This is a sermon I felt called to preach on 25th May 2014 in which I explore what I mean and believe about resurrection. It refers to 1 Corinthians 15:35-44 which was read earlier in the service.
This is the last but one Sunday in the Easter season and I’d like to use it to talk about resurrection. For some reason I’ve spent much more time thinking about resurrection this Easter than I’ve done for some time. I think the main stimulus for this has been reading Graeme Smith’s book “Was the tomb empty”. I’ve become a bit of a Graeme Smith groupie, I went to his book launch, I’ve read his book in a couple of days and I made a special effort to get to the evening worship he contributed to here a couple of weeks ago. I’d like to publicly thank him for stirring my thought processes and I really would encourage everyone to read the book. You might not believe it for a book on biblical scholarship but it is a remarkable good read.
So why six weeks after Easter do I want to re-visit the concept of resurrection? Well I think it’s in reaction to those events earlier this year. In parts of his book, and particularly in the evening worship he led, Graeme assumed that belief in the physical resurrection of Jesus must be a cornerstone of any Christian’s faith. It isn’t a cornerstone of my faith, and I’d like to explain why.
Why do I want to provide this explanation? Well I want to provide it for three different reasons for three different groups of people.
I know, from conversation that I’ve had in the past, that several people in the congregation fall into the first group and I suspect that there may be others. They are people who have difficulty accepting the more supernatural aspects of the Christian story. The resurrection of Jesus is perhaps the most supernatural aspect of that story and the most difficult for them to believe. In some cases they can have a real struggle to reconcile their personal world view with the viewpoint that the church often appears to demand. I’m preaching to them to give reassurance that there are a multitude of ways of coming into a relationship with Jesus as saviour and that there is a place for them, as for me, in today’s church. In my house are many rooms.
I also know from previous conversations, that there are many people within the congregation, and I suspect there are others, that fall into a second group. I have no doubt that Graeme is one of them. They are people for whom the supernatural aspects of the Christian story are essential for their faith. For most of them a belief in the physical resurrection of Jesus is what makes a Christian a Christian. I’m not trying to undermine their faith. Nothing I say this morning is intended in any way to suggest that they are wrong. What I am hoping is that, by the end of this morning, they will have a deeper understanding of, and respect for, the views of some others who are sitting among them this morning. Whenever I listen to others talk about their faith, my faith grows. Generally speaking, the more different is the faith I hear talked of, the deeper my personal growth. I hope I can offer you that opportunity this morning. In my house are many rooms.
The third group who I want to preach to are not here at all. They are the large section of British public who have been educated to respect the laws of science and be extremely dubious of any talk of the supernatural. My children are part of this group, yours maybe as well, or your grand-children, or your spouse. In a very real sense they cannot believe in the physical resurrection of Jesus. If we insist that this is a pre-requisite to being a Christian then they will never be one. They will never be able to make even the first step towards a personal relationship with Jesus as saviour. They will be excluded from the love of God. If we want the church to grow in the modern western world then we need to preach a gospel that makes sense to the people who live in that world. It is to them that I really want to preach this morning – unfortunately they have already left.
So what is the problem? It’s the level of evidence. Graeme lays this out very well in his book. In essence this is what the book is, a presentation of the evidence. He claims, on the cover, that he is doing this objectively and dispassionately as a judge would. How good a job he does of this you’ll have to decide for yourself after reading and it. I find the level of evidence really interesting. If you are already a Christian and accept the gospel accounts as essentially, even if not literally, true, then the evidence is convincing. If, however, you are a non-Christian who sees no particular reason to accept the Bible as any more likely to be true than any other book written at the time, or if you are a Christian who accepts the questions raised by the last two hundred years of biblical scholarship, then the evidence is very far from convincing. For these two groups it is just not possible to take a belief in the bodily resurrection of Jesus as a starting point. If we want to encourage members of these latter tow groups into a deeper relationship with Jesus then we need a differnt approach.
The book I’ve found most helpful in this regard is called “True Resurrection“. It was written by an Anglican priest called Harry Williams who was the chaplain of one of the Cambridge colleges for many years but later moved to a secluded religious community. In his book he makes a distinction between Resurrection and The Resurrection. The Resurrection is whatever happened to Jesus – the historical event. Resurrection is the religious truth at the heart of Christianity. It is the belief that life triumphs over death. Most importantly it is a truth that is not confied to a remote period in history but something that we experience in our lives today on an ongoing basis. He sees Resurrection and The Resurrection as separate but linked, it’s a viewpoint that I find really helpful. Rather than trying too hard to talk about this theologically let me give you some examples.
Two weeks ago Christan told us about the work of the Message Trust. They work with young ex-offenders. Young people, often from difficult backgrounds, who have got caught in a cycle of hopelessness, done something reckless and ended up in trouble with the police. The Message is offering them hope. It’s inviting them to a new faith, new experiences of worship, new opportunities for training and employment. Several of you have been to the Mess, their cafe, to see what they are up to. They are doing what their slogan says transforming lives. That to me, is resurrection.
Those of us who went along to John’s film night earlier in this month watched Freedom Writers. It is a based on the true story of a group of young people who attended school in Long Beach, California. They locality was, and still is, riven with gang culture, gun violence and death. The young people are part of this, their lives are conditioned by their locality and there seems no escape. A visionary young teacher, Erin, comes to the school and refuses to admit the inevitablility of death, both real and metaphorical, for her class. The whole film is a record of the new life she brings. That, to me, is resurrection.
Williams goes further however. Resurrection isn’t merely about restoring life as it was. If we beleive that Jesus resurrection was merely a resuscitation of a dead body then we’ve missed the point. Jesus life was not just restored by the resurrection it was transformed. Williams quotes the passage we’ve heard this morning from Corinthians. Paul says different things about the resurrection but in this, probabliest his earliest mention of the subject, his focus is on a transformative process not just a restorative one:
So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power.
Williams explores the consequences of this. If we are to be transformed then we have to let that part of us that is going to be transformed die. You cannot have new life without first experiencing death. Resurrection isn’t just a belief that life triumphs over death it is a belief that it is sometimes essential to die in order to experience life in all its fullness. Just as Jesus’ death was something he had to go through to experience resurrection, so throughout life we often need to allow things to die in order to discover new life.
We can see this in a sub-plot of Freedom Writers. Erin’s success affects the relationship with her young husband, Steven who has failed in his own earlier career aspirations and stuggles with the way that Erin’s devotion to her profession takes over her life. Erin is faced with a choice between the passion and vitality of what she is achieving with her students and the love she has for her husband. Erin realises that, in order to live the life she seems to have been born for, she will have to allow her relationship with her husband to die. Her marriage does die, she descends into the hell of this broken relationship, but that death is not the end. She emerges from the pain she has born better suited than ever to offer hope and new life to her class. That, to me, is resurrection.
When you start looking, you can see resurrection all around you. You can see it in the nearly trivial. How many of us have allowed a grudge to die and found an old relationship has been re-born. You can see it in the sorts of situations I’ve already talked about. You can see it in the great stories of our time. What is the story of Nelson Mandela if it is not a story of resurrection? What about the Malala Yousafzai the Afghan girl who was shot by the Taliban and spent her 16th birthday addressing the Secretary General of the United Nations last year? What about Stephen Sutton the 19 year old boy who raised 4 million pounds to enhance the care of other teenagers with cancer before his death? What about Sally’s place? All of this, to me, is resurrection.
The proof of resurrection is all around us. It gives my life hope and purpose. My faith isn’t grounded in the experiences of other people shouded in the mists of time, it is founded in my lived experience today. So it is that, without sharing Graeme’s conviction that the Biblical evidence for the resurrection is sufficient to satisfy a court of law, I can still join with him, and with all of you, whatever your beliefs, and proclaim this morning – Christ is risen. He is risen indeed.