What is the secret to Easter!
As you all know I combine a love of science, and more particularly a love of human biology and anatomy, with my role here at Wembley Downs. I teach anatomy and human biology to first and second year Uni students and I teach histology. Histology is the study of tissues and cells, what makes us who we are at a microscopic level.
I came across this slide the other day, and I had an epiphany about Easter. Now you may be wondering what the slide is. Well, it is a slide of a nerve, magnified 40 times and stained with a very old, and deadly stain that is not used anymore, called osmium. It stains the myelin sheath of each of the nerve fibres black, but does not colour the fibre itself at all. So it looks like there is nothing in each of the sheaths. Except we know there is, that there are hundreds of nerve fibres in this picture, taking message up to the brain and down again, allowing us to think and feel, walk and dance. But it looks like empty tubes. That’s the secret, what looks empty, like there is just thin air is an illusion, because of the type of stain used. We know that there is something very valuable present.
Perhaps that’s how we should look at Easter, and at the resurrection of Jesus. What is the secret of Easter? Well, it’s not the history or the doctrine or the dogma of it. No it is much more than that, it’s like a secret in the dark, as Frederick Buechner says.
But let us take a moment to see the myelin sheath that surrounds this secret. Let us for a moment explore the black rings.
Today we heard from the gospel of Mark, where the account of the resurrection ends much more abruptly than the others, with no appearance stories to follow. The gospels of Matthew and Luke are more embellished with earthquakes’ and physical appearances of Jesus and all of them date more than 40 years after his death. The earliest account is actually from Paul’s writings.
Paul has pride of place in these Easter traditions because his writings are the earliest text, 20yrs after the crucifixion and after his conversion to Christianity. What he says actually points to something a bit different to the gospel accounts and we heard it today in the Corinthians reading. His resurrection account is less concerned with the empty tomb but rather sees Jesus as having become a life giving spirit at his resurrection. Not a physical body. For Paul resurrection involved transformation not resuscitation and included all who identified with Jesus.
Clearly there are real differences in the accounts. But between Paul and the Gospels, there was a great war, the Jewish Roman war of 66-73 CE. Here Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed. As Greg Jenks says “both Jews and Christians alike found themselves picking up the pieces among the ruins of a world gone forever”. The gospels come out of that experience and they reflect a new political and social situation long after the time of Jesus. So to say the stories are history is to miss the point. The writers were defining not just history, but who they were as human beings and as a society and as a fledging church and this varied.
So where does that leave us in the 21st century, you may ask.
Perhaps we should be thinking about our nerve fibre again. I know that nerve fibre is there even if I can’t see it, because the myelin around it is stained, even with a stain that is less than adequate. It still gives us a framework to explore what is in the sheath.
So, regardless of what questions we modernists ask about the facts of the story, the truth of the resurrection is not in the details but what occurred afterwards. And what happened is that God became real to people through Jesus in a way he wasn’t before. Jesus became a living presence, symbolising what life lived in God should be like. His early followers believed that “in his words were God’s words and in his action were God’s actions”. The love, and compassion and justice and peace of Jesus, were not defeated by the worldly powers of hatred, corruption and greed. His vision of a new empire, which he lived out with them long before he died, could not be killed by an executioner or cross.
As Clarence Jordon says, “The proof that God raised Jesus from the dead is not an empty tomb, but the full hearts of his transformed disciples. The crowning evidence that he lives is not a vacant grave but a spirit filled fellowship. Not a rolled away stone, but a carried away church.”
Yet it could all have stopped there, remaining as a little subgroup of the Jewish religion. Instead Jesus is remembered as the Son of God and God’s ultimate revelation for us. For in and through him lies the truth about life. Jesus was a particular man in a particular time, but he birthed a universal message of love that has lived on well past his humanity. The particular became the universal.
Today the truth of the resurrection is that God is present here in us, this day and this hour. For Jesus is not different from us in kind, just in degree. God is not missing in action, or only present in a few who believe certain things or only visible 2,000 years ago. The love, spirit and energy that shaped Jesus shapes us. We are to follow his way and his message if we and all people are to live full and complete lives in the presence of God. As Frederick Buechner says, God is found in the fragrant muck and misery and marvel of human existence, it is in ordinary everyday lives that God is fully realised. A God that drives us to new beginnings, to change and transform, and makes life worthwhile. Ordinary everyday lives like ours. We find and experience God when we love, and forgive, show compassion and seek justice, share our wealth and lend a helping hand. When as a church we stand with and for refugees, our indigenous brothers and sisters, and all those marginalised and alone.
As Paul said in Ephesians “there is a power at work within us that is able to accomplish more than we can imagine”. (Ephesians 3:20).
This is the secret of Easter. Not the facts about a resuscitated body, or an empty tomb. The secret of Easter is that Easter is not a once off event, a miraculous supernatural apparition, never to occur again. The secret of Easter is that there is a presence which is real and alive in us and all people, calling us forth in love. A presence that was revealed mostly fully in Jesus of Nazareth. A divine spiritual presence, reaching beyond our attempts to explain it. For just as there are nerve fibres in those myelin sheaths, even though they look empty, so too God lives in us. Both enable us to do extraordinary things in this life.
So this Easter,
Remember, we are all children of God,
Remember, God is a God of the universe, found in the stars and planets and in you and me.
Remember, God is not for only a few, but for all of creation, all people and all nations
Remember Jesus, for he guides and leads the way. God is spirit but that spirit needs to be expressed in the real blood and guts of the world.
As Jesus says, Watch me, listen to me, I will show you the way, follow me.
And if you don’t understand, just do it, for in the doing you will sense the truth. The mystery of faith.
And remember, I am with you always, to the end of time. For my words and deeds never fade.
I played this song after the sermon , one of the last written by John Denver. It was not recorded, and so we only have a couple of live performances. The song is called “Wandering Soul”.
The other day I had an epiphany. I am getting old! Not that this is a bad thing really, it may mean I might be getting a bit wiser, or more patient or reflective, but also because acceptance helps me to map out “where to now”! Either way it is a revelation that I am the older generation and that there are one or in fact two generations behind me, following me.
I went to our church, as I always do, and to a service not run by myself or Nev (co- author of this blog page), my mentor, who at 86 years of age, has more energy of a man half his age. No, the service was taken by someone in their 20s, in fact I think she is actually just 20. The service was a gift, given to all those present. We focussed on the God we find in all of creation, in all of life, and in all our brothers and sisters travelling with us. And our responsibilities to love those that God loves. God does not pick sides, neither is the spirit contained in just one group, one race, one religion or one country. Putting up barriers locks people out and locks God out. When we are called to love God and love our neighbour, as this young woman quite rightly pointed out, they are one and the same. We cannot love God and then do nothing for our neighbours who are also children of God.
The service was full of beautiful symbols, an Eagles song (see below) and other readings to touch our hearts for that hour and to remind us of this message. That we are called to embrace all people, those around us, and particularly the refugees who seek our welcome. To remove the barriers that divide. If we want to survive as the human species we have to get rid of these barriers, and see that we stand on holy ground everywhere.
As I watched this service unfold, it took me back to a time when I was just a little bit older, maybe 25 and taking my first service, and preaching my first sermon. In this same church. A Church community which is active and alive, which takes seriously the call of Jesus and moving of the spirit, to love and seek justice A Church community that welcomes people who question, who want to explore what faith means today, and who participate in changing things for those without support or a voice.
I have been in this Church, worshipping with these same people for over 30 years. In that time I have been allowed to grow, and mature, to share with many in the congregation their ideas, their dreams, their inner most convictions and their faith journeys. Who have encouraged me to explore other ideas and ways of being Christian in the world, who have debated theology until we have run out of things to say (actually that’s not true, we never run out of things to say!) and have introduced me to writers, theologian, mystics and poets, who all shed a little bit more on how to be a person of faith and a scientist in the 21st century.
I have, since that first sermon, given many services and sermons, talks, forums, and written many things about being a Christian in this world or more aptly a follower of Jesus, and have even become a leader and a paid employee! Yet I never fully realised how much we may also be influencing those around us, those younger than us and older us, in profound ways. I don’t’ know why, perhaps I have always been searching myself. What Nev and others started at our church, what the community is committed to and how it lives and operates in the world can ignite something that will continue long after we have gone. It happened to me and it is happening to those coming after me. Our service leader comes out of this community, and reveals in her young life the same energy and passion that has always been present here. And still is!
Perhaps this is why after 2,000 years, the story of Jesus, not the personal salvation, other worldly part, but the grander more profound here and now part, is alive and kicking. The part about loving God and our neighbour as ourselves, the part about seeking justice and compassion and peace for all. That part still resonates in the world, in “old” people like you and I (assuming you are older than 50!), and in many younger people. And in all those who love and work for their neighbour, whether they be religious or not, whether they attend a church or not, or whether they don’t believe in anything at all other than the goodness and beauty of all people. This is what will continue long after we have gone, because it is the part that is universal and enduring. It shows me that even when things look dim, the spirit will move when and where we least expect.
So I will continue to work hard to present the message of Jesus, a message that is reflected in and through us, that calls us to see the sacred in all things and all people, in what I write and how I act. And I will support those coming after me, for they will carry the light onwards.
No matter what you think the light will never go out!
ps This is the Eagles song used in the service. It’s called “The last resort”.