Acts 10.34–43; John 20.1–18
a sermon at the Eucharist on Easter Morning, 11.15 am, April 4 2010
by the Bishop of Durham, Dr N. T. Wright
The taxi driver looked back at me in his mirror. His face was a mixture of amusement and sympathy. We were stuck in traffic and he’d asked me, as they do, what I did for a living.
‘Ah,’ he said, ‘you Church of England people’ (having told me he was a Roman Catholic himself). ‘You’re still having all that trouble about women bishops, aren’t you?’
I had to admit that that was indeed the case.
‘The way I look at it,’ he said, ‘is this: if God raised Jesus Christ from the dead, all the rest is basically rock’n’roll.’
St Paul put the same point negatively: ‘if Christ is not raised, your faith is futile, and you are still in your sins.’ But the positive point is this: if Christ has been raised, then all the rest is, well, sorted out. It’s basically just rock’n’roll. God has won the decisive victory over the forces of darkness, and he will win the final victory that results. Everything else can in principle be worked out.
Hmmm. That little phrase ‘in principle’ leaves a lot to be desired, and indeed to be debated over. Does the resurrection mean this, or does it mean that? If Jesus is raised, can we do what we want, or are we called to a new kind of life? If Jesus is raised, do other questions matter at all? Or do they matter even more because we now see clearly what God has been up to all along?
The answer to those questions will vary from case to case. I don’t want today to get into a long list of ‘implications of the resurrection’, interesting though that might be. I want to say one thing about the resurrection and God’s kingdom; then to tell you how the rock’n’roll is going in one particular place; then to say what that taxi-driver’s statement does not mean.
There has been so much confusion about what ‘God’s kingdom’ actually means that I suspect a lot of people simply don’t associate the phrase with the resurrection, or vice versa. And yet for the four evangelists this connection is very tight. The whole dynamic of the first three gospels is driven by Jesus’ claim that the kingdom of God is bursting in upon the world. The climax of the story, which we reached three days ago, sees Jesus nailed up as ‘King of the Jews’, radically and ironically redefining what sort of a thing this Kingship really is. Now, on Easter morning, we are to see this redefined Kingship bursting in for real, coming on earth as in heaven. Rejection of the bodily resurrection has classically gone with rejection of God’s kingdom as an earthly, concrete reality. Where Christians have tried to get to the latter result without the bodily resurrection as the foundation, they have usually floundered hopelessly – and I mean hopelessly. The last chapter of each gospel is then reduced to the status of a trivial ‘happy ending’, and worse, as though God got Jesus out of trouble even though he doesn’t do it for anyone else. That is exactly wrong: the resurrection of Jesus means that what God has done for Jesus he is beginning to do, in and through Jesus, for the whole of the rest of the world. And that is what it means to say that God is now becoming king of the whole world in the new way of which Jesus had spoken. John’s gospel, whose matchless twentieth chapter we heard a moment ago, is soaked in the idea of new creation, as Mary in the garden becomes for a moment Eve, weeping for her lost innocence and her lost Lord, and then discovering that the one she thinks is the gardener really is the gardener, the one through whose healing stewardship the whole creation will be dug afresh and planted with the Tree of Life. The resurrection of Jesus is the coming of the kingdom of God.
But that lays us open, of course, to the oldest charge of all, going back to the ministry of Jesus himself: if God is really becoming king, why are so many things still wrong with the world? Jesus spent half his ministry struggling to answer that question – struggling, not because he didn’t understand it but because his hearers’ minds were so dull; but, because we read the gospels with the wrong perspectives in our minds, we don’t realise it. The way God becomes king is precisely through sowing seeds, not through bulldozing everything down and planting ready-formed trees and shrubs. The way God becomes king is through the transformation of persons and communities who then become transforming persons and communities in their own right. I have been privileged to watch this happening this last week as I have worked in and with the Parish Church in Stockton-on-Tees. I have been into schools and watched as children from African backgrounds gave good, clear answers to questions about Jesus, teaching their English contemporaries a thing or two in the process. I have discussed the question of God and God’s kingdom with serious offenders in the local prison, and watched how the volunteers – ordinary Christian men and women who will never hit any headlines – have become the trusted companions and guides of those broken and puzzled men. I have seen young Christian people with plenty of energy and even more humour working on one of the roughest estates, and in a special centre for girls who have found their way on to the street, and I’ve watched as their loyalty and love bears fruit in changed lives and changed life-patterns. I have tramped the streets late at night with the Town Pastors, more volunteers from various churches, as they make themselves available to the confused and vulnerable younger generation. And I have knelt in the market at midday to pray, again with other volunteers, for people in need of healing and hope. And all this has grown out of, and has flowed back into, the regular worship and prayer in a church where there are more ethnic groups and language groups, many of them through the ready welcome and help given to asylum seekers, than (I would guess) any other church in the diocese. A church which feels like a family, with the very old and the very young and all in between mixing and muddling together and making it happen. And these things are making a real difference in the community. The crime rate has gone down dramatically over the last little while. The police and other community workers know that the church is there for them and with them. They are showing in action what it means to say that the risen Jesus is Lord of Stockton-on-Tees, that that great town with its long and proud history is part of God’s kingdom. God is in charge there, exercising his healing rule through the prayer and kindness and generosity and witness of ordinary down-to-earth Christians. I suspect this is how the church has always grown. This is the kind of rock’n’roll that follows naturally when people take seriously the fact that God raised Jesus Christ from the dead.
What it doesn’t mean, of course, is that ‘anything goes’, that there are no boundaries, no standards, no codes of behaviour. This is where, of course, saying that the resurrection is the be-all and end-all of everything, though true, doesn’t automatically settle all other questions. They have to be sorted out – in the light of the resurrection. The church is indeed facing a host of puzzles, from women bishops to the current scandals which the Press love to chew over in the best journalistic traditions of salivating pseudo-moralism. Just because there is a strong case to be made, in my view, for ordaining women to the episcopate, we should not be doing it just because the media tell us to. Just because it is now clear that the Roman Catholic church followed disastrous and reprehensible policies in relation to sex offenders within its own ranks, we should not be wallowing in it in the smug, snide, told-you-so tones of journalists who, having themselves long given up any pretence of Christian morality, love nothing better than pointing the finger at the teachers they once feared. Nor should we be bounced, through the half-truths of media comment, into concluding that all the church’s other teachings on related topics are fatally flawed and should be revised to fit with current secular morality. This is not the way, and the Press are not the people to teach us. Think back to those good news stories from Stockton and many other similar places. The national Press, of course, ignore all that, in order to return, like a sow, to where good mud is still to be found.
Rather, we should start once more from the resurrection of Jesus himself, and discover just what key the rock’n’roll is best played in. The key, to say it again, is new creation: the new creation in which the little ones are put first, as we shall be celebrating the baptism of Isabella Grace in a few minutes; the new creation in which a woman is the first to bear the news of resurrection; the new creation in which the original male-plus-female pattern of the original creation is gloriously reaffirmed; the new creation in which sin can be faced, repented of and forgiven, rather than covered up or excused, because we know it was dealt with on the cross and we have therefore nothing left to prove. The resurrection points the way to a new sort of life, a new way of life, a way which is neither the brittle pseudo-correctness of a church out of touch with the people, nor the cloying pseudo-righteousness of a pontificating press, but the humble yet clear testimony that though we are foolish and ignorant, God is all wise and all knowing; that though we get it badly wrong, when we face up and say ‘Sorry’ God forgives us because of the cross of Jesus Christ and shows us how to live out the implications of that costly forgiveness; that though death, corruption and deceit appear to have the last word, God raised Jesus Christ from the dead.
After all: if it is true that some people in some places have indeed lost confidence in the church – and, though the Archbishop yesterday apologised for saying it, it may well be at least partly true – that may in the last analysis be a good thing. Sometimes the church, our church as much as any, has encouraged people to have confidence in it rather than in the God who calls it into being, in the followers of Jesus rather than in Jesus himself, as though one could have faith in faith. Put not your trust in princes, nor indeed in prelates, nor in any human being or organisation. When Jesus said ‘on this rock I will build my church’, nobody before the Council of Trent thought he was referring to Peter and his successors. Jesus himself is the rock. And we, his followers, need to learn to roll with the punches which come our way, so that we can humbly and cheerfully preach not ourselves but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for his sake. Don’t be blown off course. These catastrophes happen, partly because we deserve them but also, partly, because God’s kingdom is going forward, and we are in a battle zone. That doesn’t mean that the attacks on the church are undeserved, or that we are ourselves victims (the claiming of ‘victim’ status is another thing we should simply eschew; this is no way to conduct serious moral debate). Rather, it means that we should expect attacks, whether fair or foul; that when we are to blame we should put our hands up and say so – after all, whoever supposed we would never make mistakes? – that we should walk in the light with transparent responsibility, which (by the way) is not the same thing as ticking the thousand boxes required by yet another piece of nanny-state legislation; and that we should celebrate the new creation in which sins are brought to light in order to be dealt with, new starts are possible, healing is real and available, and God is becoming king in Stockton-on-Tees, in Durham, in, please God, Ireland, in the Anglican Communion, in the Middle East, in the whole world, and in and through our own hearts and lives. God has raised Jesus Christ from the dead. Let’s get on with the party.