‘Oh, to be in England
Now that April’s there,’
So, wrote Robert Browning in his poem ‘Home Thoughts from Abroad’. He writes as a homesick traveller longing for the bird song and the blossom which mark the arrival of springtime in his home country. Of course, he could have written the same thing of Wales and now that we have turned the corner into April, I guess, all of us like Browning are hoping for a good spring after a long and at times bitter winter.
We are quick to appreciate new life around us at this time of the year. With lengthening days and stronger sunshine, trees and hedges are bursting into life, birds are nesting, and the barbecues and deckchairs are being dusted down for another season. Over the next few days, we will enjoy eggs in some shape or form. While the ones we eat will either be infertile or chocolate, we know that protected by the shell, in the darkness, the mystery of new life begins inside the egg given the right conditions. New life is always cause for great joy and optimism, no more so than the birth of a child in our family or amongst our friends. New life, new beginnings, new opportunities, they are a real part of our lives. Just as we anticipate death and things coming to an end, so we see new life as natural; a normal part of the circle of life. We expect it. It would be terrible to be locked into an endless winter such as the children find when they first discover Narnia in C S Lewis’ classic stories.
Today, we focus our thoughts on the greatest of all stories about new life; the resurrection of Jesus. Dead men do not come back to life. That is what modern science teaches us; the sensible message based on what we as human beings can observe in nature. On April fool’s day, are we no more than fools to suggest that Jesus’ resurrection is an historical account and not fiction? But if it is just fiction, then we must ask ourselves the question: ‘Why are we here?’ Surely it is the resurrection of Jesus which makes the difference to the whole Christian story. Is it not the resurrection which shows Jesus to be more than just another good man who died a martyr’s death? Even Paul admits that this gospel is ‘foolishness to Greeks’. (1 Corinthians 1.23)
So, as Christian people, we have to conclude that to believe in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead flies in the face of science and reason. It puts us on a collision course with the prevailing view of many in our generation from the presenter on TV to opinionated bloke propping up the bar down the pub.
While the resurrection may not be so easily defended from the standpoint of natural science given the current state of knowledge, there is a reasonable basis to believe from the written accounts which survive. Besides the accounts in the four gospels, there are many other significant references and descriptions of the resurrection throughout the new testament. They are not without their problems. Our gospel reading today was from Mark (16.1-8) Only these eight verses are in the oldest copies of the gospel. This account of the resurrection concludes, as does the whole gospel, with the women running in fear from the tomb, saying nothing to anyone because they were so afraid. At first this seems strange. Surely the writer of ‘Mark’ would have wanted to make much more of this amazing event. But surely to think that is to miss the point. Is it not that Mark simply tells us what had been passed to him: the women finding an empty tomb and an angelic presence. If you were going to tend a loved one’s grave and found the body gone when you arrived, would you not feel fear and need to find some consolation quickly? There is no attempt to dress or glamorise the story, just tell it as it is with a few incidental facts which give it a feeling of authenticity.
The other gospels have other stories to tell about the resurrection; indeed, it may be that Mark had more to say which has been lost. Some of the details which don’t entirely tie up, but surely these also show that these writers are faithfully compiling the collective memory of those who were witnesses. Peter also tells the story as part of sermon recorded in the Acts of the Apostles. It is shorter, but he is still assured of the basic facts of Jesus’ resurrection which he himself experienced. It forms the basis of his argument that the risen Jesus is both judge and the means of forgiveness.
The biblical accounts of the resurrection do provide strong evidence on which to base our faith. While we may appear fools in the eyes of many, particularly in 21st century Britain, for believing in Jesus’ resurrection we can give a reasonable answer for our position. But critically for each and every one of us, believing in the events of Easter is about belief and experience.
As Easter coincides with April fool’s day this year, maybe we can be reminded of the words of David Jenkins. Those of you with long memories will recall he was a controversial Bishop of Durham in the 1980’s. He is widely reported to have described the resurrection as a ‘conjuring trick with dry bones.’ This is a bit of a misrepresentation because what he was trying to get people away from was the idea that Jesus resurrection was just about a physical event at one point in time. It should rather be seen as the continuing experience in the life of the disciples. As Jenkins later observed in an interview with the Independent newspaper: ‘I was very careful in the use of language. After all, a conjuring trick with bones proves only that somebody’s very clever at a conjuring trick with bones.” In other words, there is much more to the resurrection of Jesus than the revival of his physical body.
I for one am very happy to believe that the God who created the universe and sustains it by his power intervened in the normally observable rules of nature to resurrect Jesus’ physical body from the sealed tomb. What emerges, is a new body, a body that will not be subject again to the process of dying, a body which is not always physically present, but is so much more than an apparition that it convinces the disciples that he is alive. (Luke 24.39) But I also want to affirm that the resurrection of Jesus is an experience open to every human being. The first Easter morning is not just a blip in history, but new life which is available to you, me and every human being who will reach out in faith. Paul in his passionate argument in Corinthians 15 speaks of Christ as the ‘first fruits of those who have died.’ (verse 20) As we identify with Jesus and own him as Lord, so his new life reinvigorates deadness that is our spirits that we can live life in all it’s fullness as Jesus himself promised. (John 10.10)
We began by thinking of how we look forward to Spring, to the new growth and vigour in the countryside and in our gardens; how we revel in new life in puppies, kittens, chicks and of course babies. But how much excitement do we feel about new life in people, in seeing members of our family and friends being energised by Christ’s life-giving spirit. Is it not sad that sometimes we doubt that people can really be changed and forgiven? It is hard, but as people of faith in the empty tomb, we should never give up on those entombed by addiction to drugs, alcohol, gambling, wealth or any of the world’s snares. We should never write off those who are homeless or seem to have missed out on life or adopted a criminal life style. If we believe that Jesus rose from the dead, that he is alive, let us believe with hope and enthusiasm in that new life he came to bring. By our love and hard work, let us create the conditions for his new life to flourish in those we are in daily contact with by the quality of our lives, the values we adopt and the things which we say; the delight we take in our faith as well as our patient love and care.
Easter Day 01.04.2018