‘And is it true?…
That God was man in Palestine,
And lives today in bread and wine?’
So Sir John Betjeman in his poem Christmas. And is it true that Jesus Christ, on the third day after his crucifixion, rose from the dead? That he didn’t just return to life, but passed, in all his humanity, body and soul, to a quite new kind of life, a life over which death has now power, a life full of the indestructible life of God? And is it true?
Today we have heard Peter, not long after all this happened, telling a Roman soldier and his household that it is true. ‘God raised him to life and allowed him to be seen, not by everyone, but by certain witnesses chosen beforehand by God. And I and my fellow apostles are those witnesses, and we ate and drank with him after his resurrection from the dead.’
Today, in the Gospel, we heard how Mary Magdalene found the tomb empty on a Sunday morning, ran to Peter and the disciples Jesus loved, traditionally John. And how they then ran too, and found the same – with the linen cloths on the ground and the cloth covering his head rolled up in a place by itself.
Today we’re taken back to those spring-like moments. There are two key elements to the story: first a discovery of the tomb being empty, then over a period of 40 days, 6 weeks or so, a series of appearances on the part of the risen Christ. According to the New Testament, he appeared both in Jerusalem and to the north in Galilee. He appeared to Mary Magdalene, to other women who had followed him. He appeared to Peter, to the eleven core disciples. He appeared to James. He appeared to two other disciples on the road to Emmaus. He appeared to the disciples as a whole, and on one occasion, to five hundred of them. And then this ceased. He withdrew. And finally – outside the series, as it were – he appeared to Paul.
And it’s on the testimony of these men and women that our faith, the Church’s faith, the Christian faith in the Resurrection is founded. Our faith is built on the testimony of Peter and the beloved disciple and James and Thomas and Paul, and Mary Magdalene and Salome and Joanna and the other Mary. It’s founded on that of the four evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, and the other New Testament writers, who recorded these things, confessed, hymned, explored and explained them, drew out their meaning for others.
And is it true?
Faith is always free. God doesn’t bludgeon us into acceptance. But faith is always reasonable. We’re asked to believe what’s beyond our ordinary experience, but not blindly. There is a solid human testimony to rely on. The first disciples didn’t expect Jesus to rise, despite him having said he would. They were taken aback by the claim that he had. Some of them put up a stout resistance to believing. They weren’t swept away by a kind of wish-fulfillment. They were persuaded by the evidence. ‘We ate and drank with him.’ And the cost of their believing was very high. It wasn’t a passport to popularity or wealth. It actually led many of them to death.
And is it true?
Faith is free. It is reasonable. Iy is a gift of God. It needs ‘the grace of God and the inner helps of the Holy Spirit who moves the heart and turns it to God, opens the eyes of the mind and gives everyone a sense of sweetness in accepting and believing the truth’ (Vatican II, Dei Verbum 5). Faith is free. Faith is reasonable. Faith is a gift of God. And faith is certain. Those disciples, after whatever preliminary wobbling, knew for sure, believed for sure, that the man they loved and had betrayed (many of them) was living. He didn’t belong to the past. He hadn’t been a flash in the pan, or a failed prophet, or a young pretender defeated by the establishment. He had gone to his Father, out of the range of our physical senses, but he was alive, gloriously alive, King and Judge and the hidden Lord of history, and close to them, with them, in them. With them as the community of believers whenever they gathered, with them in the consecrated bread and cup, still eating and drinking with them in the sacrament, in them, each of them, as a rock, as a presence, as a friend, as someone who knew them and loved them, corrected and guided them, supported and emboldened them. He wasn’t a “was”; he was an “is”. He is an “is”. Faith is Faith is certain.
G.K. Chesterton somewhere has a good parable for the Christian faith. Imagine you’re walking down a street and along it are shops and places of worship and you don’t know which to enter. And at the end of the street there’s a rather disreputable, tumbledown building, with a whiff of scandal about it. It’s a building with a small door you have to stoop to enter. That small door is faith. It makes us pause and reflect and lower ourselves. That small door is the testimony of Peter and Paul and their fellows. And if we do humble ourselves, if we do pass through that door, we find ourselves astonished. We find ourselves in something larger than the world. We are in a space in comparison to which all the other spaces of philosophy or religion or ideology seem narrow and reduced. We find ourselves in the kingdom of God. We find ourselves with new reasons for living and cherishing life. We find ourselves called to love and serve. We find ourselves with something in us stronger than death. We find ourselves hidden with Christ in God.
And is it true? Faith is free, faith is reasonable, faith is a gift of God, faith is certain. Faith is humility. It’s courage. It is a door to the heart and mind of God. Faith is life, eternal life.
And so today, holding lighted candles, standing in the light of the risen Christ, the liturgy offers us the chance to renew our faith. Our faith that Christ is truly risen. Let’s do so!
St Mary’s Cathedral, Aberdeen