Reading Luke 24.36b-48
Preacher Canon Robert Titley
People are still talking about it. The Passion Richmond made quite an impression and everyone is saying we should do it again. But when? Suggestions vary from five years’ time to next year. Let me know what you think. Staging street theatre a about Jesus threw up interesting questions, like where to end. The purist in me said that, as the play was on Good Friday, we should end the story on Good Friday, with the death of Jesus. But if we did, however boldly we said To Be Continued, even if we ended with the EastEnders drum roll, how many of the crowd would come to church on the Sunday to hear that happened next? So we decided to go on to the resurrection.
But how do you portray the resurrection on the streets of TW9 – and with no special effects? The Easter stories – we get one today – the appearances of the risen Jesus, are bewildering. They strain the language of the writers so much that it’s hard to grasp what’s going on. To see what I mean, have a look at a Bible when you get home. Flip from the end of one gospel to the end of the next, and what you find is confusing. Sometimes the disciples recognise the risen Jesus, sometimes they don’t. He seems to appear then vanish – in our story today they think they’ve seen a ghost – yet in the same story he also seems very flesh-and-blood: he even eats a piece of fish.
How could such stories come about? Even if you are a sceptic and think they are largely literary creations, you have to ask what experience could have given rise to them. What made people write in this way, offering us stories that are without parallel in the literature of the time?
It’s not that Jewish people didn’t believe in resurrection. Most of them did, but they believed it would be for everyone, and in the future, when God gloriously intervened to sort the world out. When Jesus first arrived, it had looked to some as though this might be it. They weren’t sure but the things he said and did, the way he went about teaching and healing and forgiving, all that did suggest that God’s glorious future might be arriving. So was he the one? Well no, obviously, when he got executed and joined the ignominious roll of men who had set themselves up as saviours of the nation and had died trying.
And then it happened. Easter. No glorious future for the world – all the bad guys were still on their thrones and in their plush offices, pain and sickness continued to do a brisk trade – yet something convinced them that Jesus had been raised from the dead. Not everyone, just him; and not at the end of history as they knew it but right in the middle. How to make sense of this? It took the giant mind of St Paul to reshape their hopes: Paul said that what he called the new creation had begun in Jesus – but had not yet ended. John the Divine’s vision on the last page of the Bible (Revelation 21.1-4) pictures this hope, with the new Jerusalem coming down out of heaven.
That was nearly two millennia ago. What are we to make of this new creation idea now? Even in the New Testament period some began to doubt. One writer tells us how some are saying, ‘Where is the promise of his coming? for since the fathers fell asleep, all things continue as they were from the beginning of the creation’(2 Peter 3.4). What we have generally done is quietly to abandon it, and certainly not to talk about it, except perhaps in terms of life after death, which we conceive in narrow individual terms, and we tend not to talk about that much either. Why? For one thing, we are now suspicious of utopias. Stalin’s Soviet Union, Mao’s China and its cut-price version in North Korea tried to force the new creation, with terrible results. These and other things have made us shy of talking about the new Jerusalem.
In Ken Loach’s 2013 film The Spirit of ‘45 we get glimpses of the years of the reforming post-war government of Clement Attlee and then of Mrs Thatcher’s governments from 1979. The trailer ends with evocative seventy-year-old footage over a brass band rendition of Jerusalem, a hymn which draws on Revelation’s language of the new creation, but the film seems to acknowledge that that spirit is not among us now. In the present election campaign David Cameron has set out a plan to help people ‘from cradle to grave’ – a very ‘45 phrase – but he has described it as the promise not of a ‘new Jerusalem’ but of a ‘good life’: a sunny 70s sitcom rather than a prophetic vision. Less St John the Divine, more Dame Penelope Keith.
So what do we do with the visions or John or Paul? What do we do with the story Luke offers us this morning? Yesterday two of us spent some time looking at heaven. It was a study day organised by St Mary’s in Mortlake with biblical scholar and wonderful communicator Paula Gooder. She took us through all the hopes of heaven in the Old Testament and the New. You don’t have to agree with Paul, she said, but you need to understand what he was saying. But what, she said, if he was basically right? What if the resurrection of Jesus did begin a new creation?
Well, yes. What if these bewildering Easter stories are the flickering images of that new creation, appearing in the middle of the old? What if you and I are living simultaneously in two time frames, the one we all know – birth, growing, decaying, death – and another that we have not quite woken up to yet, that Jesus inaugurated and that is bounded not by death but by eternity?
Paula said that while her book Heaven was printing, her best friend died. She was very young and had two children – utterly horrible. Paula was with her when she died, and said that – just for an instant – it was as if a veil parted and she glimpsed some blossoming greatness; and then it closed again. What Paula was describing was not some hazy hope of ‘going to a better place’. Rather it was something to be known in this life, but which this life cannot contain. And it was not just a private thing: it put everything in a new light. When you pray The Lord’s Prayer, she said – ‘your will be done on earth as in heaven’ – do you really want that? It means a lot has to change.
To be an Easter people, as St Augustine called us, is to learn to live by two clocks, and in the big moments of life to pay more attention to one than the other. What might that look like for a whole church? That’s something to have in mind as we prepare for the Annual Meeting next Sunday. And what might it look like in one human life? That’s something to have in mind as we each come up to receive communion or a blessing – a moment to ask, ‘Open my mind to understand, Lord, as you did with the disciples that first Easter Day.’