[Jesus] showed himself to these men after his death, and gave ample proof that he was alive. Acts 1 v3
It’s rarely what you hear in sermons that teaches you most about faith. I was fortunate enough as a boy to be told, as an aside, by an old, retired priest who had been a British Army chaplain in the First World War, that of course he thought that the body of Jesus was still buried in
Palestine . I’d never heard him say this from the pulpit during the Easter or Ascension sermons I’d heard him preach . Perhaps he’d been careful not actually to say anything he didn’t really believe, and I’d just assumed that he accepted as literal truth the whole Easter story . If he hadn’t been honest enough to let me know privately what he really believed, I might well have abandoned the whole Christian church enterprise as hopelessly gullible and primitive. As it was, he said to me in effect: I have lived a long life and seen many things; I may not believe the ancient stories literally but I can see the great and valuable truths expressed in the tradition I received and have handed on. His aside gave me permission to look past debates about its literal truth and ask what Easter says about life around me.
I’m not a brave man; I have never risked my precious life to say something that might get me killed, and it always astonishes me that people ever say such things – astonishes, and thrills, for, given our instinct for self-preservation, this is as real a miracle as you will find. It asserts in the most powerful way possible that the truth everyone thought had been silenced by the killing of its messenger will not go away, that it is in fact greater than the life of any of its messengers and indeed has a life of its own. Had Jesus caved in under pressure and admitted that he was just a mistaken and failed Jew, no doubt his followers would have done the same, for all that they had experienced a rush of relief when he had told them that their ordinary not-very-religious lives were not the disasters they had been taught to think they were. But he didn’t cave in, and in doing so gave his followers the courage to carry on his work. If they, very much as first century Levantines, chose to express this in terms of a physical resurrection of their dead teacher, I don’t have a problem with that, though I don’t feel bound to express it in the same way.
And I certainly don’t want any argument about it to get in the way of keeping on repeating the central truths of the Jesus teaching: that our ordinary lives are not the disasters we have been taught to think they are, that the ability to enrich our lives in the only way that matters is within our grasp, that there is always the possibility of rescuing something valuable from what may appear to be the wreckage of our lives – and that conventional religion may not be the best way to do it. There are no tests to pass; there are no impossible beliefs to accept; there is no rule-book to follow. This indeed is resurrection teaching.
What’s more, it is true, in the sense that if we attune our minds to it we will be able to see lives all around us that demonstrate that anyone who accepts these central truths can have their lives restored. You probably know of such lives, lives which got off to a bad start, or which were blown off course, or which were blighted by misfortune, or which never seemed to quite come to fruition, or which – like St
Paul’s – were founded on constricting religious values; and then, it seems miraculously, the people whose lives they are get it together and begin to lead a new life. Because it is good for us to know of such turnings-around, we want to draw others people’s attention to them. With the women in the Easter story, we want to urge others to come and see for themselves evidence of life where we had thought to find only death, because to know of such cases gives hope and gives courage. This is what resurrection teaching does in lives today, all around us. And this is why Easter matters to us; this is the great and wonderful truth that we can celebrate today using the ancient images to speak to one another of the availability of new life. But there is a job to be done, not only to find that new life for ourselves but also to alert others to its possibility; we will betray the memory and the message of Jesus if we allow arguments about those ancient images to get in the way of that task.