Easter Sunday, globally by far the most important festival in the Christian year, has also become the most variable, with a profusion of religious customs and impressive occasions, most of which represent sincere attempts to demonstrate and celebrate the significance of Jesus’ empty tomb. For most denominations, an Easter Sunday service shape gradually emerges such that the regular church goers find predictable familiarity – both in the words of the oft told stories, and in the expected responses to the message.
I would imagine for example that when Pope Francis concluded his Easter message last year with the words: “may the risen Christ guide all of you and the whole of humanity on the paths of justice, love and peace” that Protestants and Catholics alike would have almost expected those sentiments and would have been more than happy to say Amen.
But whether such sentiments came from a Pope or a Protestant Archbishop, that could never be the last word on the subject. Our real challenge comes when we ask ourselves the next question: “Now, how is that going to happen?”
With some trepidation I would like to suggest that, no matter how entrenched our Easter Day celebrations have become, and no matter how well prepared and competently led our services might be, this in no way excuses us from working out our personal response to the Easter message.
Please note this is not insisting we reconsider the evidence either for or against a literal resurrection. Certainly that is an issue on which, sooner or later, we will probably reach our own conclusions and there are plenty of accessible books and articles summarising the main arguments for and against. Yet regardless of how literally we are expected to take the story of the resurrection, the real issue is whether or not we intend to do anything with the story at a personal and practical level.
I will try to explain by reworking a point made by the current Archbishop of Canterbury in an Easter sermon when he referred to a recent survey in the then recent news in which it was reported “that only 40% of churchgoers are convinced that the new Archbishop of Canterbury can resolve the problems of the Church of England,”. Despite his obvious gifts, Justin Welby spotted the futility of the tested proposition and we should particularly note his comment in response. I quote:
“I do hope that means the other 60% thought the idea so barking mad that they did not answer the question.”
I suspect if the survey question had been reframed to read: “Do you believe that Jesus of the first Easter could resolve the current problems that beset his church and his world today?” regardless of how strongly we believe (or disbelieve) in resurrection we should probably admit if the Archbishop of Canterbury were consistent, he would have a perfect right to label this question also as “barking mad”.
Despite the best efforts of dictators and power hungry leaders of all persuasions, history teaches that humans are not automatons, to remain totally controlled as puppets. Among most who have attempted to follow the teachings of Christ through the centuries there has been a real mix of saints and sinners, and I suspect that most of us remain a complex mixture of the two. Indeed if we were automatons there would have been no point in Jesus inviting us to consider moral principles, since as puppets we could have been controlled by a resurrected Jesus playing us as if we were some kind of global or even cosmic computer game.
It is not up to Jesus to direct our responses to the very human problems that beset the Church any more than the Pope can produce world peace with a word or Archbishop Justin Welby can solve the current dilemmas of the Anglican Church without corresponding buy-in from their respective followers. What however I suggest we should do as a minimum, is decide how our current actions reflect the essence of what we believe Jesus was really about.
As I remember basic high school science, I recall that one of the seven basic signs of life is movement. When we talk about Jesus being alive for us, this is very different from signing up to a Church where there is no discernible movement of ideas and where the customs and beliefs are rigid and ossified in a pattern designed for a previous generation and different circumstances.
Even at the time of the first Easter, there were few certainties to fall back on. Given that Jesus’ early disciples would have been hurt and even confused by his crucifixion, and given that there was no formal or timely evidence gathering following the crucifixion we can hardly be surprised that by the time the varying versions of the story were recorded, uncertainty remained. With only four of something approaching 30 Gospels surviving the final selection of books in the New Testament, we only see some of the options that those first disciples were offered. A further complication is that of some very obvious editing of the Easter story. For example the last nine verses of Mark were added years after the original was written and the oldest copies of that gospel show the earlier ending.
The best of modern commentators are probably no more of a single mind than the first disciples on the scene. There is a vast difference between those like Bishop Tom (N.T.) Wright who might be seen as representing mainstream evangelical teaching which gives credence to the physical resurrection of Jesus and that of Professor Emeritus Lloyd Geering who makes a persuasive case for Jesus only being resurrected in a metaphorical sense. Although I would class myself amongst the progressive camp in my personal interpretation, and while I cannot be certain what the resurrection means in terms of physical life, the characteristics of the early Church showed a Spirit very much alive as those first Christians sorted out their beliefs and tried to adapt to a rapidly changing geopolitical situation.
Like the earlier Jewish prophets who railed against a faith designed for a previous generation, the early Church leaders had to fashion their set of beliefs to fit with their experience and recent memories. There was movement alright and some of it most uncomfortable. Look at the history of those very first Christians as they tried to come to terms with a society that neither welcomed nor even recognised their insights. There was constant movement as the creeds were fashioned and refashioned, and as difficult philosophic concepts like the Trinity were explained and re-explained.
Some of the refashioning probably came about as the Gospel writers looked back and came up with their individual views of Jesus. In the book The God We Never Knew, Marcus J. Borg writes:
How do we reconcile the two different images of Jesus, the historical figure that did once live and walk and preach and died a horrible death and the Christ the God incarnate and saviour?
He suggests that we divide our view of Jesus into two. The first is the pre-Easter Jesus, the historical Jesus of blood and flesh, a wisdom teacher who walked Galilee and who was crucified by the Romans for being a potential rebel leader who was a threat to the local community’s traditional faith, and to Roman notions of law and order. The other the post-Easter Jesus is what Jesus became after his death. The post-Easter Jesus is the Jesus of Christian tradition and experience.
Many of us grew up hearing of Jesus mainly as the post-Easter figure: walking on water, feeding the multitude with a few loaves and fishes, Jesus as God incarnate, the Son of God, raising Lazarus from the dead, and himself raised again as a resurrected spirit body.
Is it heresy to suggest our task is to follow and respond to the wisdom he taught rather than stand transfixed in awe at what he has become?
Not everyone welcomes such scholarship and continual questioning as a sign of life. Just as some of the Jewish leaders voiced strong objection when Jesus assumed a prophetic voice to show how the old faith had become too rigid to deal with the changes being experienced by occupied Palestine, others would later protest each change and each sign of questioning or reform in the early Christian Church. Later persecution of those who questioned rigid assertions, the burning or torture of Church reformers, the martyrdom of the first Bible translators and a strong reluctance to have Jesus’ principles of forgiveness and love of neighbour accepted as a blueprint for action showed not all wanted to recognise openness to change as a sign of life.
The previous Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams once claimed that we make a genuine mistake if we assume that change can only be associated with the early church in the sense of those first Christians. Each generation faces its own new situations and challenges and in at least one sense, Jesus is not alive unless we allow him to be alive for us in our adaption to change. In the sense that we all come to the faith for the first time, and that we all have to struggle to find meaning for that faith in a changing society, Rowan Williams suggests we should all see ourselves as early Christians.
I suggested earlier that prominent scholars outline very different possibilities for what happened to Jesus after his body was removed from the cross. Just as the first disciples had different experiences and different witnesses to interview, if we are true to the notion of awakening to a living faith, I want to go further and suggest it doesn’t matter if we come to different conclusions, providing we never get to the point where we assume we now know all there is to know about what might yet turn out to be unknowable. More to the point, rather than argue the toss about whose image of Jesus is best, why not start with our current image and start to live accordingly.
In the last analysis, the unquestioning acceptance of a series of belief statements risks being not so much faith as a cop-out living on the assumption that others should do our thinking for us. Faith, if it is honest, must be tested against our realities. Remember that the early church is simply a way of describing those who were prepared to explore and develop their faith for their highly individual changing situations. Will we in our response to the first Easter be recognised as having the best characteristics of the early Christians?