Easter – That time where we hear the story which most of us in the Church think we know pretty well, but increasingly many in our communities and wider society do not. In fact for many in our society, not only do they not really understand the story, but they are not actually all that familiar with its details.
This is something which I have become only too aware of through my ministry with young people and their families at Ravenswood. According to some surveys I have done about 80 per cent of students would identify as not really religious. It is not surprising then that the Easter story is not part of their cultural knowledge. We could sit back in our Christendemic* complacency and defensiveness and claim once again that society’s to blame. However, I think as the Church we need to accept a significant proportion of responsibility in having not effectively understood or shared the story.
Sadly, when it comes to the death and resurrection of Christ, we could get caught up in a deep theological discussion about the meaning of Easter and the various atonement theologies and which one is better or more correct. At the other end of the spectrum, I had someone in the Church suggest to me that the resurrection story could be described as the “first fake news.” This kind of thinking might disturb or upset some in the Church. But we shouldn’t be surprised given the trends in society and the way the Church has often presented our theological beliefs as unassailable and unquestionable facts, often at the exclusion of any other perspectives.
All of this kind of arguing and presentation of opposing mixed messages further erodes engagement of people outside the Church who either reject what they are being asked to believe or just dismiss faith and religion. This is because those who claim to hold it seem to have no coherent shared understanding, which makes the whole thing questionable.
So, what might the Easter story mean for young people of today and how might they engage with it?
This is the important question, and we should put a pause in our thinking right there, before we leap into answering it. Our problematic tendency in the past has been to step in and answer the question, or worse, leap to defend ‘the [real] meaning’ of Easter. There is nothing wrong with holding an understanding of the meaning of Easter and sharing with young people and people outside the Church our theology and beliefs. However, as a missional Church in the early 21st Century, our task should be to first engage people in the story and then ask them what it might mean for them.
How might people engage with the story is the missional question for us, but understanding what they think about it should come before we launch into telling them what they should think about it. Authentic dialogue is a true conversation, where we listen to each other. As the hosts of such a conversation, it is simply polite and appropriate to hear what the other thinks before launching in to what we think. It is also a more genuine approach to respond to and engage with the ideas of others, rather than simply responding with our pre-prepared evangelistic formulas of the meaning of the Easter story.
All this might make sense to some, but not to those who can’t understand why people just can’t be told what Easter means. This goes to highlight one of the reasons why people find it hard to engage with religion, which is that Christendemic religion often finds it hard to engage with people outside the Christ culture they are used to. The key to all this is for us all to engage with the Easter story, just as the first disciples did. It is strange and hard to believe. It doesn’t fully make sense in the way we understand the world. Jesus’ death rocked the disciples and blew open their understanding of who he was and who God was. His resurrection and subsequent appearances were something to experience more than understand. He was alive. He is alive, but how that works and how we might explain it, is ultimately a mystery.
The Christ of the cross is Immanuel of the cradle – God with us. If Christ is a present reality, we can come to know him who promised to be with us until the end of the age. God as a human, who died and rose again, defies logic. However, God who loves us and whose compassion and grace took him into suffering and death is someone whom we can meet in faith, just like the disciples and the Apostle Paul. Easter is an experience to take in, not just a theory to be learnt. This is the witness of our faith as we share in the love and grace of God.
Rev. Jon Humphries is the Chaplain at Ravenswood School for Girls.
*Christendemic refers to a cultural fixed mindset arising from Christendom which holds an expectation that everyone should know and understand, and be able to engage with faith and discipleship in the form we are used to.