Many years ago I was taking part in a Christmas service in which everybody had been given a candle. And when the time came to light them the idea was that beginning with one candle at the front of the church- we would light the candles on the end of every row- and people were invited to turn and light the candle of the neighbour so that from that one candle the light would spread throughout the whole church.
Now we weren`t in a particularly large building. It wasn`t going to be an especially lengthy process but I noticed within moments that someone on one side of the church had got out their cigarette lighter and lit their own candle. And my heart sank. This was defeating the object. And I was just so sad that this person hadn`t really understood how this symbolic act was supposed to work and the point we were trying to make about the light of Christ coming into the world and being spread to everyone. It did, I think say something about impatience; about individuality and perhaps not feeling really part of the event. Here was someone who was ploughing their own furrow.
Today we gather to mark and celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus from the dead and people have a range of feelings and understandings of what this might be about. At the milder end of the spectrum (if you can get beyond chocolate and Easter Bunnies) there are shall we say, the warm feelings we associate with springtime, lambs in the fields, daffodils and perhaps the triumph of optimism over pessimism.
If you are religiously inclined then the notion that Jesus `came alive again` feeds into an underlying hope that there might be `something` awaiting us after we die. In other words this Easter story acts as a picture to which I can attach my underlying sense of hope. It doesn`t really matter whether it actually happened- it`s a story that seems to have something to do with: “There IS a life after death and on balance I`d like to think that`s true”. All of this goes hand in hand with the notion that if I keep my nose relatively clean then maybe I`ll get to leave here and `go to heaven`. Quite what we have in mind when we say all of this is not very clear but a fair number of us seem to think it has something to do with clouds and harps.
But I`ve noticed in recent years that we`re even less likely to speculate on the life after death thing… the `what happens next`, so to speak. It`s almost as if beyond the springtime optimism, for some of us at any rate, the Easter story seems to have run out of steam. So, for instance, when it comes to funerals what we`re more likely to get nowadays is something people want to describe as the “Celebration of a life”. In other words, (and don`t misunderstand me) as well meaning and important as that is, the focus is mainly on what HAS been rather than on what might lie ahead.
But as you would expect I don`t think that the Easter story has run out of steam; nor is it any less relevant today. Part of the problem is, the way we continue to interpret Easter and the Resurrection in the terms I`ve just mentioned. In other words, when I treat Easter as a message about a `general optimism about things` or as a pointer that, if I behave I might get another go at this thing called life I`m a bit like that chap who rather independently lit his own candle. I`m looking at everything from MY perspective rather than, shall we say, the bigger picture. But if we`re going to understand the Easter story and what it actually means we have to get away from all of this.
Essentially it really does begin with Jesus. Who he is and what he thought he was doing. At the heart of this is that Jesus came proclaiming the Kingdom of God. He was telling us that God is doing a new thing. He was announcing the truth that God IS God and that in spite of the mess we have made of his world he has not given up on us and that in Jesus he is making a new beginning; a new world. “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself”, (2 Corinthians 5.19) says St. Paul.
And the goal that we`re aiming at is not us escaping to another place, but working towards but the reign, the authority of God coming here; to a transformed creation. That`s what we mean when we say in the Lord`s Prayer: `Thy Kingdom come; thy will be done on earth as in heaven”. We begin with the resurrection as an actual event. It`s not a metaphor or wishful thinking; and this resurrection of Jesus is a vindication that he IS who he claims to be; the Son of God. St. Paul calls him the `First Fruits`; the first sign of this in-breaking of God`s new creation. Again, this is why those Gospel writers are absolutely adamant that this was no illusion; and why the physical, actual resurrection of Jesus from the dead is absolutely essential to the Christian faith. I mean, St. Paul says if it didn`t happen we are a pitiful lot.
But no, the first witnesses to the resurrection were called `Apostles`, those who were sent to announce this to the world. Every Christian ever since, including you and I, are called to become citizens of this Kingdom (under new management) to announce and to work towards that time when the transformation will be complete and as Paul says: “at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth (Philippians 2.10).
All of which is a much bigger picture than spring time optimism and pie in the sky when I die. But what happens when we die….and what of those who have gone before us? Well, the Christian faith is that we go to our rest- quite safe in the Father`s care; to rise again when Christ comes as judge of all.
But the `what happens next` of the Gospels is not “What happens when we die?” but the “We`ve got a job to do”. Since death has been defeated we know the outcome. Since death as St. Paul puts it: “has no more sting”, (1 Corinthians 15.55) no power over us we are free to live the resurrection life now… to BE Jesus to those around us. To love, give, care in an extraordinarily sacrificial way because “our life is hid with Christ in God”. (Colossians 3.3)
Unlike the people of Israel of old we must no longer `hide our light` under a bushel basket. We are called to shine the light of Christ on others- to call others to the light and truth of Christ. To announce and show that there is a better way of being a human being and a better way of being a world.
I mentioned a few moments ago this tendency to turn funerals into what are called a `Celebration of a life`. I repeat, I`m not knocking the importance of sharing and yes, enjoying our memories of our loved ones. My point is that this is only half the story and as we often see `the good is often the enemy of the best`. No, for the Christian it seems to me the point of a eulogy; the point of the celebration is not so much the person in themselves but what God did in and through them. That they were bearers of Christ; the light of the world. This is what that man with his cigarette lighter unfortunately didn`t understand. We don`t live to share our own light- but to reflect the light of Christ. Or as Desmond Tutu put it: We`re the light bulbs. Our job is to stay screwed in!”
Alleluia, Christ is risen!