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Sermon at the Sung Eucharist on the Third Sunday of Easter 2018

Meanings of Resurrection

The Reverend Professor Vernon White Sub-Dean and Canon Theologian

Sunday, 15th April 2018 at 11:15 AM

What is it all for?  What is this daily effort and habit of living for?  What have all our experiences and struggles of childhood, growing up, and adult life been for?  Do they really have any significance?  Or will they, and our memories of them, just fade completely when we finally perish – so that, in the end, everything will be wholly lost? 

For the most part, especially if we have a fairly robust temperament, we push such questions firmly to the back of the mind and carry on living quite well.  But we cannot always suppress them. Something will happen which will make us aware of them. Disturbing events can ambush us. Buried griefs, fears, regrets can surface to disconcert us. A simple shaft of nostalgia can do it, with its ‘land of lost content/ I see it shining plain/The happy highways where I went/ And cannot go again’ - as poet A.E. Houseman lamented.  These sorts of moments may well leave us feeling that the forward movement of time leads only, in the end, to loss - culminating at death itself when all is lost.  And so they keep pressing this question: what then is it all for?  For nothing? 

It was certainly a question forced on early followers of Jesus by the events of the cross. What had it all been for, this new movement he began, all the sacrifice and the excitement of it, when it had ended only in his death?. A question which kept bewildering them until the extraordinary event of resurrection.

This sense of encounter with a risen Christ which we heard again in the Gospel reading - an encounter felt with such concrete immediacy that he even seemed to be embodied, to be eating food, showing his hands, feet, scars - this event reframed everything.  At the very least it changed their mood: the bewildered followers were revitalised, given back a sense of purpose. But more than a change of mood, it reframed the meaning of life itself.  Meeting Christ again made them realize that time is not just an inexorable march towards emptiness and loss; it has a different shape and destiny altogether: the past is not lost irretrievably but can be redeemed, given back.

That is especially what the specific sense of meeting his body was conveying.  Not that the risen Christ needed the particular physical stuff of his actual old body to return.  Of course not - He didn’t need that any more than we shall need our old bodies after we die.  But what the sense of his body was telling them, and us, is that what we have experienced through the body in our earthly life need not be lost.  Not even at death.  It is telling us that every good experience mediated through our earthly bodies in our daily effort of living - every good relationship, every good touch, sight, sound, of people, hills, stars, and sea, every healed hurt and scar - will not be los: instead, they matter so much they will be (in St Peter’s phrase) ‘kept as an unfading inheritance in heaven’.  And from there they can be given back to us, so that in eternity we’ll be able to re-inhabit these best sensual experiences of our past, as well as having a new future.  It’s a faith beautifully expressed by writer CSLewis on the memorial stone for his beloved wife: ‘Here the whole world (stars, water, air, field and forest) like cast off clothes were left behind…yet with hope that she…hereafter may resume them on her Easter Day’. How different from Houseman’s ‘land of lost content, where we cannot go again…’

Is it impossible to imagine or conceive - this sense of all time kept in eternity for us to re-enter?  No!  Not really.  Not to the new physics which now allows us to see all space and all time already folded together eternally - rather than something separated out in linear fashion where each thing replaces another and has to leave it behind.  Nor to philosophers, who have long pointed out that if we really stop to analyse our experience of the present moment it’s not a movement with loss at all; it is a composite thing; the so-called present moment is actually a little bit of vivid memory of the immediate past and a little anticipation of the immediate future, held together as one moment. Eternity, then, can be imagined rather like this - as a sort of infinitely extended present moment which includes all the good of the past and all the good that lies ahead held together, and re-inhabited together...

Such is this hope of eternity given in Christ’s resurrection.

And thereby, isn’t this also the very thing which gives point to this life too?  Isn’t it the best answer of all to what this daily effort of living and loving now is all for?  After all, if the best of it is being kept eternally; if all our best relationships and experiences, all struggles for human dignity, all acts of care, justice, forgiveness, are not just destined to extinction but, by God’s grace, kept in heaven to be re-inhabited - then they have every point now.  They have eternal significance.  They are never wasted, never in vain. Which is why St Paul ends his great chapter on resurrection in his letter to Corinth with exactly this catchphrase: ‘in the Lord our labour is never in vain’.

The catchphrases of popular discourse today tend to tell a different story. ‘Life is just loss’, or ‘fake’ ,‘get over it’, ‘it is what it is’.  And the greatest cosmic shrug of all: ‘whatever’. - a sort of giving up on any real meaning; on anything really mattering.

But no!  What resurrection faith proclaims is that life is not loss.  Everything is potentially eternal.  There is meaning.  There is mattering. A deep and wondrous mattering.

This renewed purpose in life is one the greatest gifts that the Spirit of the risen Christ.  And he offers again now, if we are prepared to see Him again, and receive Him again; here and now, in our prayers, in bread and wine...

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