It's a pretty amazing story, isn't it? The idea that someone could rise from the dead? But I wonder whether its a story that we sometimes take a little bit for granted. After all - we've heard it enough times. And after a while, even the most miraculous thing can become common-place. I mean, just think about some of the other miracles that we experience every day. There's the miracle of child-birth. There's the miracle of how when you throw water on it, grass grows. There's the miracle of eating...which is one of my favourite miracles! I mean...just think about it for a moment. I pick up a potato, or a carrot, or an Easter egg, and I eat it. Somehow, through processes of biology that we are only beginning to understand...that dead vegetable or animal matter gets converted into things I need to make me keep living.
The travel writer, Bill Bryson, has some intriuging thoughts in a similar vein. A few years ago, having made enough money from his travel writing, Mr Bryson devoted three years of his life to meeting some of the greatest scientific minds in the world, and learning what he could from them about how the Universe is made. His subsequent book, called "A Short History of Nearly Everything", begins with the following introductory paragraphs:
"Welcome. And congratulations. I am delighted that you could make it. Getting here wasn't easy, I know. In fact, I suspect it was a little tougher than you realise.
To being with, for you to be here now trillions of drifting atoms had somehow to assemble in an intricate and curiously obliging manner to create you. It's an arrangement so specialised and particular that it has never been tried before and will only exist
this once. For the next many years (we hope) these tiny particles will uncomplainingly engage in all the billions of deft, co-operative efforts necessary to keep you intact and let you experience the supremely agreeable but general under-appreciated state known as existence...
It is a slightly arresting notion that if you were to pick yourself apart with tweezers, one atom at a time, you would produce a mound of fine atomic dust, none of which had ever been alive but all of which had once been you...
The bad news is that atoms are fickle, and when the modest milestone of 650,000 hours of life - or thereabouts - has been reached, for reasons unknown your atoms will close you down, then silently disassemble and go off to be other things. And that's it for you." (The above quote has been slightly shortened from the original).
Makes you think doesn't it? Bill Bryson is not, as far as I know, someone who believes in God. But this opening paragraph of his book is one of the greatest adverts for the idea of a Creator that I think I've ever read. Life is a miracle. No one really understands how very much of what we call life happens.
Then, there's the miracle of how Jesus rose from the dead. When you think of all the other miracles that we take for granted - life, eating, childbirth, existence...it is perhaps not such a very big leap to think that God could raise a dead body from the grave.
And yet its such a big miracle, whose story has been told SO often...it has become so familiar to us. But it wasn't always like that...
Greek philosophers (the intellectual leaders of Jesus' time) spent very little mental energy thinking about what happened after death. Their concept of ‘Hades' – the ‘world of the dead' – was a shadowy place of disembodied spirits, a place of sadness and yearning. Jewish teachers, including the Sadducees (whom Jesus often debated with) simply believed that after death came dust, nothing more. ‘Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust'. Nothing more.
So, if we had been living at the time of Jesus, the news that someone had risen from the dead would have been mind-blowing. It would have shattered all that we thought we knew about life, and especially about what happens after life. In fact, according to Matthew's gospel, it wasn't only Jesus who rose from the dead. Matthew relates that after Jesus' resurrection, ‘many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised…they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many.' (Matthew.27:52-53). Can you imagine what that would have been like? Suddenly finding out about the resurrection – hearing stories like this from your neighbours and friends? What would you have thought?
Let's put ourselves in our ancestor's shoes for a moment – to try to understand the impact of the resurrection on them. Life was a very cheap commodity to the ancient world. Fathers had the legal right to kill their children (in certain circumstances). Masters could kill their slaves on a whim. Thousands of people crowded into arenas to watch gladiators murder one another in public – in the name of entertainment. Entire empires, including the Roman and Egyptian empires were built on the premise that life was cheap. You had to be a pharaoh, or an emperor before anyone spent any time worrying about what happened after you died. If you were a Pharoah, hundreds of thousands of slaves might build you a pyramid. But if you were a normal Joe...when you is dead, you is dead.
Now...use your imaginations.... Suddenly into that dismal world-view, the story of the Carpenter from Nazareth who had come back to life started to circulate. It was such exciting news! God had demonstrated, powerfully, that death was not the end. Jesus had put forward a new and entirely radical idea into the world… that physical death is not the end of our relationship with God, or even with each other. Death is not the end of life. Jesus' resurrection proclaimed loud and clear that all life is precious to God.
Thankfully, here in England, life is not treated as cheaply as it was by those ancient empires. But we need to watch out. Picking up any book on 20th Century history, we are quickly reminded of how urgently we need to be on our guard. We remember how disposable life was to the leaders of the two world wars – on all sides. We remember the genocides of the Soviet Union, and the revolutionary years in China. We think of Rwanda and of the ‘killing fields' of Cambodia and Vietnam. We remember the Balkans and Darfur, the Congo and Zimbabwe, Afghanistan and Iraq. We see, horrifically, just how cheap life is to the suicide bomber; and for that matter, how cheap life is to those world leaders who betray their own attitude to human life with the casual words 'collateral damage'.
So the story of resurrection shouts at us across the centuries. It is a divine message of hope. But it is also a divine yardstick against which we are forced to measure the way that we treat life. Through the resurrection, God declares his passion for life – and forces us to ask what our own attitude to the preciousness of life really is.
One way of testing our own attitude to the preciousness of life is to examine where we spend our resources. There are many good and charitable causes that cry out for our attention. What yardstick do we use when we decide to whom we will give our money? After all, it was Jesus who reminded us that ‘ where your treasure is, so will your heart be also.' (Matthew 6:21). Is buying a new computer game really more precious to us than the life of a homeless drug addict? Are those new curtains really more precious to us than the life of a starving African child? Is the preservation of empty stately homes really more important to us than sustaining centres of worship and community in our spiritually dry cities? Of course, we're not saying these purchases – or support – are wrong, but maybe we should consider if they are always at the expense of helping others and more deserving causes. These are tough questions, and uncomfortable questions. They are resurrection questions.
The resurrection has the power to challenge us in other ways to. During the darkest days of the death squads in El Salvador, the church developed a new liturgy (a form of words used in a service). A list of the names of all those who had been ‘disappeared' was read out, and for each name someone from the congregation would respond ‘ Presente ' – ‘Here'. By this simple act, Salvadorian Christians declared their belief in another important resurrection principle. They lived out what the church calls ‘the communion of saints'. That is, put simply, the belief that God is the God of the dead, as well as the living. In fact, the Bible goes a stage further.
In Luke's gospel, Jesus teaches that the dead are anything but dead. He says that God is ‘not the God of the dead, but of the living, for to him all are alive.'Luke 20: 38
For the Christian, therefore, the resurrection message is that all those who have ever lived are ‘presente' to God. So when, in our various Communion liturgies, we say pray ‘with angels and archangels and all the company of Heaven' we are in fact praying ‘with angels and archangels and… and with the butchered of Rwanda, or Iraq, or Afghanistan; we are praying with the young woman who died last night under the Pier after an overdose, and the starving child who died this morning in the deserts of Africa. All are ‘ presente '. The glorious message of the resurrection is that while we might forget these people, God does not. All life is precious to him.
Incidentally, for those who may be concerned that I have not tackled the thorny question of heaven and hell, let me say this: the resurrection story gives us no warrant for arriving at easy conclusions about the ultimate destination of even the most lost of human souls. What it does say, in earth-shattering, tomb-rending terms, is that life is precious to God. All life – ‘for to him all are alive.' The rest we leave to the loving mercy of God.
This is good news. It is resurrection news. It is news that, I hope, will move us to declare again with renewed enthusiasm this Easter that ‘Alleluia! Christ is Risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!'