Sunday, April 15, 2012

Have I only slipped through the door?

Acts 10.34-43
1 Corinthians 15.1-11
Mark 16.1-8

A popular request at funerals is for a poem written by Henry Scott Holland, who was Dean of St Paul’s in the 1920s. The poem begins,

Death is nothing at all,

I have only slipped through the door

into the next room.


Holland is echoing the words of Jesus when he said ‘There are many dwelling places in my Father’s house’ and ‘I am going to prepare a place for you.’ In dying Jesus will, so to speak, slip through the door to the next dwelling place. And Jesus goes on to reassure his heart-broken disciples that he will come again and take them to himself, so that where he is they may be also.

But saying that death is about slipping through the door from one room to the next, or from one state of being to another, is not the same as saying that death is nothing at all! Someone who lost her grown-up son when he drowned has written her own retort to Henry Scott Holland:

The poet says that ‘Death is nothing at all

I have only slipped through the door

into the next room’ -

but what help is that to us?

For ...there is no coming back

...to fetch the kids,

to pay the bills,

to call and say Hi!


When Jesus says, ‘I will not leave you bereft; I am coming back to you’ he’s not denying the reality of his death. He isn’t sentimentalising, and pretending that nothing will have changed after he dies. Indeed, when on Easter Day Mary clings to him in the garden , hoping to keep him with her in this life just as he used to be, he tells her that can’t happen. He can only be with her now in a different way.

In Greek myth the Goddess of Spring, Persephone, returns from the dead for half of every year to resume her former life. But the resurrection of Jesus doesn’t restore him to his disciples so that he can resume his old life. Instead, it alters the meaning of his death, which ceases to be the moment when his life was extinguished and becomes the moment when his existence was transformed.

When we say that Jesus conquers death, or has the victory over it, or has taken the sting out of it, we don’t mean that it doesn’t matter any more. We mean that - because of his resurrection - death cannot overcome us, or destroy us, or wipe out our existence. Even an untimely death, or an unpleasant one like Jesus’ crucifixion, cannot deprive our lives of their meaning. Death is no longer the end, but a new beginning.

Peter’s sermon in Acts Chapter 10 is one of the earliest recorded statements of what the New Testaments calls the ‘kerygma’, the proclamation of the core beliefs of the CHristian faith. Luke seems to choose a deliberately halting style to convey Peter’s words. Is this because they are the words of Peter, and this is how he spoke?

Greek wasn’t his first language and unlike Paul or Luke, he hadn’t been to university. He was a fisherman and his grasp of Greek is what we might need to sell some fish to a Greek speaker. But when it comes to explaining a new belief system he seems to struggle to find the words he needs. Either that or Luke’s church has lost the precise words that Peter used and only knows roughly how he spoke, in which case Luke is reconstructing what he thinks the authentic voice of a Palestinian fisherman must have sounded like.

The message of Christianity according to Peter is a gospel of peace and reconciliation between God and human beings and between different nations and races. The thing that happened to bring this message about was Jesus. He burst onto the scene in Galilee after John proclaimed his ministry of national cleansing and baptism. Jesus was clearly inspired by God’s Spirit, as evidenced by the way he went about doing good and healing those who were oppressed by evil. But his reward was to be murdered by being nailed to a tree.

Peter doesn’t attach any particular importance to the Cross here. In fact, he’s clear that Jesus’ killing is unlawful, that there’s something fairly spontaneous about it - he’s just nailed to a tree trunk with suitably outstretched branches - and that his death serves no particular purpose. The idea that Jesus’ death sets us free from the consequences of sin is a later refinement of the kerygma, it’s not part of Peter’s original proclamation.

Instead, Peter concentrates his attention on the resurrection. For in Peter’s view it’s not the fact of his dying which sets Jesus apart and makes him unique, it’s the fact that God raised him from the dead on the third day.

It’s interesting that Peter should want to focus on the resurrection rather than the death of Jesus. Jesus’ execution was a public fact. Everyone in Palestine knows about it and Peter can appeal to their memory of the story even though they live on the coast a long way from Jerusalem and can only have heard about it on the grapevine. But the resurrection is something more mysterious. Peter admits that Jesus wasn’t immediately visible to other people after his resurrection. He didn’t simply slip back through the door and come again to his disciples and take them to himself. Instead, God granted him the gift of becoming visible to a group of special witnesses whom God had appointed from the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry to be his apostles or missionaries, proclaiming the good news about him. They ate and drank with Jesus after he was raised - probably a reference to sharing holy communion with him like the two disciples at Emmaus - and Jesus instructed them to proclaim the message that he is now God’s right-hand man, the judge of the living and the dead and the person who has been granted the power to forgive sins.

Peter’s primitive proclamation of the Jesus message shares features of other brand new religious movements. Like Islam and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, Peter appeals to a mysterious revelation which ordinary people couldn’t share. Instead, somebody special or - in the case of Christianity - a special group of people, the apostles, have been entrusted with the truth and have to relay it to others. And that secret truth is the resurrection story and the events and teaching which surround it.

There’s no mention here of an empty tomb which pilgrims can visit to verify the story, perhaps because Peter recognises an empty tomb doesn’t prove a great deal. Instead, the resurrection is a story that has ro be taken on trust.

Why, then, is the resurrection so important for Peter? I think it’s because it transforms the story of Jesus from just another tragic episode in Jewish history ,about a man who went around doing good and combatting evil until his life was snuffed out by being put to death on a tree, and makes Jesus instead the Lord of all.

Writing not long afterwards Paul also talks about the resurrection too. He says it is the secure basis on which rests everything else that his readers believe and do. Without it they can’t really trust in the saving power of Jesus.

Again there’s no explicit mention of an empty tomb, although Paul does mention in passing - this time - that Jesus was buried, implying that his burial was now becoming an important part of the story. He also makes a much stronger link between Jesus’ death and the forgiveness of sins. For Peter, forgiveness comes from believing in the whole Jesus’ event, but for Paul forgiveness is only made possible through Jesus’ death.

Paul also seems to expand the number of witnesses to the resurrection. It’s still a unique event, which only a favoured few could share, but whereas Peter was deliberately vague about precisely whom God had chosen to be the witnesses to the resurrection, Paul specifies that Jesus had appeared to more than 500 men and women all at once, presumably when they had gathered for worship or to receive teaching. Furthermore, he says that the apostles or missionaries chosen by Jesus to proclaim his resurrection were not just the original 12 disciples, nor even those 500 witnesses, but a group he calls ‘all the apostles’ including Jesus’ brother, James.

Paul’s motive for expanding the charmed circle of witnesses to the resurrection becomes clear at the end of his account, for he wants to include himself in their number. Peter implies that only people who had witnessed Jesus’ earthly ministry could be witnesses to his resurrection, and Paul anticipates a number of objections to the idea that he could possibly be a witness too. The first is that he was around at the wrong time to have witnessed the resurrection - like someone born far too early or aborted. The second is that, as an arch-persecutor of the Church, he isn’t a suitable person to be a missionary for the risen Jesus. The final objection is that a true apostle has to have taken the Gospel message to new people and places - Peter to the Gentiles, Thomas to India and so on - to which Paul replies that, while he may not have been the first person to proclaim the resurrection in any of the places he visited he had worked harder than all of the other apostles.

The really interesting thing to come out of Paul’s account, however, is the idea that the risen Jesus can still make himself known to his followers long after the first Easter. Paul may single himself out as the last and least of the apostles, but once the principle has been conceded there is no particular reason why any Christian shouldn’t be permitted to have a vision of the risen Jesus, as - for example - the writer of Revelation does long after Paul was writing.

Marks’ account of Easter also brings the story of the resurrection into the present tense - a tense he deliberately uses to heighten the immediacy of the story. Extremely early on the Sunday morning the women come to the tomb and see that the stone has been rolled away. Straightaway, then, we encouraged to think ourselves into the situation and imagine that we were there with them.

They do not actually see Jesus, of course. His resurrection remains far more enigmatic than that, but it’s made clear to them that he - Jesus - is going before them. Quivering, astonishment , alarm and fear, these might seem to be strange responses to resurrection, but they’re actually the typical ways in which characters in the Bible respond when they encounter God.

When Jesus says, ‘I will not leave you bereft; I am coming back to you’ or ‘I will go before you’ he’s not offering a cosy solution to life and death issues, a promise just to hold our hand in the valley of the shadow of death, he’s giving us an exciting and mind-blowing challenge. Are we ready for our lives to be transformed by the knowledge that Jesus is with us?

1 comment:

B.Martin said...

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