Easter Day Sermon
"Christ is risen" - quite simply, the most significant words ever spoken in history.
Those three words have changed the course of world history, destroyed all grounds for cynicism, transformed all human suffering and changed the course of our future.
And I don't just mean in a figurative sense. This is not pie in the sky fairy tales, whatever the secular movement it this country might try to tell us. The physical, bodily resurrection of Jesus is the hard, literal truth that guarantees that all he has said about God's existence and his astonishing, life-transforming love for us is as true is the noses on our faces.
And that single truth that has transformed, and is still transforming the world. As we sit here this morning, Jesus Christ has never been worshipped by so large a proportion of the earth's population as he is today. That might surprise you, but actually the creeping abandonment of Jesus in this country is flowing against the vast tide of world opinion. Each day large numbers of people across the world are acknowledging Jesus' resurrection as the single most important event in history. And only the most arrogant among us could dare to presume that that is because we are more sophisticated than they are.
We only have to look at what has happened in our society as it has abandoned Christianity to see that a society whose city hospitals are overloaded each weekend with young people who have nothing more noble in their lives than to drink themselves into casualty, a society whose schools are increasingly left to bring up its children, a society where people work ever harder and feel ever more unhappy, a society that cannot allow any accident to happen without someone being blamed and a society where anyone who tries to help or offer hope is derided and jeered, is a society that is far from sophisticated.
Increasingly, it seems to me, our so-called sophistication is simply a mask for a people too hurt to avoid the risk of believing in something better that might let them down. How much cleverer we look if we can say we always knew it would fail, than if we got carried away with hope and made to look naïve. But if there were good grounds for hope and our cynicism simply blinded us to it, how sad that would be.
And each Easter we are reminded that there are good grounds for hope. In these days when militant secularism is making its voice heard ever more frenetically, we don't often hear the very good evidence for Christ's resurrection put in anything like a balanced way.
There is significant evidence that points very much to the fact that Jesus has risen. There is little doubt among scholars that Jesus was a historical figure, crucified by the Romans. And apart from Homer's Iliad, there are no other ancient texts so well authenticated as the Christian gospels.
And then there are the accounts of the gospels themselves. If you take any one of the four gospels, you will find in Jesus, a man who speaks with an otherworldly authority, who is able to pierce deep into the human psyche in a way completely unknown in the ancient world and still marvelled at by modern-day psychologists. Where did that figure come from? Who dreamt him up?
And you see, time and again, very authentic human reactions to this man in the people he encounters. There is nothing romantic or stage-managed about those reactions. Even his own disciples keep misunderstanding him, so radically different was Jesus' teaching from any world-view they had encountered. And the gospels very honestly portray that struggle and misunderstanding.
Now, for any one author to invent a character like Jesus and portray his character with such consistency and to invent the characters he encounters and their reactions is a very remote possibility. Not for nothing does the bible stand alongside Shakespeare as the greatest work of literature. Nothing less than that sort of genius would be required to invent the gospel story - and whereas Shakespeare was, at least to some extent, the child of his time, inspired by his fellow artists of the renaissance and building on many hundreds of years of literary tradition, the gospels just seem to drop out of nowhere. Anyone wanting to invent the Christian gospel in the first century AD, would also have had to have a 21st century knowledge of human psychology and to invent a whole new literary genre at that was at least a millennium ahead of his time.
So it is highly unlikely that even one person could invent such a story. But there are so many accounts, - the four gospels (albeit that three of them clearly used some common material) and the many letters written by the early disciples: Paul, James, Peter, John and whoever wrote the letter to the Hebrews. The odds of these all being created with no historical basis in fact and agreeing to the extent that they do is simply too unlikely for rational belief.
And the secular movement in this country simply ignores that evidence.
And above all, consider the way in which the gospels handle the resurrection. Mark's gospel, more than any, seams to end in some confusion. The women who have witnessed the crucifixion see the empty tomb and receive the message that Jesus is alive and going ahead of them to Galilee. And they run away in fear and confusion. Now why would Mark, if he was trying to start a world-wide religious movement, talk about the first witnesses being terrified, amazed and too frightened to open their mouths?
As a lawyer, I am trained to work with people's stories - to test them and weigh the likelihood of what they say. And often the most compelling evidence is given by a group of witnesses who disagree on certain peripheral points, but agree on the central issues. The minor differences in their testimonies at least suggest that the witnesses have not colluded and, whatever minor inaccuracies there might be in their recollection or interpretation of events, they are at least genuine in their account and so the points of agreement may be taken as the highest possible evidence of truth.
The gospels present just such an account of the resurrection. They read as accounts given by people whose minds have simply been blown apart by what they have encountered. There is no attempt made to tidy up the accounts of the resurrection. Each is subtly different and has its own quirks and inconsistencies. There is no collusion here. There is no attempt to get the story straight, before they tell it, to tie up all the loose ends and anticipate the many questions that will inevitably be asked. It simply comes out in a confused, astonished and straightforward account of something they clearly find unbelievable, yet incapable of denial.
If it had been invented, it is highly unlikely that it would have been presented in this way. And nor did it need to be. For all the expectation that a Messiah would come to the Jewish people, there was no expectation at all that he would literally rise back from the dead. It was as unbelievable a proposition then as it is now.
So nobody would have invented it, let alone a group of people who had to persuade the population of Jerusalem that the man they had all seen humiliated in the streets three days earlier and tortured to death, was really the Messiah, especially since those people had wanted him dead!
This wasn't good news. It was dynamite. You simply wouldn't invent it unless you had a death wish - and of course the telling of this story did cost most of the early disciples their lives.
All this evidence is just the tip of a very large iceberg. And for all the cynics, many of the greatest minds in history have analysed this story and come to believe. And, interestingly, the secular voices that have somehow managed to take over the airwaves in this country, don't even address it. Richard Dawkins never mentions it, the presenters of television documentaries never seem to understand it and the bar-room philosophers are entirely ignorant of it.
But it's cold hard evidence. Christ had died and Christ is risen.
And, if it is true - then O my God!! If it's true, then God is real. If it's true, God is not only real, but he has made an enormous and terrible sacrifice for my sake. If it's true, then the way that I have been living my life has, quite literally, crucified the God who created me. And if it's true, the way I have been living will also kill me.
But, if it's true, there is also something bewildering and amazing on offer to me. There is a chance to start again, putting my mistakes behind me. There is a chance to get to know this God and have a relationship with him. There is a chance to let him show me who I really am and there is a chance to allow him to help me to be the person I really want to be - the person I can like and feel comfortable with instead of the person I try to be, but who keeps letting me down and making mistakes I find hard to live with. If it's true, I don't need to be that person any more. I don't need to worry any more - about whether I've fulfilled my potential, or whether I've been successful, or whether I've been a good person.
All we need to do is to accept his gift of love and to know it ever more deeply - to spend our lives learning to live his life. And then, if it's true, we will be alive in a way we could never have conceived possible. We can look at ourselves in the mirror, we can hold our heads up and not be ashamed or anxious. We can face the future confident that we are and always have been and always will be in the hands of a God copes with our failures, transforms our weaknesses, goes before us in our sufferings with healing and hope and who has opened up the possibility of a future infinitely more glorious than anything in our past.
If it's true, it's nothing short of eternal life - and it starts here if you're willing to live it.
Preached: Morland, 24th April 2011