Anglicans Together ...promoting inclusive Anglicanism

Ora et labora

Rev Andrew Sempell

by the Reverend Andrew Sempell, President

Easter is the Principal Festival of the Christian Year.

It is the time we proclaim, 'Christ is risen! '—a declaration of the triumph of love, the hope of resurrection, and the possibility of new life. It is also a statement about the nature of God, humanity and the created world around us, for it acknowledges that we are in a process of change and that we need to make good and healthy decisions in this process. These three words, and the festival from which they come, stand at the centre of our faith.

The celebrations at Easter can be very grand and uplifting—while it lasts. The experience of many, however, is that the mundane realities of life quickly return and the joy and hope of Easter fades. Moreover, and sadly so, for most people in our country Easter has no meaning at all, except perhaps as being yet another public holiday. Nevertheless, the spiritual poverty of much of our world should not surprise us, for it has been forever thus.

The physical presence of Jesus himself did not change many people in his own time, nor did the experience of resurrection. Nevertheless, there has always been those who have seen, believed, understood and been changed because of the experience of resurrection in their lives. Easter therefore provides many things for us to reflect upon, including the narrative, the symbols, the mystery and the experience.

The Easter Event

What are we to make of the empty tomb? From the earliest times, there have been many theories as to why the tomb was empty. Even the ancients tried to rationalise away the emptiness of the tomb. After all, very few people in the time of Jesus believed in resurrection, except perhaps in the vaguest of spiritual terms. A physical resurrection was considered a most unlikely possibility. However, the empty tomb suggests to us that the resurrection was not just a 'spiritual' thing, but was also 'physical'.

Matthew's Gospel describes the two 'Marys' going to Jesus' tomb and becoming the first witnesses to the resurrection. They came and expected to find a secure tomb where Jesus' body lay, but instead they found the confusing sight of an open and empty tomb, with a man nearby proclaiming that Jesus had risen. They quickly returned to the disciples who were in hiding, and on the way met the resurrected Christ. Having returned, the women became the first evangelists—telling the disciples the 'good news'.

Now, the gospel accounts of the resurrection do differ from each other. Nevertheless, putting aside the points of view of the gospel writers, I wonder what the women actually saw and what effect it had upon them. It would seem that the disciples did not believe their 'good news' and needed to see for themselves—and what did they 'see'?

The good news was shared with the apostle Thomas, but he would not believe until he saw for himself.

The gospels describe many sightings of the resurrected Christ; however, not all recognised him at first. Just as Thomas' response to the 'good news' was a sceptical 'seeing is believing', so too might we reasonably question the message of resurrection today. Nevertheless, people continue to experience the resurrected Christ and come to believe in him, even today. So, what do people see?

Symbols of Easter

Easter worship brings together several important symbols and actions that provide an insight into the Christian life-journey, or pilgrimage. Indeed, they give expression to the occasions upon which we can encounter the resurrected Christ.

Light, which is a sign of 'knowledge' and 'understanding', brought into our spiritual lives because of the presence of Christ in the world. Seeing may well be a great aid to believing, but we cannot see while we are in the dark—we therefore need enlightenment. God has created us and given us the capacity to understand his presence in the world.

The Word, which is our sharing in God's revelation through the history of his people, and the message it contains for us today. The story of the people of God is also our story and the story of God's presence in the world even now.

Baptism, which is about recognising that we are part of God's kingdom today, which is to be found in the church. We describe it as becoming God's sons and daughters and understand that God's Spirit lives in each one of us.

Eucharist, which is a sign of the process of gathering, offering, transformation and nourishment of God's people. Through this we remember Jesus in history as well as acknowledging his ongoing presence through the people of God in the world today.

These are signs of process—reflecting both 'being' and 'becoming'. Our lives are not static, but instead are in a constant state of change. Part of our calling is to allow God to transform our lives so that we may become the people that God wants us to be. This is part of the mystery of the Christian faith—a faith that is both now but also to be experienced more fully in the future; a faith that is both present in the world but is also transcendent—uniting all things 'both visible and invisible' in God.

Consequences of Easter

It is of no surprise that, for most people, the questions of identity, purpose, and the health and happiness of our lives are of primary concern. Our physical, emotional, mental and spiritual well-being is of importance for each of us. Moreover, all of these aspects of our lives need the experience of resurrection.

On Good Friday, we commemorate the death of Jesus on the cross. It is a day of mixed emotions, on the one hand, there is the grief that comes from the sharing of the story of the violent death of Jesus; but on the other hand, we know the outcome of the story and of the hope of resurrection, so there is also joy and thanksgiving.

Nevertheless, the reality is that without death there is no resurrection. Good Friday remains a time to grieve and mourn, which is a necessary condition for resurrection; here suffering is not excused or ignored, but rather cries out for redemption and justice. We can therefore identify with the sufferings of Christ and link our own sufferings with his.

Resurrection therefore becomes a principle for the Christian life. It acknowledges the tragedy of human existence known through brokenness, sin and death, and recognises our need for God through reconciliation, transformation and new life. All of this is achieved because of God's love for his people and through the self-giving love of Jesus that found a defining moment for his followers on the cross.

At the Greeting of Peace, we proclaim 'we are the body of Christ: his Spirit is with us'. Through these words, we declare that we are people of the resurrection continuing the work of Christ in the world today. So, what do we see in all of this? Perhaps it is the people of God, with all our frailties and failings, offering ourselves to God in service. Through this offering, and the transformation that follows, we are called to be Christ to the world.

Easter then is a mystery—something more to be experienced rather than 'known about'. Just as Jesus offered himself on the cross for the sins of the world and found resurrection and redemption, so we too are called to offer ourselves to God as 'a living sacrifice' and to bring God's love to others.

So, what do we see? On Good Friday, we see brutality and violence wreaked upon an innocent Jesus by a fearful, selfish and power-hungry world. On Easter Day, we see an empty tomb and a resurrected Christ, now living through the faith, hope and love of his people on earth.

This counter-cultural message is not about realpolitik, (which proposed that the death of one innocent man was just collateral damage in the enforcement of the 'peace'); nor is it self-help, (which is an ailment of the self-centred world that we inhabit); but rather it is about setting aside the desire for power and the exercise of self-interest, and instead working for the well-being and salvation of others. Hence, salvation can be found through allowing our lives to be shaped by God rather than by the pursuit of our own desires.

Resurrection is therefore a choice—an act of the will to take up our cross and follow Christ.