Easter Day: A Grave with a View…
Someone recently pointed out to me that some words in one of the hymns we`d sung that morning were a little odd. We laughed about it and agreed that yes- sometimes they are a bit strange.
And this reminded me of one particular hymn that has these rather dodgy words: it comes from the end of Once in Royal David`s City: It`s talking about heave and it says: “Where like stars his children crowned- all in white shall wait around”. Now if this is supposed to be a picture of what we have to look forward to when we die- I don`t know about you – it seems just a bit dull to me. Celestial waiting room….
Now, I know it`s inevitable that we should struggle to put such things into words but it does get a little absurd doesn`t it? Like the time I conducted someone`s burial at a hillside cemetery- and one of the mourners said to me in all seriousness- “Well, we chose this spot because we know he`ll enjoy the view”.
But this is the kind of thing we`re supposed to be thinking about this morning isn`t it? It`s Easter Day. The Jesus who was brutally murdered on Good Friday is raised from the dead. There`s much to celebrate.
But without wishing to sound odd myself- I do wonder what it is we`re celebrating and what exactly we think is happening here. What actually do we have in mind- A waiting room? A rather pleasant view?
Let me explain. On Good Friday I gave my attention to those short passages in the gospels that describe the grief of Jesus` followers immediately after the crucifixion. We see how lovingly- and indeed bravely -they claimed his body and laid it in the tomb.
Now this is a picture so many of us can relate to. We`ve been there. In fact I want to suggest that this is such a powerful experience I think it almost completely covers our understanding of, as I say, what`s going on when we say `Jesus is Risen`.
And sincerely, I`m not trying to be unkind- what we end up with is effectively the greatest `happy ending` of all time. We can see why this might be. The resurrection IS good news. Because Jesus is risen therefore there IS life after death. Great.
The problem is that if you were so inclined, it doesn’t really matter very much whether it`s really true or not. It doesn`t really matter what you think happens after death either, because if we want we could simply take it all on the level of just another `feel good` movie. After all, it`s all about hope, life triumphing over death, `we`ll meet again` and all that.
Any sincere person could get their fix of all of this and- reinforced with a bit of spring time optimism- go back to how things were before. Wasn`t that nice……
In other words the message I can take away is that “Jesus is Risen` so that means- “There is life after death. So whilst none of us are sure about the details- that`s OK”.
I may be exaggerating for effect but I just keep thinking this is just incredibly flat isn`t it? Nice sentiments… sure. But not much more engaging than that heavenly waiting room…..
So that`s why I find it really interesting that whilst St. Paul in his letters does talk about our eternal destiny- the Gospel writers simply don`t. In all these accounts of the resurrection of Jesus they say absolutely nothing like “Jesus is risen- so there`s life after death`. Or `Jesus is risen, so we`re all off to heaven`.
No, what they say is: “Jesus is Risen. So he IS who he claims to be- He is the Messiah, the Lord, or King of the World if you wish. They say, all of this means that God`s new creation has begun (remember the resurrection happens in a garden- deliberately reminding us of the Garden of Eden) –
And on top of all of this they say `We have a job to do. We`re the heralds. The ones who are called to tell the world who Jesus is, what God has done and help to bring in his Kingdom- his reign in the hearts and lives of all.
Now I don`t know about you- but I find that far more engaging than the heavenly waiting room or a grave with a view. And this is why in our Baptism it talks about us having `died with Christ- and rising to a new life`. In our Baptism, Resurrection is portrayed as what happens NOW- not just after death.
But you see we have a remarkably good way of flattening this out as well. Because as long as we associate Baptism with `babies` we can get away with it. Baptism, we think, is something about them being `safe in God`s hands`. Phew. That`s OK then- and we can carry on just as before- And it`s nice to have the old man`s seal of approval.
But Baptism that is defined as `dying to sin (that attempt to live as if God ISN`T God) -and living, if you will `under His management`- well then you have a totally different dynamic.
There is a time and place to examine what the scriptures say about what happens after we die. But Easter day according to the Gospel writers is not that day. They are preoccupied with something much more important. As the slogan says: `We believe in life before death`!
So, I suppose the question before us is whether we prefer the Jesus who comes back to life just to reassure us. Who comes to give us a rather ill-defined, sentimental, reassuring, daffodils, springtime, feel good kind of Easter- with a gentle suggestion that `all will be well in the end`.
Or whether you can cope with the thunderous news that as one scripture writer said: `Death itself has been destroyed`. A whole new world order has been inaugurated. And you and I have a part to play in answering a prayer that we say all too glibly- `Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven`.
You see, resurrection says: `There is a better way of being a human being- and there is a better way of being a world`. And we are asked are you going to `wait around and hope for the best?` or are you going to take seriously the call of God upon your life and begin to change the world? But Oh! I forgot. Jesus said, that would mean taking up a cross- and wherever would that end? Thanks be to God
With grateful acknowledgement to NT Wright. `Surprised by Hope`