‘What’s the difference between a vicar with fixed ideas and a terrorist? You can negotiate with a terrorist.’
That’s not to say that either party always gets their own way. In the past as a vicar I’ve had some scary encounters with the person in charge of flower arranging.
In particular, in one parish, my diplomatic skills failed every Easter when I tried to persuade them to fill the church with as many brightly coloured and varied flowers as possible. I know that this time of year the full range and depth of colours is difficult to get hold of. But there is usually more choice than just white lilies.
That’s what we got, though, year after year, despite my pleas. ‘The Church of England says white flowers for Easter!’ As if it would. Perhaps as a concession we had a few pale yellow daffodils or narcissus. But no bright colours.
And I always thought that was a great pity, and still do. White lilies remind me of a funeral parlour. They have a rather creepy, ghostly sense to them. Maybe that’s just me, and I’m being irrational. To my mind, though, it ties in with a view of the Resurrection that is purely spiritual, that sees the Risen Christ as a ghost.
Whereas bright flowers in all the colours of the rainbow suggest that the whole of creation is renewed; that the Risen Christ is transforming the whole world and filling it with glory. But that is such an overwhelming, overpowering idea that maybe we find it difficult to cope with. Maybe that’s why we turn to a spiritual Jesus who isn’t really involved with the real world. Or that we don’t really believe in a God who has the power to transform the world, or that we are not worthy to share in that transformation.
The disciples, after those unsettling stories about the empty tomb, must have been full of doubts and fears. As we heard just now from St Luke’s gospel:
‘The disciples were startled and terrified, and thought they were seeing a ghost.’
But what sort of ghost is going to sidle up behind his mates in the queue at the chippy and ask ‘have you anything to eat.’?
That is just what Jesus did. Well – not the chippy exactly, but they’re just about to tuck into some broiled fish (whatever that looks like.) And St Luke had a point in telling this story. Ghosts don’t eat… therefore Jesus is not a ghost.
There’s nothing creepy about the resurrection. Nothing imaginary about it either. Jesus Christ is risen… and he’s really risen, his whole human nature is risen and not just some ethereal idea. Easter is not about creepy thoughts or even sublime thoughts. Easter is for real. God’s love transforms our life… just as God creates the universe in all its earthy reality, so Jesus Christ rises again and brings the whole created universe with him, made new and restored to wholeness.
That’s orthodox Christian faith. It’s about real things and real people and real food for the hungry… it’s about bodies and bodily things. It’s about water and bread and wine and oil.
In the very early church, about the time that Luke was writing this gospel, there was a heresy called Docetism. These people denied the reality of Christ’s human life. Religion, they said, was all in the mind. The resurrection, if they believed in it at all, was about ideas and words and concepts, not about flesh and blood and touching and eating. Certainly not about anything as mundane as a fish and chip supper with your friends.
And this heresy has never been got rid of from the life of the church. It’s kept cropping up over and over again as people find the earthiness of real religion too much for them. So our churches have been sterilised, sermons have become moral or intellectual lectures, sacraments have been reduced to symbols and the Eucharist, God’s encounter with us and the means by which we become one with God, has been ignored or treated as some kind of memorial service. At points of the church’s history religion has been in danger of becoming a religion of the mind only, one that can never change the world but only offer a castle in the air to escape into.
Once you lose touch with that earthy, materialistic religion, it’s easy to forget about real people. It’s easy to pretend that going to war is about upholding your own righteous ideology and forget about the blood and horror and heartache that you are inflicting on real people. It’s easy to wave flags and staff border posts and refuse passports if it’s all about ideas and nothing about people, people like us in every way.
At Easter we celebrate a God who can’t be confined or packaged. God in Christ faces all the horrors that the people of Syria are currently facing, and points the way through them. The cross is inevitably followed by the resurrection and Christ’s victory will ultimately be seen there as in all the parts and people of the world where there is suffering.
Gradually the grey light of dawn is transformed to reflect the rainbow colours of full day. What we can’t do is pretend that the resurrection is just about nice thoughts. It’s not about the risen Jesus appearing among us as a ghost, or even just putting the clock back. The risen Christ is not telling us, ‘don’t worry, it was all a dream, everything’s just as it was.’ He’s saying ‘ life is much more than you ever imagined it. I’m going to lead you on to new horizons, to a life totally beyond anything you’ve seen before.’
A religion that believes God transforms matter, that God can raise up flesh and blood to a new level of existence, is a force to be reckoned with. The good news of Easter is not that we can imagine nice ethereal thoughts. But nor is it that Jesus is just the same after the resurrection as he was before. That’s to deny the power of God to transform things.