Easter Sermon 2013 – St Swithun’s Martyr Worthy
This sermon has been posted because it will be referred to in the sermon notes for 18th May 2014 BCP Communion and Evensong Sermons
Have you ever been terrified out of your wits? I have been frightened, but not terrified. Taxi-ing along the runway in a small aircraft in California in the 1980s with a parachute on my back saying to myself “I am not coming down in this aircraft” was pretty frightening. No, I mean much more scary than skydiving, something so terrifying that it saps you of all your strength and confidence; something which makes you act in a way which is a total rejection of who you are, of what you stand for. The terrifying fear that drove Peter to deny Jesus and caused the disciples to run from the garden of Gethsemane and lock themselves into a room ‘for fear of the Jews’.
Well, what has that sort of fear got to do with Easter Day? Well I want to contrast that paralysing terror with the incredible courage that Peter and the other disciples showed a month and a half later at Pentecost, when they stood in front of the crowd boldly declaring that the Jesus of Nazareth, who the crowd had had a hand in crucifying, was the Son of God, the promised messiah. The boldness that started the Christian church, which then spread rapidly throughout the world and which still survives today 2000 years later, despite persecution, torture, mockery and now (in the West at any rate) patronising contempt. What a contrast – terror on the one side and courage on the other, with 50 days in between! How is it possible that a rag-tag collection of fishermen and artisans, Jesus’ followers, could one month be paralysed with fear and the next month be willing to go to their deaths proclaiming that the man that the authorities had murdered, is the Son of God? Something very significant must have happened in between. What happened, of course, was the Resurrection which we celebrate today.
I don’t think it is possible to over-emphasise the importance of the Resurrection to Christianity. That Jesus was actually, physically, tangibly, historically (can I make it any clearer) raised from the dead is essential to Christianity. In fact, if the Resurrection could conclusively be proved not to have happened, then Christianity would be of no value. It is ONLY by the fact that Jesus died and God raised him from the dead that we are freed from our sins and can have a direct and immediate relationship with God today which is the special characteristic of Christianity and which makes it unique amongst the world’s religions. So it is pretty important.
Now, I would love to be able to demonstrate to you, conclusively, that Jesus rose from the dead – to show you by scientific proof that it happened in a way which no rational person could deny. But I admit that I cannot. As we all know, people who are dead don’t come back to life again and the whole basis upon which we build our knowledge of science hinges upon repeatability. We observe phenomena; we hypothesise about the connections between cause and effect and we deduce that there are natural laws at work when the same effects happen in the presence of the same causes. As we have no present day experience of men who are dead rising three days later, we say it is impossible; it could not have happened. Is the resurrection an impossible thing that we cannot believe?
Science has brought us so many benefits. Planes fly and hearts are transplanted. It’s easy to assume that the only way that we know things is by the scientific method. But a little reflection makes clear that this is not the case. For example, we cannot discover what happened in the past, by the scientific method – Julius Caesar’s Gallic War is not repeatable – does this mean that we cannot know anything about it? Isn’t history knowledge also? But, you may say, that is all very well, but when we look at history, we don’t accept that impossible things happened in the past; things which go against the laws of nature, as we know them. But if we say that, we are assuming that anything that God the Creator of the universe might do has to be bound by the natural laws that he established. The Resurrection, if it is anything, is a deliberate and exceptional interference with the usual laws of nature from outside – something supernatural. If you say there is no possibility that the laws of nature could be interfered with from outside then, of course, you will decide that the Resurrection is impossible. But this is what lawyers call begging the question.
Can knowledge which is not scientific knowledge, be reliable?
Every day throughout this country groups of men and women face making decisions on whether something happened in the past or not. They are called juries. They decide whether something happened or not on the basis of the evidence before them. They weigh the evidence and they make a decision. This is all I am asking of you today.
So what evidence is there? Well one background point first of all: we are, of course, looking at events which happened about 2000 years ago. We do not have a huge number of original source documents – we have the four witness accounts of the resurrection, called the gospels. But some people say “you can’t believe them, they were written by Christians” but that’s like saying “you can’t believe what happened in the Gallic War, because it was written by Romans”. No serious historian takes that view. Julius Caesar’s book is the only record we have. We must, of course, take the perspective of those who are writing into account, but we don’t reject it out of hand.
Indeed, we do have some confirmation of aspects of the stories told in the New Testament from archaeology and from Jewish and Roman historians, but in nothing like the detail of the gospels themselves. So, ultimately we must engage with the gospels if we are to try and establish what happened.
We can be completely satisfied that the versions we now have are as they were written – they stand alone amongst ancient texts for their reliability, because we have so many ancient copies from so many places – this has been established by the science of textual criticism. And the New Testament has been subject to the most rigorous analysis of any ancient works – many hundreds of theologians have spent their lives examining them in the greatest detail, with all sorts of different historical methods. The latest theological approach, contained in Richard Bauckham’s book Jesus and the Eye Witnesses, sees the gospels as testimony rather than history – like that of a witness in a trial. So, you are the jury.
Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I would like to make two points about the evidence upon which I would ask you to form a view. Firstly, I would suggest that the gospel accounts are credible and secondly that the other possible explanations of what happened, are not credible.
- The gospels are credible; they ring true. The gospels are not myths: although they deal with some extraordinary events, the gospels don’t read like the myths of the Ancient World in which the heroes are larger than life characters. The disciples are not always heroes. In an ancient world which prized personal courage and loyalty above all, the gospels reveal the leader of the disciples, Peter, to have acted with cowardice and disloyalty when he denied Jesus. And the implication throughout the gospels is that the disciples did not have any idea, most of the time, what on earth Jesus was talking about. Even in Gethsemane after the Last Supper, when Jesus was pointing towards his immediate death, the disciples slept rather than watched and prayed with him, indicating that they had no clue that their world and dreams were about to be shattered. If the gospels are not true accounts, why would the writers have been so embarrassingly critical of the disciples, the then leaders of the church, at the time they were written? Also, the first and most important encounter with the risen Christ is with a woman. Sorry ladies. But in a world where a woman’s word was of almost no value and was not allowed in a court of law, it is the women who first find the tomb empty and are the first witnesses to the Resurrection. If the apostles had wanted to invent a story about the resurrection they would not have made the most important and first witness account, come from a woman. If you doubt the credibility of the gospels, I suggest that you might like to read one of them from beginning to end and see what you think – read one in a modern English version and make your own mind up on this!
- The alternative possibilities as to what might have happened are not credible:
Some say that Jesus did not die on the cross, but survived the crucifixion and staggered out of the tomb. We know that He was chastised by the Romans – anyone who has seen Mel Gibson’s film of the Passion knows what that means. The flogging was so severe that some people died just from the beating alone. A soldier went to check that he was dead to report back to Pilate. A Roman soldier would not have wanted to make a mistake on a report to Pilate on a matter of this importance. But most convincing of all, I think, is the discharge of ‘blood and water’ from Jesus’ side recorded in John 19:34, when Jesus was lanced by the spear. This discharge apparently suggests massive clotting of the blood in the main arteries and is apparently “exceptionally strong medical proof of death”. And of course the evangelist could not possibly have realised the significance of this phenomenon to a modern doctor. Others say that the tomb was not empty, but, if so, why did the authorities not simply produce the body and scotch Christianity at birth? Some have suggested that the disciples stole the body. But, is it really credible that so many of those who witnessed the risen Christ would have died, often in agony, maintaining that he had risen from the dead, when in fact they actually knew that they had stolen the body? It is one thing dying for a lie if you believe it to be true, but dying for a lie you know to be false? Is it credible that they would have done so?
So I would submit to the jury that the resurrection story, unlikely as it may sound, is more credible than the alternative possibilities.
But what really seals the deal, from my perspective, is where we started: The transformation which occurred between Gethsemane and Pentecost is difficult to explain if the resurrection did not happen. The disciples were transformed from terror to expounding the gospel boldly, publicly. But, in addition, James, Jesus’ brother moved from disbelief we see in John 7:5 to becoming the leader of the Christians in Jerusalem and the writer of one of the epistles. How do we explain that transformation? Also Thomas refused to accept anything less than physical evidence that Jesus had risen. And he got it and went on to establish the church in India.
When we realise that belief in the Resurrection is not irrational, but is possibly true, we clear away the principal intellectual obstacle to Christian faith. And this does need to be cleared away for many of us, if we are to see Christianity as something unique and true. But it will not be enough in itself. It is only when that obstacle has been removed, that we might be willing to ask Jesus to reveal himself to us. We can do this by means of a prayer which I have put in the sermon notes. You can pray this at home and then tell someone you have done so.
When finally we do this, I can assure you that Jesus will reveal his presence to us through the Holy Spirit; we will begin the incredibly exciting journey that the Christian life offers; and he will provide all the proof that we need to want to follow him. And then, we will be able to kneel before him and say with St Thomas “my lord and my God”.