God raised Jesus to life
In his 2012 Easter sermon the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, says that the ultimate test of the Christian religion is not whether it is useful, beneficial or helpful to the human race but whether or not its central claim — the resurrection of Jesus Christ — actually happened.
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It just might be the case that the high watermark of aggressive polemic against religious faith has been passed. Recent years have seen so many high-profile assaults on the alleged evils of religion that we’ve almost become used to them; we sigh and pass on, wishing that we could have a bit more of a sensible debate and a bit less hysteria. But there are a few signs that the climate is shifting ever so slightly — not towards a mass return to faith but at least towards a reluctant recognition that religion can’t be blamed for everything — indeed that it has made and still makes positive contributions to our common life.
Two new books on the economic crisis, one by the American Michael Sandel, the other by Robert and Edward Skidelsky, both rather surprisingly float the idea that without some input from religious thinking our ludicrous and destructive economic habits are more likely to go unchecked. And, notoriously, Alain de Botton’s recent book on how to hold on to the best bits of religion without the embarrassing beliefs that go with it created quite a public stir. If it doesn’t exactly amount to a religious revival, it does suggest that a tide may be turning in how serious and liberal-minded commentators think about faith: no longer seen as a brainless and oppressive enemy, it is recognised as a potential ally in challenging a model of human activity and social existence that increasingly feels insane, a model in which unlimited material growth and individual acquisition still seem to trump every other argument about social coherence, international justice and realism in the face of limited resources. We may groan in spirit at the reports of how few young people in our country know the Lord’s Prayer, but there is plenty to suggest that younger people, while still statistically deeply unlikely to be churchgoers, don’t have the hostility to faith that one might expect, but at least share some of the Sandel/Skidelsky/de Botton sense that there is something here to take seriously — when they have a chance to learn about it. It is about the worst possible moment to downgrade the status and professional excellence of religious education in secondary schools — but that’s another sermon…
So we have reason to feel thankful that things appear to be moving on from a pointless stalemate. Yet, granted all this, and given all the appropriate expression of relief Christians may allow themselves, Easter raises an extra question, uncomfortable and unavoidable: perhaps ‘religion’ is more useful than the passing generation of gurus thought; but is it true? Easter makes a claim not just about a potentially illuminating set of human activities but about an event in history and its relation to the action of God. Very simply, in the words of this morning’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles, we are told that ‘God raised Jesus to life.’
We are not told that Jesus ‘survived death’; we are not told that the story of the empty tomb is a beautiful imaginative creation that offers inspiration to all sorts of people; we are not told that the message of Jesus lives on. We are told that God did something — that is, that this bit of the human record, the things that Peter and John and Mary Magdalene witnessed on Easter morning, is a moment when, to borrow an image from the 20th century Catholic writer Ronald Knox, the wall turns into a window. In this moment we see through to the ultimate energy behind and within all things. When the universe began, prompted by the will and act of God and maintained in being at every moment by the same will and action, God made it to be a universe in which on a particular Sunday morning in AD33 this will and action would come through the fabric of things and open up an unprecedented possibility — for Jesus and for all of us with him: the possibility of a human life together in which the pouring out of God’s Holy Spirit makes possible a degree of reconciled love between us that could not have been imagined.
It is that reconciled love, and the whole picture of human destiny that goes with it, that attracts those outside the household of faith and even persuades them that the presence of religion in the social order may not be either toxic or irrelevant after all. But for the Christian, the basic fact is that this compelling vision is there only because God raised Jesus. It is not an idea conceived by the spiritual genius of the apostles, those horribly familiar characters with all their blundering and mediocrity, so like us. It is, as the gospel reading insists, a shocking novelty, something done for and to us, not by us. How do we know that it is true? Not by some final knock-down would-be scientific proof, but by the way it works in us through the long story of a whole life and the longer story of the life of the community that believes it. We learn and assimilate its truth by the risk of living it; to those on the edge of it, looking respectfully and wistfully at what it might offer, we can only say, ‘you’ll learn nothing more by looking; at some point you have to decide whether you want to try to live with it and in it.’
And what’s the difference it makes? If God exists and is active, if his will and action truly raised Jesus from the dead, then what we think and do and achieve as human beings is not the only thing that the world’s future depends on. We do all we can; we bring our best intelligence and energy to labour for reconciliation and for justice; but the future of reconciliation and justice doesn’t depend only on us. To say this doesn’t take away one jot of our responsibility or allow us to sit back; as Pascal said, we cannot sleep while Jesus is still in agony, and the continuing sufferings of the world are an image of that agony. But to believe that everything doesn’t depend on us delivers us from two potentially deadly temptations. We may be tempted to do something, anything, just because we can’t bear it if we aren’t making some visible difference; but to act for the sake of acting is futile or worse. Or we may be consumed with anxiety that we haven’t done enough, so consumed that we never have time to be ourselves, to give God thanks for his love and grace and beauty. We may present a face to the world that is so frantic with fear that we have left something undone that we make justice and reconciliation deeply unattractive. We never acquire the grace and freedom to give God thanks for the small moments of joy, the little triumphs of sense and kindness.
And these things may be of real importance when we look at what seem to be the most completely intractable problems of our day. At Easter we cannot help but think about the land that Jesus knew and the city outside whose walls he was crucified. These last months have seen a phase of peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians yet again stalling, staggering and delivering little or nothing for those who most need signs of hope. Everything seems to be presented as a zero-sum game. And all who love both the Israeli and the Palestinian communities and long for their security will feel more desperate than ever. A visit to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem, will convince you why the state of Israel exists and must go on existing. A visit to any border checkpoint will convince you that the daily harassment and humiliation of Palestinians of all ages and backgrounds cannot be a justifiable or even sustainable price to pay for security. Listening to a rabbi talking about what it is like to witness the gathering up of body parts after a terrorist attack is something that can’t be forgotten; neither is listening to a Palestinian whose parent or child has been killed in front of their eyes in a mortar bombing.
So how do we respond? By turning up the volume of partisanship, by searching for new diplomatic initiatives, by pretending it isn’t as bad as all that after all? If we believe in a God who acts, we have to go beyond this. We have to put immense energy into supporting those on the ground who show that they believe in a God who acts — those who continue, through networks like One Voice and the Bereaved Families Forum, to bring together people from both sides and challenge them to discover empathy and mutual commitment — what Stephen Cherry of Durham in a wonderful book on forgiveness has called ‘distasteful empathy’, a feeling for the other or the enemy that we’d rather not have to develop. Small moments of recognition and kindness. We have to prod and nag and encourage the religious leadership in the Holy Land on all sides to speak as if they believed in a God who acts, not only a God who endorses their version of reality. We have to pray, to pray for wisdom and strength and endurance for all who are hungry for peace and justice, pray that people will go on looking for a truly shared future. And we Christians in particular have to look for ways of practically supporting our brothers and sisters there through agencies like the Friends of the Holy Land or the Jerusalem and Middle East Church Association — to help them stay in a context where they feel more and more unwelcome, yet where so many of them remain because they want to play a full part in creating this unimaginable shared future — because they believe in a God who acts. These are the priorities that all Christian leaders would want to flag up this Easter in our concern for what many call ‘the land of the Holy One’.
One situation among many — but how can it not be on our minds and hearts at this time of the Christian year, this central moment of hope? Such situations can so readily draw us towards despair — including the despair of hyper-activism and unfocused anger. To believe in a God who raises Jesus from the dead is never an alibi, letting us do less than we thought we would have to. But it is a way of allowing in our own thoughts and actions some space for God to emerge as a God who creates a future. Someone once remarked that resurrection was never something you could plan for. But what we can do is to make the space, the silence, for the act of God to come through. When all’s said and done about the newly acknowledged social value of religion, we mustn’t forget that what we ultimately have to speak about isn’t this but God: the God who raised Jesus and, as St Paul repeatedly says, will raise us also with him. Even if every commentator in the country expressed generous appreciation of the Church (and we probably needn’t hold our breath…), we’d still be bound to say, ‘Thank you — but what matters isn’t our usefulness or niceness or whatever: it’s God, purposive and active, even — especially — when we are at the end of our resources. It’s the moment when the wall becomes a window.’
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