From Good Friday to Easter Day

From Good Friday to Easter Day

By The Chaplain

Three weeks ago we were gathered as a school together for a service on the morning of Ash Wednesday.   I was speaking about seeing life in the context of knowing that one day it will end.  Part of the art of life is in knowing that we can exercise some control over ourselves and our destiny and a small way of showing this strength of will and character is in what we might choose to give up, or take on, during these weeks of Lent.  I was heartened to hear that some people had said they would give up on Facebook or cut down on the dependence and addiction many of us seem to have with computers and instant communication.  Others, I know, have given up many other things; well done.  I wish you strength and success in your keeping of Lent; and whatever you have chosen to do – or not to do –  I hope that even if you have given in at any point you have not seen this as a failure but as encouragement to continue in your endeavours.

Lent continues during the holidays to the point where, just before we return to school many of us, along with literally hundreds of millions of Christians, will remember the final week of Jesus’ life.  Holy Week leads us through from Palm Sunday to Maundy Thursday, the eve of his death; the crucifixion of Jesus on Good Friday and the celebration of his resurrection on Easter Sunday.

I would like to take us through the final part of that journey in the few moments we have for this service.  We do not need to imagine suffering in the world: there are enough worldwide tragedies and struggles and horrors of what humans are capable of doing closer to home.  Good Friday acknowledges the innocent man Jesus undergoing an unimaginable death and, through this, taking on himself the suffering and pain of the world.  He shows us that God shares in our suffering.  And in his death, as Christians experience on Good Friday, there is an emptiness that is felt in the world.  It is almost the absence of love as humanity shows the power and evil of which we have always been capable.

Christians refer to the day of Jesus’ death as Good Friday, and it is only from the perspective of the hope and goodness of the Resurrection that such a phrase makes sense. The choir anthem for this service is part of a setting of meditations on the crucifixion written by John Stainer.  It seeks to set the death of Jesus in the context of the statement that ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only Son...’ (John 3.16)

The Resurrection of Jesus (Mark 16.1-8)

When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. 

They had been saying to one another, ‘Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?’

When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. 

But he said to them:

 ‘Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.’ 

So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid. 

We had lunch on Sunday with some friends, one of whom is training to be a paramedic and who told us of her first experience, on a previous shift, of helping to bring a man back to life.  She described how they knew that all indications of life had ceased but then they were able to restore his breathing, resuscitate him, and for his heart to begin beating again.

Resurrection is not the same as resuscitation.  Resurrection is not bringing someone back to the same physical or biological state from which they died.  The resurrection of Jesus is not about God bringing him back to life.  Resurrection is a very special word, created and used at only one point in history to describe a unique event.  You see this if you read the final chapter of each of the four Gospels in which Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are doing their very best to express something that they realise is unbelievable, but yet they are convinced and sure, most certainly happened.

The disciples had no ulterior motive for making up the stories of the resurrection as some naive critics sometimes try to suggest.  The situation was that they had seen what had happened to Jesus and they were afraid for their own lives.  The Gospels do not describe them as bold or fearless and their every inclination would have been to quietly get away from Jerusalem and go back to their lives up in the Galilee region from which they came.

But something happened on the morning of what we call Easter Sunday and in the days ahead that convinced them, beyond doubt, that they had experienced Jesus in some real and definite way.  We cannot describe for ourselves the facts of what happened and it seems to be that Jesus was not immediately recognisable in the appearances they described.  Some people wish to describe the resurrection appearances in the form of visions.  But however the disciples and others, not least the many women who were amongst Jesus’ followers and friends, experienced the resurrection, we have to accept that it was sufficiently real and strong to change them completely.  The experiences continued for a period of ten more days, to the day we call Ascension Day.  And then, forty days later, on the festival of Pentecost they began to speak out and to share Jesus’ message of love and forgiveness with the world.

That is a message that has inspired countless millions of Christians throughout history and still is the uniting belief of the largest group of humans on this planet today.  There are, of course, many divisions, and much that Christians need to work on, both for and between themselves, but it is a statement that we believe in basing our lives on the person of Jesus and trusting in the love of God to inspire and shape who we are.  There are times in life when we need to be able to say, to the best of our ability, what we believe and what is important to us. 

Last Sunday, every household in Britain, was asked to fill out a census form.  As in the last census, 10 years ago, there was the question “What is your religion?”  This meant that for a few moments at least, every person in Britain was asked to consider a question about who they were and what was important to them.  At the last census in 2001, 77% of people said they were religious and 70% of the population described themselves as Christian.

The first box available to tick on the census this time on question 20, itself a voluntary question, was ‘No Religion’ and it may be that, prompted by the campaigns of such groups as the Humanist Association, many people will have ticked this box.  We will learn in something like two years time. 

There is much that one could say about what it means to be Christian, or to say that one belongs to any religion.  Some people say, for example, that it should be measured against attendance at regular worship.  But as many of these critics are often those of no religion themselves it seems strange that they should be defining what it means to be religious.

To be a Christian is not to be someone who goes to Church every week, or who reads the Bible every day, or who even has definite proof of the existence of God.  To be Christian is shown in how we live, the way in which we love each other and in the faith and hope we express through what we believe.  That is why so many of us identify ourselves with what is means to be called a Christian.

These are the key words: faith, hope and love.  Christians use the immensely complex word God in association with those words and our understanding of God hopefully grows and develops as we grow in maturity and understanding, rather than being rejected in a simplistic form of atheism.  If God was truly – as some people describe the image of God they have rejected – then I think that I too would want to be an atheist!  The fact of the matter is that Christians understand God as being much more than being the primary school picture of an old man on a cloud.  And we believe that resurrection was more than Jesus being brought back to life.  To quote a former professor of philosophy, David Jenkins, who became a Bishop of Durham, ‘the resurrection is more than a conjuring trick with bones.’

To illustrate what I mean about the gap between knowledge and understanding: all of you will, at some point in your lives develop specialist knowledge in many and varied subjects.  And you will all come across people who have little more than basic knowledge, or a vague opinion on something you hold to be quite important.  It might be in some field of the arts or literature where you will have to listen to people who believe that their views are as valid as that of any expert.  It might be in science or medicine where people who have watched a few TV programmes feel able to offer informed insights.  It might even be in education when you will have to endure the opinions of some people whose understanding of education stopped at or before the time when they actually finished their own school years.

And you will have to listen with patience and try, in some small way, to challenge their thoughts and inform their misconceptions.  But sometimes you will just wearily realise that they really do not want to hear anything that might challenge or change their minds.  So it is with God and religion where one listens to the age old criticisms based on badly informed stereotypes whilst tragically seeing how people damage their own lives and the lives of others because of the contradictory values they hold.

It seems that so often the thoughts we have and the opinions we hold are little more than simple luxuries.

But in other parts of the word, that which people believe shapes and defines their very destiny.  There are scientists and engineers in Japan who are risking their own lives to stabilise the Fukushima nuclear reactor.  There are people in Libya who are fighting to overthrow a dictatorial regime, and indeed there are members of allied forces who are supporting them, as they are indeed fighting to build a different national destiny in Afghanistan.  There are people for whom their faith and beliefs are a matter on which to trust in life over and against the power of death.

For Jesus, what he said and who he was, brought him into conflict with the Jewish religion of his time and the dominant Roman Empire who executed him with efficient brutality.  The disciples felt sure that the Resurrection of Jesus was real enough to lead them from fear to courage and all but one of them and countless thousands of other Christians were executed for daring to speak Jesus’ challenging message of love and tolerance to a world that did not want to hear it.  But within three centuries the Roman Empire itself was Christian and the message of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus has shaped the destiny of the world and given us the societies that have made us who we are.

It is a message that gives hope within and beyond life.  It stands against some of the destructive values of even our own society. 

Faith and God might be less to us because we might feel that we have less to fight for.  God may seem to be a luxury that we feel we can live without.  There may not be occasions when we have to stand up and speak out because of what we believe.  We are immensely lucky and no-one would really want things to be different.  For us, standing up for religion, might seem nothing more than simply ticking a box on a form.  But for many it is the power to transform the whole of life; just as God brought the new life of resurrection from the tomb on the first Easter morning.

The Revd David Johnson

Dauntsey’s School Chaplain

30th March 2011