserted, ‘our faith is in vain.’
Incredibly, it’s about three decades since David Jenkins, then Bishop of Durham, shocked the establishment – figures within the Conservative government of the day, and the church – by declaring that a literal belief in the virgin birth and the resurrection of Jesus was not a prerequisite for being a Christian. Many of you will remember the controversy. A thunderbolt which hit York Minster – where the bishop was consecrated – was thought by some to be a sign of divine displeasure with a bishop who, it seemed, could not subscribe to scripture and creed as literal truth. Of course, what Jenkins actually said was that he was convinced that it is impossible to be certain when it comes to matters of faith. What he was sure about, however, is that those Christians who claim certainties based solely on a literal approach to scripture or church tradition are mistaken. His own view was that the resurrection – which he did firmly believe in – was not a one-off single miracle, but rather a continuing series of encounters with Jesus on the part of many characters mentioned in scripture – Peter, James, John, Mary, Thomas, the disciples on the road to Emmaus, and many others – the cumulative effect of which was to convince the disciples and their companions – who, remember, had seen Jesus dead and knew that he was buried – that that was not the end of him. 2000 years on, whatever our view, we can all vouch for that. For we, along with millions of others throughout the world, come today to celebrate the living Jesus.
The two great themes of the Gospel accounts of the resurrection are the absence of Jesus’ body where it should be (in the tomb), and the presence of Jesus’ body where it is not expected to be (in the garden, in the upper room, in Galilee, on a hill, on the seashore, on the road to Emmaus.) All the diverse stories of what happened that first Easter seem to point to the same thing. Jesus meets people in places where he had met them before his death. There is no suggestion that the crucifixion was some big mistake, or that the past suddenly didn’t matter, or could be disowned. Quite the opposite, for the risen Jesus still bears the marks of his passion and death. The resurrection stories tell us about the continuity of Jesus’ risen life with his ministry and passion. They tell us, too, about the continuity of his followers’ experience. Jesus appears among his friends in the upper room, where he had broken bread with them. To some, he appears in a garden, perhaps the garden where he had been betrayed. He is found walking alongside others on their way out of Jerusalem. Another story tells us of his appearance at the lakeside in Galilee, the scene of so many episodes in his life. Now, we could speculate until the cows come home about whether this was a physical resurrection, or a spiritual one, or something we cannot explain at all. We can’t produce a dead body or a risen body for Jesus. All we have are texts that tell us of the ways in which Jesus is both ‘here’ and ‘not here’, texts that point to the divine freedom of Jesus after his death. He is not a corpse, not even a resuscitated corpse. He is free to make his body present among his closest followers, in the face of strangers, in the life of the community, in the bread of his supper. Just like the stunned disbelief and even fear with which Mark ends his Gospel account of the resurrection, we struggle to find words that can adequately contain what we believe and what we experience. The scriptures and the creeds are attempts to do precisely that, but we know – or we ought to know – that even these are imperfect vehicles. Words can only do their job if they persuade us to look beyond them, into the empty tomb, to see for ourselves.
The question, ‘Do you believe in the physical resurrection of Christ?’ might not be the best one to ask. As we discussed in our Lent study groups this year, a person’s ‘soundness’ in doctrine or faith can’t be reduced to subscribing to a line in the creed, or even one of the Gospel accounts of the first Easter. The real question has to be: what difference does the death of Jesus, and his resurrection on this first day of the week, make to our lives? Whatever we say about Easter, one thing is for sure: because of the resurrection, things can never be the same again. Easter means taking a fresh look at ourselves, other people, the church and the world. It can be easy to recite the creed, and not let the eternal truths it seeks to point to impact on our lives at all. Words can very often come easy. It’s tempting to want to celebrate Jesus’ resurrection this morning, but still go on with the same presuppositions and habits that we’ve always lived with. But the reality of resurrection disturbs our perceived comfort and security. The risen Jesus makes demands of us, and we never know just where we may encounter him next. Perhaps that is why we sometimes feel a need to try to ‘explain’ the resurrection. It’s an attempt to control it. Our explanations are the way we, like Mary Magdalene, try to ‘hold on’ to Jesus. But Jesus refused her, and he refuses to let us hold on. He just will not submit to our ‘explanations’ of the resurrection. For, as our Easter scriptures make clear, we cannot explain the resurrection. Rather, the resurrection explains us. For if God did not raise Jesus on the third day, then our existence as church, and the fact that we gather together to celebrate Easter, both become unintelligible.
It’s worth reminding ourselves that the earliest reference we have in the Bible to the resurrection doesn’t come from the Gospels, but from Paul, who tells us that Jesus appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve, then to more than 500 witnesses, most of whom were still alive at the time the account was written, then to James, then to all the apostles and, last of all, to Paul himself. This is the miracle we celebrate on Easter Day. Resurrection becomes a reality in our own personal history and experience, as it was in Paul’s. What happened to him was that his heart, his mind and his subsequent life were changed for good. From being a persecutor of Christians, he became the faith’s greatest defender and advocate, and no one was more surprised about that than the man himself. This is the real fact of resurrection. It isn’t a written proposal we sign up to, but a living reality which reshapes and redirects our lives.
So, there are two resurrections, but only one of them is available to us. The first is the original event, that ‘Big Bang’ that ignited the Christian movement. Seeking a literal explanation for that is, to my mind, interesting, though ultimately futile. The second is the continuing impact of Jesus on history. And that is up to those of us who dare to name themselves after him – to Christians. The interesting thing about the resurrection is not what was claimed, but who made the claim. The people who had deserted Jesus in fear and fled from his dying, somewhere found the courage to proclaim the meaning of his life. It could be said that that transformation – that turnaround – is what we mean by resurrection.
Risen life in and with Jesus is now entirely fresh, full of what we could never have foreseen or planned. Undoubtedly, our encounter with the risen Jesus will potentially lead us to places we have never been before, in our thoughts, our attitudes and our imaginations. Yet because he also meets us in places familiar to our experience – our gardens, upper rooms, the roads we travel on, by our lakesides – it means that our new life in Christ does not mean the abandonment of all that has gone before. For we, too, carry with us the marks of our own passions, sufferings, and deaths. The difference Easter makes is that the messiness of our past – the mistakes, regrets, sorrows, the haunting memories, the ways we have crucified each other – and ourselves – now have the potential for healing and transfiguration. Belief in resurrection means we have to commit ourselves to the possibility of transformation in ourselves, our society, the church, and the world. I close with this prayer which sets the disciples’ experience in the upper room in the context of our daily lives. Lord, come alive within my experience, within my sorrows and disappointments and doubts, within the ordinary moments of my life. Come alive as the peace and joy and assurance that is stronger than the locked doors within, with which we try to shut out life. Come alive as the peace and joy and assurance that nothing in life or death can kill. Amen.
The good news of this Easter Day is that the Lord is risen. He is risen indeed. Alleluia! There, you’ve said it: now go and live it!