The Reverend Robert Reiss Canon of Westminster
Sunday, 8th April 2007
What does it mean to believe in the resurrection? Clearly something must have happened to change the early followers of Jesus, who after the crucifixion were a frightened and bewildered group of men and women, into the courageous and confident people who were to lead the developing church with such vigour that in a little less than three centuries Christianity was to become the official religion of the Roman Empire. It was a remarkable change. And the early Christians explained it by their belief in the resurrection.
But you do not have to be very informed about the Church and theological debate to know that there is a spectrum of views about what may or may not have caused that. Some years ago the then Bishop of Durham, David Jenkins, caused quite a furore by suggesting the Biblical accounts should not all be taken as literally true. Some certainly saw that as an heretical statement and wanted him brought to account for those judgements, although others found his questions liberating and stimulating. The present Bishop of Durham, Tom Wright, a former Canon here, takes a rather different view, holding that there certainly is a core of accurate and literal history contained in the Biblical accounts.
But this is not just a recent debate. A former canon of this Abbey who was also to become Bishop of Durham, Hensley Henson, raised similar questions abut a hundred years ago, to the dismay of some of his then fellow Canons, such that one of them even opposed his appointment as a Bishop. So it is a debate with a long history even in this place.
Now where you take your stand on that spectrum of views depends, I imagine, on all sorts of things that will be different for people of different temperaments. Some might have a natural inclination to accept the miraculous, others will be more naturally sceptical; some might judge as accurate historical documents like the gospels, written several years after the events they describe, others might see them as more theological interpretation than accurate history, seeking to convey a faith rather than simply to record facts. I would be surprised if all those ways of looking at such matters were not represented somewhere among the congregation here today.
Now it would be interesting to open up that debate now and to spend some time analysing and dissecting those different points of view, but what is quite certain is to do those matters justice would require far more time that the 'brief sermon' I was told was appropriate for today. So let me ask another question, albeit a related one: 'Does it really matter?'
Obviously for some it really does, orthodoxy, right opinion, is critical for them and should at all costs be defended. But I have never forgotten the remark of a woman priest from the area where I used to be archdeacon who said to me once that she thought orthopraxis, right behaviour, was more important for her than orthodoxy, right opinion.
So putting to one side that interesting and undoubtedly important question 'what actually happened?', about which I have to say personally I think at this distance it is almost impossible to be certain, what is the orthopraxis, the right behaviour, that flows from the first Easter story.
The first is surely to recognise that good can come out of evil. The death of Jesus was undoubtedly evil, the execution of any innocent man is wrong, a monstrance injustice, and to do it in the particularly barbaric way the Romans did was especially evil, the physical suffering appalling. And to do that to a man as obviously good as Jesus was made it especially terrible. Small wonder, really, that the disciples were left demoralised and despondent.
Yet, somehow, that evil was transformed, and far from Jesus' death being seen as the end of everything it was seen as the beginning of the next stage of his work. And new, vibrant and life-giving change was brought about, not just in the disciples, but also ultimately throughout the world, as indeed our very presence here today testifies. Evil does not always have the last word, truth is stronger than lies, goodness more lasting than evil - those are at least some of the messages of possible transformation that come out of the resurrection story and which pave the way for right behaviour in response. Of course the original resurrection story is not the only example of that in the world, wherever forgiveness paves the way for reconciliation and healing, wherever love overcomes hatred, wherever beauty puts ugliness in a different perspective, there, in a way, is resurrection faith, but we call it resurrection faith because it does somehow flow from that conviction about Jesus that so transformed his disciples.
And that, I believe, provides the basis for another bit of right behaviour for our world, a bit that is desperately needed in so many places, and that is hope. Hope was probably pretty muted in the disciples just after the death of Jesus, just as hope is pretty muted in all sorts of difficult places in our world today as well. But the dramatic change that happened to the disciples shows that hope is not always misplaced, that things can change and change for the better, that cynicism and despondency do not necessarily have to have the last word.
Resurrection as a sign and symbol of hope, and that is not just some naïve and sentimental optimism, it has the potential to make a difference to how things are if we really take the example of Jesus Christ into our lives and let him mould our characters. And to take that right behaviour into the world of today could be a real Easter message of hope, not just for those of us who are here, but for the world of which we are all a part as well.