Jesus died but Christ has risen - on the weakness of God - a meditation for Easter Sunday

A Shropshire Lad - illustration by Elinore Blaisdell
Click on the following link to hear the podcast of this post and/or download an mp3 (see bottom left of the page): Jesus died but Christ has risen - on the weakness of God - a meditation for Easter Sunday 8 April 2012

In any contemporary liberal context Easter Sunday is a very difficult day upon which to preach because there is always the overwhelming temptation to avoid the heart of the matter put so starkly and disturbingly by St Paul in I Corinthians (15:11-15):

Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead?  If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified of God that he raised Christ.

Given Paul’s importance to the history of Christianity the nagging question of our sceptical age remains that perhaps his proclamation was in vain and was a misrepresentation of God. Overly literalistic preaching to prove otherwise have caused many people either to leave the church behind as an unreasonable, superstitious and anti-modern institution or, if choosing to stay, there is the strong temptation to turn the resurrection into something completely different such as a vague metaphor for spring.

But it is important to know that, historically speaking, our liberal Christian tradition has, as a whole, never rejected central claim of the resurrection. At its best it has been concerned to reinterpret the event and to live within it in the light of contemporary experiences and knowledge and to engage in a process, which tries to ensure that we remain in continuity with the earliest Christian experience of Easter even as we acknowledge we can never remain identical with it. That’s what I’m trying to do today.

At this point it is important to note that what I’m about to say in this address is not an attempt to express the (capital T) “Truth” of the resurrection or, to put it another way, what the resurrection “really” means. This is something my liberal forebears, along with their literalist conservative opponents, most certainly did think they were doing. But I cannot follow them in this matter because I no longer believe it is possible to stand outside the world and, from the view from nowhere, come up with any totalising description of reality. It seems clear to me that every attempt to do this has involved inflicting some violence upon reality and history teaches us that this kind of intellectual move, in whomsoever’s mind it occurs, all too easily grows like Topsy to the point that this theoretical violence begins to be turned outwards and actually inflicted upon those people who don’t happen to share your totalising (capital T) “Truth”. A vitally important aim of this address – and I think a central aspect of the Easter event – is to encourage us in our religious and philosophical lives to abandon power wielding (capital T) “Truth” in favour of a far gentler and weaker self-emptying love (caritas) and cosmopolitan friendship that Jesus taught us were central to his understanding of in what consists the kingdom of God.

The Resurrection is key to such a change of focus because it is the moment that through a radical weakening of the conception of God we are allowed to experience anew the strength, hope and joy of the Christian story; to see and reinterpret that other insight of St Paul’s, also found in 1 Corinthians, that ‘the foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men’ (I Corinthians 1:25). But to get there I must start in the darkness of the tomb with A. E. Housman’s poem “Easter Hymn.”:

If in that Syrian garden, ages slain,
You sleep, and know not you are dead in vain,
Nor even in dreams behold how dark and bright
Ascends in smoke and fire by day and night
The hate you died to quench and could but fan,
Sleep well and see no morning, son of man.

But if, the grave rent and the stone rolled by,
At the right hand of majesty on high
You sit, and sitting so remember yet
Your tears, your agony and bloody sweat,
Your cross and passion and the life you gave,
Bow hither out of heaven and see and save.

Housman inherited the Easter story during an age of powerful empire and within a religious and philosophical world-view that could only see in it a cyclical trajectory of power – one in which Jesus came down from heaven and who then, having lived, preached and been executed, in the resurrection merely returned unharmed to the heavenly realm to sit at ‘the right hand of majesty on high.’ This cyclical (metaphysical) journey from heaven (from ultimate power) to earth (into only apparent human weakness) and back again (to ultimate power) was one in which for many reasons Housman and, I would guess most of us, simply could no longer believe.

Although Housman’s poem reveals his painful loss of Christian belief it also clearly remains full of longing that the good man Jesus may still, somehow, be able to ‘bow out of heaven and save’ and that, therefore, Christian hope may somehow still be true. But for all his lingering hope there can be no doubt that in the end Houseman leaves us with his overwhelming sense that, in the end, the best he (and we) can do is simply bid Jesus – of whom he is clearly fond – to ‘sleep well.’

Father John Davis
Just like the Bible, Housman’s poetry has always been part of my life. My grandmother loved it and introduced it to me, a collection of his poetry was a set text for my ‘O’ levels and, in my Old Testament class on the first day of teaching at Oxford my teacher, who later became a friend, Father John Davis, recited at length some of Housman’s ‘A Shropshire Lad’. 

(As you will read in the address at the previous link Fr. John also recited Matthew Arnold's poetry to me in my Hebrew tutorials and also in class, often in connection with Koheleth's philosophy of life found in the Book of Ecclesiastes, Fitzgerald's "translation" of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam - another poem bequeathed to me by my grandmother.)

So Housman’s poetry is deep within me and it has always run as a continuous counter-point to Paul’s resurrection claim. As a choirboy every Easter Sunday, even as I sang out with gusto from my stall ‘Alleluia! He is Risen!’ I could always-already hear Housman whisper in my ear, “Sleep well, son of man.”

Given this it should be obvious why at Easter I return again and again to this poem because it forces me to address the hardest and most important question that as a serving minister of the church I have to ask, namely, whether there still exists a way by which it is possible to discharge to our own age something real that we can meaningfully still call Christian hope or whether we, like Housman, should merely bid Jesus ‘sleep well’ and move on to abandon Christianity for some other philosophy or form of life? Well find that as I stand here I continue to think there is a meaningful way to discharge this hope and why I think that is the case can best be glimpsed at Easter.

It can be glimpsed because in our own age, in part thanks to some hard reflection and thinking that began in certain circles after the First World War. This work has meant that it is now possible to see shine out from the Christian story a trajectory Housman and his age could not see. It is not a cyclical, metaphysical one – one concerned ultimately with preserving divine power – but something much gentler as an ongoing, self-emptying event – one that takes Paul’s insight into the weakness of God with the utmost (and dare I say it, almost literal) seriousness.

Lived and looked at this way our story can now tell of our historical journey from being a people who held a belief in a perfect, all-powerful God (a supreme being) on high, to being able to see and experience God in the example of a single, remarkable lived human life (Jesus) and then, in the self-emptying passion on the cross and what we call the ongoing event of the ‘resurrection’, to the ongoing possibility of seeing God emptied out as the spirit into us as a people transformed in the light of this event. In short, we can see something Housman couldn’t because our focus of attention has moved from seeing God in beings – and most of all in one all-powerful supreme being – to seeing God in Being, to seeing God in the way we are together in the world transformed by the event of the Resurrection.

Paul seems to have seen this even though later Christian theology has somewhat hid his shining insight under a bushel (pace I Corinthians 1:25). When Paul speaks of Christ (again in 1 Corinthians) we must take care to remember that although he is certainly always referring to a being, namely Jesus of Nazareth (in whom he believed he saw God) he is simultaneously always referring to us as a community – the body of Christ: As he says so memorably in I Corinthians “All of you together are Christ’s body, and each of you is a part of it” (I Corinthians 12;27). As Cliff Reed, alas soon to retire as minister of the Ipswich Unitarian Meeting House, puts it in his Easter hymn we will sing at the end of the service:

Jesus died, but Christ has triumphed,
Broken now the chains of death;
From the tomb comes God’s anointed,
Kindling cold hearts with his breath.

Now at last we see his purpose,
Breaking through like sunburst bright:
Liberation for God’s people
Ends humanity’s long night.

For there is a Spirit greater,
Who has now the victory;
And our God indwells the human,
striving for our liberty.

And that Spirit dwelt in Jesus,
Teaching us that love redeems;
How God, through a man’s compassion,
Gains great ends by human means.

But for love and life undying
Death of self must be the key;
Jesus died to bear this witness
And Christ rose to make us free.

Consequently, our hope is no longer something to be dispensed by some all-powerful supreme being from up on high but, as our reading from Luke (Luke 24:13-34) telling the story of the road to Emmaus showed, it is to be found in the people who walk with us, who talk with us and who break bread with us round the table. And this is, as John Holmes (1904-1962) says in the hymn we sang earlier, a peace not past our understanding but one born out of self-emptying lives lived in love and cosmopolitan friendship – in Christ, if you like – which is, as Holmes beautifully puts it is, in the end, “a thing too simple to be tried as truth” (see the end of this post for the lyric of this hymn).

Consequently, from where I stand, to live the Easter story is to understand ourselves as being reborn into a community that knows it is on an unfolding, radically earthward trajectory which, in Jesus’ teaching to love God and neighbour (which includes both friend and enemy), also calls us to develop increasingly pluralistic, cosmopolitan and democratic forms of governance. Therefore, it seems to me that we discharge the Christian hope of Easter (and figuratively ‘Jesus’ still bows out of heaven, sees and saves) whenever we remain consciously loyal to this ongoing trajectory/story and continue to play an active part in the redemption of the world, no longer as subjects of a powerful heavenly kingdom, but instead as members of the body of Christ which for me is to say free citizens of much more down to earth secular, republic of Heaven.

And that is why when it is proclaimed, not as a slogan of religious triumphalism and power but as a call to ever-greater human solidarity, I can still say and mean “Alleluia! Christ is Risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!”


The People's Peace by John Holmes (1904-1962)

Days into years, the doorways worn at sill,
Years into lives, the plans for long increase
Come true at last for men of God's good will:
These are the things we mean by saying, Peace.
Not scholars's calm, nor gift of church or state,
Nor everlasting date of death's release;
But the careless noon, the houses lighted late,
Harvest and holiday: the people's peace.

Peace is the mind's old wilderness cut down
In a wider nation than our parents dreamed.
Peace is the main street in a country town;
Our children named; our parents' lives redeemed.
The people's peace is ours, and who says No?
Green leaves and landscape; folly, danger, sleep,
And obvious hurt, and the joy that does not show,
Are sometime any man's to take, to keep.

The peace not past our understanding falls
Like light on the old soft white tablecloth
At winter supper warm between four walls,
A thing too simple to be tried as truth.
Having it never made a man to die,
And it asks of no man what he might do.
Why is the people's peace in danger? Why?
Who living hates it? Who would destroy it? Who?


sfwc said…
Thanks for this wonderful Easter meditation. I found it especially helpful having been to a service this morning in which the point of the sermon was that we *ought* to believe in life after death.

I love the picture of an emptying of God from any particular being into Being, and of the emergence of that as lived in community. A thought: it is possible to see this as the culmination of a longer process of God being repeatedly reborn from failure (e.g. the failure of God to protect Israel during the exile to Babylon leads to a birth of the idea that God cares more about justice than national or religious interests).