Rethinking the Resurrection
One of the many blessings to flow from my
temporary suspension from priestly duties was the opportunity to become
a full member of the choir in my local church. I am not a very good
singer, but I enjoy it, and if you can make a half-reasonable shot at
singing tenor there is no parish church choir in England that can afford
to turn you away! A by-product of choir membership was saying in the
vestry before every service a choristers' prayer, which includes the
petition: "Grant that what we sing with our lips we may believe in our
Those of you familiar
with the worst excesses of Victorian hymnody may shudder at the thought
of anyone believing every word they had to sing, but right from the
start I took those words very seriously. They forced me to ask myself,
Do I really believe in my heart the great affirmations of the Christian
faith about which I sing week by week?
The answer I gave
was, "Yes". But with that answer came a renewed awareness that I could
only believe these things because I had been privileged to study the
scriptures and the doctrines and to understand them in a way that made
sense in the twenty-first century. All too many of the congregation -
never mind the public at large - imagined these things had to be
believed in ways more appropriate to the first or the fourth or the
sixteenth centuries. Small wonder they made heavy weather of it.
So to my recitation
of the words "Grant that what we sing with our lips we may believe in
our hearts", I began silently to add the reminder to myself: "And it is
your job as a priest and a preacher to proclaim those words in a way
that makes them believable today."
This does not imply
any kind of spiritual dumbing down. Quite the opposite. It means a
spiritual and intellectual sharpening up. It means rejecting the false
notion that faith is somehow opposed to reason and intelligent thought,
and embracing instead the dictum of Augustine: I believe that I might
understand (credo ut intelligam), a theme echoed later by Anselm
when he described theological study as Faith in search of understanding
(fides quaerens intellectum). My task here is to give you an example of how
this works in practice, by tackling the central Christian doctrine -
especially topical in Eastertide - of the resurrection of Jesus.
Easter because Jesus is alive. It is no part of my brief to suggest this
is a false belief, but it is very much the theologian's job to ask: What
do we mean when we say that Jesus is alive?
Quite often the
clergy are asked to sign certificates for occupational pensioners,
confirming that the person is still alive and entitled to draw their
pension. Suppose I were asked to certify that Jesus, carpenter of
Nazareth, is still alive and therefore entitled to draw his pension.
Could I sign such a certificate? I could not. Whatever we mean when we
say that Jesus is alive, we are not using the words in the way that a
pensions or insurance company uses them.
When we say that
Jesus is alive, we are also very clear that he died and was buried.
He is not alive in the straightforward ordinary sense of the word.
This is both a
blindingly obvious thing to say and an absolutely essential thing to
say. Essential in the first place, because until we clear the decks of
all the things that don't form part of the Christian faith, there
is no space to set out what Christians do believe. And essential
in the second place, because there is no shortage of enemies of open,
honest, believable Christianity, who are only too pleased to promote the
false idea that religious faith means having to believe six impossible
things before breakfast.
So, to repeat, when
Christians say that Jesus is the living Lord, they are not saying - and
have never been saying, in all the 2000 years of Christian history -
that he is alive in the straightforward ordinary sense of the word.
Let's try another
tack. Many Elvis Presley fans will tell you that 2Elvis lives!2. They
may even (with more than a passing echo of Christian claims for Jesus)
give him a royal title and proclaim that "The King lives!". Now, we may
feel this language is extravagant, but it is not entirely stupid. We can
make sense of it. It is a dramatic way of saying that the power of the
man and his music have not been extinguished by his death.
So is this what
Christians mean when they say that Jesus lives? Or proclaim that Jesus
is Lord, or King? Are they simply affirming the continuing power of his
message and his example to inspire millions of people the world over?
That is certainly
part of what we mean, and I would say it is a very important part. It is
important not least because it provides a bridge between the religious
use of language and something closer to its ordinary use. Unlike the
prosaic pension-company understanding of the words, the Elvis example
manages strongly to affirm the "being alive without in any way denying
the reality of the "having died". It actually offers two ways into the
meaning of our religious language.
First, it uses the
terms "alive" and "he lives" in a metaphorical way rather than a literal
one. In the literal sense used by pension and insurance companies, being
dead and being alive are mutually exclusive conditions.
This is true even of
those well-publicised cases where a person has been declared clinically
dead and has subsequently recovered, cases that find a biblical parallel
in the examples of Lazarus or the widow of Nain's son. These people are
temporarily dead, and then alive again for a shorter or longer time,
before dying permanently.
By contrast, when
Christians say that Jesus is alive, we do so in a way that affirms his
dying and its permanence. It is because Jesus has already died "once for
all" that his disciples can confidently proclaim that he will never die
again, that "death has no more dominion over him".
This is crucially
important. Insisting on the reality and the permanence of Jesus' death
is not a sop to a modern scientific culture that cannot cope with
traditional red-blooded belief in the resurrection. It is part of the
central claim of Christianity from New Testament times onward that -
uniquely - Jesus did not "come back" from death but rather burst
through the death barrier. Small wonder that Christians and
non-Christians alike find themselves struggling even to imagine what
this might mean.
This brings us to the
second way in which the Elvis phenomenon can be a pointer - albeit a
very inadequate one - to a better way to understand our religious
language about Jesus and his resurrection. Elvis lives on to the extent
that his fans still respond to his music.
And it is in the
words and deeds of his disciples, and in the context of their changed
lives, that the words "Jesus is alive" have their meaning. Whatever it
was that the disciples experienced on the first Easter Day and the weeks
immediately following, it enabled them - more than that it compelled
them - to say, "No longer does death make a mockery of life; no longer
does it make life meaningless. Indeed, death has become the key to life's
One common way of
expressing this has been to speak of death as the gateway to new life.
There has been envisaged a succession of events: earthly life, followed
by death, followed by eternal life. This has been presented (for
instance in the Epistle to the Hebrews) as the pattern set by Jesus and
promised to us all. But we have already seen that such language cannot
be taken literally. Saint Paul underlined this when he said that for
Christians eternal life begins at their baptism, that is to say the
occasion of their "dying to sin", and does not have to wait for physical
So the Church has
always taught that eternal life is a new quality of existence that
begins here and now. It is the change that comes about when we hear the
story of Jesus and see the limiting factors of life in a new light. We
are all tempted from time to time to be overwhelmed by the "slings and
arrows of outrageous fortune". Pain, sickness, cruelty, above all death
itself, seem to make a nonsense of life.
The Christian claim
that "Jesus lives" is an affirmation that - on the contrary - it is life's limitations that make sense of it, because they give it the
boundaries, and therefore the shape, which are necessary to meaningful
By this point some of
you will be feeling short-changed. "He was advertised as speaking about
the resurrection, but he's not mentioned any of the difficult questions
at all. What about the empty tomb? What about passing through locked
doors? What about the lack of recognition?"
Well, in one way you
are right to be sceptical. For me the thing to hang on to is the
experience of millions of Christians, the undeniable fact that their
lives on earth have been transformed by the story of Jesus' triumph over
death. Never mind how far the details of the story can or cannot be
understood as literally true. In whatever way we are able to hear it,
that story surely has the power to bring a new quality of life to each
of us here and now.
This is eternal life.
This is what Easter is all about. This is what it means for the Church
to proclaim that "Jesus lives!"
I can appreciate,
however, why the nuts and bolts questions of "what really happened?" do
worry many people more than they do me, and I am happy to talk about my
interpretation of the resurrection accounts in the New Testament.
Unfortunately that is
not a task that can be undertaken in isolation from my approach to the
entire Bible, the kind of writing it contains, and the proper - and
improper - ways of using it.
Very briefly, we
should not treat the Bible as a telescope, but more like a Hall of
Mirrors. With a telescope we are presented with a close-up picture of a
distant scene, and to use the Bible in this way is to imagine that it
gives us access in accurate detail to events that happened long ago and
far away and even in the heavenly realm. But the Bible cannot deliver
that kind of clear precise information. As in the Hall of Mirrors, the
scenes we perceive are the result of multiple reflections and images
laid one upon another, so that little if anything is quite what it
appears at first sight.
Nowhere is this more
true than in the accounts of the resurrection, which are notoriously
difficult to weave into a single coherent account, and even when taken
individually are far from straightforward. For me the most striking
aspects of the resurrection appearances are the ambiguity - Mary
Magdalene thinks he's the gardener, the fishermen see a figure they
don't recognize, most curious of all, the disciples dare not ask him,
Who are you? because they know it is the Lord - and the emphasis on
Taking it all
together - especially the story of the Emmaus disciples and the repeated
appearance to the disciples in the locked room on the first day of the
week - I see the Eucharist as the clue to the Easter stories. It was in
their table fellowship together that the apostles were aware of Jesus'
presence among them, but it was a sensed presence rather than a
straightforward physical one. Precisely how this ties up with the events
of the Last Supper I do not know, but tie up it undoubtedly does.
As for the empty
tomb, all four gospels mention it, but the accounts differ, and the most
elaborate - that in John's Gospel - is clearly influenced by theological
considerations. Most obviously there are the detailed differences
between the raisings of Jesus and Lazarus, which can hardly be
accidental. More thoroughly worked out is John's theme of the second
Adam, which runs right through his account of the passion and
resurrection of Jesus. I see no way in which from this distance we can
ever piece together the actual events of the first Easter Day.
But as I have said,
for me that does not matter. What does matter is that faith in the
resurrection should be expressed as a confidence in the power of life
over death, not seen as test you have to pass in order to become a
Christian. And the best way to achieve that is by bringing a
contemporary understanding to the traditional texts and teachings.
I began with an allusion to the choristers' prayer. To round off in
similar vein, I will put this sentiment in the words of Paul that the
Royal School of Church Music have as their motto: "I will sing with
spirit, and with the understanding also (psallam spiritu et mente).