21 April 2019
Revd Nicholas Mercer
One of the strikingly different things about my ministry in the Falkland Islands was funerals
In the Falkland Islands, coffins were brought into the Cathedral the day before the day of the service itself
The body would repose at the Chancel steps overnight
Families would sometimes come in and visit their loved ones or stay with them into the darkness
When this has happened, I instinctively thought of the women preparing the body of our Lord for burial (John 19:40)
In a sense, the Church was like the tomb in which the body of our Lord was laid
Imagine for a moment that a hypothetical coffin was placed in the Priory on Friday
The Church was locked as usual but, when Matt arrived early on Sunday morning, he found the Church door open
The body gone – the burial clothes neatly folded up on the Chancel steps
What on earth has happened?
He would of course, immediately, think of rural theft and probably ring the police
But instead of finding the body, reports start filtering in instead
- The deceased was seen by a gardener early in the morning outside the Duke’s residence
- The deceased appeared to members of the congregation in Addingham
- He was seen having breakfast with some fishermen down by the river
- Walking on the road to Harrogate
- And then appeared during a parish lunch, before vanishing after the breaking of bread
This would indeed be the greatest mystery of our time
There is no doubt that we would all struggle
But what would we make of it?
- Would we hold to the theory of the stolen body?
- Or would we proclaim the Resurrection of the dead?
In other words, what is the truth of the matter?
A few years ago, I read a book by the philosopher Peter Vardy – called “what is truth” – echoing the words of Pontius Pilate at Jesus’ trial
The book tries to explain the basis on which Christians claim something is true
Broadly speaking, Vardy suggests there are three different position
Realism – something is true because it corresponds to a specific fact or is understandable through reason. (Bolton Abbey)
Anti-realism – something is only true because it is held as true within a specific community. (Holy Spirit/prayer)
Scripture – The Bible reveals certain truths which don’t need independent verification
As a Christian, you may reasonably hold to one or more of these positions
But as Vardy points out, all such approaches are flawed
To claim a fact is true or can be understood through reason– does not prove something is beautiful or the existence of God
To claim that something is true within a faith community – does not mean it is true for other faiths
And as far as Scripture is concerned, as he points out, the Bible is full of contradictions and verses which have either been shown to be wrong or which have been abandoned because they are untenable
Vardy, as a philosopher, quite rightly questions truth claims and, in so doing, tries to get to the heart of an issue
- Where does that leave us with the resurrection of Jesus Christ?
- Where does that leave me with my proclamation of the resurrection this morning?
Like many priests, the resurrection of Jesus Christ is at the heart of my faith
I was at University in 1982 reading the Passion narrative – in Greek – during Holy Week
During my study of the text I was suddenly consumed with an intense feeling of joy. I don’t know why, or exactly which part of the narrative I had been reading – but at that point I felt knew the truth – I understood
My experience is something that will stay with me all my life
It was, perhaps, God revealing himself in Scripture
But on the basis of that experience alone, I am happy to proclaim joy of the Risen Christ this morning
However, for me, it is not just experience but reason as well
I subsequently spent twenty-five years of my life as a lawyer, assessing witness evidence
I became quite good (I thought) at judging whether a something happened or not
But I found that the truth, is rarely neat and tidy – more often than not it is messy, inconsistent and contradictory – but that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.
Indeed, if a story had been contrived it was normally pretty obvious
I was struck, as to the force of the evidence of in the Bible
- Why does the account refer to the story of the gardener?
- Why did John refer to the neat strips of linen and the head cloth neatly folded – was this a fabrication?
- Why did the Gospel writers have women as the first witnesses to the empty tomb in a society where their evidence would count for less than that of a man?
- What about the locked room or the Road to Emmaus
Why present the risen Christ in this way?
To me it didn’t make sense unless, of course, it was true
But of course, I could be wrong in both instances
- I could be misinterpreting my experiences
- And my judgement of the evidence could also be flawed
But Vardy comes to the rescue by changing the paradigm through which we view religious truth
And in doing so he makes great play of the philosophy of Immanuel Kant – born nearly three hundred years ago
Kant, he points out, divides the world into two realms
- The phenomenal
- The noumenal
Whereas, the phenomenal – the physical – is capable, to a degree, of being known, explored and explained
The noumenal – the world of the senses, experience – is not accessible in the same way
And it seems to me/this morning/ in this Easter Service that Kant’s observations are as valid now as they were two hundred and fifty years ago
The Dean of Christ Church Oxford said this about Easter morning
“The Resurrection breaks all frames of reference, bursting our perceptual boundaries, leaving the Gospel writers with the unenviable task of trying to piece together shards of information that exceed any prevailing [social] construction of reality”
We hear the account of Jesus Christ and his Resurrection from the dead, yet again, this morning
Something outside of the physical world – as we know it – and with which everyone struggles to make sense
But if the disciples struggle to make sense of the resurrection – of the noumenal – then we should not be worried by our own struggles this morning or at all
They may have struggled but, nevertheless, they were so certain in what they had seen that they were prepared to die for it
Imagine for a moment if we were prepared to die for what we had experienced on the hypothetical morning I have just described?
St Paul says
If Christ has not been raised from the dead
Then our proclamation has been in vain
And so has our faith (1 Cor 15)
But if Christ rose from the dead, then this is an astonishing moment
- In our lives
- In our faith
- In our world
This is, quite simply, the Day that changes the world forever
Today we all proclaim our faith in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ along with 1/3 of the planet
We see our lives through an entirely l different lens
A world where we know that death has been conquered and that heaven awaits
And that changes everything
If like the disciples we too struggle – worry not, we are in good company
Like them, we can share their struggles but also share their conviction
We can proclaim the same truth together and say with confidence today and throughout the year
“Our Redeemer lives”