The Very Reverend Dr Wesley Carr Dean of Westminster
Sunday, 11th April 2004
"Jesus lives. Thy terrors now
Can, O death, no more appal us",
He is risen and He lives. But death must surely still appal us. Its not as private. The public deaths of so many people in the world so oppress that they must appal us. If they do not, we are guilty at least of insensitivity and even inhumanity. That can scarcely be the Easter message of hope.
At the west end of the Abbey is a portrait of King Richard the Second. As Shakespeare presents him he is nearer our predicament.
Let's talk of graves, of worms and epitaphs,
Make dust our paper, and with rainy eyes
Write sorrow on the bosom of the earth.
What more appropriate act can there be than to "write sorrow on the bosom of the earth",
Christians are supposed to be good over death. Many people still come to church for funerals and memorials -- graveyards are part of the church scene: vicars perform rites. "I am the resurrection and the life says the Lord" rings out as the service begins. We are expected to solve the insoluble, cure the incurable, know the unknowable, about life after death, and to make reality go away.
Yet few of us are that confident about resurrection today. On Easter Day, preachers prefer to generalise about hope or to discuss the probabilities of the tomb having been empty. "The world", they say, "is changed by the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and so must we be".
Scholars point out that in the New Testament life after death is not associated with Christs resurrection. It is therefore not an important issue this morning. Well, we can argue with the best of them, but it feels futile. For inescapably people find that talk of resurrection and Easter does in fact stir up questions about life after death. We do not live for the convenience of scholars.
Death is more final than finality and more poignant than we often allow. Someone wrote after her husbands death:
For me life after death is not a sure, firm and unshakeable belief sometimes it seems sure, and at others the best it seems hard to believe there is just nothing -- but whatever, it is very hard to deal with plain, simple, physical non-existence.
Any gospel, that is good news, must address "plain, simple, physical non-existence". When the hymns have been sung, the preachers are silent and the scholars exhausted, here is the test of resurrection.
But what do we understand by resurrection? One thing that strikes you about Jesus resurrection in the gospel accounts, is how different they seem. But all have in common a sense of quiet. There is not one triumphant noise. Instead, almost secretly and hidden, encounters take place here and there and the network begins In this mornings gospel, St Johns, often thought to be a spiritual gospel and not very down-to-earth, we have two stories running side by side. One shows Mary wandering in the garden; the other describes the way that Peter and the other disciple run to the tomb. For Mary the question was where they had taken the body. Meanwhile Peter and John are racing and John arrives first but does did not go in. Peter is not so cautious and charges in: and both see the arrangement of the contents but they responded differently. John saw and believed: this was the moment at which he began to believe that Jesus was the son of God. But, says the author, none of them knew the Scripture. But which Scripture has he in mind? Thats not the point. If they had discovered the empty tomb and there had been a handy text which told of his rising, they might have understood or claimed to understand resurrection. But they did not have such a text and so they were left in a mind boggling state by an unparalleled event. They went home mystified. Mary reappears and is addressed by name, just as the good Shepherd knows his sheep. She attempts to manage Jesus on her terms only to be gently rebuked "Do not cling to me.
In all the stories the disciples are quiet. Are they frightened of what they had seen? Were they frightened by what they thought might happen? Perhaps they were frightened what people might think of them? All these and no doubt more. There's no sense of any triumphant resurrection. Women, I fear, were discounted and not recognised as witnesses, and the disciples seem curiously dislocated and uncertain what to do. But this is precisely how bereaved people act - they don't know what to do or say, they don't understand, and ask "Why me?". And numberless people say to the minister or the undertaker "Please let's have no fuss; just a quiet private funeral".
But bodies are important. The soul, whatever that might be, can be saved and the body left to rot. But, as my correspondent knew, people instinctively feel that bodies are important. "Its hard to deal with plain, simple physical non-existence". They make us individuals to ourselves and with one another. Belief in the resurrection of the body means at least leaning towards being confident in persons in human relationships as the basis of all being in this world now, and in the next. So death is not and cannot be all calm: it brings irreparable loss and a sense of waste. Something goes forever and with it opportunities are eternally lost.
But Christian faith is not in the body: Easter Day makes that clear. Faith is in the resurrectionof the body; and resurrection is not bringing back to life. It is transformation. For the women, the one whom they had followed, admired, cared for and watched now called for only one response worship. Look how each gospel ends: St Mark, "They were afraid", or awestruck; "They believed and wondered", St Luke; "they worshipped him", St Matthew. "My Lord and my God", St John.
Think of it this way. Without bodies we could not have relationships there would be no human affection or love. As the song says, "Youve gotta have skin to keep the outside out and the inside in". We live out our inner selves throughout our bodies. That old searcher of the psyche, Sigmund Freud, said "the ego is a bodily ego." You can't kiss a disembodied spirit will or cuddle a soul.
But however profoundly we love one another, we can never know all about the other. For example, no one understands someone else, in spite of today's casual assumptions of closeness and empathy. The best we can do is interpret and respond - that is love. Love is not about knowing: it is about discovering another and responding with praise.
The Easter gospel of Christs resurrection confirms this. The most moving moment of all in our dealings with God comes when we realise that Gods view of us is not limited like ours. I was talking the other day to one of our masters at Westminster School, His moment of resurrection happened while he was singing in a choir. All of a sudden it was as if a crack opened in the universe and he heard an even greater sound and saw an even brighter light. It was not an out of body moment: he felt it lasted only a split-second. But it was as if the glorious sound of the earthly music stirred the universe to split and give a glimpse of what lies beyond.
Such vision, whether dramatic or not, comes when we recognise that the resurrection is God's activity. It speaks of his perspective on life and death, not ours. Eventually for Mary and the other women, for Peter and John, the first disciples, and indeed for us, Jesus resurrection becomes an event in the past. It is as if, using the picture of a church building, it has become part of the fabric - the vaults and the arches, the altars and the steps. They stand for different times before us. There is no escaping this: it is how we are; sooner or later everything becomes part of our history because we have to live from birth to death. For us the present is guided by the past. But the gospel of resurrection dramatically changes that. God's comes at the world from a different direction. He is present, here and now, and we may glimpse his hand at work here and there. God, we know, also has a past, as we read the history of salvation. And God will be. But unlike God, we have no access to the future. Thats where God differs. For him the present and the future become two dimensions with which we have to live. And the past becomes less significant. So, for example, we are reminded not only of any good that we might have achieved or offenders whom we may have forgiven, but also of that greater good which will be expected of us; not just of the damage that we may have done, but what we may inadvertently still do. As Saint Paul says, "Then we shall know even as we are known". Of course all times belong to God. But here is the key of Easter, what will be becomes now rather than then. In the resurrection the future becomes present, and different perspectives, Gods and ours, coincide.
So after all death does belong with the resurrection, as everyone used to think it did. We may be more cautious than our hymn writing ancestors. We now know that we cannot understand. But for them and for us we still have to interpret. And the result is something like Augustines beautiful expression of faith and hope:
We shall rest and we shall see,
We shall see and we shall love
We shall love and we shall praise.
Wasn't that exactly what the disciples experienced in the turmoil of the first Easter? They rested, because of there was nothing else to do. They went to the grave, saw and they loved and their love very soon turned to praise. In a moment we will be invited to affirm a creed, the faith. As we do so, let us quietly say
We, too, shall rest and we shall see,
We, too, shall see and we shall love
We too shall love and we shall praise.
For Christ is risen and death now properly appals, but does not finally triumph.