This being the nearest Sunday to St Valentine, you might perhaps be hoping for a bit of romance in the homily. Actually all our readings this morning focus, in one way or another, on trust and dependability – aspects of love which are much less emphasised in our culture than romantic yearnings, but which concern what really sustains relationships, beyond the hearts and the flowers.
So where do we put our trust? The prophet, the sage and the evangelist, who we have just heard, are clear enough about who not to rely upon. Jeremiah reminds us that the allure of the world can be cruelly deceptive. The Psalmist enjoins us not to ‘follow the counsels of the wicked’. And in the Gospel, Jesus warns that those who choose to ignore the struggle for right by seeking purely material consolations are going to miss out on life’s real, God-given purpose. No romantic illusions there, then!
But how does St Paul’s letter to the Corinthians figure in all this? Its focus on resurrection doesn’t immediately resonate with the other readings, and at first sight it is rather curious that the lectionary should insert a blatant Easter theme into the Church’s Ordinary Time in the middle of a cold, damp February.
Then again, “the God who raised Jesus” is not, by definition, one who accedes to the convenient, the expected, the predictable. There is, as Paul discovers in the resistance of his audience, something awkward, difficult, perhaps even unwelcome about what ought to be the central and most joyous feature of the Christian Good News – the resurrection of Jesus Christ. To understand why, we need to think about the prevailing assumptions of both Paul’s time and ours.
For Paul writing to the Christians in Corinth a belief in the general resurrection of the dead – a time when God would restore to life all who had ‘fallen asleep’, as the Apostle puts it – was a common (if not uncontested) feature of the Jewish faith that had shaped him. And early Christianity was, as we know, a dissident movement within and beyond Judaism at that time. So Paul argues for the truth that God raised Jesus on the grounds of this existing, more generalised belief. Christ is ‘the first-fruits’. It’s important to notice this, because Christians today tend to put it the other way round – the resurrection of Christ, they say, is what makes it possible to claim that God will not let death have the last word over us. The reason for this is that general belief in resurrection has long since disappeared from the collective consciousness of Western society, so it makes little sense to use it as a means of lending credibility to the Easter message.
So what does it mean – for our day or for Paul’s – to claim that “God raised Jesus”? Part of the answer lies in considering the alternatives. In St Paul’s time the sceptics included those who believed in the immortality of the soul or cyclical rebirth, ideas much revived in modern New Age thinking. These say that there is a spark or substance in all of us that survives death and goes to dwell with God or to be reincarnated. Early Christians rejected these ideas for two main reasons.
First, they dismissed the notion that body and spirit are two divisible entities, of which one part survives death and the other does not. In his wider writings St Paul used the term ‘flesh’ to refer not to ‘the physical bit of us’, but to the whole, embodied human person oriented towards death. The word ‘spirit’ he used to describe not some allegedly ‘non-physical bit of us’, but to the whole, embodied human person oriented towards life. And eternal life, he said, both here and now and in the fullness of God’s presence, is a divine gift. It is not some built-in feature of the human constitution.
Second, Paul’s followers were realists not fantasists. Death is not something that can be survived. It is the boundary that makes life impossible. “Dust to dust, ashes to ashes,” to quote the words of the funeral service. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer once dramatically said: “that Christ was indeed dead was not the possibility of his resurrection but the impossibility of it.”
Just as resurrection is not the survival of some part of a person beyond death, neither is it the reconstitution of a corpse, in the way that some well-known medieval paintings crudely portray it. On those two points Christians and modern scientific materialists can fully agree. Where we disagree is over the claim that there is nothing more to say. For when Christians announce, with Paul, that “God raised Jesus” what we are claiming is not that a part of Jesus survived death or that his atoms were reassembled in some magical way, but rather that the very power, presence and personality of the earthly Jesus was assumed and transformed within the endless creativity of the transcendent God – and then made available as a living reality to those who were already being transformed by him.
In other words, the resurrection speaks of a new creation, a new order of being which incorporates all that we have seen and discovered of love in this world, but much more beside. It is continuous with the best of what we have seen so far, but it is discontinuous in the sense that it is the work not of us, but of a God who goes on loving and creating beyond the death, which we inevitably face. If we have been touched by God’s love, we will begin to know that it has no boundaries. It is either the most important thing in the universe, or it is nothing. As Paul says, with startling honesty: “If Christ is not raised, your faith is futile, and you are still in your sins” – that is, in different words, you are still captive to that which imitates death rather than life.
But as it is, Christ has been raised to life, and nothing can be quite the same again. For the one who is risen is the same one who was on the side of the little people, of those who were hurt and persecuted, as our Gospel reading reminds us. He is the same one who was crucified outside the gate, in a place of shame, by those religious and political authorities who thought that they had the right to lord it over people. He is the same one who touched the flesh of those in pain and who allowed his own flesh to be pierced when those who were threatened by his life chose to end it.
Jesus was killed because, to adapt the words of the Argentinian novelist, Julia Esquivel, “they have been threatened by resurrection.” Jesus’ risen life did not begin after death; it was already present in all that he said and did, and even in the manner of his execution. It was an awkward, demanding love that could not be finally defeated because it was (and is) the love of God. That is the good news of the Gospel. But it is also difficult news, because it demands that we too live the resurrection life. That we refuse to accept the dominance of what Jeremiah and the Psalmist call injustice and wickedness. That we refuse to allow people to be treated as mere objects. That we refuse to be trapped by a vision of life consisting solely of mundanity, triviality and gossip. That we refuse a form of religion that allows us to escape the demands of this world, a world that is the terrifyingly free gift of God. And so on.
George Steiner, the writer and critic, says in his book, Real Presences that Sunday is the most difficult day of the week. Monday to Thursday represent the ordinariness of life. Friday has become in our culture the day, which signifies death and crucifixion – a symbol of human barbarity. Saturday is the place of waiting: Is there really anything beyond that barbarity? But Sunday, which ought to be the day of great hope, is the day which very many have ceased to believe in at all.
Yet, I might add, it is Sunday and we are here. We are few, but we are here, and if our being here means something it is because, in Paul’s words, “Christ has in fact been raised from the dead.” Even in February!
Let me end with a few more words from Dietrich Bonhoeffer writing in Tegel prison, Germany, in March 1944, not long before he was executed by the Nazis: “It is not from avoiding death but from the resurrection of Christ that a new, purifying breeze can blow into the present world …. If even a few people were really to believe this, much would change. To live from the perspective of the resurrection: this is Easter.”
As we in the Church confront uncertainty and change in the coming years, the challenge we will face also is this: Are we really a resurrection people, or are we simply people trying to avoid death? And the answer to that question is important not just for ourselves, but also for the community in which we are set. Because we are those charged with showing forth Christ, crucified and risen. Lord, we believe. Help our unbelief. Amen.