Easter means many different things to many different people. A sign of new life. The defeat of darkness. I like to help our school visitors to remember that the word Easter contains the word East. We look to the East, to the rising Sun, to remember the Son who rises. Or perhaps the word Easter is based on the pagan goddess Eostre (that’s what the 7th century historian Bede believed – although later scholars have debunked him). It is therefore, perhaps, a celebration of the return of the sun, with all the fecundity of new life, celebrated through bunny rabbits and eggs. What do you believe, I wonder?
It turns out that what we believe is a rather subjective thing. And when beliefs clash, things can get pretty dicey, as we’ve seen horrifically this week in Israel, Palestine and Lebanon. What we believe about the death and resurrection of Jesus matters. But in our incredible shrinking world, we are bombarded with competing truth claims.
On Good Friday, during the reading of the St John Passion, we heard how Pilate asked Jesus, philosophically, “what IS truth?”. Even then, 2000 years ago, there were many different truth claims in the world. How shall we peel away the layers of history, myth, belief and story, to arrive at a truth that matters; a truth we can live by?
There are of course a whole range of views about the actual truth of the Resurrection. Frankly, we cannot tackle the sceptics’ questions with anything other than the answer of faith. We were not there, and all we have is the somewhat variable accounts of those who wrote about these events some decades later. What matters most, to all followers of The Way, is not whether or not something happened, but that it happens, still, today (as theologian Rob Bell has memorably said). In others words, all of the stories of Scripture have the power to speak into our lives, right here and right now. There is truth within every story, whether or not it can be scientifically or historically proved.
There is one historical fact on which we can rely – and that’s that the ancients who wrote our Scriptures were much less concerned about literal, historical truth than we tend to be. They were much more concerned with the power of story – its inner power, its deeper truth, its potential to shape and direct our lives. So when the Gospel writers tell us of the death of Jesus, they are pointing to a deeper truth…which is that God died. This is a way of saying there is no situation which God cannot inhabit and embrace. Even in death, God holds us, walks with us, along our human road.
The resurrection story, on the other hand, points us to the rejuvenating potential of all life, in and through God. St Paul used the example of a seed, pointing out that just as Jesus died and then rose, so a seed has to die in the soil before it is transformed into a mighty tree. In doing so, Paul points us to an even deeper reality than the miracle of raising Jesus from the dead.
Paul teaches us a truth that science has since proved to us: the fundamental truth that all matter in God’s universe is constantly in flux, constantly being reshaped and reformed and given new life. Dust from the Big Bang coalesces into stars, from which new elements are then blasted out into space. Those elements get formed into planets, and new suns, from which we and all life finally emerge. Our own bodies, when we’ve finished with them, are absorbed back into the earth, and become nutrients for the creation of new life. One day, science teaches us, our world will be consumed by our Sun, which will then explode into space, and our dust will be gathered by the forces of gravity into a new existence, from which new life can once more emerge.
The even deeper truth of the Resurrection is that as the divine presence behind all the universe, God also transcends creation. He is able to call us beyond creation, into a realm as yet undiscovered by science; the realm we call heaven. Let us not forget, in our quest for truth, that there is a lot that science doesn’t yet know about the Universe. There are hints of particles that can exist in two places at once. There are mysterious theories about multiple universes, or different planes of existence. Did you know that the biggest brains in science believe that 85% of the Universe is filled with something called ‘dark matter’. They call it that, because they have no idea what it is, and they cannot detect it, or see it. They just know dark matter must be there, from their calculations and observations. The deep truth of the resurrection and ascension of Jesus is that people of faith have always sensed, always known deep down, that there is more to life than the dust we can see, even dust which can be regenerated into new life.
The resurrection then, as the infamous David Jenkins, Bishop of Durham once said, is more than a ‘conjuring trick with bones’. It points us to a deeper and more profound reality – the reality that the life God gives to the Universe never stops being created and recreated anew. Out of all deaths comes new life. Life goes on, constantly being reshaped and reborn, and even drawn into new realities, new realms, whatever Death tries to do. And so with St Paul, we can indeed stick out tongues out at death, and cry ‘Where, O Death, is thy sting? Where, O grave is thy victory?’.
This then is the deeper truth of the Resurrection – a truth that goes beyond the sceptical questions we might have about the competing biblical stories. The resurrection shows us Creation, and re-creation, through God’s eternal eyes. Indeed, the whole trajectory of Scripture is that all life, all creation, all re-creation and re-birth finds its culmination in the Divine energy at Creation’s heart, and in the person of Jesus Christ.
For it is before him, as the closing chapters of the Bible declare, that one day every knee will bow. Every tongue will confess that Jesus, the divine man, the God made human who finds his way back to eternity, and draws us with him into the as yet unseen realm of heaven: HE is LORD, and rightly the source of our joy, when we declare….Alleluia...Christ is Risen! He is risen indeed, Alleluia!
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