True Resurrection

March 9, 2008

( Ezekiel 37,1-14. John 11, 1-45)

Jesus said “ I am the Resurrection and the Life”.
A belief in resurrection is central to the Christian faith. But what is it exactly that we believe in?

We may be saying that we believe in the mighty act of God in raising Jesus Christ from death to glory in Palestine 2000 years ago. Of course, we cannot know what happened then in a physical sense: the gospels and Paul give us contradictory evidence on that score, and their accounts were written several decades after the event. But we do know the spiritual effect of the resurrection through the transformed lives of the companions of Jesus, and those who, through their testimonies, came to believe. Because of that, we treat the resurrection of Jesus as something quite different from the raising of Lazarus, or any other such miracle recorded in the Bible. However, that belief might not actually affect the way we live our lives, any more than any other historical event.

Because of the Resurrection of Christ, we are also able to believe in resurrection to eternal life for ourselves after death, the ‘resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come’ of which the creeds speak. This, again, is different from the raising of Lazarus, for Lazarus would suffer physical death eventually. But we do not really know what exactly resurrection to eternal life means in physical terms; and a belief about what will happen to us after death need not necessarily affect the way we live our daily lives now.

Father Harry Williams, an Anglican monk who died a couple of years ago, and who was a member of the Community of the Resurrection at Mirfield, wrote a book in the 1970’s entitled ‘True Resurrection’. In it, he questioned the tendency of Christians to push ‘resurrection’ away from their everyday experience, into the past of 2000 years ago, or into the future after physical death. That, he says, is to turn our relationship with the living Christ into a cult-idol; and the thing about idols, as Second Isaiah and the Psalmist point out, is that they are powerless. ‘Eyes they have, but they see not; mouths they have, but they speak not.” They don’t disturb our institutional, religious and personal status quo, they don’t demand anything of us. Most important, they can’t ask that we should live a new life; they leave us perfectly free to carry on as before, insulated from the life-transforming glory of true resurrection.
Why is it that we prefer to think about resurrection only in the past or the future? Perhaps it is because we are frightened of what we will have to go through before we can experience resurrection. As we will be reminded again during Holy Week, before he was raised up, Christ had to suffer the worst that human life had to offer: betrayal by a friend, a mockery of a trial, torture and death. He was stripped of everything that gave his life meaning: his role as a teacher and healer, his identity as a free human being, his clothing, his dignity, even, so Mark tells us, his belief in the supportive presence of God. Only in that total nakedness was he able to reveal the Eternal Word. Only through that utter darkness was he able to come to resurrection.

The story of the resurrection of Christ tells us in no uncertain terms that, in order to experience resurrection, we first have to experience death. Most of us would rather not do that. All our bodily instincts incline us to do everything we can to preserve ourselves from physical hurt; and we protect our social lives, our emotional stability, our economic status, our intellectual superiority, our cherished beliefs and the traditions of our religious organisations with equal tenacity – because it is all these things which give us security.

However, if we cling on to all those things, if we cannot let go in faith and trust, as Jesus did, then we will not experience resurrection. We leave no opening for God’s grace in Christ to work in us. Many, perhaps most people will at some time experience suffering, despair, emptiness, the loss of security, bereavement, failure. They appear to shrivel up, and seem destroyed by the experience. They are marked indelibly with the scars of it. Yet, some come through the experience with a deeper understanding of themselves, a deeper relationship with God, and a new dimension to reality. That is resurrection.

We are called to experience resurrection in all the dimensions of our life. We are called to experience resurrection of our physical bodies, not after death, but in this life. We are called to recognise in our bodies a vehicle through which God is revealed to us, and a vehicle through which we may reveal God to others; it is a vehicle which can go wrong, be abused, and be misused in order to hurt or destroy others, but it is not in itself evil or unspiritual. But it needs to be raised to live the sort of life Christ calls us to live.

We are called to experience resurrection in our minds. We need to free ourselves from being governed solely by logic, or solely by self-indulgent emotion, because the extremes of both can be used to harm others and destroy ourselves. When we allow our minds to be raised by God, then all the parts of it, logic, emotion and conscience are in balance, and we are able to use our minds in harmony with our bodies, to God’s glory.

We are called to experience resurrection in our institutions, especially our religious institutions. This is what the reading from Ezekiel is about – the renewal of Israel. But that will certainly mean that first we will have to let things die, perhaps things that are very precious to us, like our own denomination, our church building, the style of church music we like, or a familiar form of worship. But these things, more than anything else, can become idols, which can replace the risen Christ as our true signpost to God.

We are called to experience resurrection in our spiritual lives, to move from the living death of sin to new life reconciled to God in Christ, to an ever clearer hearing of the eternal Word and to a deeper knowledge of God, the Creator, redeemer and Sanctifier.

We may experience resurrection and not know it, just as the disciples on the Emmaus road met the risen Christ, and did not recognise him. This may be because we demand that resurrection should be something dramatic, something in which the normal physical, social and psychological laws of God’s world are suspended. Christ warned us against demanding such ‘signs’ and told the disciple Thomas that those who believed without ‘seeing’ such things were more blessed.

Harry Williams said: “Resurrection occurs to us as we are, and its coming is generally quiet and unobtrusive, and we may hardly be aware if its creative power. It is only later that we realise that, in some way or another, we have been raised to newness of life, and so have heard the voice of the Eternal Word”.

When we surrender our lives to God, we will have that Easter experience, and we will know true resurrection. We will know from our own experience that what destroys has been overcome by the creative power of God; what hurts has been healed by the loving hands of God; what has been divided is reunited in Christ; and that death and suffering and evil will never have the last word.

That is what we believe. That is what we will proclaim in two weeks time as our Easter faith. Christ is the Resurrection and the Life – and through our union with Christ in baptism, we will experience true resurrection ourselves.

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