Yes to Resurrection
Third Sunday of Easter: 14th April, 2013
Rev'd Dr Hugh Kempster, Vicar of St Peter's, Eastern Hill
In 1901 0.4% of Australians identified themselves as having "no religion". By 1971 this rose to 7%, in 2006 it was nearly 19%. On census night in 2011 4.8 million people chose to tick the "no religion" box, that is 22.3% of those surveyed. Bishop Graeme and Jonathan Rutherford's book Beloved Father, Beloved Son (2013) has been an important contribution to the ongoing dialogue between those with faith and those without. Chapter 5 "Resurrection — legend or the 'debris of an explosion'?" is an honest and robust exploration of this central question of our faith. As Jonathan says: "Christianity stands or falls on this issue" (p. 76). In his book The God Delusion (2006) Richard Dawkins cites a story about Cardinal Basil Hume, who told his friend the Abbot of Ampleforth that he was dying. The Abbot purportedly replied, "Congratulations! That's brilliant news. I wish I was coming with you" (p. 398). Dawkins suggests that all believers ought to respond to death in this manner if they really believe in heaven. "Why" he muses "don't all Christians and Muslims say something like the abbot when they hear that a friend is dying? When a devout woman is told by the doctor that she has only months to live, why doesn't she beam with excited anticipation, as if she had just won a holiday in the Seychelles?" (p. 399). It is important that we can account for our faith. What does Easter and the reality of resurrection mean for us in practical terms?
This time of year three years ago was a very difficult one for my family. Our older daughter, who is married to a dairy farmer in New Zealand, was found to have the E. Coli 0157:H7 bacterium in her blood stream. Its effect on healthy red blood cells is likened to throwing tomatoes at chicken wire, and within a few days Amy's kidneys stopped functioning. I phoned my son-in-law Chris, after the first plasma transfusion, and he said: "Well, she made it". That was when I first realised how close to death she was. Over the next few days Amy was kept alive by a dialysis machine and the skilled renal team at Whangarei hospital north of Auckland.
The next time I got to speak to Amy, she had an incredible story to tell. One night she was alone on the ward. All her visitors had gone, and she was feeling as low as she had ever been. People describe her illness as "about as sick as you can get". Amy described it as literally walking in the valley of the shadow of death. There was nowhere to turn; so she started praying. She was past caring what the nurses or others on the ward thought, and she just kept crying out to God for help. Then suddenly she had an overwhelming sense of God's presence with her. It was as real to her as if someone had physically been there with her. God visited her. And after that long night she began to slowly turn the corner. It's a rare illness, and the last person to be treated for it in Whangerei hospital was in Intensive Care for 12 months. Now, one month on, she is still very sick, but she is at home and her kidneys have started working again. Those of you who know my theology on this one will understand that I'm not quick to use this word ... but it was a miracle.
Was I delighted that Amy was at death's door? No, of course not. I was distraught, as was all my family. Does this mean that my faith was inadequate? Again, no; I struggle with questions of faith and suffering as much as the next person. Dawkins is undoubtedly an intelligent man, but I must say his understanding of Christian theology on this and some other questions is rather simplistic. There are some wonderful words that Julian of Norwich wrote in the fifteenth century: "[Jesus] said not, 'Thou shalt not be tempested, thou shalt not be travailed, thou shalt not be diseased,' but he said, 'Thou shalt not be overcome'" (from A Revelation of Love).
An Easter faith is not a sugar-coated one. The irony of Good Friday is that Jesus experiences the agonising pain and humiliation of a Roman execution. He is literally wiped out from the face of the earth in the most brutal manner. Resurrection was probably not something that literally took place three days later, like some Hollywood fantasy movie, a nice happy ending. Biblical scholars have studied the gospels carefully, looked at the early history of the church, and plotted convincingly how this powerful theological reality of resurrection came into being over time.
Bishop Jack Spong summarises such scholarship succinctly in his book Resurrection: Myth or Reality? (1994). I think his words sum up these questions of death and Easter faith extremely well (p. 292):
I stand before this portrait of God painted by Jesus of Nazareth and interpreted by the church. I recognize the legends, the accretions, the context of that ancient world ... I probe all of those elements until I get beyond them to the experience that produced them. Here words fail me. Silence engulfs me. I peer beyond the limits in which my life is lived, and I say a powerful yes ...
Yes to Jesus — my primary window into God;
Yes to resurrection — which asserts that the essence of Jesus is the essence of a living God;
Yes to life after death — because one who has entered a relationship with God has entered the timelessness of God.
This Easter season may we also say "yes" to Jesus, "yes" to resurrection — however we understand this central doctrine — and "yes" to life after death. These are realities that bring hope and healing into our lives, and by God's grace and our hard work, provide the same for a broken world. Amen.
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St Peter's Eastern Hill, Melbourne Australia.