The Uncomfortable Truth of Easter
Acts 10.34–43; John 20.1–18
A sermon at the Sung Eucharist in Durham Cathedral Easter Day 2008 by the Bishop of Durham, Dr N. T. Wright
The Easter stories are full of people getting the wrong end of the stick. Mary thinks Jesus’ body has been stolen. Peter sees the linen wrappings and can’t work out what it’s all about. The disciples didn’t understand the scriptures. The angels question Mary and she still doesn’t know what’s going on. Then she thinks Jesus is the gardener. Then, it seems, she reaches out to cling on to him, and he tells her she mustn’t. You could hardly get more misunderstandings into a couple of paragraphs if you tried.
And the point is, of course: Easter has burst into our world, the world of space, time and matter, the world of real history and real people and real life, but our minds and imaginations are too small to contain it, so we do our best to put the sea into a bottle and fit the explosive fact of the resurrection into the possibilities we already know about.
At one level, of course, the continued puzzlement of the disciples is a mark of the story’s authenticity. If someone had been making it all up a generation later, as many have suggested, they would hardly have had such a muddle going on. More particularly, nobody would have made up the remarkable detail of the cloth around Jesus’ head, folded up in a place by itself, or the even more extraordinary fact that Jesus is not immediately recognised, either here, or in the evening on the road to Emmaus, or the later time, cooking breakfast by the shore. The first Christians weren’t prepared for what actually happened. Nobody could have been. As one leading agnostic scholar has put it, it looks as though they were struggling to describe something for which they didn’t have adequate language.
But this problem isn’t confined to the first century. Ever since then, people have tried to squash the Easter message into conventional boxes that it just won’t fit. There was a classic example in the Times on Good Friday (I know I probably shouldn’t have been reading a Murdoch paper on a holy day, but there you are). In a first leader entitled ‘Universal Truths’, the writer suggested that the Easter message is one that everyone can sign up to. ‘Good Friday,’ it says, ‘commemorates sacrifice, the giving of oneself as a martyr for the love of others, so Easter is the achievement of victory through suffering.’ ‘These,’ the writer goes on, ‘are universal spiritual truths. And the more interaction acquaints those of different faiths with the beliefs of others, the clearer is the common acceptance of these truths.’ So, in conclusion, ‘The Easter message draws the devout together’ (presumably the devout of all religions). ‘From suffering, goodness can triumph. Death is not final.’ And then, a grand and woefully misleading last sentence: ‘That is what all faiths in Britain can proclaim and where they can come together this weekend.’
Well, sorry. Of course we must work to find common ground and common purpose with those of all faiths and none. I found myself on a platform in Sunderland not long ago with the deputy chairman of the Muslim Council of Great Britain, discussing these very things. The Archbishop of Canterbury has recently asked me to join a small group working to take forward the discussion of the Open Letter from leading Muslims to the Pope, entitled ‘A Common Word’. These things matter enormously.
But you don’t achieve anything by downgrading the unique message of Easter. Just as I would expect to take my shoes off if I went into a mosque, so any sensible Muslim would expect, in a church on Easter Day, that we wouldn’t be talking about the generalised half-truth that ‘out of suffering goodness can triumph’ – even that takes some believing when you look around the world today – or that ‘death is not the end’. They would rightly expect us to be talking about something unique that happened as a one-off, something that happened to the previously dead body of Jesus, something because of which Christianity cannot be contained in the vague religiosity of late-modern Britain, any more than Mary or Peter or John could grasp the truth by saying that someone had taken away the body. Easter is what it is because, together with Jesus’ crucifixion, it is the central event of world history, the moment towards which everything was rushing and from which everything emerges new. The gospel, says Paul in Colossians, has already been preached to every creature under heaven; which must mean that with the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth a shock wave has rattled through the world, so that despite appearances the world is in fact a different place, full of new possibilities, previously unimagined.
It is, I grant you, better to say that from suffering goodness can triumph than to lose hope altogether. For some people who would say that, the glass of faith is perhaps half full. But what the article has done, in a typically patronizing example of late-Enlightenment rhetoric, is to offer a glass that’s half empty and getting emptier. Its wishy-washy religion has little to do with any actual faith, particularly with real Christianity. And, not surprisingly, it doesn’t even spill over into the surrounding subject-matter. The second leader on Good Friday was rightly complaining about Tibet. What good does it do to say there that ‘from suffering goodness can triumph’? Isn’t that just a further encouragement to the bullying Chinese government? And what would a Buddhist say, for whom suffering is an illusion? And would mouthing these platitudes do one tiny thing to encourage our government, or even our athletes, to put pressure on China?
Contrast today’s story from Acts. This shows robustly what it means to have a glass that’s half full and getting fuller. The Roman centurion Cornelius had come, in his personal devotion and prayer, to invoke the God of Israel in respect and humility. Now God calls Peter to go and speak to this Gentile, and tell him about Jesus, and particularly about his death and resurrection. Peter doesn’t say ‘I gather you’ve got a wonderful faith already; isn’t that marvellous, we’re all on different paths up the same mountain.’ He says ‘The God you’ve been worshipping from afar has come near to you in Jesus, and has done something in Jesus which gives a new shape to world history and a new meaning to human life.’ And Cornelius believes and is baptized. Real Christianity, the full-glass version, is both the truth that makes sense of all other truth and the truth that offers itself as the framework within which those other truths will find their meaning. The one thing it doesn’t do, uncomfortably for today’s pluralistic world, is offer itself as one truth among many, or one version of a single truth common to all. And this discomfort – so disturbing that many people try to hush it up, to belittle it, to pat it on the head and say ‘there, there, that’s a nice thing to believe’ – comes out today in several areas, not least in some matters of urgent public debate. Let me just mention two.
First, the current controversy about embryo cloning. Our present government has been pushing through, hard and fast, legislation that comes from a militantly atheist and secularist lobby. The euthanasia bill was another example; defeated for the moment, but it’ll be back. The media sometimes imply that it’s only Roman Catholics who care about such things, but that is of course wrong. All Christians are now facing, and must resist, the long outworking of various secularist philosophies, which imagine that we can attain the Christian vision of future hope without the Christian God. In this 1984-style world, we create our own utopia by our own efforts, particularly our science and technology. We create our Brave New World here and now; so don’t tell us that God’s new world was born on Easter Sunday. Reduce such dangerous beliefs to abstract, timeless platitudes. The irony is that this secular utopianism is based on a belief in an unstoppable human ability to make a better world, while at the same time it believes that we (it’s interesting to ask who ‘we’ might be at this point) have the right to kill unborn children and surplus old people, and to play games with the humanity of those in between. Gender-bending was so last century; we now do species-bending. Look how clever we are! Utopia must be just round the corner.
Have we learnt nothing from the dark tyrannies of the last century? It shouldn’t just be Roman Catholics who are objecting. It ought to be Anglicans and Presbyterians and Baptists and Russian Orthodox and Pentecostals and all other Christians, and Jews and Muslims as well. This isn’t a peripheral or denominational concern. It grows directly out of the central facts of our faith, because on Easter day God reaffirmed the goodness and image-bearingness of the human race in the man Jesus Christ, giving the lie simultaneously to the idea that utopia could be had by our own efforts and to the idea that humans are just miscellaneous evolutionary by-products, to be managed and manipulated at will. The Christian vision of what it means to be human is gloriously underscored by the resurrection of Jesus, and we as Easter people should make common cause with all those who are concerned about the direction our society is going in medical technology as in so much besides.
The second area of Easter concern is our treatment of people from other countries. Last year Daniel Bourdanné, a distinguished African scientist, was installed as General Secretary of the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students, a long-standing and highly respected body which serves members in 150 countries, has its headquarters in Oxford. The British High Commission in Accra dragged its feet over Daniel’s application to come here, and then turned it down with minimal explanation. Daniel then asked for permission to travel to the UK on his current visitor’s visa, and was told he could. But when he arrived he was detained for 22 hours, his mobile phones were seized, and he was flown back to Africa. He is still waiting to appeal this decision and treatment. This of course echoes the shabby treatment of our friends from Lesotho a couple of months ago. I would love to think that many people here this morning might wish to take up the case of Daniel Bourdanné with our immigration authorities, our Home Office and indeed the High Commission in Accra. Details of this will be on the website with this sermon (see appendix at end).
But I raise his case not simply as a one-off but because it typifies the careless and shabby treatment our supposedly civilised country now metes out both to bona fide people coming here as part of their proper work and to those who have come here validly seeking asylum, highlighted by the critically ill woman who was recently returned to Ghana and who has now died. Actually, in hunting for her case by doing a Google search with the words ‘asylum seeker dies’, I was horrified to discover that there has been a whole string of asylum seekers committing suicide because they have lost hope of fair or just treatment.
Why am I talking about all this on Easter Day? When I mentioned asylum seekers in passing at the Christmas midnight sermon I was rebuked by someone who told me it had nothing to do with Christmas. Well, according to Matthew, the boy Jesus and his family were themselves asylum seekers in Egypt. But Easter gives us more.
First, Peter’s message to Cornelius was that through his resurrection Jesus has been constituted as the judge of the living and the dead. The resurrection of Jesus is the beginning of the final putting-to-rights of all things. In the light of the resurrection, the church must never stop reminding the world’s rulers and authorities that they themselves will be held to account, and that they must do justice and bring wise, healing order to God’s world ahead of that day. Those who want to depoliticize the resurrection must first dehistoricize it, which is of course what they have been doing enthusiastically for many years – and then we wonder why the church has sometimes sounded irrelevant! But we who celebrate our risen Lord today must bear witness to Easter, God’s great act of putting-right, as the yardstick for all human justice.
Second, that same message from Peter to Cornelius stressed that, with the resurrection, the one true and living God was welcoming all people into his family. The church is the original multinational corporation, copied but not outdone by the empires of this world both territorial and financial. The xenophobia which treats other people as inconvenient and disposable is unworthy of a country seventy per cent of which describe themselves as Christian. Actually, I rather wish the real problem was xenophobia; I fear it is in fact the box-ticking mentality of some junior civil servants, coupled with the habit of normally unscrutinized bad behaviour. And this at a time when the same government is not only tying us hand and foot in complex and trivial compliance legislation, but refusing to provide or police even basic rules for the conduct of its own members.
I make no apology for raising all these issues on Easter Day. Easter is about real life, not escapist fantasy. Easter is about God’s judgment, calling the world to account and setting up his new, glorious creation of freedom and peace, and summoning all people everywhere to live in this new world. Easter is about God’s rich welcome to all humankind. We Easter people are called to celebrate all of that in practical ways as well as in glad and uninhibited worship. I pay tribute to the many people in this diocese who are sacrificially doing just that, not least with asylum seekers. That is the point of it all.
And it’s all because Easter is about Jesus: the Jesus who announced God’s saving, sovereign kingdom; the Jesus who died to exhaust the power of this world’s rulers; the Jesus who rose again to be crowned as king over all things in heaven and on earth. God give us grace, this day and from now on, to live as Easter people, celebrating Jesus’ love and joy at his table and making his kingdom and justice known in his world.