Reverend Dr Nicholas Sagovsky Canon Theologian
Sunday, 16th April 2006
In Alice through the Looking Glass, Alice meets the Red Queen:
"I can't believe that!" said Alice.
"Can't you?" the Queen said in a pitying tone. "Try again: draw a long breath, and shut your eyes."
Alice laughed. "There's no use trying," she said: "one can't believe impossible things."
"I daresay you haven't had much practice," said the Queen. "When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast."
I guess that's how a lot of people see Christians. We are people who practise believing impossible things, and one of the most impossible is that on the third day after Jesus had been brutally executed, he rose from the dead.
The New Testament doesn't give us a series of arguments to persuade us this is what happened. It gives us stories. It tells us how the disciples discovered the empty tomb and how on several occasions, both individually and in groups, they met the risen Jesus. It tells us about the complete change in the disciples when they lost their fear and began to share with anyone who would listen the good news that Jesus had risen from the dead. The best evidence that something quite remarkable had happened is probably the birth of the church itself, and the new life that Christians began to live. What was it that kick-started the early Christian movement so that it spread like wildfire through the major cities of the ancient world, from Jerusalem to Rome? Something put new heart into the followers of Jesus, after his death on a cross had left them scattered and defeated.
What that something was, the Christians described in the best way they could. They wanted people to know that Jesus had really and publicly died on a cross. People in Jerusalem had seen him die, and when his body was laid in the tomb they could see that he really was dead. They also knew that the tomb was sealed with a great stone. But, two days later, his disciples began to speak about what they had experienced in a completely new way. Some told how they had gone to the tomb and found it open; others spoke of 'appearances' in which they had met Jesus (cf. 1 Cor 15:5-8). The passage we heard this morning (John 20:1-18) talks about both: Peter and John found the tomb empty and Mary Magdalene met him in the garden.
It is not just in our time that people have rejected this as impossible. Think only of Thomas, one of the disciples. Of course there is no virtue in believing impossible things for the sake of it - Alice knew that even if the Red Queen didn't. But the earliest Christians, like Christians all down the years, found it impossible to say that Jesus was dead. Their testimony was, as the whole New Testament shows us, that he was alive and with them in all that they did. They knew that Jesus being alive was something God had done, an act of new creation as powerful and wonderful as the creation of life itself.
By this act of God, the death of Jesus could be seen in a new light, not as a crushing and final defeat for him and for his followers, but as the necessary prelude to the coming of new life. And by this act of God the Church as the living body of Christ - to which we too belong - was brought into being. Just as in the early days, so today, to be a member of the Church is to share in the new life that came into the world on the third day after the crucifixion.
What the Red Queen tells Alice to do is to believe in impossible things. Of course, that won't work, but Christians have found that the resurrection of Jesus changes our ideas about what is possible. If Christ is risen it is possible that death is not the end but the beginning of life; if Christ is risen it is possible that the wrong and the harm we have done to ourselves and other people can and will be forgiven; if Christ is risen it is possible that good is stronger than evil, love is stronger than hate, and life is stronger than death. Today, on Easter Day, we meet to share bread and wine in thanksgiving for the death of Jesus, not because we believe these things are possible but because we believe they are true. We are here because Jesus is a living Lord. This is why, on this day above all days, we greet each other with the joyful words, 'Christ is risen!'